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October and November : Polaroids
An ode to the caretakers of the land.
Much of the day-to-day work on a farm is spent on the hundreds of little un-newsworthy jobs that are required in managing land and sheep …Landscapes like ours are the sum total and culmination of a million little unseen jobs.
- James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life
Cherhill Downs, Wiltshire, United Kingdom
A Rice Farmer.*
The tall green corn harvest was almost over, and my skin agreed that it was the dry season. The river connecting Thailand and Myanmar was flowing inside the riverbank. Skinny wooden boats were weighed down with sacks of yellow maize. I noticed some of the golden corn eyes were wedged between the planks of the boat beneath my feet, like jewels.
The river narrowed at points, flowing into smaller streams which curve around the rice fields. One of the streams flowed past Oosamai’s house. His back is curved like the rice stalks he harvests and the scythe he holds in his hands. His blade flashed as he discovered weeds and threw them into the basket strapped around his shoulders.
‘We don’t look at the calendar, so we don’t know the names of the months,’ Oosamai said. His family’s days are ordered by the corn, rice, and bean seasons and the work they demand. Time is marked differently by Oosamai and his family. The crops sprout, stretch, ripen and wither. The seasons visit and leave. The earth twists. Oosamai follows the sun, feeding his family on the days he can find work. He remembers, ‘My wife gave birth to twin boys in a cow stall we were living in at the time,’ and with no job and no money to even buy nappies, his voice quietened at the memory of his two babies born surrounded by dirt.
Down the road, Oosamai’s twin boys, now 10 years old, sit on a wooden floor in their home with dimples dancing on their faces, like two bright shoots growing up through the dust. In Oosamai’s borderlands, I was just passing through, disconnected from the earth. Of course, eventually his work would be weighed by trade and numbers, but, now, here, it is weighed differently. My back does not bend like his, following the arc of the sun. I’m not practiced at releasing the earth from my fingertips and surrendering it to the seasons.
A Goat Farmer.*
Ed Harper’s grey beard falls down his face like the craggy rocks surrounding his home on Cape Clear Island, the most southerly inhabited point in Ireland. His cat’s green eyes glow against his white beard as he tenderly draws her close and touches her face. Surrounded by his goats, his feels the texture of each one’s fur and the length of their horns and introduces all 24 by name. Ed Harper is the island’s only goat farmer and has herded goats since 1979, using his hands and feet to make a living. Ed has also been blind since childhood.
In 1920, Cléire Island had a fleet of 43 fishing boats employing 209 people. At the time of writing, only one fishing vessel goes out for more than a day at a time, with just four islanders fishing full time. In less than 100 years, this once self-sufficient island now has 62 percent of its land lying fallow. The population of the island has shrunk by 67% and now only 140 people live here. There has been loss, but life on this island, Cléire, Cape Clear, the most southerly inhabited point in Ireland, is still tangible.
I photographed the deterioration on the island, but Ed feels it in his body. I saw an ageing, migrating population, while he experiences visual isolation. He can’t see the cracks in the roads but knows there are exactly 41 potholes (at the time of writing) on the journey from his house to the harbour. I could not escape the sense that he and this island are bound together; more than that, that they need each other. ‘If I lived on the mainland and had no animals, I’d be heartbroken,’ he says over a cup of tea mixed with goat’s milk. To stay or to go – but there’s no lilt of his voice at the end of the phrase and I realise that it's not a question in his mind.
When the mist clears, the views from the island are breathtaking. Four miles south-west of Cléire lies Fastnet Rock, called Carraig Aonairin Irish, meaning ‘lonely rock’. Dark and slated, veined with crystal quartz, the rock juts out into the Atlantic Ocean around one hundred foot above sea level and is home to the tallest and widest lighthouse in Ireland and Great Britain, built in 1904. Fastnest rock is also nicknamed ‘Ireland’s Teardrop’ because it was the last piece of Ireland that 19th-century Irish emigrants saw as they sailed to North America.
A bright light hosted on a lonely teardrop rock, not far from this goat farmer’s island - a light as powerful as millions of candles – is invisible to him.
My Dad remembers* a morning farming the chalk downs (hills) near where we grew up,
“Our breath rose like steam. The sky was a hard blue. Frost covered the ground where the rising sun had not reached it; the land in the shade was pale. The sheep were used to us, quietly mothering up to their lambs. Bill, my sheepdog, walked behind me, his nose an inch from my right leg, a bunch of tensed muscles waiting, longing for the word to go.
Away to the west, Bargher, our Iranian shepherd was mirroring my walk, curving around thedown; we’d meet at the centre. There was a ewe recumbent on its side a good 300 meters from me, not moving with no lambs nearby.
Bill clocked her, his body lowered, eyes fixed. ‘Go on’ I said; his eyes flicked to me. He sprinted. He could easily make 30 miles per hour over rough ground, on the short, hard grass he must have been doing more.
Bill flattened himself on the ground near the ewe, 10 metres away. His ears were pricked up.
I followed, heat draining from my feet into the cold turf, my boots slipping on the ground, in shade now and colder. I got nearer and could see the ewe was dead by the way she lay.The fox again I thought. Nearer now, I could see this was different. Not the usual small bites and tears in the carcass but huge rips on the back and front. The head had been crushed and nearly torn off. Strangely, the exposed leg bones reduced to pencil-thin sticks and as if they had been shredded into hair-like strands. Odd, I thought.
Bargher called to me as he came; ‘What’s up?’
‘I don’t know what’s gone on’ I said.
Bargher paled when he saw the dead ewe. ‘Very bad,’ he said, ‘Mountain lion; they do that to the bones with their claws. Yes. I have seen it in the mountains.’
I didn’t doubt him. The sheep dogs he had in Iran were to protect the flocks against Persian Leopards.
We had three more similar deaths like that in that season, none thereafter. There had been rumours of a big cat on Dartmoor around the same time. I spent some eerie times at night, early mornings and evenings patrolling the sheep, loaded rifle in hand, hairs on my neck prickling at random sounds.
Once we found coarse brown hairs on the underside of fence rail, too high for a badger’s back to catch. From the top of the down over to Milk Hill is probably 6 miles, then into the West Woods and the Savernake; lonely hilltops and woods where after dark few people ventured: plenty of places to hide for a beast that didn’t want to be found.”
In 2021 one of my sisters gave him a book by Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways, recounting his journeys, mainly on foot. Here, he recounts passing through our county,
‘That unforgettable day had a final surprise. Dark had fallen and we were driving back in the van. We were only a few miles from the Ridgeway when David pulled out of a side lane onto a fast road. As he did so a large, black-pelted animal sloped across the wide snowy verge to our south, moving with the high-shouldered prowl of a big feline, before flowing into the hedge. We glimpsed it only for a few seconds. It was far too big for a domestic cat and the wrong gait and size for a fox or deer. As David drove off I swung round in my seat to see two great yellow eyes glaring like lamps from the hawthorn and the shadows. ‘That was a panther’ I said to David “ I know, I saw it too’, he said as he drove on… I wished we had pulled over to look for tracks…maybe it was better to have not proof or disproof, but instead a certain image of uncertain origin, the fierce light of those two eyes scorching out of the darkness.
The mystery lives on.
We were sitting in the shadows at the back of church rocking a tired baby. We were tired, very tired. We had received news of a very, very sick friend who has days left to live. Life suddenly seemed so short, and our breath seems so precious and —our purpose on earth?
Maybe our heartbeats can’t be hoarded.
An elderly man stood up in a pool of water in front of us, I walked and walked and circled this building until one day, I entered, he told us. He had grown judgmental and jaded in his old age, he explained. He had pushed away people and broken friendship and relationships. But, slowly, his Creator’s peace began changing him.
We cannot hurry the river, reads one of my favourite pieces of writing by an aboriginal elder, “We are River people. We have to move with its current and understand its ways,” she says.
“We watch the bush foods and wait for them to ripen before we gather them. We wait for our young people as they grow, stage by stage, through their initiation ceremonies. When a relation dies, we wait a long time with the sorrow. We own our grief and allow it to heal slowly. We wait on God, too. His time is the right time. We wait for him to make his Word clear to us. We don’t worry.”
As trembling, sun-spotted, octogenarian hands held the microphone, the man before us says simply, “I remember the day the darkness left.”
The water ran down his ageing body as he rose from the pool.
Maybe it is the mysteries that will make us; we will never have neither proof nor disproof, just a certain image of uncertain origin.
Maybe we can’t chase the shadows away, they just will slip away and we will remember that day.
Maybe the lighthouses remind us that we are easily shipwrecked and stranded without help and without each other.
Maybe we need mysteriously fierce lights —like stories—in the distance beckoning to us, weary travellers, and it doesn’t really matter where their blaze comes from or where it’s going, but we just need to know that we are seen and that we can see.
Maybe we can’t hurry faith or miracles or the unexpected any more than we can hasten the sun rising or the river’s course.
Maybe worship is carried across the backs and inside the pockets of the people we least expect.
It doesn’t surprise me, then, that a group of fearful, rag tag Shepherds were the first to glimpse The Light of The World, wrinkled in newborn skin, lying in a cattle feeding trough.