Travels with MaryE

Most things I love best are about good light and good timing. That's where the adventures start. Don't be in no hurry here. Here you'll find a little bit about bluegrass music, fox hunting, life on the road, time on the mountain, and a whole lot about other things, too.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

At the Crossroads

So as I said in my last post, yesterday we had what's called a "joint meet" with a hunt from oh I guess the middle of England, some three hours' drive away from here. Friday around lunchtime it started to snow around here, those big wet flakes that make great snowballs. Now I live in the valley but there are wonderful hills all around and it wasn't long till the hills were covered in snow. In the evening it got cold and I began to wonder if our guests would be able to get their horseboxes three hours up the road to join us at the crossroads.

Now some of you who have never been involved with a fox hunt think that everyone who gets on a horse and dons a red or blue (or whatever color) coat is just a toffee-nosed snob. And some people are snobs, no doubt (isn't that true in just about any group you survey?) But around here there's not a whole lot to be snobbish about so our country hunts are made up of farmers and their wives and kids, a few folks who have moved here from other parts of the country and, well, a wide variety of folks. Yep, there are a few folks among them that seem a little detached and posh, if you will, but for the most part they're just good old country folks who know how to operate a pitchfork, change a tire, drive a lorry and things like that. Okay.

While you might look in Horse & Hound (important reading if you're in the U.K. and a "horsey" person) and see all these posh hunts meeting at places that must have 50 master bedrooms and a staff of 100, a grand house on a 10,000 acre country estate, here in my neck of the woods we mostly meet in someone's farmyard, in the middle of a village...or at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. Try to give directions to a place like that! Our starting time (11:00 a.m.) was especially flexible yesterday since our visitors had to take it slow over the roads (lots of reports of vehicles in ditches due to "black ice" conditions) and then try to make our which narrow lane would get them to the place "you can't get there from here."

But eventually a bunch of them made it and I suspect that since the place they came from is a whole lot more posh than the place they met in a little old country crossroads yesterday, maybe they were just a leetle bit surprised at the amount of food and drink they were offered by a cheery group of hunt supporters. If you've ever been to a tailgate party you'll get an idea of the scene which greeted them. A long lonely stretch of road on which they had plenty of space to park their lorries and unbox their horses, get them tacked up, stand on the ramp and mount, then ride back to the gathering of dozens of horses and foot followers at the crossroads. There were big smiles on every face as they approached the gathering.

At the crossroads then were retired farmers in dented Land Rovers, rosy-cheeked kids wielding trays spilling over with sausage rolls, elderly ladies in wellies proudly offering trays of luscious Christmas cake to car followers and the mounted field alike, about a dozen or so folks walkiing around with trays of port and whiskey in plastic cups, freely given to any and all who wished to partake. This went on for about 45 minutes till we were all stuffed and not exactly sober either, and then the hunting horn was blown (a kind of call to attention). By now (guessing here) about 50 horses and riders were gathered there in the crossroads with probably another 75-100 people standing around the edges enjoying the nice sunshine (a rarity these days) and maybe now and then stopping to gaze up at the snow on the hills all around.

The huntsmen (there were two, one for the home hunt and one for the visitors) and assorted masters in red coats, the visiting hounds who were largely black and tan in colour (we favour lighter coloured hounds we can see on the heather and bracken in these parts) obediently standing just behind the huntsman on a lane from which there's no outlet (and they mean it! talk about some rough tracks and foot-deep water in the ruts).

The huntsman blows again and the "home" senior master, an eloquent local dairy farmer, greets our visitors and says a few words, then one of the visiting masters says a few words. Meanwhile I hoof it as far up the track I know they'll be taking as I can make it (not very, should have started earlier!) and begin snapping photos as the hounds and horses soon head toward me. Then we all jump into our vehicles or head off on foot with a sturdy walking stick and head for the hills to follow the horses and hounds!

I got to ride with my friends Mike and Charlie, and Steve, who spent much of the day on foot with his stick, got a lift up on the hill with us. We had a great day watching the hounds exercising on the hills around us and on the fields below. The horses enjoyed some good fun, too, at one point jumping a distant wooden gate during a lull in the exercise. Viewing the astonishingly beautiful local landscape in the context of the hunt with horses and hounds and local people as subjects is, well, just one of my favorite things in the world. Ten years ago I would never have imagined being here, doing this. But I'm glad I am.

Our guests yesterday aren't likely to forget their wonderful day on the hills nor the great plates of beef stew they were served before they sought their long roads home at the end of that long long day.

Here in the Welsh borders we love our countryside ways and aim to keep them alive and strong for the children who are being born now to cherish. We will continue to hunt within the law - and revere the days when we hunted freely - until such time that we can return to hunting freely without city slickers legislating the countryside ways of which they are completely ignorant.

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My Life Story???

After quite a long break from blogging due to a fairly unremarkable series of days and nights I'm returning to ponder a question that was posed to me yesterday by what I'd call a "good acquaintance." Now it happens that this friend is a member of one of the local hunts I follow and also a friend to the folks at the farm where I live, and he's also a neighbor. After yesterday's hound exercise in some of the prettiest country around here we threw a little supper for the folks who'd driven about 3 hours to ride with us over these beautiful, as it happened, snow-dusted hills. I went along to the supper not because I was part of the mounted field but just to lend a hand in the kitchen and make our nice guests feel welcome. Since I didn't really have a thing in the world to do on a Saturday night I first helped serve the dinner (delicious beef stew - I can say that because I didn't make it!, baked potatoes, peas and rolls) and then helped another girl do all the dishes, pots & pans. I like doing dishes, always have.

After that we had to clean the village hall we'd rented for the occasion and after that there was a matter of a bottle of port and bottle of wine that the four of us needed to finish off so they wouldn't "spoil." As it happened we had some good conversation about local politics, farming, famous old hunts on the hills around us, and good stuff like that. That's part of the spirit of community that these down-to-earth countryside hunts engender among mounted field and followers alike. We had a jolly time!

Anyway I took it easy on the port - which I love - since I had to drive a few winding miles back to the farm where I stay. One of the port drinkers and his wife live right up the road from where we were drinking, so he was taken care of, but the other bloke, it soon became evident, was not in any shape to drive home, so of course I offered him a lift home.

Now this man is young, newly married and has an adorable little boy. I know his wife well, and he happens to farm just about a mile from where I stay so it was no big deal to offer him a lift home. But he decided on the way back that he'd very much like to have a drink at our local pub just up the hill from me. So I said okay, but I'd need to stop home to change out of my wellies before going to the pub. Being a city girl, I feel no shame in wearing wellies anywhere at all (since they're a relatively new piece of apparel to me) but the local farmers and their wives think it is an abomination to wear wellies anywhere but around the farm - wouldn't be caught dead in town in them! Isn't that funny!

Stopping here where I'm a housekeeper, we all got talking and this young man asked me something along the lines of what's my life story? I didn't quite know how to answer that do you answer it? First I have to say that I don't think my life makes a particularly interesting story, though I'm not complaining! I kind of said, "uh, you know..." but he was quite serious and adamant that I should tell him (by now I've poured him some port) and suddenly it dawned on me and I said WAIT! and ran to my room and grabbed this photo album of me as a child in goofy sunglasses sitting on the front steps in my hometown, me as a bird-legged teenager on high school graduation day posed with my parents, both of whom died way back in the 80s, me with various musical heroes through the last 25 years or so, and things like that. My idea was to use the photos to trigger my memory since that's how "me as a photographer" started in the first place. I go back to the table where this friend is sitting and I plunk the book down before him (remember, he is not at ALL sober by now, and adding to the port consumption by the moment, a nice bottle of Graham's vintage port at his disposal) and tell him to open it and he says no! no! no! I don't want to look at photos of your life, I want you to tell me about your life. Isn't that a difficult thing to do?

And it's funny but I just couldn't come up with a thing to say. Surely it's not that bad! (no it isn't.) But where do you start to tell someone about your life and help them understand that it's a lot of little things you can't really put your finger on or even remember at all maybe that make you who you are here and now, it's a collective, and a lot of it is probably largely unnoticed by yourself or by others. And when folks ask you a question like that what they really want is a two sentence summary, don't they? I ain't good at that!

Fortunately for me he got off the topic of my life as the port took its toll and we were all soon off to the pub for a drink. But before we went to the pub there was a revelation, one that has been put before me at least once before in life (by a counselor in fact): why do you always have a camera in front of your face? What are you hiding from? Why don't you just experience things directly???? He said he wished I'd leave my camera at home sometimes and just go out and follow the hound exercise and enjoy the hounds as they run across the moors among the horses and sheep, not be thinking of angles and light and the juxtaposition of things (oops, that bit was me talking, inferring what I think he meant). Now that got me thinking.

So what all this is about is to wonder how one responds to a direct question (in an island nation where it seems direct questions are few and far between as folks do elaborate dances to avoid stepping on others' toes, so to speak) regarding "what's your history?" "what's your past?" or in effect, who are you sat there before me? Now I could have started in chronological fashion from my earliest memories through yesterday which would have taken several weeks and been a total bore, but I was wondering just what he wanted to know? He wouldn't answer that! But it did get me thinking. Why is it so difficult to come up with a life story? I do like to write (duh!) so what would I write about myself that would tell who I am and some of what I've done (and failed to do) without being too dull, too rambling or put anyone to sleep? Say, what would I write in 500 words, who am I in a nutshell? It is, I think, very hard to do.

Now I'm left to ponder...what HAVE I accomplished? Have I made any positive difference? Why DO I hide behind that camera (out of the mouths of drunks...there was a lot of insight in that question!) And what's next?

Maybe it's the rain. the rain. the rain.......................