There’s a hill I’ve been to a hundred times, and each time I get a surprise. It’s a small space, a compact chalk outlier, and criss-crossing it like this I began to learn how little one path teaches you of an area, how we walk on paths and thus drape a linear veil across the world; how a screen is occlusion just as much as illumination.
In early August I wasn’t expecting much, panting uphill through brambles not yet blackberries, nettles at their stingiest and choking chaff of thistles. In Spain, the main flowering season runs from the end of February to the beginning of June – then there’s an arid gap when it’s too hot and dry, then a second and more modest season in October-November. At the other end of Europe, in Northern Sweden, the flowering season hardly begins until the end of May, and is one concentrated rush of bloom until the third week in August, when autumn is already gustily apparent, a time of berries, mushrooms and feasts.
With global warming, southern England is drawing a little closer to the Mediteranean model than it used to. Most of our delicate wild flowers are drawing to a close at the end of July, and something like a hint of that arid recess becomes apparent in the scorched land of the southern hillslope. But it was still just a little too early for the end-of-summer specialists, of which the hill has two: autumn gentian and autumn lady’s tresses.
This was our holiday time and the top of the hill, the place that is almost a concourse and the place where you really feel you “inhabit” the hill, was lively with the shrieks and chants of children. I thought, as often before, about how the environment that we’ve grown to really enjoy is desert.
Desert, naturally, with running water and chips at the poolside bar. I was very struck, this spring, by my friend’s description of Hawaii, the island split by its awesome volcano into two entirely different climates, the desert east side where there’s never any rain at all and the verdant west side where it rains every day. (My friend, an astrophysicist, is usually at the top of the mountain.) As you’ll have anticipated, the whole wonderful leisure-park of modern Hawaii is on the east side, where water (presumably from the west) is piped into golf-course and swimming-pool oases, and the weather is sunny every day.
Yes, a desert climate is what we really like; inside, we live in mini-deserts, keeping the air bone-dry, which is why not many plants like it there. But in a perfect world, we’d rather be outside, sleep outside, eat outside, and of course, in the words of the song, have sex on the beach.
But the coasts of Hawaii and Spain are a bit crowded, we need more resorts, and these are beginning to inch around the politically more intractable parts of the Med. But what about the real deserts? I remembered the heart-stopping photo (on a calendar) of a Libyan mountain landscape, tiger-striped with shadows, deep in the Sahara, and I thought – yes, this could be one helluva resort. And then I thought – but no. The world is thankfully not quite as open to development as all that. We need a bit more technology and a bit more economic push before we get to put golf-courses right in there. If I was a developer I’d be looking wistfully at that photo and saying, yes, “its time will come”, “the time is not right”, or some such phrase – which sounds like superstition, but is in fact nature.
For development, too, is part of nature. It is a wave that slops across the virgin earth (it really is a virgin to this particular process), but it doesn’t move randomly; on the contrary, it moves according to just the same economic laws as nature’s other processes. Before it, shrinking day by day, is the green island we call wilderness, or unspoilt, or precious. Back of it is a growing hinterland that we don’t think much about yet, though many of us live in it, the country that is post-developed; for the wave does not stop arrested as in a photo of it crashing down on a tide-line, it moves on, and off, and new waves follow.
I thought this in a few seconds as I passed by the families and away to the deserted north side of the hill. Here, the spear-thistle and the more magnificent woolly thistle exploded along the cows’ favourite walks. Bees were ecstatic in those deep flowers. In August, a botanist gravitates to the north side, the Yin of a hill. Here, housemartins swooped low over an unsuspected patch of clustered bellflowers (Campanula glomerata), comically dwarfish compared to the “toppklocka” I had seen in Swedish woods a fortnight before.
I will never write the story of all those criss-crosses, all the relative spaces and times that my walks on the hill have illuminated. It would take some hundreds of pages and would be full of references to e.g. meeting the herd while walking back over “the meadow of the ant-hills”, which is what happened tonight. If you keep memorialising a place unknown to the readers, then you must be trying to take something away from them – that’s the feeling I get.
From the north scarp, which is wet enough to hold moss and marsh-thistle in its furrows, and to emit an invisible fountain of insects for the housemartins to feast on, I inspected, far below, a strip of ground that is nearly always in shadow. It backs onto a cropfield and is out of everyone’s road. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been down there even once, and I suspect it of being the hill’s sacred space, the place we “inhabit” least. (The cows, however, may have a different geography, for they gather to sleep near here, where in bad weather they can conveniently withdraw into a sheltered alley between hill-slope and beechwood.) I also saw carline thistle in flower (when it looks dead) and, what I don’t remember seeing before, carline thistle in bud, when it promises a yellow and mauve freshness that never comes to pass.