Notes from the Weald
“Where are you from?” people ask, as if place matters anymore. A wiser question might be, “where do you get your information from?” Or for the Neanderthal, “which formerly printed newspaper do you read now online?” None would be my answer. Adam Russell writes.
Before the Guardian online, before the BBC, before artificial ‘non-places’ (supermarkets, airports, motorways), there was place; human beings lived in a habitat and it lived in them. Everything blended. A hundred years ago the Fen people were dripping wet with the place: men hunted moles in dykes with willow traps and wore moleskin waistcoats to a wedding. Now it’s non-place before place, abstract before real. Instagram before opening the curtains.
Or maybe it’s not as neat as all that. This convenient argument evokes some kind of Golden Age from which we’ve fallen – masochistic sinners all – my instinct is that the real picture is more complex. As writer Tim Dee notes: “place-making is a signal of our species;” an essential mark of our existence. And half of it (aside from the physical making of towns, business parks, nature reserves) has been an intellectual construction: our hands make a place, and so do our minds. They are the inseparable companion pieces of our living, building humanity.
It matters how we abstract and imagine our place in the world because it may help us survive. Recently, after 28 years living in the area, I have discovered that I am from the Weald. Out of the shadows of history and the deep time of geology. It’s news to me. Deriving from the same root as the German Wald, ‘Weald’ really just means forest. Between the chalk sandwich of the North and South Downs there has always been thick forest, beech and oak and other giants sprawling out of the heavy clay soil. Dark woods and thick mud made the Weald inauspicious for farming and so the area – stretching from West Kent to Surrey – was colonised late, largely within the era of written memory.
The Weald is a geological and historical fact. The Ice Age and early medieval farmers made the place we see today. And, taking a springtime afternoon walk, stepping carefully along boggy footpaths, I make it too.
Out towards Crowhurst, at Upper Wilting Farm, the first field I reach is an arena of sunlight. The mud simmers in the warming sun, and new green shoots are lit by white water in puddles at my feet. A buzzard performs in the air as four woodpigeons fly over my head, only to scatter like bowling pins left and right. The road – Queensway – roars behind me at a distance, but I barely hear it; it’s forgotten. Coming here, through thin woodland by the railway line, is like coming into great riches.
In this field, in its peace and agricultural slowness, even I – landless, with indoor hands – feel I have won something from the world. And in this notion, a Wealden abstraction, I make a place where I might survive.
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