The landscapes of the past
One of my favourite pastimes is to visit old churches. Not the fancy, huge Cathedrals, but rather the small, dilapidated churches that so generously dot our continent. The gate to the graveyard might squeak (or yet it might not, the hinges kept oiled by some diligent soul), headstones stand in ordered rows that degenerate to a jumble of fallen, broken stones the further back in time we go. If the inscriptions are decipherable, there will be moments of quiet contemplation as I consider the fate of the poor woman who gave birth seven times and buried six of her boys – all of them named William in one combination or another – before they reached the age of one. Did she curse God? Did she blame herself for not being pious enough, good enough? Some people will argue the death of children was so common that grief never came into play. I wonder …
Then there’s the church itself. Old pews are worn shiny with use, there’s a tang of dust and candle wax, and in the furthest right hand corner there are remnants of the medieval frescoes that illustrated the Bible stories – frescoes that were whitewashed during the Reformation, proclaimed as unnecessary now that common man could read the Bible for himself. Except that often he couldn’t, because despite the Bible being translated into the vernacular, analphabetism was rife in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Well, not everywhere, but while Scottish children were taught to read their catechism, Swedish children were taught to memorise it. I guess the people missed the frescoes, if nothing else as a feature to fix their eyes on during the increasingly long sermons.
I like sitting down for a while, all alone with the dust motes that dance in the sunlight that falls through the high church windows. Sometimes it seems to me those shimmering particles come together, forming outlines of people. There’s the soft, hushed sound of prayers, in Latin, in the languages of today. Sweeping kirtles, men in gowns and hose, here and there a serving wench with her hair severely tucked out of sight. People from all ages, an endless line of devout believers that clasp their hands together and pray. For what? A safe birth? Deliverance from the Black Death? The return of their man, presently fighting at Naseby? There’s weeping and laughter, and once in a while it is as if the whole church hums with this collective prayer from the preceding generations. What did they wish for? Dream of? Probably the same things we wish for; a good life, health, future for our kids. Except that in this day and age fewer and fewer direct their prayers to God. I wonder if He misses these one sided conversations …
Recently I have developed a new fascination – old stone walls. It struck me one day as I was admiring the walls of our new summer home, that these beautiful seventeenth century constructions are the result of very much work. Extremely hard labour, in fact. Since then, I see walls everywhere, features I had previously never taken any notice of. Each and every stone in those long, straight walls is a stone picked from a field, a little piece of rock lifted aside before it broke the plough. Until the field was rid of stones, it couldn’t be cultivated, and clearly this was land riddled with stone. Lucky me, I think as I caress my precious walls, and out of the corner of my eye I see a boy in ragged breeches and a dirty linen shirt, and he is crying because his back is hurting something awful, but the master will belt him if he stops shifting the rocks. He looks straight at me, wipes at his snotty nose and fades away. I wonder if the moss-covered stone presently under my hand is one he placed here.
Everywhere we look we find the traces of the people who lived before us. In the churches and graveyards, in the ruined castle and the half rotting barn – and in my stone walls. Had we met them, I think we would have been struck by how alike we are – well, once over the superficial differences. We live in a brave new world filled with technological wonders the people from long ago couldn’t even begin to imagine. But they started it, with every rock torn out of the ground to give way to cultivated land, with every spire raised to praise the glory of God – and the inventiveness of man.
Ultimately we’re all the same; we’re born, we live, we die. Some of us build cathedrals, some of us make do with a simple little wall. But somehow we all leave a trace, an ephemeral imprint that will dance like glittering fogs over the lands that once were ours.