This Place I Call Home

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These days I am finding that the garden we have, and the woodlands near our house, are what is keeping me sane. Without them, I don’t know what I would have done during this pandemic. And yet, it’s taken an event of this magnitude to slow my life down enough for me to really appreciate what we have, and to connect with it on a personal level.

Before lockdown, I imagine many people walked the daily routes they did out of necessity, going from A to B to get to the bus stop, to the shops, to work – a means to an end. Now, the paths that my family and I have been walking are different. We walk for the sake of walking, familiarising ourselves with the tracks and trails of the landscape we live in; immersing ourselves in it.

I would be lying if I said we didn’t do that at all before; as a family, we have always loved walking, and we have a dog who insists on it each morning and afternoon. We walk some routes so well that we have developed our own words for mapping them: the green triangle, the loop, the commons, the fork. But now we are walking longer and further, all around the area, from the seven hills of Bath to footpaths through fields in the hamlets neighbouring us.

With all this time on our hands, even when we are walking the same routes we usually do, we are noticing the changes more: how early the blue butterflies were this year, and the exact day the cherry blossom blooms all at once beyond our kitchen window. We discover that there is such a thing as Coral Root, growing in the entrance to the woods, and we spend our mornings watching from the kitchen table with mugs of hot tea while a thrush hunts for breakfast beneath the magnolia tree; seeking the colour of its legs to confirm it as a Song Thrush, and not a Mistle.

With all this time spent at home, we’ve also been planting our own fruit and vegetables in the garden. We do this most years, but often on a smaller scale with most of the work done by my parents. This year, I am here from seed to harvest, for every ripening fig and damson and apple, and to help eat it all. I take so much pleasure in digging over the vegetable patch, and immerse myself in it so completely, that at night I dream of pulling up Herb-Roberts that go on forever, the purple flowers and roots dividing to infinity in one vast, interconnecting web below ground.

I think of Circe from the Greek myths living on Aeaea, spending her days in peaceful delight, getting to know all the island’s plants and animals and their various properties. There is something magical in these observations, this naming and the familiarity drawn from it, like a secret, or a spell: Scarlet Pimpernell, Forget-me-not, Celandine, they begin to sound like incantations, drawing me into closer connection with this land I call home. I have been learning the names of the trees, too. Some I knew already, like the White Willow that dangles its long-tendrilled hair in our pond, but now I know too the names of the ones beside it: Hawthorn, Dogwood, Crack Willow, Oak.

I am learning too that Willow is not just a word for “tree”. It is silvered wood and silky leaves, and yellow catkins in spring; to many animals, it is shelter and food, nectar and pollen, roost and comfort from pain; it is an indication of the wet soil beneath it, and a stake driven through the layers of the earth, holding them together; it is a climate stabiliser and a carbon sink; it is breath, life, an expression of the landscape, and a part of a much bigger ecosystem – a system I too am part of, am dependent on.

It is a strange duality, this level of seeing; like the overview effect astronauts get when seeing Earth from space for the first time, an expansive opening-out of my understanding of what I think of as home, and yet it’s simultaneously a focusing-in, down to the very soil, every layered detail of right here

This pandemic has had the power to change the way I think about a place that I’ve lived for twenty years, and that makes me hopeful. It points towards a better, more engaged way of living. I can only hope it sticks.
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