Ancestral Fields

Just got back from a long-overdue walk through the ancestral fields, a small farm atop a hill a few miles from where we now live, the place my dad grew up in. First port of call at home: the bathroom, to wash a great splat of bird poop out of my hair. Thanks, Dad! More about that later.

As a little kid I used to dread going to my dad’s family’s farm, which is probably why I have so few memories of my paternal grandparents or the time we spent there. What memories I do have aren’t all that pleasant. For example, the privy. It was tacked to the side of the barn and you’d freeze your butt off in winter, while in summer, you had to hold your breath a) because of the stench, and b) so you wouldn’t inadvertently breathe in one of the gazillion flying critters that buzzed about in there. Visits to dad’s family usually consisted of having to sit at a table, eat something and be quiet while the grown-ups talked. I didn’t dare get up because I was scared to death of the Alsatian dog and I just didn’t like being on a farm. I was a shy, hyper-sensitive child, I couldn’t handle all that mud and chaos and the animals in their gloomy stables, all those intense smells and the loud, harsh voices and the clutter everywhere. Absolutely not my world.

When I was growing up I rarely gave them a thought, didn’t feel any connection at all. We lived the far side of the valley, a completely different life in our family home that my maternal grandfather had built. My beloved dad, who died much too young in his 50s, had an uneasy relationship with his siblings, presumably because he was the one who got away. I had no idea of the way traditional farming worked back then; namely, the oldest son is charged with running the farm, the younger siblings are required to either marry other farming folk from the surrounding area so that eventually their land can merge, or stay on the farm and help run it. My dad did neither, so bad blood was practically pre-programmed. Looking back now I think there was also a kind of incomprehension on Mum’s part. Mum was all about making things beautiful, having the best of whatever she could afford, she was about decorum and an aspiration to a certain standard of living. She was ill at ease in a setting where no one had the energy to give a damn how anything looked as long as it functioned, no one had time for any kind of decorum, and sticky strips of yellow flypaper were dangling from the ceiling above the cooking stove. A veritable clash of worlds.

When I moved back here to reconnect with my family after decades away, Dad’s folk remained, of course, distant. And yet, after a while I became aware of a strong pull. From the land, not the people. It was as though the actual land was calling me in. Me, the eternal nomad, the rootless one. I couldn’t understand it. There are places in the world that have meaning for me, none of them to do with that farm. But they weren’t calling to me. And so I began to walk the rutted paths between the fields, I got to know the forest atop the hill behind the farm, and I suddenly understood what my dad had said, a very long time ago: “I don’t want to fall out with them, I want to be able to go back there, it’s my patch.” The views all around are pretty amazing, but it’s not about that. In ways I can’t quite comprehend, that hill and those fields feel like my patch, too. I never even knew I had a patch.

This morning I walked the fields again. My dad’s siblings have long died, the farm is now a riding stable; the hillside is dotted with horses. I took the narrow tarmac road up to the top of the hill where a great tree stands protectively over a tiny chapel, a shrine to Mother Mary that a local farmer fashioned out of an old shelter in 1905, in gratitude for the end of the cattle plague. He planted the lime tree at the same time. I have a photo of me and my dad sitting on the wooden bench by the chapel, tiny me squinting into the camera. A memory popped up: my grandmother and I walking to the chapel with a bunch of flowers we’d picked along the way. Back then, the chapel was always open. Today, it’s always locked to protect against thievery and vandalism after the interior was smashed up numerous times. I peered in through the lattice window in the metal door, but it was too dark to see anything.

Walking back down through the fields, I wondered where exactly Dad used to sit, propped against a tree, reading, when he was meant to herd the cows. He always talked about that as his favourite time at home, those summer days when he took the cows and his adventure books to the pastures. He was a dreamer, my dad. A philosopher, an explorer. An outsider in his family of origin, close only to his mum. I remember him on our back porch, crying, the day she died. It broke my seven-year-old heart. This morning, he felt so close-by, as though he was walking down the hill with me. I had a sudden image of an orchard behind the farm, cows grazing amongst the apple trees and a young boy sitting beneath a tree with his book: non-verbal communication between different layers of existence…

I got back to the tarmac road, feeling the long-familiar peace and joy that comes from walking with my dad, forever tinged with a leftover sadness that’s entirely appropriate. The road is really just a glorified track, edged with trees here and there. And as I walked by the last of the trees, the one with lots of lovely little birdies twittering in it, one of them pooped on my head.

Which spiralled me right back to the day of Dad’s funeral, when we were gathering in front of the church numb with the shock of what we were going through, and this bird came flying up, pooped on my head, and took off. See what I mean? Other people get the scent of roses or the appearance of floating orbs. Me, I get bird poop. Thanks a lot, Dad! Love you, too!

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