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Authors: Rob Cowen

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BOOK: Common Ground
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Of course, edges by their very nature are always being drawn and redrawn but a relentless force shapes the urban fringe. Developers had done for the places I loved by the last years of the 1980s – about the same time I began daily journeys into a city for school. Wood and bracken field crumpled and creased under bulldozers to be replaced by stacks of executive homes and double garages. Lawns were laid and the scrubland that had hidden dens tilled into river-rock flowerbeds. It was odd to watch the deconstruction of my childhood in such literal form. My connection to the fringes altered then too; the needle of my internal compass pointed to the exciting new worlds of adolescence. Once traced, however, these perimeters are never truly lost. They are only ever picked up and flexed. There are always edge-lands for those that seek them.

A dog barked somewhere. How long had I been sitting in darkness? I tried to get my bearings. I retrieved the map zipped into my jacket pocket and, using the light of my phone's screen, found my position. The meadow I was in ran along the old railway north-west for half a mile before meeting the snaking curve of a river twisting east. The topography of the railway and river formed two sides of a harp-shaped piece of ground perhaps only half a square mile in size. Ahead I could just about make out the entrance to a narrow lane. It was little more than a hole in the trees but by my reckoning it twisted up the eastern side of this region all the way to the river, creating the final side to what looked like an inverted triangle. Seeing the space laid out like this I was gripped by the urge to explore, to align myself with somewhere that, like me, was caught between states. I pushed myself up and jumped the fence again.

The lane was claustrophobic with darkness. The road crumbled into uneven track beneath my trainers. Thin trees, somehow blacker than the inky air, pressed inwards. I fumbled across a beck as a wash of moon illuminated the earth. I had trespassed into the passageway of a house where nobody lived. Hazel and beech formed dilapidated walls and dog prints threadbare patches in a carpet of frost. Another hundred yards and I breached into open fields where cheek-numbing air testified to hard, anthracite land to the north. Pylons disappeared west into gloom, roped to one another. I thought of climbers crossing a glacier in a blizzard. The path was little more than a silver thread stitched along a frayed blackthorn hedge, running along the length of a field before linking with an opposite thicket of hawthorn. Together they encircled the unmistakable form of a holloway. This exuded the same mysterious gravitational pull of all ancient paths; I was drawn into its high-hedged heart, aware I must be tracing footsteps sculpted over millennia.

How does one know that a house is empty even before knocking at the door? A sensation? A mix of stimuli? We do, though. And it was the same in that tunnel of trees. Everything had the feeling of time-slipped abandonment and loss. Quarried stones running down the track spoke of centuries-old shoring up for hoofed beast and cart. My arm scraped a holly, stirring the whispers of men who first cut these paths when all England was forest. Ahead a different sound: a hiss like an unlit cooker ring leaking gas. Suddenly the banks around me grew higher as the path sunk, dropping me into a wooded ravine. I smelled the mercurial stench of river water and knew I'd reached the northernmost boundary.

Sure enough a sweep of river materialised. At the bottom of a gorge, through the silhouettes of trunks, its surface was a sheen of pewter stained with the patina of reflected trees. The hiss came from where it slid over a wide cobbled weir in a sheet of foam. The break was brief; within a few feet it returned to reflection and I walked westward in a similar state, upstream, into the black wood. I saw only one other colour: a blue fertiliser bag bobbing around the roots of an alder. Even defiled by litter, the river seemed to possess an intractable power – a seam of continuousness cutting through deep, silent strata. Night rendered the trees both three-dimensional and completely flat, as if a cubist painting. Knuckled roots poking through rotting leaves became branches at chest height; distant trees suddenly scratched my face and hands. Then, behind me, a fox tore down the curtain of wildness with a scream. I felt my body shiver under my jacket, my breath blowing in quick, thick clouds. By the time I had scrambled back up a high, bramble bank and into open meadow again, I was lightheaded, ecstatic and bleeding. My mind flitted between disorientation and elation as I walked back over brittle grass in something like a state of bliss. Beyond the veil of singed-whiskered willowherb the geometry of the town encrusted the hill. Half-dim, half-bright pulses in the dark, orange-red, white and yellow, blurred by the cold night air. Sporadically, fireworks whined, plumed and burst over the roofs – and it all looked different, as if by walking through the edge-land I already had new eyes.

I was yet to know how powerfully this colloquial tract would come to affect me over the coming year, how intertwined with my existence and consciousness it would become; how profoundly it would alter me. The ground and its inhabitants were still to stir and take possession. But this encounter was my first experience of that patch of earth as a place of transformation. It had triggered within me a fascination that grew into obsession. Despite being in the shadow of thousands of houses, this place felt different, unclaimed, hidden.

For many years I had sought and written about the wildness encountered in the more expected places: the rarefied national park, the desolate moor, the distant mountaintop, the sweeping coast, but I'd forgotten that there is something deeper about the blurry space surrounding us all where human and nature meet. One word stayed with me:
. Even before I'd started the process of investigating it in any depth I was aware that this edge-land was a crossing point where countless histories lay buried. There were its human narratives, the records of our long tangling with land – colonisation, hunting, farming, war, industry and urbanisation – but these were only part of the story. Enmeshed in every urban edge is also the continuous narrative of the subsistence of nature, pragmatic and prosaic, the million things that survive and even thrive in the fringes. This little patch of common ground was precisely that:
. And all the richer for it.

I began to walk through it at different times of day and night and from different directions. Some days I'd stay until there was no light left; others I'd wake up in darkness, disoriented, unsure where I was, with the haunting calls of tawny owls thrilling my ears. Other voices from the fields, woods and meadows brushed up against my consciousness, catching on my skin like the threads of spider silk. There is a depth that comes from revisiting a place relentlessly. I would pass a fallen pine and suddenly see it as a sapling breaking through the mud; I would know the ranks of people who'd sat beside it and the innumerable dogs that had cocked their legs to spray its rough scales. I would see the river not as a man but as a mayfly. I'd approach hares with the tread of a medieval trapper. Tracing the screaming arcs of swifts, I could feel thermals above as keenly as they did. I began to perceive the stories of everything that stepped, slid and swooped over my patch of common ground, to see through an increasing array of eyes and know myriad existences. And at the same time, the land, its layers and inhabitants seemed to be ever more bound up in things happening in my own life.

I started carrying a notebook with me everywhere, filling its pages with my experiences. Some days I'd drop off in the grass and dream of changing shape. It wasn't madness, it was a growing awareness born of watching and it brought with it relief and a flood of understanding: if I could dissolve myself from the human shackles of logic and reason, I thought, I might achieve an immersion, perhaps a written expression
in common
that goes beyond the sterility of the field guide, the dry social history or the overblown romantic eulogy, something drawn from observation, heightened awareness and sensitivity; something akin to a truer shape of the place I'd found.

Some years ago, by an arc of stone and another river, I stood outside the sealed entrance to the Chauvet cave, halfway up a cliff face in the Ardèche Gorges. Lost for millennia but rediscovered in the 1960s, it was found to contain over 400 representations dating from between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago. The mind can struggle to take in that reach of time, especially when you consider the pyramids are ‘only' 5,000 years old. The handprints and multiple forms painted, scratched and worked within show the land outside the walls as it once was.
, as it once was. To enter it now you need written permission from the French interior minister but its secrets can be seen and studied in the masses of high-definition photographs, film footage, interactive websites, even a full-scale, life-size and painstakingly accurate reproduction of large sections of the cave being built in a hangar nearby. Beasts massing to cross the river are represented on a section where the buttery flank of wall narrows, giving the same sense of compressing, jostling and funnelling you see with animals congregating at a water's edge. Astoundingly beautifully rendered aurochs and rhinoceros dissolve into one another; lifelike horse heads merge perspectives. Owls, bears and panthers emerge and change shape in what is a dark, frightening and fascinating world. There are strange human forms too, all of which seem at a point of transformation. On one piece of rock is a half-human, half-animal couple: the man has the right leg and arm of a human and a buffalo head. The woman ends as lioness. They embody a now inconceivable engagement between animal, land and human, a sort of becoming-animal.

In a similar way, it didn't feel strange to cross between narratives in what I was writing. I felt myself moving with a sort of Chauvet cave-like focus and freedom through the creatures, characters and stories I encountered over the passage of that year. What I didn't realise until later is that in seeking to unlock, discover and make sense of a place, I was invariably doing the same to myself. The portrait was also of me.

Once upon a time the edges were the places we knew best. They were our common ground. Times were hard and spare but the margins around homesteads, villages and towns sustained us. People grazed livestock and collected deadfall for fuel. Access and usage became enshrined as rights and recognised in law. Pigs trotted through trees during ‘pannage' – the acorn season from Michaelmas to Martinmas – certain types of game were hunted for the table and heather and fern were cut for bedding. Mushrooms, fruits and berries would be foraged and dried for winter; honey taken from wild beehives; chestnuts hoarded, ground and stored as flour. The fringes provided playgrounds for kids and illicit bedrooms for lovers. Whether consciously or not, these spaces kept us in time and rooted to the rhythms of land and nature. Feet cloyed with clay, we oriented ourselves by rain and sun, day and night, seasons, the slow spinning of stars.

Humans are creatures of habit: we all still go to edges to get perspective, to be sustained and reborn. Recreation is still re-creation after a fashion, only now it occurs in largely virtual worlds. Clouds, hyper-real TV shows, 3D films, multiplayer games, online stores and social media networks – these are today's areas of common ground, the terrains where people meet, work, hunt, play, learn, fall in love even. Ours is a world growing yet shrinking, connected yet isolated, all-knowing but without knowledge. It is one of breadth, shallowness and the endless swimming through cyberspace. All is speed and surface. Digging down deeper into an overlooked patch of ground, one that (in a global sense, at least) few people will ever know about and even fewer visit, felt like the antithesis to all of this. And it felt vitally important. You see, I still believe in the importance of edges. Lying just beyond our doors and fences, the enmeshed borders where human and nature collide are microcosms of our world at large, an extraordinary, exquisite world that is growing closer to the edge every day. These spaces reassert a vital truth: nature isn't just some remote mountain or protected park. It is all around us. It is in us. It


I am dreaming of the edge-land again. It has begun to colonise my sleeping mind. Dreams take place in the midst of Scots pines and down among the cold, scrub-scattered banks. I am following a fox, a copper coat floating through the trees. He pauses. A backward glance. Incredible eyes – coronal black holes over exploding suns, that intense face; mouth curled at its edges in the white, greasepaint smile of The Joker. Another step.
Am I to follow?
He pads up to the lip of a rise and disappears. Suddenly I can't move. I wake. The weak glow of a street light forms an exclamation mark on the ceiling. I dress quietly, shivering in the dark, pick up my notebook and walk out.

Modern life is such that it can be hard to see beyond the present. You think you know somewhere, but really you only know a layer, a moment. Most people don't even notice such things, but just look around you. The moss-swollen pavement crack, the rosette of a dandelion defying a driveway or a gutter-growing sow thistle, these are glimpses of what lies beneath and beyond. The deep past and the far future.

BOOK: Common Ground
8.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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