Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Melissa Harrison

Melissa Harrison | 2nd December 2018

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings in which our contributors and friends look back on the events that’ve shaped the past twelve months. From Melissa Harrison:

I woke one morning in October to a white world. Mist had settled over the meadow my Suffolk cottage looks out on, and almost nothing was visible: there was the lane outside the house, my neighbours’ car, and the fence; then nothing except the tops of a few of the very tallest trees: no distinction, even, between land and sky. It was beautiful and uncanny, the first of autumn’s famous mists come to cloak everything familiar and known and render it strange and new.

Later that morning, once the mist had cleared, I went for a walk through the woods and up onto the fields to witness the new season coming in. Change was afoot and I wanted to see, hear and smell it; to see the natural world shrug off 2018’s parched, protracted summer and ready itself for the colder months. I’ve always loved autumn and still find it refreshing: there’s a certain melancholy to the fallen leaves, sure, but the wild sky is full of migrant birds and there’s a sense of impetus that feels invigorating after August’s airless longeurs.

Although each new season speaks of change, particularly the equinoctial ones, they’re also about predictability and reassurance, progressing slowly in a largely changeless cycle for millennia. Small wonder we now find ourselves hyper-alert to the first signs of disruption that climate change brings, from early snowdrops to late-arriving swallows: the possibility of the globe no longer working – foreshadowed by Ted Hughes in his poem ‘Swifts’ – is fast becoming real. Change – good or bad, personal, political or global – can be unsettling, and few of us have the internal resources to deal with it well.

When I moved in to my tiny, 300-year-old cottage on a cold, dark day in December 2017 I left behind a life two decades deep in London. That change was both frightening and exhilarating, and not for one second have I regretted it, not even when the ‘Beast from the East’ – the first of this year’s extreme weather events – meant that my living room stubbornly stayed at 9 degrees all day, or when floods blocked my route to the station and rendered London firmly out of reach. Quickly, and of necessity, I managed to shed my urban reserve and make friends of my neighbours, allowing myself to be subsumed into a new community of village life. I bought curtains; built bookshelves and unpacked my books; I haunted antiques shops for bits and pieces that would look right in a house so old as to have a mummified cat as protection against witchcraft in one of the walls. I tramped the footpaths with an OS map, pacing my new territory out by foot; I read up on local history, registered with the mobile library, put up a swallow nest-cup, dug over the vegetable patch, rooted up two bins’-worth of ground elder, ordered 220 spring bulbs from the local nursery and bought cake after cake at the church bake sale. And each day I woke to a view of the meadow in which hares boxed in April and over which a barn owl sometimes floated, ghostly white: what fodder for a nature writer! Along with the little studio in the garden, my study-cum-library, it was almost too much.

And then, on the day of my new novel’s launch party – a book set in the febrile 1930s, and whose central concern is fear of change – I discovered that I must move out again. I am renting, and my landlords’ plans have unexpectedly altered. Their change changes my life, so recently resettled, so newly, rawly happy: the roots I have put down must be torn up, all plans for the garden abandoned. Although there are several small cottages in the village (population 233) – some of which, second homes, stand empty almost year-round – there is nowhere available for me to rent or buy, and my future feels terrifyingly blank and uncertain again.

The most painful part is the breach in the story I’ve come to tell, in print and in person, of my move to Suffolk: that the cottage I found was not only perfect, unbetterable, but was in some way always destined for me: the locus and the symbol of my new life. If I am to move on and start again – and it seems that I must – that narrative has to be struck through and rewritten, just as one must at the end of a relationship, or when lost in unexpected grief.

How painful change can be, particularly when forced upon us. Even when it’s desired, how reluctant we often are to let go of what feels safe or familiar, to slough off past selves and move on. Yet change is not only one of life’s constants, but utterly necessary if we’re ever to grow: we can all think of people who have stubbornly clung to childhood beliefs or tribal certainties, becoming blinkered, limited and closed off to the new.

Perhaps Buddhists, with their precepts of anicca (impermanence), dukkha (the acceptance of suffering) and anatta (the absence of a continuous self), deal with change best. For the rest of us I suspect it’s a constant challenge – rarely more so than now. So many certainties, economic, social and political, are now being called into question, behind and beyond which the planetary systems that sustain us are glitching into instability: something we have collectively caused, but can do little, individually, about. ‘May you live in interesting times’ runs the apocryphal Chinese curse. Small wonder many 21st century Westerners crave an entirely illusory changeless past.

I’ve been trying to enjoy the changing landscape as much as I can before I have to leave my home village, its fields and farms and footpaths, for good. The risk is that I’ll take a house I don’t really like just so I can end the discomfiting feeling of uncertainty – just as the danger with many of the debates going on right now is a reflexive retreat to a safe-feeling but rigid tribalism, a resistance on all sides to doubt, complexity and change.

Sometimes the healthiest thing we can do is learn to live with uncertainty; to breathe through it whenever possible, rather than trying to simplify or fix it, and stay open to whatever’s next. Once the initial shock had passed I came to see how lucky I’ve been to have had this beautiful, magical cottage for a whole year when I most needed it. So out with the old, I’ve been telling myself; and on to whatever’s next.