Back in the early nineteenth century, Thomas Hood wrote the sonnet Silence, in which he compared silence in its more literal definition:
There is a silence where hath been no sound,
There is a silence where no sound may be,
…clouds and cloudy shadows wander free,
That never spoke….
with a different kind of silence, a silence of loss and passing that attaches itself to places where humans have worked and lived out their days, but which are now deserted:
…in green ruins…where Man hath been,
Though the dun fox, or wild hyena, calls,
And owls, that flit continually between,
Shriek to the echo, and the low winds moan,
There the true Silence is, self-conscious and alone.
Before you start wondering if you’ve strayed into the wrong blog, I do have a point here.
I went to visit Bodrifty, an ancient, and well-known, Iron Age village on the Penwith Moors in the west of Cornwall. Excavated in the 1950s, all that remains now are the low rocky walls, overgrown by grasses and heathland plants, of eight roundhouses that once would have been thatched, inhabited by families who farmed the surrounding land. If you passed it by without straying from the track, you would only see a rock-strewn heath landscape. But stop and walk through it, and the circles of the houses take shape.
The lives of these people, over two thousand years ago, would have been very different from our own. Both simpler and much, very much, harder. Even so, although they might not have had our knowledge or technology, they had the same intelligence, the same ability to observe and interpret and appreciate their world. And now they are gone. What would once have been a lively, active settlement is deserted, and all that is left is stones, and some pottery shards in the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro.
So I do understand, and indeed feel myself, that there can be a kind of wistfulness, even a sadness, to the places that we humans have left behind. And yet…
…I’m not sure that, in my heart, I completely agree with Thomas Hood. As I walked through the remains of these people’s homes, I found myself enjoying the march of nature. Foxgloves, stitchwort, heath-spotted orchids, clovers, trefoils, tormentil, heathers, pignut and bedstraw, the call of a cuckoo in the distance, a kestrel hovering overhead, black crows soaring across the fields, wrens chattering in the gorse bushes, scurryings in the undergrowth (a lizard, a vole?)…
What I did not find in this place was any separation from the people that lived here, no loss of impact of lives once lived, whether endured or enjoyed. Not because my life is like theirs, nor because I recognise them as my ancestors (I’m a northerner by descent, so my own roots will more likely be Norse), but because what I found here, at Bodrifty, was continuity. Because this place was teeming with life. Not human life but, nonetheless, life in all its messy, vibrant, glorious existence.
I think that one of our problems, as humans, is that all too often we perceive ourselves as separate from the world of nature. This is the blessing, but also the curse, of self-consciousness. We obsess about our own immediate past, when we should be relishing the present and mindful of the future.
Bodrifty is alive and breathing, not a dead or historic place. So, humans may not be in charge of Bodrifty any more, but we can still be visitors who can enjoy, watch and appreciate and, indeed, be part of the pageant of life that struts its course through this particular corner of our beloved Cornwall.
If you would like to visit, and live for a while, this corner of Cornwall yourselves, I’d encourage you to do so. The map reference is SW 445354 – find out more here. And let me know what you think of it.