Dear Girl I Do Not Know: Notes from a field in Yorkshire

The Biscuit ThiefI watch my youngest daughter, the Biscuit Thief as she sleeps in our tent. Her hair, damp with morning dew, smells of last night’s campfire; charcoal, pitch, ash and bread. She breathes softly into the earth while her feet, shaped just like her father’s and blackened with soot, stick out from under the covers.

It’s  a long time since I spent significant amounts of time alone with the Biscuit Thief and I have been hoping this camping trip in Yorkshire will help us bond. In fact, I can’t remember being alone with her since the lonely days following her birth by emergency caesarean when I, numb from painkillers and vacant while a blood-transfusion rioted through my veins, could do little more than stare at her from my hospital bed. I could not feel who she was. I have, if I’m honest, spent the last six years searching for the Biscuit Thief, trying to intuit her; a blind snake belly attempting to sense the rain.

Yesterday, the Biscuit Thief jumped from a tree trunk to catch a branch several feet away. She swung wildly from her natural trapeze, beaming from ear-to-ear as I admired her new-found bravery. She leaped again and again until her hands were raw, her knees were bruised and her elbows greened with grass stains. She watched an owl scoping the dusky fields for twilight mice. She ran wild and free and slept deeply, next to me. We curled around each other like a couple of cashews, two quarter moons entwined.

Today, we returned to London from the wilds of Yorkshire. Returned to the metallic fixtures and melancholy squeak of the local swings, to the tiny space that comprises the Biscuit Thief’s bedroom, and I realize it is just no longer acceptable to me, this shrinking down, this boxing-in of life, of her life.

I know that my Biscuit Thief is in the hollowed-out trunk of the oak, she is in the rocks and clover, the shooting stars and the ankles that ache in the cold morning dew. It is no wonder I find it so hard to find her in the city we call home.

I know so many parents, like me, are torn between the countryside and the city; between the raw and the cooked. What choice have you made and do you regret it?

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Nature’s Peep-Show: Notes on camping

Camping I’m back from a camping sojourn in the sodden British countryside and I have to reveal a shocking truth; everything in nature is about sex.

Stuck in my urban flat, I don’t notice these things; my  ‘outside’ world mainly concerns fighting or buying stuff.  In the countryside, it’s all different.

I am almost embarrassed to witness greedy stamens of Queens Anne’s Lace forcing themselves upwards to the bees. The frisky sheep, the bucking horses, the pelvis-shaped sycamore wings fainting to the floor like damsels in a ‘take-me-now’ twizzle toward the fertile earth. Stags, deer, cadavers on the road, the fenced-in versus the wild. Flowers open shamelessly towards the sun and coyly close in the night air. Our campfire greedily sucks up the air and all of our wood. The earth, voluptuous in her mounds and curves, defies the copsing and mowers that try to tame her. She just keeps on saying it; “Love me, love me just the way I am. You cannot contain me!”

Everything in the countryside wants to shag or be shagged!

And the kids, my God the kids are free, combusting and instantly feral!  No need for chastening sex education videos or tightlipped lessons about ‘nocturnal emissions’ and ‘The Curse’ here. No, my six-year-old girl, just get a load of those rampant poppies in the upper field!

Camping in the dank grey, our tent is a seed pod of dreams. Our sleep is odd, incorporating the raw sounds from outside, a canvas sheet between us and the pelting rain which batters us out of our slumber saying, “Submit! You are so much less than all of this.”

Elemental, feet blackened with dirt and damp in our bones, we head home to the Big Smoke where I run a bath so hot I burn. I wonder if camping is not so much  about being at one with nature, but about proving we can still build a home that keeps her out. We try to humanize the wild with our Bell tents and trangias, but looking out from the comfort of our canvas porches, we are just voyeurs at a demented peep show, catching a glimpse of who we really are.

Musings on Kite Hill: Earth, Air, Marriage and Trees

Kite on Kite Hill

I recently spent an afternoon on Kite Hill, one of the highest peaks of London’s ancient public land known as Hampstead Heath. The Heath, all 790 acres of it, is about as wild as the city gets; unruly tufts of long grass dance upwards to an expanse of rolling sky, pockets of unhindered nature abound indifferent to mower, trimmer and shear.

The view of London from Kite Hill is exuberant; it’s as if the land has embedded the awe of everyone who ever climbed to the top; the summit offers all the comfort of a giant collective sigh. The hill is officially known as Parliament Hill and legend has it that this is where Guy Fawkes planned on watching the destruction of Parliament in 1605. I have always known it as Kite Hill because its topography captures the breeze and creates an ideal location for kite flying. My husband loves this place as do I, so we traipsed to the top of it with our five-year-old a few Sundays ago.

The husband was flying the kite equivalent of an F1 Tornado aircraft, streamlined and breathtaking in its high speed drops and turns. My daughter and I struggled for half-an-hour to launch a kamikaze paper butterfly which is now residing in the ‘shit toy’ pile at home. With her kite launch aborted, my five-year-old removed her shoes and ran off to try and adopt a stranger’s dog and I was left to contemplate the world to the buzz and hum of airborne diamonds, dragons and sails.

As usual, the summer in London was doing about five different weather fronts at once. Ominous sulky clouds petulant with rain hung below fluffier ones skipping along on a different breeze. Sunny fingers pointed down from the heavens lighting up the edges of buildings; glimpses of Mediterranean blue played a tantalizing peek-a-boo with the fug.

Why, I thought, do people fly kites? For me kite flying is an engagement with an element I’m not that comfortable with, air. It’s just so unpredictable! I watch how my husband patiently holds the strings of his kite while it twists and pulls against his grip. I witness the kite’s incredible instinct for pockets of friendly air, for slipstreams to dance in. In my husband’s hands the kite is tugged and repelled into a hissing, buzzing gambol. It is an air dervish.

This is how many a marriage works I think to myself; one partner will have that instinct for air, a chaos in their soul which leads them to perpetually arc and crash. The other will be anchored in the earth, solid and resolute, always catching the falls and admiring the acrobatics. Most of the time it works, this ground to air gavotte. But I know that when a kite tumbles to earth, it can do so with surprising viciousness. Things can turn from joyous dance to broken heap in a moment and it makes me sad to think how many times I’ve seen it. How fragile and how predictable these things are. How incredible it is that the loving intention of one can save both flyer and flown, and how sometimes the only thing to do is let go.

I grew up on the edges of Hampstead Heath and have been walking its paths and feeding its ducks since I born. I have watched saplings planted in the Seventies grow into sturdy kings. If we are lucky, we find somewhere in Nature that provides us with an outer landscape that mirrors our inner world and in many ways this is mine. I am struck by how I have loved in different ways all those whose hand has held mine up on Kite Hill. All those who’s reassuring grip has steadied my course; those who unraveled me and anchored me, and those who let me fly.

I am thinking of my dad’s baseball-mitt sized palms wrapped around a hardback copy of the Observer’s Book of Trees which I still have. Between us, we could identify every genus of tree between the bandstand and Kite Hill; Silver Birches, Oaks and London Planes giving way to shrubs and Rosehips on the upper slopes. When several mighty Elms were felled in an attack of Dutch Elm’s disease, I actually wept.

My little brother’s hands, covered with mud as we raced each other to the top, fire in our lungs.

My arm linked through my best mates’ as we made the trek from our school on Swaine’s Lane towards the running track for the annual humiliation of sports day.

A lover’s hand curled around mine a lifetime ago, and the same hand letting go.

Now up on Kite Hill, my youngest daughter fills my arms with wild bouquets of daisy and couch grass and I lie on the slopes longing for sunshine while kites sing among kestrels.

(Copyright Sara Bran 2011)