A Dark, Looming Legacy

Notes from Nature: Nov. 2010

The village of Heptonstall | Photo: Nigel J. Lloyd

The clack, clack, clack of crows is a constant in the Calder Valley. The birds wheel about high on the autumnal wind. Perhaps it’s their very ancestors who inhabit so many of the writings of late English poet Ted Hughes. “A black rainbow, Bent in emptiness, Over emptiness,” he wrote of the crow. “His palace is of skulls…His throne is the scaffold of bones.”

I’m away this month, staying in the former holiday home of Ted Hughes (no relation), high up in the small village of Heptonstall in Yorkshire, England. I don’t know if it’s the dark, looming legacy of the man – his two wives killed themselves, as did his son – or being surrounded so completely by nature that has made me dwell more than usual on the impermanence of things and the knife-edge between life and death. Even as I type this, I notice through my window that the delicate, pink Himalayan Balsam is beginning to recede. It lined the steep lane leading to the house with virility just five days ago.

Yesterday, I sought out the nearby grave of one of Hughes’ wives – the American poet Sylvia Plath. I approached through the maple-cloistered yard of the village’s parish church. High in the belfry, hidden from view, a flock of starlings chattered loudly. My sneeze sent them up like a shoal of fish, before they regained composure and alighted again, vocal as before. But then, a sudden silence; pigeons scattered as a sparrow hawk scythed in from the north-east, “steady as a hallucination in the streaming air,” wrote Hughes. It retreated quickly, empty clawed.

Down in the valley, closer to the River Calder, it’s damp. It’s a half hour walk to Hebden Bridge, the nearest town, through dense copses of oak, birch and sycamore. A juvenile wood pigeon is huddled at the base of slimy, stone steps on the path; its downy breast more flesh-pink than the mauve of mature birds. It puffs up as I crouch over it, shuffling uncomfortably. But now the stench fills my nostrils and I notice the swarm of bluebottles. One crawls into its eye.

The city has removed me from the natural cycle of life for too long; or perhaps it’s simply the pace of the life that I live. Whatever it is, I now find it all too easy to recoil in horror from death – nature even. Maybe it’s this disconnection – or divorce – that Hughes refers to when he writes of the “arrogance of blood and bone.”

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