Memory is a story we evolve over time, writing and rewriting as age, detail and perspective change. Our memory is not perfect, but rather a narrative of coherence, a literary attempt to stitch together divergent aspects of our observed world. As we make our journey through life we leave imprints in the sand, both the physical environments around us and the traces of memory that suffuse our collective conscience. We write a story upon the world we live in and are written into the stories of others. This is one of those stories.
I have a memory: a tractor, earth scared, rumbling, baked in the soft heat of late summer. One memory in a sequence, a sequence drenched in sun and painted in vibrant colours, the colours of childhood memories and storybooks. The driver, intent on his work, shaping the land, working the farm, a distant relative of mine, and one that I was sad to hear had passed away at the weekend, completing his journey through the tinted earth.
The landscape of Norfolk as a landscape of my childhood: all twisting lanes and parched fields, butterflies and swimming in the sea, windmills and waterways. Tumbledown farms and combine harvesters drawing grain from the land, ploughing, burning, slowly changing, but slowly slowly, timeless, gentle, warm, and grounded in the land.
My memories are of a man of this landscape: a guardian, a custodian, a historian. The man and the farm are inextricably linked in my memories: a farmer being what you are, not what you do.
Land is about rhythm: the rhythm of the seasons, cycles of humidity and drought, balance and tempo. It’s about coexistence: I remember learning about headlands, space at the end of the field where the plough would turn, and empty space, a space you cannot easily cultivate, a haven space, a space that is shared. Rural landscapes are about boundaries: fences and hedges, water and land, town and country.
There was a time when we ripped these hedges up, when mechanisation trawled through these landscapes, trying to drag them from something personal and bound with nature to something more artificial and owned by man. And yet the landscape has always found a balance, this landscape is still a worked landscape, one must be respected and nurtured, not simply exploited. And that is the ultimate legacy of a guardian: that the landscape they leave is the landscape that they found, but tended, trusted, and respected throughout one lifetime.
Maybe I have a romanticised view of country life: whilst I have lived there I have never worked the land in the truest sense of how that connection is formed, and yet even to me as someone passing through it’s clear that the relationship is a long one where farms are not simply geographical divisions and units of production, but rather are foundations of communities and bed rocks of our daily lives.
The landscape of the farm is itself an ancient one: recent history is visible in concrete pillboxes, remnants of the Second World War when invasion seemed likely and a soft-landscape of the Norfolk Farms was hardened in preparation for a fight that never materialised. The architecture of farm buildings stretches back through the centuries: buildings erected, adapted, repurposed and, in some cases, falling to ruin. Some of these buildings persist through time, physical manifestations of community, serving a purpose that remains relevant today.
To be a farmer is maybe to be a historian: intimately connected to the landscape, it is, after all, the farmer who walks the fields, who ploughs the land and spots remnants of previous inhabitants, tools and signs of habitation given up by the earth to the sharp eyed hunter.
At the heart of the farm is a church: indeed the Norfolk landscape is littered with such churches. My own grandmother is buried there: a sun tinged place, a place of history, a place of families and peace. Names Interconnected and bound together, bound to the landscape. A gentle place of permanence, a space immersed in the landscape, a space of the landscape.
I was sad to hear the news of the passing of a kind man, a man who leaves a legacy in the tinted earth. But what greater legacy to leave than stories written through our memories, of hard work done well, of a landscape entrusted to us and handed on more strongly to generations still to come. What better legacy than to have been a farmer?