I took a slight detour on the way back today, driving through an area we used to live. When we first moved south, about 25 years ago now, we walked everywhere, exploring the towns and villages and finding out about our new home. About half a mile away there were fields and trees… we lived right on the edge of the town. Coming from a city, this was heaven and we walked there most days. The path, an ugly concrete affair, snaked along the side of the river Thame, little more than a stream here. There were wildflowers and dragonflies, rabbits and evidence of badgers. We saw woodpeckers and owls… and the occasional red kite.
The White Path, as it became known, separated town from country, the known from mystery. On one side the fields gave way to houses; on the other bank the fields expanded the horizon… not a rooftop in sight. Nothing but green, a few cows and sheep and a taste of adventure. We walked that path a lot, cycled it, paddled in the stream and watched the butterflies.
In one direction it led to a large, artificial lake, built as part of an expensive housing development. The water table is high in the area and flooding a problem… the lake is part of the defences but also a haven for wildlife. My sons have seen snakes there, rare sightings in urban England and my younger son learned to fish in its waters. In the other direction, perhaps three miles away, the path stops dead at a busy road… an artificial path bounded by man that follows the course of a stream. In some ways, it wasn’t much. In others it was wonderful, a place to escape with the boys and play in the fresh air.
On the far bank there were strange mounds. We had noted them early but had no idea to what they related. Back then, before home computers and the internet, there was the library and the tourist information… and little seemed forthcoming until a chance meeting. We had walked out to one of the villages and found a beautiful old church. It was locked, but a gentleman we met not only told us where to get the key, but gave us a guided tour that highlighted so many hidden gems he may have ignited my love of the architecture these old places. He also told us the local history. The mounds, it seemed, were the gun emplacements from the 17thC Battle of Holman’s Bridge when Prince Rupert of the Rhine had led the Royalist Cavaliers against Cromwell’s Roundheads. The Prince had seen his forces defeated and many lives were lost.
Of course, the next day we had to cross the stream and explore the mounds. We also found the remains of Quarrendon, built around the estate of Sir Henry Lee, jousting champion of Queen Elizabeth I in the 1500s. Nothing is left above ground save the ruins of the tiny church, but we had seen Lady Lee’s tomb in the church in the town, decked still with the red flower she had asked to be left there. We walked the fields, uncovering forgotten shadows of the past and listening to ghosts whisper on the wind.
Today as I drove home the horizon was filled with rooftops. The fields are gone, replaced by the new homes of an ever expanding town. Much has been lost to plough and bulldozer and, though sad, it is the way of things that the past should become buried beneath the layers laid down by need and the march of time. We preserve the highlights… the architectural treasures, the ancient sites where stone and sky marry land to heaven… but the mundane, the landscape of the small folk, is often lost. It is still there and its place in history cannot be changed… though our understanding of it may evolve and grow… and it is the foundation upon which the present now rests.
I wonder how much we have ‘lost’ to this progression… or if, in fact, we have truly lost anything at all. What was is always the foundation and is absorbed into what becomes. It may be unrecognisable… at least at first glance… but strip back the accumulation of new knowledge, new ideas… the source is always there in some form. Fairytales and legends follow the course of myth and a shadow of the knowledge of another time still remains in their symbols and archetypes. Archaeologists strip back the earth and reveal the ghosts of the past; homes and the small details of our ancestors are unearthed and brought back into the light.
It goes even deeper… knowledge and understanding garnered and husbanded over millennia are the harvest we reap from those who went before. Our very DNA holds the traces of our furthest forebears and recent research shows that through the feminine line, memories are held, showing that perhaps those who worshipped the Great Mother may have understood Her better than we, without the benefit of science.
Even within our own lives we see the same rhythm play out. Our personalities are built through our experiences. The past shapes the present… and will shape the future. Each time we look back we may glean a little more understanding of what was, perhaps learning to see the patterns and how they shape what is. In turn that new understanding may illuminate what is in the process of becoming.
Nothing is wasted. Nothing is lost.
We are the archaeologists of our own being… our minds and bodies are a landscape strewn with fragmented ruins and arcane sherds of memory. To trace their origins and follow their trail through the story of our own lives is a great adventure. Yet, like an archaeologist, sometimes we need to step away from the ground where we are working and see a wider view before we can really understand. An aerial image, taken from a higher perspective will reveal an entire landscape and details within it invisible to those on the ground, marked only by shadows and strange patterns in the growing green. For us the higher perspective comes when we cease to focus entirely on the daily round and can see ourselves as part of a greater story, beginning to understand our place within it. Then we may catch a glimpse of our world, seeing it as ‘the marvellous seed of the stars’ and we ourselves as motes of a Light brighter than the heavens.