Dry-stone walls proliferate the countryside of West Yorkshire. They dominate the landscape. They ramble over fields, moors – line the lanes – march around the edge of meadows. They’re striking in the most beautifully, arresting way. I don’t think I’m the only one who finds themselves spending time just looking at them – wonderingly. ‘How did they do that?’
In the run-up to “Le Grand Depart” of “Le Tour de France” which came to Yorkshire earlier in the year, some of the cyclists from other countries came to Holmfirth to ‘scout out’ the terrain. A press conference was held with a group from Belgium and Germany. They were asked questions about what they thought of the hills and so forth, and then one of them said “I have a question for you – about the walls. They are everywhere. Even in the highest places. How did they get there? Who put them there?”
Who indeed? A survey in 1988 recorded 5,000 miles of walls in Yorkshire. 5,000!!! That’s a huge number. They’re not the only kind of boundary of course, but they make up the most with 620 miles of hedgerow and 155 miles of fence – according to the same survey. So what do they do? They proclaim ownership. They keep animals in – and people out. Or at least they aim to. Where I live – they hold up gardens – indeed they hold back hills from sliding into roads, making it possible to inhabit these steep slopes that would otherwise render it impossible to build upon.
This one holds up a cemetery! As it’s at the end of the lane where I live, I pass it most days. I don’t always stop and look at it – of course not, I take it for granted, like most people. It’s always there – holding up the land. But when I do, I am amazed at the work it’s doing and how majestic it is. I love how the moss has gathered on the stones and how it’s all become a part of the living landscape – even though the stones themselves are dead things. No doubt all sorts of tiny creatures are making their homes in the crevices of the stones. I have to wonder if they’re watching me gazing up at the wall!
But they don’t last forever! They need attention – they require skilled people to care them and ensure they remain capable of doing the job. There are plenty of them like this – with sufficient gaps in them to enable Billy and I to get into our favourite woods to chase those pesky squirrels! (It’s Billy doing the chasing, by the way, not me!!)
When I clambered over this one recently (see next pic), I found myself singing the lines of a song a musician friend of ours composed some years ago “When walls come down..” it was called. I remembered the tune, but only a couple of lines. The sentiment though was about the importance of pulling down walls so that people could see and mix with each other. That’s the downside of walls, isn’t it? They might make us feel safe – keeping the enemy out, but they can also prevent integration. They can fix us in one place and stop us being able to grow through exploring what’s beyond the place we’re living in. So of course, windows, doors and gates – legitimate ways to move beyond the walls are essential. But with those comes the additional problem of having to monitor who passes through them.
I got to thinking about a book by Doris Lessing. Well, actually it was the second of a series of books “Canopus in Argos: Archives”. The book I’m thinking of is “The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five”. It’s a brilliant piece of writing about gender conflict – described by many as feminist science fiction. It is set in the metaphysical zones that circle Shikista (which could allegorically be Earth). Each zone there is a distinct system at play – ways of relating to each other and rules about living. Zone Three is matriarchal and egalitarian; Zone Four is patriarchal and militaristic and Zone Five is tribal and barbaric. The story is told through the voice of the Zone Three chroniclers and tells how a marriage was ordained between the Queen of Zone Three and King of Zone Four and later between the King of Zone four and the Queen of Zone Five. Confused already? It is not as tricky to follow as it sounds – it’s actually really good and beautifully written.
It certainly made me think about the way we identify ourselves with place and how we are socialised into a way of behaving; how we adopt beliefs and practices, sometimes without questioning or challenging. But also how easy it is to become fearful of difference; how we might build walls to protect ourselves – but from who? Often simply from the unknown. What we do not know we cannot understand; what we cannot understand we often fail to get to know; what we cannot know we cannot get close to. Walls keep others out of our place – but keep us in ours. Is this the best place to be?
The Queen of Zone Two is changed forever by her marriage and by mothering a child of both zones and finds herself somewhat displaced and disturbed. Later in the book she is allowed to look into Zone Two…
“Into that Zone (Two) she had taken the senses of Zone Three and, of course, of Zone Four; whose citizen she now was, but had tried to take in, to assess, that high delicate place but without what was needed to assess it. Who could tell her what in fact she could have seen there, if differently tuned, if more finely set?” page 196, Knopf edition, 1980
You see how it speaks of how one changes, how one becomes different by association with people of a different place? She knows now that there is more that she could be – she could become more ‘finely tuned’ and see yet more than she already can. There are horizons that stretched beyond our present vision – there is much, much more than this.
And what of the King? Who has to endure another marriage.
“Then he lay awake in the dark, arms behind his head, thinking. Of this savage girl, with who he promised himself all kinds of pleasures, the more satisfactory because she would not be expecting them. Of Al-Ith [the Queen of 3], whose thoughts seemed to be flowing there around and near him….and there was more than a little anger in him. He knew that he was forever caught up and bound, if not to her, then her realm, her ways – so that he could never again act without thinking, or be without reflection on his own condition. And he did not regret it, not that, yet even now there was a part of him that said she had put a spell on him – and that she must be exulting, knowing that his new queen was at this moment laughing at him in her tent.
He could no longer be as he had been, the Ben Ata who had never doubted what he should do; not could her react from any higher or better centre or state. He was in between, and horribly uncertain” p 209, as before
You can’t help but feel sorry for him, can you? The queen of zone three disturbed him so much that he too is forever changed and cannot go back to how he was. A good thing? He’s now ‘horribly uncertain’, so you’d possibly say not. But is certainty always such a good thing? Isn’t it a better thing to be a little unsure and therefore cause yourself to tread more carefully – to be just that bit more cautious, and thus have a better chance of not falling down the slippery slopes? Confidence is good – but we can be confident in the wrong things and confidence without competence is downright dangerous.
He doesn’t regret his relationship, although he is conscious that his very being has changed him and he, like her, is somewhat disturbed and displaced. I love the way he sees himself as ‘forever caught up and bound’ – not just to her, but to everything from the place she came from. I feel that happening as I live in West Yorkshire now. When I go back to Marple, I know that I have different eyes – a different way of looking at things. Going across the ‘border’ of the Pennines has changed me. I’m not sure I would describe myself as ‘displaced’ but I know I cannot leave Honley behind when I’m in Marple – I’m becoming more and more wrapped up in the ways of this place. Funny how he talks of ‘more than a little anger’. There’s clearly a part of him that is resentful of the changes that have happened and of the bondage he speaks of. We’re none of us as free as we like to think we are. All of us, it seems, are bound by our obligations to people and places. I cannot do some things without a voice from my past whispering in my ear “that’s not right!” or “You go girl!”. Breaking free of those voices might be possible – but would be challenging. And do I want to be free of them?
All this from looking at walls! Not only are they beautiful, they are intrinsically linked with our very beings – in the way we define ourselves and where we fix ourselves in time, place and season. I’ve climbed over many walls; walked through gates and scrambled over stiles. I know this – there are many more walls I want to climb over and many I want to pull down. But there are many too that need to be mended and kept in place.