Stories from the Field
Updated: May 1
Shelter part 1.
Above: Seeing into the life of things, an icon of Earth, for Dorothy, Painted on solid walnut 2020 1/3 see 2/3 and 3/3 below.
Whilst sheltering in place during the COVID 19 pandemic, I remember the shelters of life. Circa 1985, my sister and I built a most sophisticated den in a small green wood four or five fields away from our home. It was a secret place as is often an important aspect of den building. Wexford’ s large tillage fields can stretch far. It would have equated to near a mile walk from home, where we settled on our place. I remember the endless walking and the carrying of tools and planks of wood, retrieved, restored, stolen from our father’s workshop, and our hay barn. Our construction process seemed to go on for weeks but was probably more like days. Our new den was in a wood that had been a copse. Not used anymore as such, Coppicing trees (a tradition of harvesting without toppling trees fully so that they continue to grow and thrive) was a dying art. To our knowledge, this meant a very safe place for our hideout. The place had become wild and reclaimed by animal life. To enter the woods, one had to crawl through arches made by animals in the whitethorn bushes which marked its boundary. It was easily missed, no grownups would be likely to crawl on their bellies to enter a wood, for what reason? It was for us, a secret garden. I had seen foxes in there, from high up in an Ash. I swayed in the breeziness of the crowning canopy, hanging on tight to the gold and silver limbs with one ear to the trunk. Like a shell sounds out the sea, a tree trunk sounds up the earth. A vixen and her half-grown cubs passed underneath me, streaming auburn through the soft new green fern fronds. They noticed me, all looking up in unison following their mother’s upturned snout. She sniffed, watched a moment or two, and seemed to realize I too was of cub status and posed no danger. They sauntered on unperturbed. It was a peaceful encounter. I am not sure how long we played in this quiet place but we made it feel like home for a while. A summer’s worth, perhaps, of picnics and games and grand adventures. My sister, one of three and closest to me in age, was growing up and further away from me in her interests. I was 8 and she was 12. Her face was turning away from the child and towards womanhood. She was always looking away caught in a gaze. She didn’t listen to my ideas for games anymore, and there was little I could do or say to interest her. The gap was widening, at least for now, though we did for a while move our play to a ruined Norman tower. This offered much excitement and dare-devilish play in its tumbling turrets, crumbling staircases, barn owls hooting, and scolding at us in our daylight escapades. This last co-created den in the little greening wood was soon forgotten. And so it was that I was caught a little off guard the day two young men came to our back kitchen door in the late afternoon. It was open but they stood at the stoop and called in a “hello." Their long shadows were cast in the hallway, which was illuminated by the westerly golden sun. It was inching towards Autumn. I was seated with my grandmother around the corner on the edge of a wooden chair by the kitchen table. We were peeling potatoes into a black bucket of water sitting on the red and black-tiled floor. Our fingers were covered in the brown earth as we peeled, then washed clean in the water, dipping in and carrying out our white gold. In the digging and the peeling and the washing again, potatoes seem to reward your work each step of the way in their promise to feed a family. To this day, I peel potatoes with that floor in mind, that kitchen, the stove hissing breath like, and my old grandmother, her hands working nimble with a life's intelligence alongside mine, teaching me songs as we went.
There was a cobbled hall between us and them, what was left of the old cobbled yard that had been concreted over. Our welly boots and coats lined the left side of it and a small square window, at least two feet deep through the old wall, projected a square of light on the smoothed beach pebbles.
"Is the boss man in it?" they said, as I turned the corner of the kitchen wall to greet them.
"Yes", I replied.
I quickly put on my boots, pulling them efficiently from the boot rack. I ran right past them not saying a word. There was an understanding. I caught a scent underneath the smoke as I passed them, they smelled of rain and wool, wet dogs, and something like the woods. They carried guns. Through the yard and up four tall stone steps, unevenly set, I bounded like a young deer under the boughs of sycamore, with all the importance of a messenger. It was another kind of world up here where we grew our food, a different country to the yard. I ran and ran much faster than needed always testing my speed. Past the apple orchard, flourishing now in my father’s skilled care, past the plum tree which was to bestow upon us a bounty of purple jewels any minute now, calling Dad at the top my lungs. “DAD!!!!!!!!!!!” Dad was tending to our vegetables in the greenhouse. I could see his large blurred figure through the glass. All 6 ft 6 of him. With BBC radio four blaring, he didn’t hear me. I pushed open the white door, weathered and sun-beaten as it was barely functioning as such, to the immediate wafts of earthly scents. Warming tomatoes met me first, as always, followed by sweet warming soil, compost, and the smell of perfumed flowers entangled with tobacco smoke.
Dad could smoke an entire cigarette without removing it. while he worked. When he did, he held it with a kind of cool grace between his fingers, his long fingers and huge hands were always tanned and manicured. They could dig potatoes and gut fish, skin rabbits and also arrange flowers, prepare beautiful french cuisine and draw detailed pen and ink drawings of trees. He stood with a cigarette hanging from the left side of his mouth, a gentleman and a rogue, a walking contradiction of a man drowning his sorrows in the garden, raising food for his family.
“DAD!!!!!!" I shouted, "There are men here to see you.” He turned from his tomatoes to turn down the radio.
"What men," he sighed, disturbed in his peace and place.
“With guns, I said with wide eyes. "Hunting I think? ” I followed him loyally back to the yard like a pup. These young men had come to our house to tell my father that gypsies were living in the small wood down the fields. With some coolness and little eye contact, they recounted their happening upon a camp, and reported their whereabouts.
“It wasn’t long since they left, I’d say," said the taller and fairer of the two, “Made quite the shelter for themselves, looks like they been there a while like.” They suggested that my dad should go down there to clear them out so they didn’t get any ideas about staying put. They would do it if he wanted them too. I could see they wanted to.
Dad wouldn’t be told what to do. What will he say, I wondered. I overheard them mention the foxes as I slipped back by them down the hall, silently returning to potato peeling. My Granny was now finishing up her pot and rinsing them out under the tap. I had one ear cocked to hear the rest of their story but only caught snippets over the sounds of rinsing spuds tumbling into the metal sink. I gathered though they were describing in detail our den, I knew it. What would he say when he realized it was us? Did he already know? There was little he didn’t know. I had followed him one day after he had refused my company to track a fox that was eating our chickens. I had waited a while, till his tall figure had become a blur on the horizon of the fields, I carried along following his immense footprints in the mud. Not long after, I found him behind me, tracking me, tracking him, tracking fox. He sent me on my way. Awed and disappointed in equal measure, I saw it was no good and gave in, turned for home. I ached to join him. Would he go down to check? He would never fit under the hedge, would he? I said nothing then about the den. Somewhere though inside the young body of mine -- in my gut, I think -- a small ember was blown upon by this encounter. A small spark of pride was now aglow, that our work was being mistaken for the real deal. This was tantamount to admiration in my child’s mind. They were admiring our work by mistaking it for gypsies. I could build a real shelter. It was all the encouragement I needed. That Autumn indeed brought her great fall again. I couldn’t build the den in the same place, as it was now known. This was a sad thing for sure. For the woods held magic in their quietude and wildness. I knew I would need an entirely new position. I finally decided upon a spot on commonage, close to home but less likely to be discovered. It was marshy there, and would surely be a bother for grownups to walk to, they would sink up to their knees. I skipped across it, barely grazing the upper layers of squelch, taking delight in my spritely sprint. My newly minted den was not quite completed come end of summer and school return. I sat on the rattletrap bus early in the morning looking out towards the commonage and my secret place. I recited: "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," still trying to understand what that meant.