I recall now the silly spontaneity of it. That moment with my dad on the Cornish cliffs. He could surprise you like that. There was a column of rock which had better weathered the forces that were causing the softer killas stone around it to fall into the sea. It looked like one of those Indian totem poles, carved into the shape of a dog standing erect as if on two legs, its arms folded defiantly and its long muzzle pointing seawards. A stony sentinel carved by an ancient tribe of Atlantis to ward off unknown foes that might come across the sea, I imagined. I hadn’t noticed it until my father posed on the cliff edge. He stood in his old tatty Barbour and wellies, tall and straight, with his arms folded, pipe sticking out of his mouth at a horizontal. His outline cleverly mirrored that of the stone figure exactly.
My dad often took my sister and me on these exploratory rambles. He was at his best then – relaxed, animated, curious. He would stroll along, pipe in hand, scanning the ground and the distance, the near and the far, seemingly taking in everything all at once. He was always looking for clues, reading the land, trying to figure out some historical puzzle – why the landscape was the way it was, where the old mine workings ran from where they’d dug shafts down into the cliffs and out under the sea in search of tin, the location of some Iron Age fort. His attention was rarely on us, but we forgave him for that, happy just to be in his company when he seemed so alive, when we were doing something together. He would pause to tap out on his boot the clod of old, burnt tobacco from his pipe and then refill it whilst he hypothesised, my sister and me a captive audience. He’d draw us into his puzzle gradually, teasingly, and we would compete to offer our contributions and theories, or attempt to divert his attention to some aspects of our lives we wanted him to acknowledge.
These moments were precious. At that time my sister and I were away at university, and although we came back for holidays we usually stayed with our mum, with whom we had lived since my parents divorced when I was seven. When we did see dad he could often be consumed and distracted with the stresses of managing a farm and, later, the farm shop he ran with his second wife. These explorations of the wilder landscapes around us were our way of relating and bonding. Precarious scrambles down cliffs and into caves, camping expeditions on Dartmoor and Exmoor, canoeing trips that usually ended in the dark because we had set out so late.
There was nearly always some element of danger: a steep and treacherous path down the cliffs to negotiate, or a climb to the top of some great brooding outcrop of rock. On the cliffs one had to be wary of the sudden precipices or zawns – great yawning gaps where the sea had taken out a slice from the cliff. If you were brave enough to crawl to the edge and look over you’d see a vertical sheer slab of rock that dropped straight down for a hundred feet or more and you could hear the sea surging hungrily below. You’d grow suddenly vertiginous, imagining your body falling and then hitting the rocks. When I stumbled across the photo in a desk drawer a few years ago, it was as if the past rushed up to meet me, with the same unsettling feeling of vertigo.
I found the photo at a time of instability and self-questioning in my life, mired in a unsatisfactory job and a damaging romantic relationship, uncertain of my next direction in life and beset by anxiety and depression. Although I’d only recently begun a new life of sorts in Sussex, something was absent – there was a void within me. I yearned for roots, a connection to the past that might ground me. Yet despite the sense of freedom I found in the open spaces and big skies of the South Downs, any personal history there felt about as thin as the shallow skein of soil between the grass and the chalk under my feet. As I watched the sun disappear each evening over the Downs on my daily walks, I was aware of a nagging calling to come west, to come home.
The landscape I saw in the photo and knew from memory was inseparable from the ways dad taught us to see and explore place – looking for traces of the past, trying to make connections and sense of things, led by the desire to follow paths into the unknown. It was also a landscape full of absences and loss: the emotional connection and closeness I wanted with my dad but struggled to find, the separation of my mum and dad and the loss of the family farm.
Perhaps it was because I experienced my father and step-father as literally and emotionally absent or distant at times, that as a boy, and later as a young man, I fixated on and idealised these intense experiences of bonding as having forged my relationship to place. I now know that in doing so I took for granted what we inherited from our mum – a more sensuous and literary connection, an instinct to nest, and a tendency to relate the land to personal family history and characters, not only to more distant history. For both, the land held stories and was shaped by work and people as well as nature.
Along with the photograph of my dad I found another one, also black and white, of me driving our old, red Massey Fergusson tractor with a heavy roller on the back, going up and down one of the small stone-hedged fields at the back of the smallholding where we lived with my stepdad after the divorce. I was probably only about twelve, just big enough to turn the steering wheel with two hands, and with difficulty, to apply enough weight to the brakes to get it to stop. My step-dad was a stonemason and a quarryman, and I grew up helping him in his granite quarry, and at home, tending the animals and in the summer making hay alongside my mum and sister. My mum’s second relationship was even more tumultuous than her first and it was far from a happy and idyllic childhood, yet the bonds my sister and I forged with the country of our childhoods was strong.
As an adult I had so far found it difficult to settle down and make a home for myself. I had been compelled to move back to Cornwall several times but when I did I struggled with the anxieties it brought to the surface. It wasn’t only that sense of roots and family history I yearned for, but the excitement and the fatherly companionship, however troubled and incomplete that was – the times when my sister and I helped my dad round up the sheep on a summer’s evening on his farm on the North Cliffs, with lambing in winter, or getting in the hay and trying to cover the stack with a tarpaulin in a high wind in the dark before a thunderstorm hit and the rains came. These associations with land would come back to me on my walks on the downs in Sussex, listening to the sound carried on the wind of the sheep calling their young close as evening drew in, sometimes evoking in me intense feelings of homefulness, at other times, only serving to emphasise my sense of loneliness and detachment.
Ever since my university studies in anthropology I had a growing hunch that in the nub of this predicament of mine there was something more universal going on that was worth investigating. On journeys both near to home and further away, to Galway and the Aran islands, even to Georgia, I had been struck by moments when past and present seemed to collide. I kept coming back to something Richard Mabey wrote: “If you’re trying to make sense of the landscapes that shaped you as a young person it helps to have a hot spot, some metaphorical junction that connects that old space with the one you inhabit now”1.
Leaving behind the still tender buds of my new life in Sussex, I took up a full-time volunteer ranger post in Cornwall, living in a remote cottage in the woods on an old estate, just a few miles from the smallholding where I grew up with my mum, sister and step-dad, and I began work on a book. This work became a kind of quest, digging into the past and family history – handed-down myths and stories, my own childhood memories and experiences of working and exploring the land, and learning to look after and care for the land in the present in my new work as a ranger. I wanted to understand what creates a bond with place, how to deal with loss, and how to find a freer, happier relationship between past and present as a way of relating to the land. Above all I wanted to learn to be at home in the world. I felt this learning might have some relevance to these times of ecological crisis and when so many of us live far away from our places of origin and find it difficult or impossible to return. This photo of my dad became an inspiring image for this quest.
The cliffs where my dad mimicked the totem rock that day were part of our ‘patch’ as rangers. It was out on that headland, learning how to erect fences to manage the grazing ponies, or whilst strimming the coast path, looking up now and again from my work to admire the wide sweep of the bay and the sea breaking on the rocks below, that I often found myself thinking of dad and the times I used to help him with tasks on the farm such as stock fencing. Perhaps thinking is not the right word, but feeling – making a whole body connection, discovering a knowledge of the hands, one I would later try to put into words when I returned to the ranger’s cottage in the woods in the evenings. Through this work, that of rangering and writing, that yawning gap between past and present that had hereto felt irreconcilable, began to close and resolve itself. I had begun to forge my own path and connection to the land.
1 Mabey, R. (2013) A Good Parcel of English Soil. Penguin Group.
The author would like to thank Dr. Kim Crowder for her encouragement and comments on an early draft of Day at the Zawn.
Tim Martindale is a writer and forester. He holds a doctorate in anthropology from Goldsmiths University where he taught as an Associate Lecturer and has also attended the Creative Writing Programme with New Writing South in Brighton. His short fiction and non-fiction prose has been published in Cornish Short Stories: A Collection of Contemporary Writing (The History Press) and in Watermarks: Writing by Lido Lovers and Wild Swimmers (Frogmore Press). He is currently working on his first book, a creative non-fiction project on the themes of home, wayfinding and belonging.