In yesterday's post, Sharon Blackie suggests that one way to feel at home wherever it is you find yourself planted is to "learn the ecology, history, language, culture, mythology of your place." Philip Marsden did exactly than when he moved into a tumbledown farmhouse in Cornwall. In his beautiful book Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place, he recounts the experience of renovating the house, puzzles out the history of the land that it sits on, then widens his scope to the mythic and social history of Cornwall , tramping the land to better understand the rugged, wild county he loves.
"We weren't looking to move house," he writes. "We were perfectly happy living in a Cornish seaside village. Our children had just started at the primary school. We had a little boat, and I thought that after the chaotic years of early parenthood, a degree of control was once again settling over our lives. But that May, Charlotte spotted in the local newspaper an old farmhouse for sale. We arranged to view it -- curiosity, nothing more. Yet as we drove down the grass-centered track, and saw the arena of rounded hills and the network of oak-fringed creeks and the first glimpse of the house, its chimneys and slate roof rising from beyond a field of barley, I had the sense that our cozy domestic world was about to be shattered....
"Built at a time before railways made their full impact on Cornwall, the farmhouse was designed for work. The garden was a narrow strip of grass before the proper business of pasture. Mains power only reached the house in the 1980s; its water was still pumped up from a hand-dug well. A field was attached, and it rose slightly -- sheltering the house from the worst of the wind -- before dropping on three sides to the creek. Standing in the field on our first visit, seeing the house with only the roof and top-floor windows visible, I convinced myself that it represented an ageless integrity with the land around it, and felt sure it would pour beneficence over anyone lucky enough to live there. Such delusions are only possible for the besotted. In the days and weeks that followed, I learned that 'falling in love with a place' meant exactly that -- with all its downsides, its yearnings and mood swings."
But the progress of love was not smooth. Marsden and his wife put their seaside house on the market, but could find no buyer. A year passed, and the farmouse was withdrawn from sale. Then, just as suddenly, it was back on the market again.
"Now like a stalker, I began to take real walks down through the woods towards it," he relates. "I learnt to anticipate the exact point, just under a mile away, where the roof would appear through the trees (beside the pheasant pens, on the edge of the maize field). The path led down toward a side creek and the house was then lost from view -- but I could see the field across the corridor of mud flats and the sessile oaks that bordered it. Every tree and shrub I scrutinized. I knew it was unwise to dwell on something that might never happen -- but, well, I couldn't help myself.
"Another year passed. Our house did not sell. Viewers came and went. Buyers turned out not to be buyers. The banks froze up. And then, suddenly, it was all resolved. A date was fixed. I scrambled to finish the manuscript of a book and sent it off to my publisher just days before the removal lorries arrived. Clearing out years of accumulated junk, burning papers, scooping up yards and yards of books, watching the dismantling of rooms I had known all my life, the stripping of a house I had once yearned for in the same way, I felt only reckless excitment about what was ahead. I kept expecting the leg-buckling coup of nostalgia, even the tiniest stab of sadness or regret -- but it never came."
They move into the farmhouse at last, and begin the long, slow work of reclaiming a place neglected for many years -- recovering the farm's original features, its kitchen garden, its history. Marsden writes:
"Long before the farmhouse was built in the mid-nineteenth century, a substantial manor had stood on the site -- not exactly here, but eighty meters or so towards the creek. In the diocesan records, there remain a few scant references to the house, to its lands stretching many miles to the south, and to a Norman family, the Petits, who owned it all. A strategic position on the river -- as well as the ancient Cornish name [Ardevora] -- suggests long use of the site, and I imagined it as one of those hubs in the nation-of-sorts that once connected estuaries in Wales and Ireland and Brittany, Iberia and Scotland.
"In 1420, an application was made by the Petits to build a chapel. But within a century, the estate was breaking up. A generation of daughters married away -- the eldest into the Killigrew family, whose lands at the mouth of the Fal were better suited to the new age. The upper reaches of the river, a conduit for Cornish tin since antiquity, were suffering a slow paralysis. Silt was clogging the riverbed, pushing the navigatable waters far back to the open sea.
"One evening, working on a length of overgrown wall, I sliced through the stem of a cotoneaster, yanked it out and exposed what looked like part of a large stone basin. I cleared the roots and found it was a piece of black granite, dry-laid on the slate wall. I heaved it free. Upended on the grass, it was clear what it was: a piece of medieval tracery, the top half of a cinquefoil window. The chapel! I ran my fingers along the crescent edges of the rebate. I thought of sunlight falling through the glass, patterning the wood benches below and morning prayers, and the yards around the building busy with animals and work, and ships at anchor in the deep-water creek, and the mingle of Breton and Cornish, Welsh and Irish.
"Knowing a little of the past brought with it the first sense of belonging. In 1954, Martin Heidegger wrote in an influential essay called 'Building Dwelling Thinking,' in which he explores the close connection of the three '-ings' of his title -- a connection emphasized by his mannered omission of commas. He takes as his example a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse in the Black Forest. Such a place -- with echoes of Ardevora -- combined religious belief, domestic life and local topography: 'Here the self-sufficiency of the power to let earth and heaven, divinities and mortals, enter in simple oneness into things, ordered the house. It placed the farm on the wind-sheltered mountain slope looking south, among the meadows close to the spring.'
" 'Dwelling' for Heidegger meant much more than just living in a house. It described a way of being in the world. In Old English and High German, he shows how the word buan -- meaning both 'building' and 'to dwell' -- is linked to the verb 'to be.' (The same is true of Cornish and Brittonic languages: bos in Cornish is a verbal noun meaning both 'to be' and a 'building' or 'dwelling.') So to be is 'to be in a place.' Only by knowing our surroundings, being aware of topography and the past, can we live what Heidegger deems an 'authentic' existence. Heidegger is pretty severe about what constitutes authenticity, but his 'dwelling' does highlight something we've lost in our hyper-connected world, something I found myself rediscovering that spring down the end of a long track: the ability to immerse ourselves in one place. Heidegger also wrote: 'Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build' (his italics). I felt he was pointing his magisterial finger directly at me."
If you'd like to know more about Marsden's Rising Ground, I wrote about it here, in 2015, after my first read of it. (I'm half-way through my second read now, and finding it even more interesting this time around.) You'll also find a good interview with the author on the Granta website.
The photographs today were taken on a sheep farm here in Devon. I'm afraid they don't relate to the text very well, but these sweet and gentle creatures are simply too lovely not to share. Perhaps the connection is that my love for the sheep-dotted hills of Devon is every bit as strong as Marsden's for coastal Cornwall.
Words: The passage quoted above is from Rising Ground by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2014). The poem in the picture captions is about abstract painter Bryan Wynter (1915-1975), who lived in Zennor on the Cornish coast. It's from Selected Poems by W.S. Graham (Ecco Press, 1980). All rights reserved by the authors.