Caught by the River

Lichen, Moss & Bone: Mercury In Absence

Kirsteen McNish | 10th August 2023

Paint-splattered knees, walls held up by books, and bottomless pools: Kirsteen McNish continues to settle in to her Dartmoor home.

Nothing explains the pull and lurch of the sky,
how, sooner or later, each of us goes to answer;
no logic stills the heartbeat in the earth:
it never stops, it knits within the bone,
a world around the world we understand
waiting to be recovered and given names:
this gravity, this lifeblood in the thaw,
this salt of love, this mercury in absence.

— John Burnside

We are finally starting to make our marks and bring in colour and light to a house that not too long ago felt rigid and unpliable. Spring has tipped over the border into the bold heat of an early Summer, and I’m deep into all thats surrounds me — oil and water cloudscapes, voluptuous acid green and yellow hills so sharp they could bite, and the wild seas now almost mirror-flat in molten silvers. The wide expanse at Batham overlooking Burgh Island, or Wonwell estuary allows whatever the day brings to eke away into the tide. I feel like I am in a snow-globe back at home — the 14th Century church tower on the hill a constant every day, my lighthouse, and the hundreds of trees moving like undulating waves. An old friend visits and says he feels like he’s captured in the pages of a magic eye painting, another comments on the proliferation of birds who feel somehow like guardians of the house in the eaves, listening to them when he wakes. Another friend says it feels imaginary and “off the map” where we now live. I feel unequivocally home here and yet in some ways am still finding my feet — a tentative stranger dancing at the edges of a party. 

It’s not all been plain sailing since our move to this tiny hamlet. We have ostensibly just plonked ourselves into a new place with some of the similar gnarly battles we experienced before, but I find myself better equipped when careering into overdrive — held by the hills. The intensity largely is due to starting from the bottom up in trying to get my daughter, who needs extra care, embedded in school, hospitals, and the myriad of support services that she needs in order to have a foundation. Most of my days are hoovered up by chasing and cajoling.  Getting help is tricky: voicemails are off, out-of-offices almost always on, people are overworked, systems are circuitous and labyrinthian. It’s a clusterfuck of failures and I often feel like I’m boxing in clingfilm as my target moves course. We learn that a public consultation will be held in late Spring due to government intervention with SEN education services as SENDAS tell me nearly 200 families with a child that requires an appropriate school place are still waiting, many scattered to the wind — enough kids to fill a primary school and then some. I have much to be thankful for but as her long-term advocate, being “seen” is just the first hurdle. 

I arrive taut at the village community hall, run by helpful volunteers, for the consultation. I’m expecting to see a handful of parents, but all the tables are full and extra chairs are squeezed in. The atmosphere is bristling and some I notice some people are sat feet balancing on the balls of their feet — a sure sign of hardwired-in readiness to react and in this case, be heard. We are met head-on with full admission of failure and apologies from people in formal-looking clothes with tight, bright smiles, and I quickly scan the anxious faces of so many parents trying to gracefully contain their frustration. We are subsequently shown a PowerPoint, given worksheets, pens, bitter coffee and cheap biscuits, and grouped around tables designed to huddle us into paper exercises to shift the gear “into constructive discussion” — or rather to get us to stay in our lanes. My heart drums in my chest as I speak up to the line of people by the screen, and I hear my own voice, unfamiliar in a deeper tone, fierce and demanding, a part of me I must access that’s locked away for contention I’d rather not encounter. Palpable irritation buzzles from those delivering the event. A woman clears her throat and rises from a chair at the front of the room — I can just about remember her, dressed in a neat blue suit with a neat low blonde ponytail, all as neat as her clipped accent. She lets us know she is senior. She tells us they will “take all of this learning back with them” to create an overhaul, but it will not be overnight. The mounting, dizzying reality is that everyone in the room’s children will be well and truly out of the education system by the time any of these promised changes will be made to broken support systems, or new schools built to replace the ones that were closed a few years before. It’s a complex and sobering affair. I squeeze the arm of the woman next to me in solidarity and take my leave. 

As we drive home the adrenaline is water sliding from my body. Vaporous mists pass slowly over the Tor as we drive back to our hamlet tucked in the hills — and I imagine myself enveloped invisibly in the clouds, floating, and weightless. Once my battle armour is off there is a soft underbelly of vulnerability that is exposed, a feeling of shouting down a bottomless well. I am over the moon to see seminars and talks on motherhood this year but I rarely see event organisers bringing the experience of motherhood and neurodiversity into the mix and it cannot help but leave a painful gap. Books from the neurodiverse perspective of parenting that intersect the environment or art are often categorised by booksellers as sitting in the “health and wellbeing” sections rather than sitting on the top picks book tables with the other autobiographies. I cannot stop hoping for change. I remind myself that everyone is carrying something and often invisibly, and try to get on with the tasks in hand. 


Early May brings unexpected new visitors in the form of two large, roach-like bugs on their backs in the bathroom — lolling in a state of having consumed too much at the office party. After a slight panic, a few calls and WhatsApping with a farmer-cum-pest-controller in California Cross, I am told they are May Bugs, less romantically nicknamed Cockchafers. What I thought was low-flying baby Pipistrelle bats off course, ricocheting off our ground floor windows at night, were in fact these noisy super bugs under a super moon, seeking out the night-time glow of the house. Once they have fanned out their antennae the pheromones flare and they are out in the excitement of the night. A quick internet search revealed that in Avignon in 1320 they were brought to court after ruining crops and were given orders to desist — and later “executed en masse”, for their defiance. Another site tells me they have a varied sexual appetite and die once their offspring are laid in the dark of the soil. A site devoted to otherworldly signs tells me they denote the fecundity of Spring, positive changes and a messenger of insatiable hunger — appealingly auspicious to me but perhaps not so for farmers or old timber buildings.

It is around this week I feel a gnawing that I can’t put my finger on, a feeling that I have misplaced something valuable. After a month or so I realise that I am always attuned to the yearly arrival of the beloved, wheeling, screaming Swifts, and my eaves are no longer full of their excited arrival. The church spire is a hypnotic carousel of rooks, there are many mewing Buzzards, Hawks, a cacophony of Sparrows, and Starlings in our eaves that mimic my cat, to its tail-switching ire, but no Swifts. One early morning on the lane we see two strutting Peacocks assessing the scene like community coppers — but I still find myself haunted by the lack of the violent calls of the restless, scimitar-winged birds. In South Brent I fancy I hear their screams over the Co-Op, but the glare of the sun prevents me seeing any aerial cavorting. In Totnes, on my weekly pilgrimage to the junk market, I fancy I hear a screeching wheee, but it’s the cry of a Seagull trying to thieve a trader’s morning pastry. 

In the dancing heat of late May I work solidly till the wee small hours, painting the dining room to accommodate the sofa bed for incoming friends. As I pull paintings and prints out of crumpled packing boxes, light flickers liquid shadows of the long-established ferns on the other side of the window and I realise I have been perhaps subconsciously preparing for this move since my early twenties — even the abstract junk shop paintings and market finds are of standing stones, sea, skyscapes and fields. I flick through a book gifted to me by a neighbour that shows the house we now live in has had more incarnations than Madonna — formally a carpenter’s with a pigsty underneath, then bakery, and a sub-post office. A previous owner dropped by and told me that whilst she didn’t think it haunted, she used to find tacks used for wooden coffins frequently and inexplicably all over the house. I realise in this moment, on my knees splattered in green paint, I am a person of extremes — I’m all in feet first and enthusiastic, but I’ve learnt to cut the cord if it starts to fray. 


Glancing up the hill to the crumbing manor house now for sale, I think of the man who lived there with his rare book collection — some of which was propping up sections of interior wall — and who died a few days before Christmas. Rightmove shows oil paintings of local scenes, clearly all created by the same hand, sat atop wallpaper that looks to have been hung in the 1940s. The back of the house has been overtaken by trees poking through its skeletal frame, reminding me of the cover of Cal Flynn’s Islands Of Abandonment, and I wonder how long it would have taken for this house to be completely overtaken by flora and fauna. I prefer to think this was his choice rather than deterioration, living his life exactly as he wanted until the age of 93; following his antiquarian literary passions and letting the outdoors in. I learn in the local online rag that he “collected people like he collected books” and had opened his house to many strangers, some of whom slept in the mottled damp of the rooms and others in the high-walled garden. I wish I had known him. I think of my own book habit that is more totemic than anything right now, sitting in teetering piles like volcanic stacks, reminding me how much I am spinning out of the loop, and wonder if he may have offered reassuring words.

After the festival more friends arrive, and we whizz through the towering hedges and up onto the moors to the Merrivale Standing Stone Rows, eager to show them this unusual placement of stones with a stream running along one side. It looks like an aircraft strip, flanked by two cists that are broken lozenges — their contents long looted or disintegrated. I have never come across a neolithic site quite like this formation before. There are tales about it once being a marketplace, a place to observe the skies, a ceremonial walkway, and, more unconventionally, a place where extra-terrestrial life has landed. It feels that those who created this ritual site intuited more about how we interact with the universe than we do now, stood here looking over the clear long views. We swish our hands in the rivulets of the stream, and I quietly dip my necklace with my sister’s initial etched into the back into the clear water as the sun bears down on our heads. There are the traces and remains of a Bronze Age settlement and much later this site would become a place of refuge where during the plague of 1600, over one and a half thousand people were banished to the stones to stem the spread in the villages beyond. Farmers would purportedly leave supplies on the stones for the outcasts, which earnt it the moniker of the plague or potato market. I stand with my back against the largest headstone and wonder how we would have fared. Near the stone circle a little way down the hill, a darker patch of mossy grass slightly curving within a stone circle looks faintly to me like the front part of a buried boat in its arched outline. The huge quarry in the distance once provided granite to New Scotland Yard, London Bridge and the USA, the surface of which reminds me of Norman Ackroyd sketches of Stac Armin in St Kilda and is both menacing and handsome. Fighter jets rather than thunder rumble on manoeuvres behind the Kings Tor, adding to the atmosphere. 

My son is excitedly pressing us to swim at Crazywell Pool to cool down but I am too caught up in the omens after a quick google. Local superstition tells us it’s bottomless, that its next victim’s face appears in it at night, willing them to their death, and I’m a total sucker for the rumour that its inky water rises and falls with the tides. Whilst I’m intrigued by this unusual lake on Dartmoor, I am more fearful of my son’s exuberance and daring in the water — a natural 11-year-old impulse to push all the boundaries, perhaps in reaction to the constraints of routines built around his sister. An old tin mine shaft in which you cannot see the sides or reach the bottom feels a stretch too far right now. Instead, we drive instead to Spitchwick Common and find teenagers tombstoning into the peaty amber depths, narrowly missing flinty rocks below. The top of my legs clench as a young boy loses his nerve multiple times and edges back and forth at the ledge like a nervous fledgling, whilst his friends and family scream at him to jump, his arms stiffly by his sides. On the banks I notice a be-stubbled, lithe, middle-aged man whipping around in a wetsuit like he is a minor celebrity looking for recognition, pushing his floppy tousled hair back as he smiles at everyone and nothing, seemingly proud of the shape he cuts in designer rubber. His partner calls from the water, beckoning him to join her whilst their dog sprays glass beads of the river all over people sat dangling their legs at the edge. Tanned youths in neon beachwear and cut-off jeans smirk, strutting with joints dangling louchely from their lips like broken diving boards. 

Heat now prickles my neck and the bridge of my nose, whilst my daughter has found a light towel from our bag and the shade of a tree, a sudden quenching breeze intoxicating her. As the others swim and I stay by her side, her elastic limbs allow her to swing from side to side, fluidly whipping the towel into a billowing flag. I allow the side-glances from those laid out in the grass without irritation because she is free and gleefully unconstrained — less worried as the years go on what others make of her behaviour. My daughter dances alone. A ripe seed, her body is intently marching on into fecund womanhood. At night I watch her gnawing her fingers in her sleep, most nights wrestling dreams she can never explain to me, and moreso, every full moon since I can remember, sat upright asleep, arms outstretched to the sky, her hands soft and criss-crossed with complicated deep palm lines like the electric lines that vibrate outside our house. With our small party of friends, she links my arm as we walk back to the carpark from the riverbank. An unexpected drift of Dartmoor ponies with a new foal saunters past, pausing to graze the gleaming grass and moss which seems to throb and fizzle in the heat of the mounting afternoon sun. Pointing our camera-phones at the sturdy group, a number slowly and nonchalantly step closer to the flanks of the newest pony, eyeing us through their long fringes, nudging its slim legs to move on. I feel all this more deeply than I perhaps should. 


On the first Friday in July, I pile some market treasures into the taxi’s boot, wondering if I will successfully pass my test before this year is out, allowing me to travel the short distance to the market or the sea’s edge alone, able more to make the plans I so wish to make. As I lower into the passenger seat of the cab feeling pleased with my haul, I hear a blood-curdling screech. Over the chimney pots below the carpark, the familiar arrow-like silhouettes of the Swifts turn sharp and angle,  narrowly missing each other in an aerial display. What I thought I had lost was out there dancing just under the surface of another stretch of sky, not so close, but really not so far at all.