In celebration of Beltane we bring you a special blog post today – stunning new nature writing from Ali Cargill, first year Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Hull.
To begin, an ending: I had a dog, Zola – a dark chocolate cocker spaniel, mad for flushing pheasants out of hedgerows. One fogged November walk she took off across field towards road. I whistled her back; she was coming – bless her! Last moment, another pheasant flew up and the dog was after it, fast. At the road: a van, fading into fog. I whistled; and again. Then found her roadside, caught in her own blood pool. I picked her up and her paws flopped as if puppy-playing, rolling on her back. She was still warm. I cried her home in my arms.
Three days later I walk the same field: eulogy for dead dog. She runs with me as far as the split tree. This tree’s time is deep; rounding. One huge bough lies stubble-crashed in October’s gales, the trunk splintered, yawning jaw. But the halftree lives, still. Stop. Gaze up into vast criss-cross. How long do I haunch against its windshielding bark? My dog-spirit smokes over dead stalks of last summer’s crop. She leaps, dog-Frith.
Away from the killing roads. I’ll tell you instead of Big Skies; big green. Scale Sylvandale’s slopes or wander the folds of Deepdale; nothing else exists. Half an hour or so east of the city, the flatlands of York rise into hills, where I live. This is what it doesn’t have: bleak drama in drystone walls and Wuthering Heights. Trees wind-sculpted under flint sky. Flat caps and whippets. This is what it is: colour wheel; noise scape. Wildfest: skylarks sing-hover; lapwings dipflap; red kites circle, fold, fall. Deer, easy running in pairs. Long-horned, fringed cattle that bellow if you come too close to their calves. Hares dash; owls haunt, grey-gliding. Sunfaced oilseed rape; whiskered barley; twisted hawthorn ancients. Gaunt ash stalks. Grand beech. Sun. Wind. Rain. More sun.
January. I walk to Swineridge View: a small hollow, fringed with ash woodland. Grass, wooden bench; bonfire dregs still, from Guy Fawkes Night. It looks over the Vale of York and if I squint, I can make out York Minster’s white-mist tower. Easier to see are the concave, concrete towers of Drax: biggest power station in the UK.
This used to be the village tip. Under this frost-blenched grass are grown-over years of rubbish: nails, screws, tights, knickers, vests, pipes, pots, irons, radios, washing machines. Vase, cream, pink roses. Bra, Playtex, 38DD, green. Child’s bike, red, Raleigh, three gears. At Pocklington, the nearest town, Roman burial graves have been unearthed: soldiers, sworded, shielded. A chariot, its horses buried standing, now headless: sliced away by plough. I don’t know if this is true. My father-in-law once buried a whole car: hacked the uprights, dug a hole, pushed it in. This is true: somewhere in Four Oaks in Sutton Coldfield there’s a black Austin A35 pushing up first snowdrops. Old earthworks!
Could be anything under here, clay-capped, topsoiled, grassed, bunny-scuttered. Right now I’m benched, bobble-hatted – then Zola leans against me and we sit, grass gazing; rabbit watching. She’s fading; I watch her in her last running. She’s dandelion puff; spider silk; nipped air.
Today, early spring but rain sheeting down. Up into the Wolds. Wet green; raw windsoaked. Grazed moorland stretches across contours to Rabbit Copse, then downhill to roughland where a spring bursts. But first I step over the stile then off the path into forest corner and that special feeling: no one knows I’m here. Conifers droop and drip in dimmed corners. The smell is wetbark pine, alive, magic where Treebeard comes rootstriding across the mossed undergrowth.
Out from my own personal Fanghorn and downhill to the road that will return me to the village – unless I step off once more and head into unknown, deep-reeded, hawthorn-crowded territory in search of the spring. Bottomed out, puddled squelch-squirch land. Knobbles of bone; fan of feathers. The bones look white; plastic. It’s pheasant: this is shooting country.
It’s easy to spot the course of the beck that flows from the spring: clear-watered, crowded with wild, bright watercress and gravel-bedded – not nature-formed then, but human-made – and ancient. There is wild history, deep time and more Tolkien sorcery to be had. A Roman settlement was here, a temple excavated in a field nearby. Once upon a time, a track led from the temple to the spring. Ancient ways.
I find the spring source, drawn by noisy gush to a spout set into the hillrise where it rushes and pours. For centuries it has been this way, drawing Iron Age settlers to its life-force, then Roman temple communities, then our village – Millington’s water supply came from this small spout, until the Water Board and mains services arrived. I skirt watery channels, climb to higher, dryer ground to stand on the Roman track, its rough channel still visible from the spring to the top of the hill and the lane that turns homeward. Who else has walked this path? Women, head-carrying water urns? Soldiers in full Roman get-up? Gladiators. Iron Age dwellers, hauling beast-backed pots filled with this precious, clearspring water. My steps fill ancient footprints. Humans, through time and landscape. Deep, deep history.
Text and photos © Ali Cargill 2019
First Year Creative Writing PhD Researcher
University of Hull