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17 June 2017

The place felt oddly remote and slightly cold – and there was a suitably eerie explanation

It was as if I’d stepped out of the sun into shadow.

By John Burnside

Some years ago, I stayed with friends for the summer in a quiet cottage surrounded by woods and green fields near Loch Tay. The cottage sat in a historic area where Robert Burns once dallied, leaving impromptu poems scrawled on hostelry walls in lieu of payment, and once, even farther back in the mists of time, a war zone where clan had brutally battled clan over nothing more than a few head of cattle. But on that first morning away from the city, rising early and heading out into the sun, I was blissfully unaware of such matters.

My walk took me across a field towards the loch. It wasn’t my intention to go far (not before breakfast, at least): I just needed air and open space and a hint of the wild – and suddenly, as if on cue, a hare came pelting across the field, oblivious to me, in its own rich world of scent and colour, a world quite distinct from mine. I immediately stopped to admire its graceful run; but at that very moment, abruptly and for no reason that I could see, it veered off course sharply at a sixty-degree angle, so that it was now heading straight towards me. Then, my scent in its nostrils, it veered off again, though nowhere near so violently as before, and it was gone.

I was intrigued. What had caused the shift? Was there some predator lurking on the other side of the field, or was there another explanation?

I walked over to the place where the hare had startled, hoping for a glimpse of something even wilder. When I got there, however, I saw nothing – but I did notice that, while birds had been singing in the area I’d crossed earlier, fifty yards away, this spot was eerily silent; and although it looked no different from its surroundings, it felt oddly remote, and slightly cold. It was as if I’d stepped out of the sun into shadow, but there was no more shade here than anywhere else.

Back at the cottage, I told my tale, thinking I had come back with some intriguing bit of information for the breakfast table, but my hosts only nodded. Yes, they knew about that place and, from the local people on the estate, they had a suitably eerie explanation.

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Not surprisingly, it had to do with those warring clans. Long ago, it seems, these fields were a particularly hot spot, where the Macdonalds and the Campbells, or some such folk, had committed atrocities. At one stage, they said, one group or another had dug a killing pit out in that very field and had murdered huge numbers of unarmed prisoners there. From then on, people, animals and birds had avoided the spot; even plant life was sparser there.

I wasn’t convinced. Yet at the same time I remembered a poem I’d once memorised, an extraordinary piece called “The Haunted Oak” (written in 1900 by the pioneering African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar), in which, though the word “lynching” is never used, the arboreal narrator “witnesses” a killing and the bough from which the man was hanged, unable to endure the experience, withers away.

The tree, more compassionate than the lynch mob (which goes about its business unpunished) cannot help but relive the terrible moment. “I feel the rope against my bark,” it says, “And the weight of him in my grain” – and, as we listen, we feel it, too.

It’s a strange idea, but what if it was true? What if the street trees of London, or Manchester, or Aleppo, were to shrivel and die, like that haunted bough, from the horror and shame of what we human beings do, every day, in their cool, green shade? What then? 

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel