When I was a child, every train ride was an adventure, not so much for where I was going, as for what I saw along the way. As the journey progressed, the scenery shifted from the rocky Fife hills grazed by sheep, through damp fields of dreamy cattle and on into wide acres of barley or sugar beet; the stone walls of farm buildings passed through a range of colours, from barley-brown to pale gold, becoming sooty grey only as we approached Edinburgh or Dundee. In the dry, stony ground closest to home, a single bird might flicker across a patch of gorse, while the land near the firth was populated by flocks of waders, all busily exploring their preferred feeding zones from the salty fringe at the water’s edge to the blanched grass further upshore.
Even the smells changed as the train moved onward, the scent of broom giving way to natural fertiliser (my mother thought the use of words such as “manure” too vulgar) and then, if we passed close to a farmyard, the mixed malt and grain and molasses smells of feed for the cattle. (Yesterday’s livestock never had it so good, with diets comprising 12 or more different food types; today, they are lucky to see anything much beyond silage and supplements.)
That all of this was connected – that the underlying geology determined soil types, that soil types decided what could be grown in a place, that some land flooded naturally most years and so was best left to its own devices – did not occur to me right away. I just soaked it in. Then, one day, a small epiphany happened and my nine-year-old mind leapt to the understanding that there was a natural order and, alongside it, an order we imposed, with greater or less success, in pursuit of food, profit, or well-being. In the long term, that human order would perish, because that is the way of things, but its shorter-term success depended on how well it dovetailed with the terrain, the wind and the water table.
For no reason I could think of, that realisation gave me immense pleasure – I think until then I’d assumed human beings were masters of the land who could do whatever they pleased there. Of course, significant damage could be done and the fields could be ill-used, but they lived by a much longer calendar than we did and they would return, or find new forms, sooner or later.
Today, trains are much faster than they were in my childhood, and the East Midland or Northumbrian landscapes I traverse on occasional visits to London have lost much of their diversity. Yet glimpses of that natural order can still be gained, between the urban sprawl and the new “business parks”. A fox moves through the silky grass at the edge of a country cemetery. Snow blanks out the tidy gardens of cardboard suburbs, leaving new spaces for the imagination to dwell upon. A flock of migrating geese passes over as the train skirts an estuary in the middle of a long autumn afternoon. Huge clouds gather behind a power plant, or a self-storage unit. In some places, there are still people who farm as if they meant it and an old, sweet, truly terrestrial scent gusts through a window.
It’s not the best way to see the land, travelling at this speed – it never was: walking has always been the appropriate pace for contemplation – but it can still be a pleasure. A property called “Willow Farm” may still have some real willows growing along some vein of underground damp; there is still gratification to be had from gazing out over flood waters.
The natural order can still be discovered by an enquiring observer. I am always surprised when a fellow passenger slumps into the seat next to me, plugs himself into a headset and starts rambling on about his day, presumably to some distant interlocutor as venial as himself. “Look up,” I want to say. “Turn that thing off. There’s a world outside.”
This article appears in the 23 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left