Our house was built in 1860, not so old by UK standards, but old enough to have that feeling of solidity. When I place my hand on the stone walls I can feel a sense that these walls have seen time passing, and I wonder at the occupants that came before us. Luckily, we inherited the deeds of the house, back through history, old titles scratched in ornate, beautiful, illegible script on pages as big as a broadsheet. Over time the two cottages became one, roads disappeared under crazy paving, wartime vegetables were grown. Cloth from the mills dried on tenters next to the back garden boundary.
140 years is an age to a human yet such a short time to this house, and I hope in another 140 years it is still standing, in some form. This little piece of land, of which we are fleeting custodians, runs deeper than I can imagine. Beneath couch grass, worms, rubble and sand lie deeper secrets. To think in layers of earth is to travel through time.
Down the inevitable internet rabbit hole, I chanced upon the most wonderful ‘you definitely need an entire afternoon for this’ website from the British Geological Survey. The Geology of Britain map is absolutely fascinating – and there is a collection of other things to find out about too – groundwater levels, soil types, you name it. There have even been some tiny earthquakes nearby. I love a map, and this is next level mapping.
I found out our garden lies pretty much exactly on a border of Millstone Grit and Guiseley Grit – both formed around 320 million years ago. Sipping tea, I sat and thought about this little piece of land and the story it could tell. I had seen some local fossils of giant palm leaves, dated from around the same time, growing in a river delta somewhere near the equator. Of course, I had to find out where this river delta once existed.
I forget, sometimes, how amazing the internet can be. A quick search brought me to Dinosaur Pictures’ amazing site, where I entered my town in the search bar and watched as the globe spun back over millions of years (also, the main site is full of dinosaurs which, if you’re a dino-lover like me, is always a bonus). There was the UK, half submerged in a shallow, warm sea. The river delta must have run into the sea just where my house lies today. I imagine giant fronds, oxygen-rich air, who-knows-what living our their unknown lives.
I love this. To stand outside barefoot, toes frozen by the winter frosts, on this land that is so, so old. A tiny human existence, fleeting, barely a spark in this timeline. Yet here I am, existing, a small part of the story of this place. I am overwhelmed by time, the enormity of it, the shortness of life, but in awe that somehow I am here, with senses and a brain that can comprehend some of it, at least. What an experience this life is. I wonder, in another 320 million years, where this land will be, what ocean will cover it? Where will the molecules be that were once part of me? What life will exist, if any? In the midst of such thoughts, I smile, and I feel very lucky that I have placed my footprints, however transient, on even the smallest piece of this earth.
I watch the bright flames crackle and dance in the soft early morning gloom and fight the urge to take a photograph. To document somehow this feeling of warmth, this primal fire in an 1800’s house, the otherworldly in the mundane. But for who? To sit with experience just for myself is increasingly hard.
This fire and me, we regard each other. Ancient connection, speaking to a part of me long forgotten, cells and sparks of millennia that I cannot put a name to. It is safety and danger, food and destruction. And mesmerising, always.
New flames settle with me, the fire burning well, and I struggle to write as my eyes are drawn to flame. The space between each flickering tongue. The dark charred wood a case of shadow. As flames die down the fire whispers “feed me”, and I do, entranced, as we are one, the house fading as soul and flame dance together somewhere deep in memory.
A cat slinks in and by fire she is tiny panther, orange reflected infinitely in huge dark eyes, and this panther flops down and melts into the floor, those wide eyes now closed in dreams of last night’s mouse hunt. The fire shifts in the grate and flames lick over a new surface, flaring and settling again. There is ebb and flow even in this.
The flames sing to me, to slow, to let go, to remember truths greater than myself. Orange glow, not harsh blue light. To peel away the layers of this world and let the flames devour them, leaving us as one, small fire, small human, and something bigger than us both.
The winds blow the sea into crashing, foaming waves. Rain drives pin pricks into faces, clothes soaked through, feet in the sea-froth and alive, alive, soul singing in this tempest. One foot in front of the other along the shoreline, wild smiles as wide as the horizon. The rain falls harder, smashing into crowns on the wave tops, thundering from rock and headland, in our ears and eyes and souls.
Later, I comb the tideline, for after the storm is the best time for seekers. I collect plastic rope and crisp packets, chocolate wrappers from far away, shards of who-knows-what now broken down into coloured, sea-bleached pieces. But alongside the plastic, I also collect treasure.
First is driftwood, a small piece, lighter than air, dry and salty and filled with holes. A mermaid’s purse – two, in fact, one small and brown, the hole in the casing showing where new life began a journey into the sea. The other is huge, black, glistening and intact – I lie it gently in the shallows and let the waves take it away.
Oily seabird feathers lie scattered and I pick a small one, white with a streak of brown, to remember the wind that still ruffles the tops of the waves and ties my damp hair into salty knots. As the tide slowly recedes I comb the shining pebbled sand for sea glass. First one piece, translucent and glittering. Then another, and another, as my eyes tune into the spaces between shell and stone. Soon my palm is full and I grasp tightly to the pieces, feeling them scrape against each other as I secrete them safely in my pocket.
Finally, seaweed to bind. A long piece that reminds me of a shoelace – I hold it to the air and it whips back and forth in the sea breeze.
Days later, at home, I lay my finds out and begin the sea totem. A small piece imbued with wind and sea and wildness. Carefully, I wrap old rope and seaweed around the driftwood, attaching feather, egg case, sea glass. Elements of a place, of time, become one. Next time I visit I will release it, undo it, return each piece to the place where it belongs, but for now it stays with me, bringing that wild place home.