The Ground is All Memoranda by Gill Horitz

The other night I woke to the sound of a car drawing up to the house, then another and another, until I realised the sound was the wind gusting through the trees on the other side of the road.  The curtains were moving at the open window. I felt chill air on my face and the idea of the intruding wind was pleasing, leaving its domain of branches and birds’ nests, travelling over the road and through the window into the enclosure of our home.  With it came intermittent sounds, squeaks and shifts in the woodwork, and then a curious pattering in the attic room above, the sound of small running feet. And with that thought, sleep became impossible, so I went upstairs, apprehensively, and found the bedroom filled with wind and the window swinging open.


I looked out at the Y-shaped stump of the recently pollarded goat willow, stark in the street light.  From a wind-blown seed the willow had grown over several years to a height and width that eventually overshadowed the garden.  I thought of an early morning last summer when we lay on mats in its shade for a yoga session with our children and grandchild.  All was quiet until suddenly a small white egg fell onto my mat and a wood pigeon clattered out of the tree’s canopy.


I turned and saw a trail of red mucus leak out of the cracked shell.  Were we to blame I wondered, had our presence disturbed the bird and in her disquiet had she unbalanced one of her eggs?  How affected would she be by the loss?  Wood pigeons’ nests are assembled in a ‘fetch and drop’ method, they don’t rely on intricate weaving.  But even though their eggs are less secure wood pigeon populations flourish, so it’s been suggested that taking less time with nest building means more time for breeding opportunities. [1]


After a few minutes the bird returned with a kerfuffle and I imagined the bulky body settling against the one remaining egg in the small interior space of its ‘house’.   ‘A living nest’, as Michel Bachelard describes in The Poetics of Space, becomes ‘for a moment the Center – the term is no exaggeration – of an entire universe, the evidence of a cosmic situation.’


Now we’ve become absorbed in a reduced world of house and garden and turned towards the intimacy of home – even the sound home encompasses its surrounding nature, as it does the shape and space of the nest the bird returns to. Yet still we reach out into the ‘universe’, have time to watch and listen more attentively than before; we fill time doing things more thoroughly, do different familiar things, feel contentment in our privileged confinement.  When we wander out, we go more slowly.  I download an app identifying plants and trees, begin a log of names, and send photos to family and friends on WhatsApp.  I watch a live webcam of a barn owl hatching its eggs.


Diaries have been put away but anyway we don’t need one to know this week is the fifth anniversary of the death of my husband’s mother.   On the news we heard the coronavirus epidemic had reached a plateau of contagion.  We picked sweet-smelling yellow azaleas and lime green euphorbia and tied them into a bouquet to take to the Woodland Burial ground.


Outside the house we crossed over the road to walk on the grassy verge opposite rather than pass people on the nearside pavement making their way to the busy corner shop at the cross roads.  Opposite the shop a narrow path leads into a small wood.


Like stepping into another dimension, I had that feeling when you enter a cathedral or church, you see columns, interlacing structure, light through coloured glass and become enclosed by the architecture of the space.  We stood watching sunlight radiate through the transparent greens of the unfurling leaves, a perfect example of Larkin’s simile about spring trees, ‘coming into leaf like something almost being said’.


At the other side of the wood we took a pathway over the brow of the hill, passing the perimeter fence of the middle school, the site of six round barrows, each a mound of earth and stones raised over a four-thousand-year-old grave.  There we stopped to look at the view through a fringe of oaks, beeches and wild cherry blossom towards Badbury Rings to the east, the iron age territory of the Celtic tribe, the Durotriges, who lived in the south west.


Such a short distance, the four miles between fort and barrows, and here we are living in the same place as everyone who ever passed this way.  Thousands of years passed yet all our journeys are interconnected by eye, route and function, and the special meanings we attribute to the lie and layout of the paths.  When people needed to come this way they found the best and quickest pathways.  Eventually a Bronze Age route taken by early European settlers on the way to Badbury has become a tarmacadamed road called Middlehill Road, where we live.  All these beaten tracks asserted on the earth because of a need for rituals, commemoration and community, are in themselves a form of historic communication.


As we make our way to the burial ground, I feel a sense of taking part in and continuing a tradition and remember the idea Patrick Kavanagh wrote about ‘to know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience.’


In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width.

A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane,

a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields –

these are as much as a man can fully experience.


During this time of lockdown, we notice how many more people are walking circuits of local paths as though we’re beginning to root around our locality, to keep closer to home in a way our ancestors would have done.


Around the bend ahead came a man wearing headphones absorbed in his aural world. We made eye contact, assessing how best to pass each other and keep our distance.  We stepped into undergrowth either side of the path and went on our ways with smiles and mutterings.


The burial ground extends from the bottom of the hill up the southern slope almost to the site of the barrows. The area is secured by a picket fence reinforced with barbed wire.  We know a gap we’ve used on previous visits, so we climbed through and made our way down the slope between beeches and oaks, through layers of deep leaf mould and tangles of new brambles, stepping carefully around a warren of fox holes.  These dark openings were large enough for a person to crawl inside, even tunnel as far as the burial mounds further up the hill.


We came out to neat grass verges and gravel paths and rows of small plaques, memorial markers for cremated remains.  My mother-in-law was buried in an area of new woodland, beneath her favourite crab apple tree.  Daffodils and narcissi were flowering where we’d planted them last autumn with family members at a small improvised ceremony, with readings of her favourite poems and a libation of dry sherry poured on her ground. Poetry, plants and gardens were the serious pleasures of her life, and during long days in the hospice she spoke aloud her favourite poems, perhaps as a way of still speaking what she believed to the world.  Louis MacNeice’s poem, Sunlight in the Garden was her choice to be read at her funeral and she spoke it many times as she lay dying:


The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold;
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.


She was always outspoken, and when it came to dying she wanted us to know her difficulties.  Dying was too slow, it was ridiculous, it was like a salt cellar – life was pouring out and she wished it would hurry on.  She said she would like ‘to be cut away, as though on a boat drifting downriver.’  When people visited she told them she was trying hard to die. The problem was the letter ‘C’, she dreamt she was up against the letter ‘C’.  (Consciousness, Chalk, Clay, Colehill, Coffin, Cancer?) All night trying to decipher whether she was asleep or dead, until she woke to the reality of her condition, and said,


‘But isn’t life continuous? Everything comes round again. . .  A click, and the world comes alive again.  We don’t know these things because there’s conspiracy of silence all over the world.

‘Or is it me, not the world.  Blue. . . I’m fading away, odd things happen at the end.  I’ve never had an experience like this.  It’s so protracted.  The world goes on.  The whole world died . . . and just me left all night and then in the morning I asked the nurse, is everything normal?’


On the morning of her death, she told us the coffin was ready and numbered.  As an agnostic, she hoped she’d be proved wrong about God but she didn’t think she would.  But if she could she’d send a sign.


I’ve kept a lookout over the years and when small events occur which have an unusual edge, like the wind blowing intensely in one tree near her grave while other trees remain calm, I look around.  But there is never anything to see or hear other than the imaginative moment imbued with the memory of the person.


We placed the flowers in the thick grass growing on her patch, and the colours shone out signifying how alive she remains in our memory.  Then we made our way back home passing the barrows and the burrows, along paths which are living symbols of history and upon which we make our own imprint, registering our own passing through.


A week later we were allowed back to our allotment in the grounds of Kingston Lacy House, following a change of heart by the National Trust.  In spite of protests they’d deemed physical distancing unmanageable on allotments and locked the gates.  Yesterday in constant drizzle we spent our weekly three-hour slot, digging, tidying, uprooting the gone-to-seed leeks, picking rhubarb.  Turning the soil, a small stone jumped out, the size of a large mussel to fit snug in the palm, mottled brown with a bevelled edge. When cleaned, I sent photographs to a friend who knows about stones and tools and he’s confident it may well be a stone age knapping tool.  But to be sure he’ll need to feel the weight and shape in his hand.


‘The ground is all memoranda and signatures; and every object covered over with hint.  In nature this self-registration is incessant. . .’[2]






Gill Horitz lives near Wimborne, Dorset. She has worked in the Arts for many years, and has a particular interest in developing new tellings of local stories, using archives, theatre and sense of place. Her writing has been published in magazines and anthologies, including Mslexia, Smiths Knoll, Frogmore Papers, Tears in the Fence, and anthologies.  Her pamphlet, All The Different Darknesses, was recently published by Cinnamon Press. She also works with State of Play Arts and Wimborne Community Theatre.


The photograph is by the author.


[1] Andy Holden and Peter Holden – A Natural History of Nest Building

[2] Ralph Waldo Emerson • The Complete Works • 1850

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