|photo Jo Sinclair|
I'm reading Common Ground by Rob Cowen (published by Random House). It is non-fiction in form: a memoir that segues into novelistic imagination - the kind of writing often labelled psychogeography. The writer uses his extensive nature notebooks as a starting point from which to tell his story about animals and place. By watching and tracking a fox he is able to 'become' it, virtually inhabiting its body and its habitat. Common Ground is Cowen's forensic and emotional focus on his local patch. The liminal space where city and country merge is, in his own words 'true common ground - reclaimed, re-purposed, nourishing, loved again... margins should be part of people's daily experience...the wild collision and coexistence of human and nature, the complex interlocking of infrastructure and land, the bizarre and beguiling interchange of the layers of history and modern life...'.
The author's first child is in utero as he writes the book; he is all too aware of the need for new housing. 'I'm bringing new life into this overcrowded world. Where can I reasonably expect our children and our children's children to live?' he asks. He comes to accept that landscapes are in a constant state of metamorophosis.
I have watched hares at Trumpington Meadows. They are, to use a birdwatchers' word, unusually confiding. Accustomed to the steady trickle of visitors to neighbouring Bryon's Pool LNR and beauty spot, the hares lope around their territory as the new houses creep closer and cast their shadows. In 1912 the Romantic poet Rupert Brooke, pining for home, wrote 'The Old Vicarage, Grantchester':
...Do hares come out about the corn?
Oh, is the water sweet and cool,
Gentle and brown, above the pool?
And laughs the immortal river still
Under the mill, under the mill?
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget...
And he questions whether 'the elm-clumps greatly stand / Still guardians of that holy land. I don't think so, no - we lost the magnificent, mature trees to Dutch Elm Disease. But there are younger elms reaching for the skies in the wooded belt of Byron's Pool, said to host a rare butterfly.
I wonder if the new generation of children born in the new houses on the meadows will carry memories of landscape with them throughout their lives? Will they put down their digital devices and explore the legendary landscape on their doorstep? I wonder if they'll make bike tracks down to the river, put ropes in the trees Brooke writes about ('a tunnel of green gloom') and swim where Brooke and Byron once did? I hope they might. In 1912, while Brooke was penning his famous poem, the Plant Breeding Institute was formed in Cambridge. It was relocated to what is now Trumpington Meadows in the 1950s, soon after the prisoner of war camp closed. The metamorphosis of this place has been influenced by human occupation and intervention, from Iron Age and Roman settlements and Anglo Saxon burial site to coprolite excavation for fertiliser and, of course, arable land. It will continue to change, though we have a tendency to be reassured by continuity. What I'll be looking for as I cycle that way is the flock of golden plover that stop by at this spot every winter: hundreds of them that may be glimpsed from the M11, cycle path or Park & Ride.
|Golden plover and lapwing by Ferran Pestana (Flickr) - check Cambridgeshire Bird Club for reports|