I said Bite saw and Let’s see what you can do. The engine roared and the woodslot deepened in its log.
Forty trees had bunched together in the storm. Standing still, they lay like the ribs of a tepee, and most could be ignored. But a few hung together above the sheep shed roof with their rootplates reared up behind them. It’s like they chose to lie horizontally but changed their minds on the way down, and now there’s a chance that more wind might finish the job. Even a child could see there’s enough weight in that timber to flatten the shed like a tobacco tin.
I like my saw, and I like it when trees lean in the wind like this. It’s best when you cut the slumping trunk and lift the weight so the stump stands back on itself. That’s nice, and neat beside it. You can get to grips with a leaning tree then, but I’m haunted by the memory of the man at Dalreoch who liked this kind of work himself. And going to clear trees which leaned in this way after a storm, he went to the woods with a swarm of his collies around him. They cocked their legs and led the way, and it seems obvious now that one of them would follow a scent into the socket left by a leaning tree. The man cut the trunk and the stump snapped back like a flytrap and he knew at once what had happened.
That story was old by the time I heard him tell it, but I remember how he lent upon one detail above all others; how the heave of that stump standing back on itself healed every sign of the wound. You’d never have guessed that tree had ever lain on its side, much less imagine a dog so instantly dead beneath it, mashed like an over-boiled spud.
I keep my dogs in the truck for this kind of work, but that’s only one vein of safety at stake. Plenty can go wrong at times like these. My saw bit and the weight moved overhead. Some of these trees weigh several tons a-piece, and they have to be shifted in careful order. I had a friend to help, but he stood back to shout advice with his hands in his pockets. Every time I made a cut, I’d park the saw and we’d walk around the tangle together. We began to see the biggest trees bending, and we took that weight into account. Cut where there’s too much strain and the trunk will burst like a firework. It’s not always easy to foresee, and the best approach is designed to relieve pressure evenly across the whole tangle so that no single point bears the whole weight at once.
By steady, edgy gnawing, I eased the weight. A significant trunk gave at last and rolled over upon itself. Thirty feet above and beyond me, a tremendous branch rolled with the turning tree and swept over itself like the arm of a sleeper reaching for comfort in bed. I broke the saw and stepped back as the whole mass slithered and bucked. Twigs snapped and barked in the canopy; things gave, and from working with my face into the sun, I turned back and saw the wood lit with the last raze of evening sunlight.
I begin to realise that if these short blog articles have any purpose at all, it’s an attempt to catch and frame very specific moments like a camera shot. And this time the punchline lies in two connected seconds almost half an hour apart. The first is that discordant view as I turned to look downlight behind me in a hiss of falling needles. Unexpected things lit noisily in the amber sun: a bright stump-end and certain snapped-off tips; a fern and the blast of my jacket’s lining, hung as it was on the peg of a nearby tree. These objects shone like beacons in the dusk of a thousand other equally deserving surfaces which simply happened to lie in the shade. As I moved, my shadow snuffed and lit these lights like cinders in the stench of sap and the hot machine.
And the second moment came soon after, when the trailer was stacked with timber cut into amber-ended tubes that we call “elephant’s feet”. It was then too dark to work and I was sweating, laughing into the steam of my coffee. We stood in the wreckage of boughs and crackling brash as the healing moon rose like a dab of salve in the purple sky.
There was a dog fox dead on the roadside verge. It was neatly dressed and crisp with its body calm in the morning, so cleanly killed you’d wonder it was dead at all.
I saw the corpse as I went to town and I marked it. But when I came back, there was a blue van stopped with the back lights flashing, and a man wearing gloves in the road. He leaned to pick that fox by the root of its tail, and he was holding it in one hand as I wound down my window and asked him what he was doing. I said “That’s a grand morning, and what are you doing?” He agreed that it was fine right enough, and he was shifting that fox out the road. I said “How come?” and he said he was sorry to see meat mashed to mince by the weight of lorries going back and forth to the sawmill. He said the creature was a bonnie thing and it was only fair to let it rot in peace before the working day snarled it up like a rag.
The fox had lain as if sleeping on the roadside. But gathered up, a foot of its guts fell in a loop from its belly. Blood or something slopped suddenly from a gape of the upturned mouth. Then stiff and tossed to somewhere new, it came to earth with a jolt ungainly; belly-up with legs at broken angles. That landing woke and killed it both with greater violence than whatever truck had caused the creature to lie down and dream in the small hours of the morning. I heard it splutter in the cover of the brambles, recalling some snatch of its own starlit drowse.
Refusing peace so kindly meant, those night-dried eyes have fixed themselves upon a more destructive road. And grinning, the woken thing begins to pad upon the inside of its own skin, feeling for some seam or weakness through which it might pour.
I’ve sometimes made an attempt on this blog to write-up a few books I read and enjoyed in the preceding year. Since I read more than ever before in 2021, it made sense to set down five of my favourites in nothing like an order of preference. Even as I brought this list together, I was aware that many more books have been forgotten here, and perhaps some were better. But these ones were chosen because they continue to boil and braise my brain, even after many months.
The Man Who Went Into The West – Byron Rogers
I was a late convert to the poetry of R.S. Thomas, but I’ve recently begun to think of him as something of an indispensable spirit-guide. His work runs across an enormity of themes and textures, and much of his early poetry overlies my own points of interest in the grip of a collapsing rural landscape. His Welsh hill-farming communities are a direct proxy for my own Galloway farm, and his 1963 poem “Movement” beamed into my brain like a laser when I read it last year. But the poet who wrote these extraordinary verses was famously elusive and obscure. The Man Who Went Into The West is an attempt to present a biography of R.S. Thomas, recognising the many confused and jarring complexities of a man who claimed to hate publicity but also curated a public image of himself with tremendous care and detail. An Anglican priest, his expressions of Faith are both acute and obscure. I wrote an article for an American magazine in which I explained that some of Thomas’ agricultural poetry is secular in tone. Reading this book, I realise that I was wrong; those poems are deeply religious insofar as they identify a sense of divinity in absentia. That’s a fair starting-point to think about a man who often drew attention himself and his ideas by withholding or concealing them. Thomas emerges as a dense contradiction, both hilariously eccentric and icily inscrutable. I love his work with an urgent intensity, and the stakes of my enthusiasm are raised by the fact that I’m sure he would have thought I was little more than a noisy baby.
Gaudete – Ted Hughes
Until I read Gaudete, my experience of Ted Hughes’ writing was confined to the grit and passion of his early poetry and the deafening scream of Crow. I loved it all, but Gaudete was a question mark to me, not least because it appears to have fallen off the radar when critics come to discuss the Hughes canon. Biographers seem to agree that it was a near-miss; an imperfectly rendered idea which failed to follow the enormity of Crow. But Gaudete is no blunder or fumble – it’s harrowingly vivid. Like a silent movie or a series of high contrast stills, the lurid story unfolds in a pattern of killing and ritualised fucking (that word used advisedly) that’s impossible to ignore. Fighting his wife, a man breaks from their argument to kill their labrador which bounds around them energetically. He beats it to death with a chair. Screaming, seamless heads emerge from the mud to be trampled by cattle. Staggering outrages are played against the serenity of the English countryside; the pub garden and the recreational angler; starlings squalling in the buttercups. And as the poem closes on a shocking and hallucinatory anticipation of The Wickerman, it’s clear that this is the language of the cosy rural idyll deployed for the cult, the nightmare and the dark rite. Gaudete is not fun in any idle sense of the word, but it’s undeniably enormous.
Táin bó Cúailinge – translated by Thomas Kinsella
It’s extraordinary that British and Irish mythology hardly features in our national curriculum. We busily import the mythologies of other cultures instead, and I spent years traipsing through the Aeneid and Iliad at school. I though that’s what mythology was, and even if I’d missed my own native tales, I assumed the omission was a calculated decision based on the fact that classical stories were just better. After reading a series of books on Celtic culture which began with the extraordinary Dream Time by John Moriarty, I found my way to the Táin in May. The story of Cú Chulain thrilled me, and I even went to Ulster in August to follow that scent because here was a story that I could pursue without any need for a long-haul flight. And in truth, having stumbled upon Celtic mythology, I’m astonished by the elastic wonder of stories which deny the existence of imaginative boundaries. The Táin is electrifying, but a caveat stands that it’s only included on this list because I cannot also include a bundle of other books which turned my world upside down in 2021, including The Mabinogion, Y Gododdin and The Book of Taliesin. Reading these stories at the age of thirty six is hardly enough. I wish I had been brought up breathing them, and I now that I’m the one selecting stories for a little boy’s bed time, I’ve got a score to settle.
The Magic Toyshop – Angela Carter
I read The Magic Toyshop as a student in Glasgow in the days when all I had to do was read. Now that my life is crowded with work and worries, I’d give anything to back to that time – and it irritates me to recall that with the entirety of world literature at my feet for four years, I hardly read a word. My memory of this novel is vague, but a chance encounter with Angela Carter on the radio set me thinking. I recovered my copy from a box and immediately plunged into an extraordinary story so lightly spun that it might have been a dream. Balanced between the powerful threat of enormous horror and the quotidian realities of adulthood, the book slips along through a maze of perfectly observed detail. There’s enough here to touch a nerve with any reader who ever battled with a sense of discordance throughout their teenage years, and all the while, the tale shimmers as if it’s being read through a shard of slightly distorted glass. Fifteen years after my first encounter with this book, I loved it – but no more than a number of other pieces of Angela Carter’s writing I read during 2021. I found her collection of short stories entitled The Bloody Chamber hair-raising, and I was delighted by her retelling of Puss-in-Boots which appears in that book. Her essays on folklore and fairy tales were utterly pitch-perfect, and Black Venus tickled me across a number of funny-bones, not least in the links to Baudelaire and Edgar Alan Poe. Angela Carter has become a cascading theme in my reading; I can’t stop until I’ve read her entire back catalogue.
The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
The Remains of the Day might be Ishiguro’s most famous work, owing at least in part to a Merchant Ivory film adaptation of the story from 1993 which starred Anthony Hopkins. That film is successful in itself, but reading the book confirms the certain truth that some stories are best told on the printed page. Through the cramped, emotionally stunted eyes of Stevens the butler, we see the grand enormity of a complete way of life; a social code of manners and class which defined England and Englishness for centuries. There’s no way a film could reach that level of subjectivity and internal monologue, particularly as the story explores a code of conduct that is famously tricky to define – in fact it’s possible to break the code simply by trying to define it. If this mesh of manners can be expressed at all, it’s almost in a feeling and a sense of order; diaphanous language for a system that is both silkily light and heavy as iron. The Remains of the Day came as close to its subject as anything I’ve ever read on class and manners, although I must also say that Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard nearly bumped it off this list altogether. Ishiguro is extraordinarily acute in his examination of blame, memory and generational shifts in a changing world. In some ways, The Remains of the Day is an enhanced re-run of his beautifully delicate novel An Artist of the Floating World. Both examine similar themes, and both carry the Ishiguro trademark of writing that is approachable, vivid and flowing. I read The Remains of the Day in two sittings and hardly knew I’d done it. I know from bitter experience that “easy reading is damn hard writing”. In that context, the man’s a class act.
I’d never seen mistletoe in Scotland. As a symbol of Christmas, I’d reckoned it was something like Myrrh; metaphorical and thrice removed from anything you’d ever hold in your hand. My handbook says that it grows here, but the first time I noticed the plant for sure was in Somerset. That’s hardly “here”. In fact it’s far enough from here to feel like the Middle East, and knowing that did nothing to close the gap in my imagination.
But in the doldrums between Christmas and New Year, I received a bunch of mistletoe from a friend. I’ve seen the plant caricatured so often on television and Christmas cards that there was no mistaking the stuff which quickly dried and fell in parts by the stove. It was like a child’s toy; a meccano set, all leggy and brittle with paddlish leaves and berries bolted into the joints. It seemed more like a parody of itself than a credible thing, and with so many festive truths now diluted beyond the point of recognition, I filed it alongside tinsel and stollen.
But when the sickly berries came loose and rolled around the kitchen floor like eyeballs, I reckoned it would be worthwhile and fun to see if they could be propagated. I have a few apple trees here, and crab apples grow wild in the hedge along the loaning. Hearing that mistletoe favours these trees above all others, I followed guidance and made a special trip out with a knife and a tub of parasitic seeds in my pocket.
Mistletoe leaches the nutrients and goodness from host trees like a tick. It gives nothing in return, so I felt guilty bending the stems of happy trees, consigning each one to bear a burden. If I am successful, the seeds will grow and the boughs will bend again with the weight of selfish passengers. Of course I had qualms, but I slit the bark and wedged the berries against the hurting pulp as if I didn’t care. Then I moved on to do more harm.
Two weeks later, and several of the berries have vanished. I bet the tits have had them. The tits have everything at this time of year. But some have survived, and the berries have burnt brown with the frost and hard weather. My handbook says that’s a good sign, and if I had serious reservations about the ethics of this deliberate infection, it’s getting late to act.
The cows have had the hay, and now it’s time for black-wrapped silage and the curse of heavy machinery.
I mistake the seasons. When the bales are stacked in July, I stand in the sunlit field and conjure up an image of the winter. I imagine myself walking easily in the snow with a bale on my back like a Farquharson painting, passing out flakes to the neatly begging beasts. It’ll all be crisp and clear I say, and I look forward to that cold when the sweat of a year’s haymaking hangs in a drip from my nose.
But in reality, the bales get burst and they blow away in the mirk. Cattle stamp and bugger about. The bull is so tame that he shoves me to one side like a dog and together they chew the twine and trample me. I’m deafened with their bellowing and the quad bike stutters in the rain which shines in the hoof-print pools as if the world was a mirror and there was only four inches of mud resting upon it.
The same knife cuts two ways. Standing as I do now in the first week of January, my memory of summer is misled. I’m certain that it will be dry and comfortable for six entire months. I never give a second’s thought to wet grass and pollen. I forget that midges exist.
So I’m into silage bales and the mud boils under my tractor wheels. I never had the vet to come and run pregnancy tests, but I know that everything’s in calf except that red cow who turned up empty last year; the one that went to the hill with the steers for the summer. I’m sorry that she’s still cycling and being jumped by the bull after three rounds, and I can’t imagine what’s wrong. I’d send her for the abattoir, but I won’t because she’s beautiful and she sets the tone. If I rattle a bag, she’s first to come in and she brings the others behind her. If there’s a shock or a mad-eyed steer, she settles them down. She makes my life easier, and she doesn’t take so much that I can’t afford to carry her.
Up in the glen, my neighbour said that cast cows are making such money that if something’s empty, cut its throat and buy a heifer with the cash. “Cut its throat”; he said that a few times in the same conversation, and I think he’s said it elsewhere so often that the words had lost their edge for him. But they rattled me, and trying them on for size, I took those words to my own cows. I steamed in the rain and from under my hood I tried to say “I’ll cut your throat” to the red cow, but my hand stopped my mouth. I’ve killed my share of cows and sent many more to be killed on my behalf in the pens at Lockerbie. There’s no reason for me to be squeamish about killing, and part of it must be selecting the right words. And lines like these are some of many reasons why I’ve disqualified myself as a real contender.
The other beasts are working well. They’re all suckling calves and growing another fresh crop at the same time. And hazel catkins are beginning to turn yellow. The mavis will begin to sing by the end of the month, and although we stand on the edge of progress, the worst is yet to come; the worst in the pounding thump of tractor hydraulics and the smell of silage in your cuffs when you’re eating your piece or cleaning your teeth.
Dogs barked in the close and the stackyard. He swore at them, then he let himself in to yell A Good New Year to the almost empty house. By the time I came to find him, his jacket hung on a chairback and a lump of coal had been dumped on the stool at the stove. He shook my hand and we sat together with the darkness rising and the wind about the slates.
The New Year has often been a bold time for my neighbours and I. We’ve bragged and looked forward to things we’d do in coming summers, hoping that by talking big, we’d do it too. But we’re getting short on numbers now. I had two neighbours last year, and we three swelled to the rafters with tales of times to come. We couldn’t have known that inside twelve months our three would become two, and the biggest job we ever did as a group was trumped by the trick that one of us pulled off alone.
Notwithstanding that absence, we stacked ourselves against the silence on the night of New Year’s Day. He drank Lang’s Banana. God knows how that started, but he gets it special from Dumfries. The bottle of rum came up smelling like a Caribbean pool party and I swore at the memory of it. It stained the glass like Trodax, and I took brandy and a cigarette and tried not to breathe through my nose. An eddy of smoke pearled around the lampshade, disgusted with itself.
During the course of 2021, hares vanished from the meadow and the lèann which lies between our homes. We never had many, but the reason for that disappearance is controversial. It was the first subject we came to, and it recurred several times during three hours of conversation. A big old hare was killed on the road at the start of last year, and it was reckoned that he’d been the father of every hare in the parish. It’s no wonder they failed in his absence, and that was one idea. But we can’t deny that grass was mowed sooner than it should’ve been above the haugh. If there were any leverets, they’d have been minced. That’s my take, but what do I know? I’m just a boy.
Then we talked about hares on the hills and how they’re being shot now to protect the new plantations. Six places in this parish have been sold to become commercial forestry in the last twelve months. Jimmy Mitchell’s place sold for two and a half million pounds to an engineering firm based in Dallas, Texas. Nobody in Galloway can compete with that, and it turns out the bigwigs are buying up land to offset their carbon emissions; everything will be turned to spruce trees in the next year or two. I gather there’s money to be made, but none of it’s local. It goes instead to pension funds and global investment groups based in Denmark and Austria. If you want to meet your new neighbours for a welcoming drink, they’ll send a rep to greet you “on site”, but you’ll need a hard hat and a high-viz coat. And when they realise that you have nothing material to say, they’ll mark you down as a time waster.
The investors have begun to build fences and they’re killing out the hares and the roe deer. I told him I’d heard that a contractor drove up from Lancashire and killed eighty hares in three nights at Carsphairn. I was impressed by that because I didn’t think there were eighty hares left in those hills. It’s surprising what you can do with a thermal scope on your rifle. The Government says that feats like these will guarantee a brighter and more sustainable future for Scotland, but there’s a difference between killing a hare for the pot and being sure that you’ll never see another hare again.
There was a long silence after that. The dogs barked in the close again, but all of us were inside and it was only for the wind. Then Nobody gives a shit about this place, he said. And it’s you I feel bad for, son; you and your boy. At least I’ve seen the best of it here.
Of course we neighbours worked better as a threesome. In previous years, if one or two of us strayed and began to slip towards gloom, the third would be ready with some blast or caper to fetch the downers up again. We had our own self-righting mechanism, but two’s uneven. We didn’t speak of our missing leg as we tumbled into the quiet, and we didn’t lay plans as we usually do. When talk began again, it was only for things that we’d already done. I felt tired. There was an Olympiad of Lang’s Banana rings on the table. I tried to turn us round with that story I told you about the bull in the burn, but he’d already heard it. That’s when I knew that he was my First Foot only because he’d come too late to be the last.
He gripped a new fag in his lips, then he pulled his jacket on and went outside for a piss. He didn’t come back, and later I looked across the burn in the darkness and saw that his bedroom light had clicked off. Only ash twigs flickered in the mile-wide gap between us, and a space suddenly big enough to drive a whole year through without touching the sides.
I find it helpful to tell myself that nobody reads this blog. If I worried too much about reaching an audience or following figures, I’d start to break from my own line and the cart would be set before the horse. I’m also aware that if I became fixated on publishing pitch-perfect material, I’d never produce anything at all. “Perfect is the enemy of good”, and in the pursuit of that final polish, things fall apart. I’ve found it more productive to punch as hard as I can and then stand back to let the dust settle. I sometimes look over old articles here and think how glad I am to have tried in whatever direction I made for, even if I fell short of the mark. And very occasionally I look back and find something that hit the mark or even exceeded it. That’s a great feeling, but this note could easily become a slippery slope towards navel-gazing.
It’s for these reasons and several more which lean towards self-obsession and insecurity that I treat this blog as if nobody was reading it. Even after more than a decade, I’m still not wholly sold on the blog format, but I certainly find it useful to measure and manage ideas as they arise and review them in retrospect. I tell myself that it’s a project that I undertake “for me”, because the idea of writing “for you” as an audience makes the hair stand up on my head with terror. I’m not sure what it says about my character that I’d rather be selfish than presumptuous, but the timing rings a bell here on New Year’s Day.
It’s my ambition to write more frequently and better this coming year. And it seems a very sensible moment to turn away from the text and thank everybody who reads, shares or comments upon this blog. Some of you have been here all along, while others have joined since the book Native was published in 2020. I tell myself that you’re not reading along with me, but how grateful I am to know you’re there