Twenty Years

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Twenty years have passed since I killed my first wigeon on a hill pond above the Breoch. That was a watershed for me, and I mark my days before and after. It was the last night of a cold season, and I went to stand with my father and his friends as the darkness came on. A fine rake they made in the old whin bushes, and how I swooned to have that first bird pressed into my hands by torchlight. And I’ve shot that pond or ponds around it ever since; every year without fail for two decades. It makes me dizzy to realise how the time has slid by in the pursuit of those age-old birds, but there’s no avoiding it.

Grown-ups often say how briskly the time flies. Ask them how long ago it was when the cow was lost or the hedge replanted and they’re always wrong. They say “three or four years”, even when it was treble that. If you remind them, they sigh and say “is that so?”, as if they don’t care to recall a number. As a kid, I used to wonder how grown-ups came to be so forgetful; as if time could ever be slippery and missable. My life was crystalline and definite; I marked every detail and recorded the days as if each one held tremendous value. A year was a marathon, and next winter might as well be never. But in marking this twentieth anniversary, I begin to see how time could rush by and gather steam.

Where I come from, there’s a certain kudos in seniority and endurance. Particularly in farming, where progress is slow and persistence is pitched as a proxy for progress. There’s a local ambition that as each year comes to a close, your resolution should be to do the same again but better. It’s a doughty, staid ambition which implies that advancement is linear; that each year is a springboard for the next. Wisdom is accrued simply by staying put, so it’s no wonder that we nod to old folk who did just that.

But the truth is that:

A yere yernes ful yerne, and yeldez never lyk”

[A year runs swiftly, and never brings the same thing twice]

Time comes in a spatter. Struggle, fight and learn all you like, but don’t kid on that your labour leaves you better placed to face tomorrow. In this business, people don’t grow tall – they grow broad. Each new year will leave them freshly baffled.

I tell myself that I should be proud for having stuck at this work. In another twenty years, I might be entitled to comment on cattle and the crackle of hay. But really I wonder if there’s much to be said for standing still. When I think of what it might take to shut up shop and try something else, I wonder if I have chosen the easy option; stasis, and the illusion of learning.

Now time comes in clumps of months, and I’m strangely content to let individual days go by without note or comment. That would have disgusted me a decade ago, when I believed that every day had to be stripped to the bone. But now I know there will be other days, and I’m less panicked by postponement.

Perhaps that’s how years begin to slide. If I’m not careful, I’ll soon begin to wonder where the time went.

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