Pale Bones

The rains have been here, washing everything down. The tops of the trees must be thoroughly clean by now, the branches rinsed of their squirrel scat, the trunks free of any dust they may have accumulated. The ground too is clean – in parts. I traipse through muddy shallows, my skirts soaked above my boots from sodden underbrush. The dogs running ahead send up sprays of clay slip as I slide and scramble behind them trying to step from one grassy hillock to the next. Puddles I don’t recognise I avoid: I’ve lost my boots on too many occasions to red, sucking mud. But all that is on the lowlands, the hollows. Up on the slopes the rain has washed away humus, channeling new burns and rivulets, bouncing over stones I didn’t know were there, forming tiny pristine pools snagged behind tree roots. Beautiful really.

The earth, normally dark with fallen leaves and branches, is bright. It’s a brightness normally hidden from view: the deluge has washed away not only humus but soil, exposing roots. Not only large roots, but the entire network, rootlets and further divisions tapering down to almost thread like. The roots are clean, a pale straw colour, though some are a darker orange-red. All have lines like my fingers, what could be knuckles too, none are straight but kinked, twisted, gnarled. Looking up at the trees I wonder how it might feel to be so exposed, wonder how long it will take to lay the mantle of mulch and earth back down on those pale bones.

Something catches my eye as I scan the patterning of twisted forms: a jaw fragment of what might have been, must have been a cow. It’s partially wedged and I pull it free. The bone is dark like peat, an old iron brown but the teeth are white and whole. What happened here? Which creature laid down her life on this shaded slope? I know part of the wood had been a cow pasture 40 years ago, but these trees I thought were older, outside the range of the cows. Was she older still, did the tree roots gradually raise her jaw up from deeper down?
I’ve recently had my roots exposed too: a DNA check revealed what I’ve always felt: 80% Scots – Irish with 6% Norse, 5% Iberian peninsula and the rest a smattering of southern and eastern Europe. I haven’t looked for bones yet, though I’m sure the roots themselves will draw them out. I imagine my ancestors, a long line of them walking across this soil, most of them bootless, their skirts dragging mud through wet Januarys. But the confirmation of my heritage has left me oddly stumped. Yes to the roots, sunk deep into this landscape, both physical and mythical, but what of the tree? How should the tree grow?

For sure by maintaining a connection with the roots: there’s a rich nourishment that comes from the land we belong to. The land that holds the bones of our people. Walking it, savoring the, in turns tangy, earthy, musky smells of the seasons. Touching it in whichever gardens we can create: from pots of finkle on a windowsill to 1⁄4 acre allotments. Feeling the cold sting of rain and the flesh peeling force of the wind. Seeing the white tail flick of a rabbit as she disappears down a burrow, finding fox hair and knowing it.

Learning the stories – not the ones everyone knows – but the small tales, the peculiar short snippets of the nearby woods, the familiar braes, the close rivers. Keeping a soft spot for the old phrases the ones we now enclose in apostrophes they seem so distant. Maybe even using them: there can be much wisdom in the old names for herbs or trees: boon tree for elder; stanch-gris for yarrow; healing blade for greater plantain.

Bringing seasonality back into our lives can extend time, from eating seasonal food, to sketching or photographing the changing landscape, to being more in tune with the natural rhythm of darkness and light. Turning the lights off early in winter evenings allows the darkness to wash

over us, repairing our senses. Using the extra space to remember, not only events, but the tone and texture of the time. We are often too pedantic in our memories seeing them as isolated moments, snapshots, when we could be seeing them as chapters in a larger story.

It’s the possibility of understanding our own personal stories, seeing our place in the landscape, both physical and familial, that can lead us back to our roots. Universal themes speak through us and reach both backwards into myth and forwards into a security of belonging.
I look at the washed clean roots. There are many trees on this slope, of various kinds, sizes and ages. Their roots are intertwined, and below the soil look similar, it’s hard to tell them apart. I follow one trunk down flowing out along the roots, tracing each as far as I can go, over and under tangles from other trees. It’s this woven mass that holds the slope together. Our roots are as deeply connected, together they form the traditions, the stories that hold us. I feel strange, there’s something about these pale bones, for all their beauty, that makes me uncomfortable. I prefer them covered, protected, letting them feed from the soil, anchoring the tree quietly into place. With mud flecked hands I scoop up some wet leaves, plastering them on top of the nearest roots. I’ll file away my DNA results too. I know where I come from, I can feel it in my own pale bones.

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