Salvage: A Journey Home

Through the foggy bus window I watch the rain leech the last remaining colour from the land.  Bare trees stand tall amongst the yellowing grass, their damp brown leaves slowly decomposing into the earth.

I have made this journey hundreds of times, looking out on this landscape from the windows of the school bus, watching the rhythms of season and farming life.  As I look out into this eerily still winter landscape, memories return, vivid and visceral, of the silent spring.  Where journeys meant passing though clouds of choking, acrid smoke as sheep and newborn lambs burned by the roadside. Where footsteps echoed in school corridors, as quiet children searched for the right words for those whose farms were affected. Where fields stood empty of livestock and no birds sang.

A widespread cull, in its attempt to stop the spread of foot and mouth disease, within a few short months destroyed generations of lives in this place.  This is an area of hill sheep farming. Flocks of sheep, over centuries, become hefted to one particular area of land. To move them, to disrupt the continuity, breaks this relationship. These sheep, and the famous herds of belted Galloway cattle, are bred with love, animal bloodlines and agricultural knowledge passed down through families. I had always thought this silence was a trick of memory reflecting the utter devastation of those months.  Having since spoken to others of their experience of the time, the lack of birdsong features in every story. Farm animals in the wrong place at the wrong time, the reversal of rhythms of life and death, affected human and non-human, domestic and wild. As the memories remain with us, they must also live on in the lives and landscapes, shaping the futures that unfold.

Is it the nature of the landscape or the nature of my journey that brings forth these feelings of loss?

Since having children my memories have changed. As I choose the words to say to them, amending actions, even thoughts, to accommodate their hopes and fears, I find myself overwhelmed with thoughts from my own childhood. Long forgotten memories now vying for attention, the times I felt alone, scared, and confused by her words or actions. I am bursting with newly formed questions that mum can, now, never answer.  I try to cast these thoughts aside.  I am not here about the past, well at least not those parts of the past, I am travelling home, to the village I grew up in, to make memories. To bring my children to the grandmother who only sometimes remembers their names. With no way to know what each new day will bring, I want to give my children some Christmas memories with their granny.  To learn about the people in fading photographs, whose names only a few still know.  This is their legacy, part of who they are and who they may become. I hope to salvage what remains of her stories of her island childhood, the memories that, even now, remain clear to her. To make a record of her stories of fishing trips, and the intricate webs of life she discovered in meadows and rockpools, so as they do these same activities, my children may feel a connection to the generations who did this before them.

Bouncing in his seat my toddler composes a song about trees while my baby sleeps peacefully in my arms.

Her house is warm, I cast my eyes around the room, familiar pictures and ornaments, everything where it should be, familiar and safe. I breath a little easier. I had not known what to expect.  She holds the baby close, rocking him gently and singing as he begins to fall asleep.  She shares stories and we look at pictures. To my toddler’s delight she brings out her ancient, heavy accordion, and starts to play. The words had left her but the tunes remain.  She lets him touch the keys, placing his fingers over his own as she plays. He gets his colouring book, humming a tune as he draws granny.

And then, before our eyes she starts to change. Angry. I have done something wrong. She is furious, shouting, pacing. I talk gently, try to understand what she is feeling, hoping to defuse the situation for the sake of my son who has put his colouring pencils down, watching.

As quickly as it came, it passes. Talk returns to the everyday, this moment. She smiles at the boys, takes them in her arms, her face alive with love and joy.  Time stops, this moment, love, is all that matters. I take a picture.

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