5/10/2013 Sometimes it takes the unthinkable to strip your life down to its basic truths; to disregard expectations, both your own and those of your family, friends and society. Sometimes you aren’t even aware of these expectations, until you find your body and mind refusing to comply.
For me, the unthinkable was my mother dying unexpectedly and very quickly of pancreatic cancer. I suppose I always had the vague fantasy that I would be settled with my own family, on my chosen career path, by the time my parents died. I could not have felt further from either. As soon as I found out she was ill, I knew that was the beginning of the end for my father too, nearly 12 years her senior – at that stage, youthful, sprightly and in good health at the age of 82. He was old enough to be my grandfather, and had been referring to himself as ‘nearly dead’ since well before I was born, but rarely had he seemed old to me until that moment. They had been married 46 years, and he depended on her completely. Not because he wasn’t capable of cooking, ironing and cleaning – in fact, he always boasted that it was he who taught my mother to cook when they got married – but because, especially at that age, still working in a physically and emotionally demanding profession, he relied on her love, and on her presence and support, to enable him to do what he did, to keep his home life going, keep family, friends and neighbours coming in and out of the house, while he spent a lot of his energy on music.
In the terrible aftermath of her death, and my father’s heart attack a month later, an additional blow which ended my ability to provide the kind of emotional support I felt he needed, I discovered that the only place I could find relief from the oppressive loneliness I had been struggling under was in nature. I should have known this all along: I work in nature conservation, and the first time in my life I felt properly at home was sleeping in a hammock in the Belizean rainforest at the age of 19. Ten days on my own in Suffolk and Norfolk felt like the lifting of an unbearable weight from my shoulders, and it was this feeling that enabled me to follow through with my earlier plan to go to Chile for six months on a work placement – mainly because I knew I would be living in the countryside, or a village at most.
I owe a lot to that Pacific coast, the penguins living on a small island a hundred metres offshore, the friendliness of the people, and the little house I lived in, on its own up a hill with a perfect view of the island and the vast range of sunsets over the ocean. It was there that I was able to start on the job of reconstructing myself. And there that I saw clearly that if I was to return to England, I could not return to London. I almost could not fathom that I had ever lived there.
My parents owned a 15th century former farmhouse with a two and a half acre garden in the middle of Suffolk which they had bought before I was born, and we spent almost all of our holidays there while I was growing up, as my father had to travel a lot for work and did not want to go away again when he was on holiday. This was the place where my heart lay, the only home I ever missed when I was abroad, and the reason for my love of animals, nature and the outdoors. My father was also the reason for this: alongside family, music and books, this place was foremost in his heart. He taught us to respect all living things. He would get up at 5am every morning in the summer and sit by the pond, waiting for the resident pair of water voles to appear. He taught us to identify trees, flowers, butterflies, birds and insects, and spoke of them with such delight and affection that it could not fail to be contagious. We planted trees, went on bike rides, walks in the woods, and to the reservoir near our house to collect fossils. Not that I didn’t wish at times that we could go on more outings like other people did, or go somewhere different for a holiday – it took until my early teens until I really began to appreciate it.
It was our shared love for this house and its wildlife sanctuary of a garden that formed one of the deepest links of friendship with my father. It was for this reason that I asked, when returning from Chile in 2011, if he would mind if I lived in it for a while. I knew that when he died the house would be sold, and with no hope of buying it myself, I dreaded the day when, as well as losing my father and remaining parent, I would lose the next most precious thing to me. I wanted to appreciate it and love it as fully as I could while it was still there to love. I think he understood, although he worried too that I might be isolating myself. ‘If you can survive the winter there, I will take my hat off to you!’* he said to me in autumn that year.
I feel very lucky that, after the inevitable difficulties of my teenage years, feeling I had been born in the wrong century with my deeply ‘uncool’ love of animals, nature and classical music, I finally came to accept, and now can embrace, what many people regard as eccentricity: I live and mostly work on my own in the middle of the countryside with pet rats, wildlife and an array of old-fashioned hobbies for company. Am I lonely? My uncomprehending relatives and acquaintances ask. No. London was far more lonely. Do I get scared alone in this old, creaky house? No, I love it. Is it haunted? As far as I am aware, no. Actually, I am slightly disappointed by the lack of ghostly inhabitants, as the oldest part of the house is well over 500 years old. But I did have a bat visitation in my bedroom last autumn, when I had left the window open. That is excitement enough for me – especially as it was a long-eared bat, or rabbit-bat, as I have affectionately christened it.
Despite my conviction that all would be lost when my father died, and having tried in vain to prepare myself for the inevitable, it eventually dawned on me after his death that, thanks to him, I could in fact buy the house if I wanted to. To start with, I wasn’t sure if I did want to – the repairs and maintenance alone would be colossal, not to mention any refurbishment. It helped to hear that my father had once said to his solicitor that he thought I might like to buy it – we had discussed it many times, but had always concluded it was impossible, partly because neither of us had any idea how little, in comparison to London and the commuter zone, such a beautiful, historical building in need of repair would be worth. But no sooner had I made the seemingly impossible decision whether to do the craziest thing of my life so far and take on such a huge project, for project it must be, than I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. It was confirmation that I had made the right choice.
It will remain my closest connection with my father. I wish I could have told him when I finally succeeded in attracting a goldfinch to the garden a few weeks ago, and when I saw my first ever otter running down the side of a road near Lavenham one night, not long after. These were the things that delighted him most. When I get daunted by the prospect of all the work that needs doing, I pick up Roger Deakin’s wonderful Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, and remember that his house was inhabited by pigs before he bought it.
I don’t know what the future will hold. I hope that it will involve sharing this beautiful place with friends and family, keeping chickens, and sometimes filling it with music, as it was when I was growing up. But I do know that it will involve truly living the seasons, sharing my home with a myriad of creatures, spotting kingfishers, finding new things to forage and new recipes to try, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the swallows in spring, being intoxicated by the woolly hoot of tawny owls and the evocative fragrance of quinces in autumn, and discovering more secret nooks and crannies of Suffolk that I want to keep to myself. That is enough for now.
* To prospective visitors: don’t worry, the house is now warm all year round! (And this wasn’t just a reference to the climate but to the general characteristics of winter, and the implications of living alone in the countryside at this time of year, which can have a tendency to lean us towards melancholy…)