"It’s not until sunset, as the family dozes on the sofa watching Fantastic Mr Fox that I can finally slip away through the door." Rob Cowen, author of Common Ground takes us on an Easter walk
Through the window, birdsong. It is louder than the traffic; penetrate-your-dreams loud. The sound of spring-morning sunlight, of an earth waking from too-deep sleep; squeaks and wolf-whistles from starlings massed on chimneystacks; house sparrows fizzing between the little front gardens. I want to run to the edge-land, but it’s Easter Sunday. Old rituals must be upheld first. A roast to be cooked. Egg hunts have to be conducted over the carpet with my nieces. It’s not until sunset, as the family dozes on the sofa watching Fantastic Mr Fox that I can finally slip away through the door.
Night thickens through suburbia. The warmth of distant blackbird song soothes air heavy with cars returning from family functions. Grey-black cumulonimbus big as mountains run along the horizon. Mountains beyond mountains. A pylon stands stark and beautiful against them, like the mast of a tall ship.
Crossing into the edge-land, I feel the familiar sense of transgression and excitement. Over the old railway and down a scrubby meadow, my feet slither on the earth and I brush the glowing blackthorn, releasing its musky sweet scent. Behind me, stacked up on the hill, the lights of town look like a ferry in dock. From the wood drifts the haunting calls of tawny owls and above them, like a silver button on a black tunic, sits a freshly polished moon. When they rise from the dwarf wheat, the hares look pewter in its light. I wasn’t expecting them and don’t have my binoculars but I crouch and watch three limp after each other on legs too gangly for walking. They graze, pause, then suddenly whoooop – dart off and disappear, only to resurface somewhere new.
Watch a hare’s movement and it seems plagued by the flicks and judders of restrained energy, as if it’s carrying an ache that can only be relieved by running. The rest of the time it’s as though they’re absorbing the earth’s energy, tapped into a ley line, trembling with pent-up static. As I walk back home I feel a similar shakiness; I’m shivering with the thrill of encounter.
There is a tendency to think of nature as separate from the modern world in which we live and work. It is somewhere – or something – grand and remote that must be travelled to, far beyond the urban sprawl. But here in the edges, less than half a mile from town, there are riches waiting to be discovered. Edge-lands provide brief portals into other worlds; to walk into them is to be delivered time and again into the possibility of escape; escape from the constrictions of our human world, perhaps even ourselves. We may – like the land in spring – experience our own renewal.
SHORTLISTED FOR THE WAINWRIGHT PRIZE 2016 - Shortlisted for the 2015 Portico Prize for Non-Fiction
'Sensitive, thoughtful and poetic ... leading us into a whole new way of looking at the world' Michael Palin
'Touched by genius' John Lewis-Stempel
'Absolutely mesmerizing, utterly beautiful and engrossing' Joanne Harris
After moving from London to a new home in Yorkshire, and about to become a father for the first time, Rob Cowen finds himself in unfamiliar territory. Disoriented, hemmed in by winter and yearning for open space, he ventures out to a nearby edge-land: a pylon-slung tangle of wood, hedge, field, meadow and river that lies unclaimed and overlooked on the outskirts of town.
Digging deeper into this lost landscape, he begins to uncover its many layers and lives – beast, bird, insect, plant and people – in kaleidoscopic detail. As the seasons change and the birth of his child draws closer, his transformative journey into the blurry space where human and nature meet becomes increasingly profound. In bringing this edge-land to life, Cowen offers both a both a unique portrait of people and place through time and an unforgettable exploration of the common ground we share with the natural world, the past and each other.
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