I have been trying to remember where and when I first heard about Shadows in the Hay - Landscape, nature and the passage of time on a Herefordshire farm by Colin Williams, and I think it was on one of the really excellent Caught by the River weekly newsletters.
If you enjoy the sort of books that I have been sharing of late then signing up for the Caught by the River weekly e mail will keep you in touch with the latest bookish news and what Robert Macfarlane is having for breakfast. Noooo, sorry, that's a joke, but he is a good friend of Caught by the River so you will often hear about some lesser known appearances by Robert and his literary ilk. Mostly in and around London but worth getting to, and then imagine me sitting here in Devon green with envy if you do.
That said we have booked tickets for Hay-on-Wye this year to hear both Helen Macdonald and Robert Macfarlane for fear they don't head West, and many thanks to Carol Norton for the heads up.
So I read this about Shadows in the Hay and Colin Williams's return to the family farm on the Welsh Borders...
'I was here because almost one hundred years ago, a photograph had been taken on the farm whose roof I could now see appearing above the trees. It was from that image of a man standing in a meadow in the velvet hour of a late summer dusk that enquiring eyes had looked out at me and said ‘Come on then. Are you coming or not?’
That picture, creased and spotted, had been found amongst ragged boxes of pictures brought together so that history could be neatly reorganised. As I reached inside and picked up ill-treated albums and stacks of pictures stuffed into envelopes, the photographs began to spill out along with their stories. Operating at the junction between myth and reality some had begun to form an eloquent narrative. By the time I had sorted and resorted the photographs I had in front of me an intriguing tale, as good as any that my relatives had told me. Almost all of them had been taken on the farm I was walking towards name. Its name, in the porous Welsh of the region, means Wolf Point.
It was something about the photographs that drew me in because I knew I was about to start doing the very same thing. I was going to find plenty of them (and I have) and though I knew some of the narrative, because talking about old photographs has been one of the things the Tinker and I often did, I have found a lot more that I know much less about. It all makes me realise that I must go through the albums and write in what I know.
But there was something more, about people making a landscape mean something...
'There are certain parcels of land whose histories are written indelibly into the people who inhabit them...'
and I felt a link with the land around us here too as I read that, and then this...
'Staring out at me were pictures of people who, dependent on the soil for their living, knew in the deepest sense, where they lived. They knew the weaknesses of the place, its moods, its rises and falls and the infinite combinations of nature and season - a knowledge and intimacy that has been slipping away from us by degrees as we settle comfortably into a society that has forgotten how to hear the steady pulse of nature's repeated refrains.'
Well I think and hope that perhaps I am learning to hear them again now, and so many books helping me to do so, but as Colin Williams spoke of home...a place of settling, of shared history, versus dwelling... a place with a sense of spiritual permanence, and suggesting that we live not 'on' but 'in' places now, it set up all those ongoing thoughts about what and where is home.
There is such a sense of the unknown and of mystery about any old photograph, even if the subjects and places are familiar, and Colin Williams analyses a series of them in minute detail, chronicling that time when the camera fell into the hands of the ordinary people. The power shifted as did the composition of the photographs, from contrived and posed to relaxed and natural, often off-guard moments, and I found myself joining in as Colin Williams started to wonder what might have happened next; once the picture had been taken...then what did everyone go and do.
Shadows in the Hay became full of thought-inducing moments like that as Colin Williams wrote about Work and Homecomings, Gatherings and Departures, and much in keeping with themes in Robert Macfarlane's book Landmarks, about how change makes us quickly lose words and descriptions that were once essential to survival simultaneously leaving us several steps removed from those connections with the land. This seems to be a common theme in much that I have read recently, with a number of writers desperately trying to rekindle those connections for themselves and for their readers. It is a subject that is exercising literary minds and publishers every which way and I am sadly lapping them all up. every one.
The endpapers for this beautifully bound and presented hardback book (good quality paper, and yes a Claire Leighton woodcut on the front cover) show a map of 1686 with the field names in place..
...which all had me scurrying to the 1841 tithe map for the fields around us here, whose names I am slowly remembering and using...Mowhay Meadow, Long Acre, Lower Parson's Dart, Poundy Park.
Colin Williams writes about the physical intelligence that was brought to bear on these fields by those who knew them, and sadly I can see so much of that intelligence vanishing even in the twenty years that we have lived here. Land that was once known and understood...wisdom like 'Don't plough to the very edge of the field next to our house or the garden will flood.' The year after the ploughman who knew that from the year dot had retired, and contractors came in, we found one corner of the garden with water three feet deep and rising. Most of the land around us now let out for crops or grass keep to various contractors, or for a commercial shoot, so nothing farmed or tended or cared about collectively in the way it was. I fear but for our knowledge gleaned piecemeal, all that intelligence might soon be lost.
I wonder if this is something any of you can identify with in your own surroundings??
It certainly doesn't need to be the countryside. I suspect the same is true of towns and cities around the world...the loss of 'physical intelligence' about a place, the disappearing voices, and how important it feels to catch them before the silence.
Anyway Shadows in the Hay a fascinating read and I'm definitely stuck in farm mode now, sort of muddy-wellie reading rather than hot-water-bottle..The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks, and On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin (twenty years since I first read it) and excellent both.