April Canvas

The canvas in front of trees near Tongue Head barn

Moment is a place in land and a place in time

for now, this is my choice: just to sit and be

in this moment with the wind playing down the valley in gusts
this moment with the white-noise roar of becks and falls
this moment with the sun warming my cheeks and outlining my lashes gold 
this moment on a boulder, cold to the touch, clad with lichen
this moment with the bleat of rough fell yows, heavy with lamb 
in this moment the ravens call 
a plane distant overhead
 

My reverie is disturbed when a gust threatens the canvas and we spring into action to hold it and tighten the ropes. As much as the images make this scene look sublime, the act of installing the canvas always comes with tension. The wind passes, and I relax again. The sun is full on the Tongue now, picking out the leafless ash trees that crowd the crags. Clouds are scudding above and two ravens fly past. 

Putting up the canvas.
Putting up the canvas.

There’s a sprinkling of white on Ill Bell. When we began our walk in this morning, sheets of hail spread across the valley. Now the air is clear and cool. 

I have taken myself away to stand on a boulder, and think about individual moments across time. We are in the location of a Bronze Age settlement, where 3-4000 years ago people decided to stay and make the place their home. Perhaps they walked in from the north via Nan Bield Pass. Having walked here from Little Asby, 23 miles away, on one long summer’s day three years ago, I can imagine the feeling of relief at finding a place of comfort and relative shelter after the windy exposure of the tops, and the long trudge down the valley. 

Back in the early Bronze Age it’s likely this valley was forested. The river would have offered water, and a small-scale clearance of trees would provide some space for a family’s or a community’s life to unfold. Those people chose names for the fells around them, marked out this landscape with language, textured the land with shelters, and with stone walls to demarcate fields for livestock (it’s unlikely the land would have been good enough here for crops). It was warmer then than it is now, for a time at least, but when in the later Bronze Age temperatures dropped and rain was more insistent, turning more of the land to bog, much of this upland area was abandoned. A shifting climate forced social change. Where we are now, which is one of a few Bronze Age sites in the upper Kentmere Valley, all that remains are mounds and collections of stones and boulders, tell-tail signs of a long and mostly forgotten story. 

This particular place holds many stories for us. Since 2012 we’ve been visiting regularly, initially with farmers, joining several gathers to bring sheep from Kentmere Pike, Harter Fell and the surrounding tops down to the Tongue and along the valley to the yard at Brockstones. We’ve been here too on our own walks, and there have been many, many visits with the sole intention of visiting a single tree, the Kentmere Rowan, which grows out of a huge tooth of rock. We have sat with it, photographed it and wondered at it, season after season, watched it come into leaf in spring, cove itself with a veil of flowers, and put out a heavy load of berries, and each year ever so slightly thicken its trunks (it has multiple stems shooting from its base). 

A tree that we know very well, the Kentmere Rowan, one of seven trees that was part of our project The Long View
A tree that we know very well, the Kentmere Rowan, one of seven trees that was part of our project The Long View

We’re within site of the Kentmere Rowan but my attention now is on the canvas and this moment now. It’s the evening of April 2nd 2019, thousands of years after the first people settled here, pioneers of the gradual human incursion into this valley who made a life, feared and fended off wolves. When we arrived earlier today, we popped in to say hello to a farmer we know up the valley. For them, the main task today is bringing back the hoggs (young sheep) from wintering grounds near Longtown; more widely the local communities are preparing for council elections; more widely still, at the level of national politics, the farcical playing out of the Brexit theatre continues – it seems to me that leaders (good leaders) in this country are nowhere to be seen. More widely still, European elections are approaching and there’s an increasing presence of far right thinking. And around the world, climate change protests are being held, led by children who are taking time out of school to raise their voices. Yet carbon emissions are rising. Bombings and killings continue in many countries, as does people trafficking and slavery, and the gambling of bankers in short-selling and hedge fund management whose goal is monetary profit for customers and shareholders. I am not the only one who feels we are living in a turbulent, crazy, frightening time. 

Side view of the canvas showing the support poles and guy ropes
Side view of the canvas showing the support poles and guy ropes.

In this moment, in this place, I reflect. The light is fading in the valley, ash trees, possibly diseased, wait to burst into leaf, lambs bleat and birds busy themselves with nest building, and we humans, wherever we are, are faced with pressing choices. Where is the moment of the tipping point before which we can still bring ourselves – or more accurately the planet – back from the brink of decline? 

Late afternoon sun on Kentmere Pike, before a band of hail swept across the valley
Late afternoon sun on Kentmere Pike, before a band of hail swept across the valley.

… from my notebook

in this moment
wind, light, a changing blue
winter’s slow passing
and the waterfall’s rush

in this moment
hope and bravery
uncertainty

and still the new season comes 
and there will be the coming of night
and the next dawn
and the possibility
of what a single moment can affect

if we wonder ‘how long is now?’
can we expand a moment or contract it?

we have walked this earth for a moment only
and in a moment
may be
will be
gone 



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