A WILD wet day. Chilly, too. Gloire de Dijon roses rock against
the window, and a squirrel is eating a crust with great delicacy on
the lawn below. It nibbles as though it is playing the flute,
holding the bread out at an angle, noting the crumbs.
It is barely light, and the hill where my neighbour, Mr Brown,
came across the axehead looks drenched. He brought it in, and laid
it on the kitchen table. "There. Never been used." Someone had
dropped it on the high ground in the Bronze Age. What a loss. It
had worked its way up through the flinty earth. We washed it under
the tap, and it shone.
We imagined the finder retracing his steps a hundred times over
the hill, weeping with disappointment. Maybe calling out to his axe
in a language we will never know. "The museum will tell us all
about it." Yet, in a strange way, in its worked-up state it was
Shepherd Sunday. I preached on losing and finding - a favourite
theme in the Gospels. Ages ago, someone I knew had lost his
daughter to the Moonies, and when, after the greatest difficulties,
he found her, the girl had to be helped to find him; for the sect
had wiped her father from her memory.
The Gospels are full of finders and losers. The psalms, too.
They preach precariousness. Yet, at the same time, they despise
safety first. Both are filled with wanderers. With people getting
off the beaten track in both the temple and the synagogue,
questioning, arguing. People longing to find home, but turning up
in barren debates, prodigals from faith.
No sheep in sight on my hill this wet April morning, only a girl
on a pre-breakfast love-errand to a horse, which looks up, then
goes on grazing.
When I was a child, I used to wonder, in an Orwellian way, why
farm animals - horses, particularly - tolerated hedges. Why didn't
they jump over them and gallop off to Bedfordshire, this county for
some reason having become a far freedom in my imagination?
Staying on the Welsh border with the poet Edward Storey, I would
lie in bed waiting for morning tea, and watch Dafyd the young
shepherd bring his sheep down in the soft greyness that is not at
all like the Stour Valley greyness, but a kind of muted country all
its own, and which I think I can smell when I reach Presteigne.
Certainly, it tells me that it is the climate that alone could
produce writers such as Thomas Traherne and Henry Vaughan. The
latter once prayed:
Either disperse these mists, which
blot and fill
My perspective still as they pass,
Or else remove me hence unto that hill,
Where I shall need no glass.
There are no sheepdogs in the Bible. Its shepherds do not drive
sheep, like Dafyd, but lead them. "Lead us, heavenly father, lead
us. . ." In the vestry, the bishop unscrews his crook and fits it
into a case.
Above my ancient farmhouse, Horkesley betrays its origins: from
hurk - "a temporary shelter for young lambs, formed of hurdles
wattled with straw." Lower Bottoms, the pastures of my house, lie
below the track, dense with buttercups and sodden grass. Yet the
old pasturage of the faith seems less evident in East Anglia than
on the edge of Wales. It is those unhedged-about flocks!