This week I have the pleasure of welcoming Anne McMaster to reflect on her hymn to rural life, Walking Off the Land.
Nigel, thank you so much for welcoming me to this forum, and for giving me the chance to talk about Walking Off the Land, my debut collection of poetry. It was published on the 21st of June 2021 – the summer solstice – which made the event even more special. Much of my writing focuses on nature and the seasons, my memories of growing up on a working farm, and my relationship with the old farm and the land.
“What I stand for is what I stand on,” writes Wendell Berry, and my coming to understand that I did not own the land, but the land owned me was the beginning of a deep love affair with nature and the environment. Working on the farm as both kid and adult, I learned valuable lessons from my dad (a full-time farmer) and from my mum (a teacher, farmer and full-time wrangler of three small daughters). Though I went on to careers in theatre and education – and moved to California – I never lost my love for the routine and discipline of farm life.
I returned to Northern Ireland when my mum died unexpectedly, and I found myself taking on the role of carer for my dad who was in the later stages of dementia. He passed away some 48 weeks later. At the age of 31, I found myself back at a (now fallow farm) and an uncertain future.
I’ve long been an admirer of the poet, environmentalist and farmer Wendell Berry, reading his poetry on nature and the environment, as well as his essays on working the land. He focuses on the importance of leading a simpler, leaner life and maintaining a strong connection to the soil. I was deeply honoured – and completely stunned – when Mr Berry wrote to me after reading Walking Off the Land. I’ll always treasure his kind words. I lean on other poets connected to the land, too: Francis Harvey, John Clare, Robert Frost, Ted Hughes, RS Thomas and Jane Clarke are just a few. We’ve become profoundly disconnected from the land that nourishes us. To quote Wendell Berry again, “To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival.” The work of a farmer remains unremittingly tough. These days, many farmers live in poverty and lose their children to other professions. Part of my (NI Arts Council funded) research for this collection – and for my second poetry collection due later this year – involved interviews with elderly farmers as I explored the shrinking numbers of small family farms in Northern Ireland. I am one of those statistics, too. I am the last of my family on this 300 year old farm.
I’ve chosen the poem which shares its name with the title of the collection. ‘Walking someone off the land’ is a poignant ritual which is still practiced in rural areas, where the coffin of the deceased is carried from the farmhouse right to the edge of the land owned by the family. A hearse moves slowly at the front of the procession and mourners walk behind. It’s a silent, profoundly moving way of showing love and respect to both the living and the dead.
It always stayed with me that my parents died in two of the most beautiful months of the year; my mother in May 1994 and my father in April 1995. Nature was burgeoning, bursting fiercely around us as we walked silently from the farm. Because they died relatively close together, some of the details of each funeral blended into each other, yet a myriad of snapshots of the two events stayed with me and became part of this text. The darkness of our funeral clothes contrasted with the sunlight and blossoming hedgerows. Our silence was threaded with birdsong. I walked past quiet fields I’d worked with both my father and mother, and diaphanous layers of time (a delighted child carrying food to cattle, three small sisters carrying sparklers into autumn darkness, a woman, sad and still, walking behind a coffin) came together seamlessly. There was grace and dignity in each quiet walk, and though I knew I was saying goodbye to each of my parents each time I stepped onto this wee road, I was also aware that my steps would return to the farm which had, once more, become my home.
When I came to collate my collection of poems, this ‘Walking Off the Land’ poem was the last one to be written. The earlier poems had explored my childhood on the farm, my adult experience with change, grief and loss, and my growing awareness of the sanctuary of the natural world. This poem was different. It was an acknowledgement of the act of leaving and an acceptance of loss. Several years after my father’s funeral, I walked behind the coffin of his good friend and fellow farmer. While I’d waited outside the house for the coffin to be brought out, local farmers took to questioning me to see if I was still living at the farm and wondered, perhaps, if I might sell it one day? When I stated firmly that I’d be finishing my own days there, a farmer gave me a long look and said, ‘Ah, you have soil in your veins.’ A moment and a phrase I treasure still, and I placed it softly within this poem. To love the land is to care for it, to understand it and to carry it carefully (and hopefully) into the days to come.
Read my review of this totally engaging collection next week.
AVAILABLE NOW ‘UNMUTED‘ by Nigel Kent!
Nigel Kent’s collection of ekphrastic poems, Unmuted (Hedgehog Poetry Press), is inspired by a gallery of famous works by artists from the present and the past. Each artwork acts as a frame in a storyboard which he unfreezes and unmutes to reveal the narrative he imagines lies behind it. Even for those who have no interest in art these direct, accessible and moving poems will stand alone and promise to engage with issues that truly matter.
For details of how to purchase a copy, click here.