Caught by the River

Ruan Creek

14th November 2014


An extract from Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place
by Philip Marsden

Ruan: after Rumon, Cornish saint; Creek: via both krik, Swedish dialectal, ‘corner, bend, creek’, and crique, Norman; a name likely to have been used less by local landsmen than the seaborne invaders who pushed into such tidal inlets.
Dawn, and the wind is blowing hard from the south. Through the bedroom window, I can hear it in the beech leaves with a sound like the sea. Not quite the sea. It lacks the crazed hurl of waves breaking; it’s more fluent, more measured. I slide out of bed and pull apart the curtain and look across the field to the creek: the water is streaked with breeze. Everything is damp and grey but it isn’t rain- ing. I dress, pull on boots and go out to look. Or rather, to inspect: the hawthorn hedge I tried to lay in February; the beech-whips we planted beside our single patch of lawn; the old crab apple and cherry and the pear tree; the Kea plums I pruned so savagely; the fifty ash trees we put in and the patches of bare ground we seeded. Everything looks different when you’re responsible for it; the care- free gaze of the walker was gone.

Over the next few days, I settled back into a familiar rhythm – early to my desk, and afternoons filled with outside jobs. Cracked panes in the greenhouse, broken slates, dead elms that needed felling, piles of rubble to shift, all the loose ends of the building project, paperwork, invoices. I began sanding the gunwales of my boat. I took the billhook to the nettles which crowded all the edges, and slashed back brambles. Growth wasn’t quick enough where it was wanted, much too quick where it wasn’t.

The shelduck were gathering; their liveried figures were scattered over the mud at low water, whimbrel too, but the curlew had left, as had the redshank and wigeon. Even the Canada geese were scarce. Instead the hedges and fields were full of the sound of finches and chiff-chaffs, and a green woodpecker which I kept hearing but could never quite see, and cock pheasants’ woody clucking as they jousted, and partridges in pairs, and squeaking swallows swooping low over the field on their way north.
But no swifts. During the building work we’d had to repack the gable-top where the chimney threatened to topple over and, although we’d made sure to leave an opening, I was thinking perhaps it wasn’t enough. They were late. Thinking of last year’s swifts – two, sometimes three – chasing each other around the house like fighter jets, and the Doppler effect of their screeching as they raced over- head, suddenly brought back the first couple of months here: the hard-to-believe sense of arrival after waiting so long, and the place itself, as we found it. The swifts’ absence left the feeling that our tampering had somehow emptied the house of its spirits.

Some weeks ago, we’d ordered a piece of cargo netting for a hammock and now, one evening, we took it down across the field to select a tree to hang it in. Around the creek were a number of pedunculate oaks that present something of a puzzle. They’d sprung up centuries ago, in decent soil, in good faith. But since then, the shaley cliff had been undercut so that the great bulk of each tree now hung in space. Their weight was supported only by a small section of roots reaching back into the shale. It was possible to climb into these trees from the field side and in one, two boughs diverged, then grew towards each other again. Between them we lashed the netting. Lying in it, dropping sticks into the water below and reading stor- ies with the children until it was dark, gave the sense of a double suspension, by the net and by the balancing act of the tree.

Already there was the question of firewood – even now, in spring. I still had a large pile from the trees we’d dropped the year before. Once split, I estimated they would see us through until the new year. What I could scavenge and coppice now would be about ready by then. From the field boundary, I chose a couple of elms, cut them down and cleaned away the brush. I lopped from an old beech a bough that was threatening to topple it. I spent hours with axe and wedges and saw, easing into that particular contemplative state of the log-chopper. With a couple of friends, I took the boat up a side creek and we towed back a few fallen elm lengths. I corded and stacked them and now, with several such piles around the place, I gave each a smug glance as I passed their end-on neatness and the cavities for crawling crea- tures and summer bugs: ‘Every man,’ wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden, ‘looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection.’

A century after Thoreau, the Wisconsin conservationist Aldo Leopold left his own reflections on the rewards of wood-chopping: ‘If one has cut, split, hauled and piled his own good oak, and let his mind work the while, he will remember much about where the heat comes from.’ Looking into the flames of his grate, Leopold recalls the lightning-toppled oak that provided the logs. He remembers his ‘saw biting its way through the rings, stroke by stroke, decade by decade, into the chronology of a lifetime, written in concentric circles of good oak’.He cuts first through the few years he has owned the farm, then to the time of his bootlegging predecessor and the ‘dust-bowl drouths’ of the 1930s, sawing through the year of the abolition of state forests in 1915, the sawfly epidemic of 1910, the setting up of a forest commission, the years of forest fires, ‘over-wheating’, soil exhaustion, extinction of the Wisconsin turkey and the elk, back to 1865, the ‘pith-year’ of the tree, when John Muir tried to buy a farm thirty miles to the east in order to create ‘a sanctuary for the wild- flowers that had gladdened his youth’. As Leopold saws back and forth through the oak, the past drops to the ground to form a brown ridge – ‘called sawdust by woodsman and archives by historians’.


PHILIP MARSDEN is the award-winning author of a number of works of travel, fiction and non-fiction, including The Bronski House, The Spirit-Wrestlers, and The Levelling Sea. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and his work has been translated into fifteen languages. He lives in Cornwall.

Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place is published by Granta.