Just ten minutes’ walk from the farm, I stop and stare. I’m eye level with a complex thatch of twigs wedged into the bare branches of an oak. It’s a buzzard’s nest, waiting for the return of the birds that breed here every year. The trees are daring to bud, but the ground is still saturated and when I start walking again I have to hop from tussock to tussock to stop myself from sinking. I gain ground quickly. Our target is to reach a height of 176 metres, as if on the same contour line as the base of the Under Helm Sycamore, and keep this tree within our line of sight.
We set off this morning with the seven rocks we had collected from beneath the canopy of the sycamore a few weeks ago (more about that here), ready to place them at seven locations, each within the line of sight of the tree. We parked at Town Head Farm where we bumped into Will Benson, who farms here. He eyed up our stones and chuckled – ‘They’re perfect for walling!’. It was Will who, last year, told us about the buzzard’s nest, and the joy of watching the new year’s brood. He’d also shared his amazement at the peregrine he saw striking a goose out of the sky. Much of our understanding of this patch of land has come from talking to him and it always feels good to see him before heading out. We also get an update on issues that are affecting Cumbrian commoners: among them the unpredictability of the markets, the ridiculous delay in Single Farm Payment (some payments are two years late), the health of the hoggs, and the nervous excitement of developing a business with the hope of a sustainable future.
When we reach 176m, with Town Head below us, we’re as far west and north as we can be without losing sight of the tree. We place the stone in a wall where the other stones are covered in lichen, and the sun comes out for a brief moment.
We walk back through the farm yard and then cross the main road, the A591, and wander up in light rain towards a pair of pine trees. At 176m we are next to a wall once more so we place the stone on its top. The sycamore is directly opposite us, and the pile of stones where the peregrine dismembered its prey is just to its right. The rain passes and the sun illuminates wisps of white that rise, like steam, from the hills. To the north, below Steel Fell, a rainbow comes into being, and then disappears.
Further south, after another half an hour of walking, we have arrived at Tongue Gill in the middle of a new plantation. There are thousands of young trees here, among them birches, oaks, scots pines and hawthorns. They have been planted under the guidance of Friends of the Lake District in the last three years, and most of them are doing well. It’s raining again, and there’s a drama in the valley – flurries of snow and rain showers pick out dips and shadows in the land, and I stand, mesmerised. It’s magical but the rain is light, far from the intense watering of land during Storm Desmond, which brought hillsides towards valleys, wrenched roads and bridges out of place, and set a lot of people thinking about what the future holds if flood events become more frequent. Where we’re standing now, the future will be wooded. We stop and place the stone and eat some lunch before heading on: we have a long way still to go.
Finding a place for the fourth stone is more difficult than we expected. When we sat at the sycamore and selected a spot on the path towards Alcock Tarn it seemed entirely plausible. But now we’re here, at 176m, our line of sight is blocked by trees and away from the path the land is steep and slippery. We have both become a bit tetchy – it has been an odd morning. What we thought would be a ‘nice’ walk has become weighted by with the necessity of completing a task and the challenge of finding the right places, and this one is the most tricky so far. But we do find one vantage point from where, if you turn towards the Helm, you can see the sycamore, and we lay the stone down.
Our tension begins to slip away as we walk up towards Alcock Tarn. I find a rhythm and feel the space opening around us. We’re almost at the tarn and the view takes in the green valley, the grey lake, and bracken covered fells, stacked one behind another, laced with curtains of snow and hail. I remember, as if somehow I had forgotten in the pressure of getting something done, just how wonderful it is to be up high, watching the playful exchange of wind, rain and sun. And I am surprised by how much beauty I find in the simple, tight curves of Greenhead Gill, which snakes down the hill from Great Rigg.
The physical and emotional tension we have felt to this point makes reminds me of the tension we both feel when we’re with the Under Helm Sycamore, and the wider sense of unease that often characterises our thinking: the paradox that comes with daily life where we want to have as little impact as we can on the spaces we inhabit, but can barely avoid being destructive. Air miles in the food we eat, plastic waste produced by the bucket-load, the resources that are used to make the mobile phones we’re so attached to, the fuel we use in our cars … the list can go on and on. It’s political, and we are not the only ones to feel frustration at policies made at government levels across the globe that counter what seems to make sense for the environment, and conflicting versions of ‘truth’. Without going into a long rant here, suffice to say we have been talking about this at length. Today the Under Helm Sycamore feels like a centrifugal point to which we are attached by our line of sight and this sets up a tension field, keeps us in place, defines our limitations. What acts as an anchor on other days, or in a wider context, is interesting to contemplate – and questions arise: What welds us to a particular point of view? What stops us stepping beyond this? What are the values we use to spin our lives around?
The lines that I wrote for the stones were drawn from notes I’ve made on visits to the Under Helm Sycamore during the past 18 months; my own experience of what it feels like to walk here; the story of what has happened in this valley during this time, including the floods of December 2015 and long closure of the A591; and questions about how we relate to the land around us, how we feel about the uncertainty of a future where the climate is changing more rapidly than anticipated, and how we, as a species, treat the places we call home. I bear all of these thoughts in mind as we walk.
It’s five hours after we set off and we are on the flanks of Loughrigg, looking towards the sycamore some 6 kilometres away. We place the sixth stone at the base of a birch tree. Once again, I am struck by the assumptions I’ve made in response to a map. On the map, there are just contours on an orange space. On the ground we have to tackle a sliding slope of stones to reach the right height. There’s no way the map can tell this.
We have just one stone left, and head towards a bright patch of green that we’ve calculated is as far west and south as you can get and still have the sycamore in sight. It has started raining and we’re getting drenched now but our estimates have worked. We lay the last of the seven stones on an outcrop of rock, under the blank-eyed stares of three herdwick ewes, nonchalantly ruminating.
We pointed to this place with Will this morning and found out that this is where his dad’s sheep graze. The line of sight that we are holding now with the tree is also the line of sight that Will and his father have with one another’s grazing land. It’s a connection across the landscape is more than visual – it contains time, people, weather, flocks and days like this, when the rain drips off your hood and down your neck.
The tension we’ve been feeling drops away. We’re happy that we found a place for all seven stones and, as an added bonus, for the way back, it’s mostly downhill.
The rain doesn’t let up until we’re almost back at Town Head Farm, seven hours after we started out. We stop and consider the lines of sight we have set up, holding the tree as the point of notice, just for a short while. They are like the tight lines of a web that remain invisible until the light reveals them, showing their shared link with a centre, a temporary home that lasts for as long as the web is in place.
For the sycamore, the sliding scree of the Helm will always be home. And for the peregrines, home will probably always be in the crags above the tree. Other homes will shift – we don’t know for sure if the buzzards will return to their nest this year. Will and his family may not move on but it’s likely that his children will one day have different homes. Our own houses and homes have changed many times over the last five decades. What doesn’t change is the fact that we’re all on the same planet, the planet that’s the only home we’ve got. My thoughts come back to the conversation we had with Will this morning and how to deal with challenges, whatever they may be, if you really want something to change. You cannot just sit and complain, you have to do something, think differently, find the edge of your comfort zone, and step out.
Lines of sight
birdsong and wintered trees
long strides and the falling of thoughts
I have been taken into a daydream
flight of a buzzard
the land reveals itself
bog and stone, spring
unfurling the cycle of life
one thing takes another
a peregrine striking a goose mid-flight
and for a moment, a rainbow
the rain is light today
but there has been a watering of land
that washed fear, rage and hope down hills
and in the aftermath, a peace
snow blinding a twilight sky
before the laying of white
like a shroud over the tension
in the sliding of stones, the ground
beneath our feet, shifting
the basis for our views
when it’s hard to know
for sure what’s true
can we settle
with the uncertainty of it
what happens when we slip
what do we keep in sight
what do we see
The new plantation at Gillside Wood
The Long View colour installations:
and to come later this month: