Sense of place puts this book of poetic and bittersweet nostalgia at top of the tree
A sense-of-place... It's a simple phrase that attempts to describe a concept which is at once ethereal and ungraspable, yet is often deeply ingrained within our souls.
Some people have it inbuilt – their sense-of-place colours and directs everything they do – others are immune when it comes to the pull, the gravity, the draw of physical location.
In my view, those lucky enough to be born with a readymade geographic radar make better writers and artists than those who have to struggle in their bid to embrace the very real world around them.
We are, after all, stuck on our plane of being. We cannot fly like birds or whisk effortlessly around the place on magic carpets... We are – like the funereal chant extols – beings of the soil. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and all that...
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Which might sound like a lofty or pretentious way of introducing a review of one of the best books to be published in the Westcountry this year – but if The Farmhouse Tree, written by regular Western Morning News contributor David Hill – is nothing else, then it is a masterpiece when it comes to delivering a profound sense-of-place.
The location in question is Knowstone, in the very heart of rural Devon – but in a way the grid-reference doesn't matter, because what David does in 200 pages is describe a half-forgotten world that will lurk, like some Victorian miasma, in the bones of most WMN readers over the age of 50 who grew up in the countryside. The Farmhouse Tree is a paean – a thanksgiving, a poem even – that kneels at the altar of rural life. Having said that, it is not a hymn of the all-things-bright-and-beautiful genre – but a song of praise that reflects a bygone age in warts-and-all-ish fashion.
And so, on the one hand, we have beautiful eulogies to long-lost high days and holidays. There's an account of a boyhood picnic spent enjoyed alone with an adoring mother that will send hairs shivering along the nape of your neck. And if there are any hairs that don't shiver, then they too will stand to attention when David describes unique elements of his childhood life...
"In the afternoon heat above the cabbage patch, a flurry of butterflies dancing in the haze in a silent shimmer of summer snowflakes," writes David, remembering how his father would pay him a farthing for each Cabbage White caught and dispatched in his butterfly net.
"As he paid me.... my father gave me his simple philosophy – caterpillar, butterfly, life, death," he goes on, adding: "Once by mistake, I killed a Brimstone. The look of sadness in his eyes."
And so you have the other side of this multi-layered patchwork describing what might be called a rural idyll. Always in David's writing, there is a distant, haunting, melancholy.
Like the chiaroscuro that you see in a Devonshire wood in midsummer, there is light and there is dark in The Farmhouse Tree. The name for a woodland devoid of shadows is a desert – but the sense David Hill evokes of his boyhood place is as every bit as fertile as a rainforest.