The Hill Road

A line of canes marked with orange tape around the top gave away the intent. Like anaemic irises they ran in thin parade across the moorland and away over its edge beyond sight. The canes come first, then the posts and stobs and rolls of wire that will make the deer fence, then a crawling tracked machine to knock the posts in and long lean crew to run the wire and staple it up.


When the canes have come the process has gathered its momentum, the hammer is on its downward arc, it will land and drive home what it hits or smash it trying.


The canes marked the start of a forestry planting scheme -the change from sheep and cattle grazed white grass to 'productive conifer woodland'. Modern conifer planations are certainly better than their 1970s and 80s predecessors, more carefully fitted to the landscape, more respectful of water courses, more diverse and kept off valuable deep peat. But there are still many reasons to doubt the wisdom of making this change, from debates of carbon storage to worries over biodiversity and the impact on communities. I don't intend to enter into that here, at least not today. But moorland is a landscape link that connects hundreds of years of history to the present day and hundred of generations of people to those who live here now. You cant measure its loss in pounds, tonnes of carbon or even in pairs of curlews, it is a profound loss of continuity a divorce from our past selves.



I know this area, quite well and when I thought the hill that was staked out belonged to Laura I could not resent it. She is on older lady, who lost her husband a few years ago, what would she want with the work and worry of a white grass waste? Anyway Laura has far more right to make decisions about his landscape than I do. She has lived here for decades, farmed the land and raised a family. But talking to a more knowledgeable village resident one day I said that I had seen Laura's hill marked out and he corrected me, that hill is not Laura's it belongs to a neighbouring farm. I knew that farm had been bought recently with the intent of planting it and now I resented it. It was not an older lady trying escape work and worry it was a money making scheme, from someone whose face I will never see and whose name I will never know. That may be irrational and inconsistent, but little of my response to change or to landscape is rational or consistent.


You can't see that hill from the village so I had no idea how far the planting scheme had gone until today. Today I decided to go to Ayr to buy some rope, just some rope, nothing else. I still can't, in truth, decide whether buying the rope was procrastination or getting the job done. But either way I went to Ayr and I took the hill road.


The hill road is the worst of the four roads out of here and they are all pretty bad. It is a narrow, twisting, potholed piece of single track that takes you along the side of the Milton hill. High on the hill I could see the mounding had begun, diggers had crawled across the landscape, cutting ditches and flipping pats of turf to create mounds for the new trees to sit up on. The men who do this work are skilled and the mounds ran in neat, ruled rows clean across the hillside. It was tidy job, but to me each lift and slap of the digger bucket was a chisel cut in the epitaph of a centuries old landscape.


Planting trees is a grant driven rampage here, hundreds and hundreds of acres of the parish have been planted in the ten years I have been here. Normally it is up on the high ground behind the farms far from the road so you only see it form the tops of other, even higher hills. On the Milton hill the planting straddles the road, it is inescapable and it feels like they are getting bold. No need to hide this one.


The hill road is rarely busy and I stopped a moment to look. I got my phone and went to take a picture, the camera had been left on selfie mode and it was my own face not the hillside which appeared in the screen. I quickly flicked it over. In truth few of us can look too long at ourselves when we are talking about landscape, because the same forces that give us the predictable comfort we crave draw the neatly mounded lines across hills and put the spruce trees where there were once sheep and cattle. The lives we want to live and the landscape we want to see are not often compatible. Best not to look to long at ourselves, best to feel sad about the hill instead, take picture, write a blog and drive on.


Before I went to get my rope I stopped for some fast food. In the village, fast food, as far as it is available at all, is both slow and expensive to obtain, it is far faster to cook. So the novelty always draws me when I'm in town. The fast food 'bake shop' was much changed. The tables pulled up and stacked, the chairs hidden and a counter blocking of half the shop. The staff wore their masks and cleaned nearly constantly. I wondered if this was the best parallel to draw. The weird dislocation of a place you know, which is still there and is also fundamentally changed. Is this the best way to explain how forestry development makes me feel about landscapes?


I sat in the car to eat my bit of dead chicken and other agricultural produce, transformed out of all recognition in half a dozen factories, before it was 'freshly cooked' and handed over. I should, on principle, hate it, but in fact I loved the salt, fat and spice. Eating my crispy chicken wrap I realised something; it is not comforting continuity in landscape that connects us most deeply to the rural past it is distressing change. Particularly when that change is unlooked for, unwanted and driven by others who have the will and means to make it happen. This has been the steadily accelerating story of everyone in upland Britain since hunter gatherers watched Neolithic farmers burn out the birch and hazel. It was the story of the levellers in neighbouring Galloway who brought their cattle to the commons only to find the wastes enclosed and it was the story when cheviot sheep chased out black cattle.


On the way home I paused again to watch where the new forest track was joining the road, a man was jogging uncomfortably down the track ahead of a double wheeled tractor. Perhaps some minor crisis had to be averted or there was a another job to get on to. I have to hand it to them, those lads push on.