In Johnstonebridge, my mum went out to paint again, once I, the last of four, was finally shut up safe at school. To become yourself again after years of engaged motherhood, I know, is difficult and wild and desperately needed, especially for a loner. To be alone again just for a while, in silence with yourself.
She was never like some genteel ‘lady artist’ with fine brushes and watercolour-paper, sitting prettily admiring ‘the view’. She would strap a massive canvas to her old-fashioned bicycle and an old army bag full of oil paints, turps and big brushes, reach the wildest and truest corner she could, find a final secret magical place, set up her tools and just sit. She told me that after a while of stillness, the life began to forget she was human, the wood would gradually begin to stir – even investigate her. Maybe a curious bird would be the first, hopping tentatively closer in the branches while getting back to its everyday business. Maybe sometimes the rarer treat of deer or hare – creatures whose eyes could meet hers in a surprise moment of shared daring, wonder and intelligence. Or a pheasant, sudden and alarming flap and scream, heart-jarring. I never saw this; I was necessarily not a part of this stillness, so I’m only guessing. I did learn though to be still in the woods alone in my own way as a child, and felt something of the strange magic, the life and death of the tangled land, the fairy glades and the sudden terrors, the bleak places that don’t want to let you through.
When she painted, it was a dialogue with the soul of the place. She painted it as it was, as it felt; not just how she saw it. I imagine her in a kind of vital trance of activity, a religious act of commune, mixing colours, bringing life and love and spirit to the white of the blank canvas.
She talked to old loner locals too on her travels, found out the stories of places and people, the history you can’t find in books. Later she found old maps of the area and made copies which she coloured delicately, re-inscribed old place-names, tried to bring the old times (which were not even our own, as the place was not ours) back to life, to keep them real.
We were incomers; we would never be really accepted. Local women seemed as suspicious of my mum’s furtive exploration and her openness to disregarded old people’s tales as they were of her keeping goats and hens (eventually sheep and pigs too) – seeking supplies and advice from reluctant farmers, and always making friendly and engaged conversation, even with men. A woman, in this community, should clean the house dressed in a checked nylon overall covering good clothes, should keep her hair demure and tightly permed, should blandly feed and neatly dress children, maybe do some knitting from paper patterns, chat mildly to other women. She should not wear Indian cloth and dark hair hanging free (or tied in a headscarf when necessary, when working) or sew princess dresses or dolls for her daughters from made up patterns in her head, should not be steeped in the stories of the old or in paint and animal shit and straw and mud, or splashed by goat’s milk, birth-blood and amniotic fluid. Should not say what she thinks. She should beware of magic.
(I realised recently that a part of me when I hear the word ‘community’, imagines a mob of locals wielding pitchforks rather than a welcoming collection of people working to live together).
Sometimes she would show us her discoveries, her more accessible places, a little chance to share in her wonder. Elizatown was one – an abandoned village built right on the gravel of the Kinnel’s riverbed, only reached by a difficult steep path through old beech wood, loamy and ferny – a long walk for short legs. I went there fewer than five times in my life – the last time I was around twenty and walked there with my boyfriend in summer and explored the haunted ruins, and skinny-dipped. We had to run from hungry clegs in the end.
The woods were always my favourite part of being outside as a child (the proper mixed deciduous woods, not the dark uniform forestry tracts, which had the wrong kind of fear, more true bleak horror than fairy), though they were never quite as big or wild as I thought they should be. It was too quick and sudden that you’d be out the other side and into a field of cows or onto the road – in places the roaring dual carriageway from north to south which cut the land in two. I could still hide there, make dens, find trees to climb and sit in, or wild damsons to eat if I was lucky, or bitter sloes, but could never really get lost – often a necessary part of the stories I was living in the woods. So I would generally have to invent the lostness too, purposely wander through the densest thorns and undergrowth, take the longest and most difficult route; create real adventure. My big brother showed me how to properly use the woods for play – tree-climbing, making swings, having wars, hiding out commando style, but I often went there to be alone. Especially the woods I knew well enough to play at getting lost in, well enough to hide.
Growing up seemed to rob me of this world, bit by bit. First love, then motherhood kept me always in company. Now a stressed mature student, I spend far too much time indoors and too much of that living only in my mind, only connected to books and screens, practically forgetting my body even exists. Someday I’ll remember myself though, go into the wild places alone again. Maybe I’ll write, maybe I’ll paint, maybe just be, but I know that waiting for me there is a part of me I’ve missed for a long time.
Footnote: the original of this piece was written in late 2012, towards the end of my undergraduate degree. Happily, I have since been able to fulfill the hopes I express in the last paragraph!
A version of this was published in the winter 2016 issue of The Notebook: A Progressive Journal about Women and Girls with Rural and Small Town Roots. Issue (#5), ‘Women & Land’.