(Update: I overlooked something so have removed unnecessary excuse-making)
For this Locus Focus I took Hills and the Sea down from the shelf.
The essays are generally concerned with the places that Hilaire Belloc, the writer of the essays, travelled. As the title suggests, each essay is vitally connected to a concrete place - the inspiration for each essay deriving from them, though not every essay is solely about the place.
Belloc's portrayal of these settings almost always goes into the mythical, whimsical and the fantastic (not to mention the historical, the political and the philosophical). The places that Belloc describes therein are vividly envisioned and become places the reader would like to, or wouldn't mind, visiting and exploring (preferably back in 1906).
At first I thought I would randomly pick a title from the index and go with that one, since I haven't read this collection for a while. But I read through a few essays. Now, I could go into the essay that talks about a town whose entirely unique, present-day layout was developed over time by the negative spaces that drying fish nets happened to make as they were haphazardly laid out on the ground - the buildings slowly growing over the centuries between and around the placement of the drying fish nets. A town born of its trade if there ever was one.
But the essay that reclaimed my attention was one called, The Mowing of a Field. Belloc is here returning to some place of his childhood. The essay begins:
There is a valley in South England remote from ambition and from fear, where the passage of strangers is rare and unperceived, and where the scent of the grass in summer is breathed only by those who are native to that unvisited land.Belloc the cosmopolitan was big on non-cosmopolitan places. He continues:
The roads to the Channel do not traverse it; they choose upon either side easier passes over the range. One track alone leads up through it to the hills, and this is changeable...The woods grow steep above the slopes; they reach sometimes the very summit of the heights, or, when they cannot attain them, fill in and clothe the combes. And, in between, along the floor of the valley, deep pastures and their silence are bordered by lawns of chalky grass and the small yew trees of the Downs.Belloc has returned to this place in late evening. The next morning he wakes up:
The clouds that visit its sky reveal themselves beyond the one great rise, and sail, white and enormous, to the other, and sink beyond that other. But the plains above which they have travelled and the Weald to which they go, the people of the valley cannot see and hardly recall. The wind, when it reaches such fields, is no longer a gale from the salt, but fruitful and soft, an inland breeze; and those whose blood was nourished here feel in that wind the fruitfulness of our orchards and all the life that all things draw from the air.
In this place, when I was a boy, I pushed through a fringe of beeches that made a complete screen between me and the world, and I came to a glade called No Man's Land. I climbed beyond it, and I was surprised and glad, because from the ridge of that glade I saw the sea. To this place very lately I returned.
…before it was yet broad day, I awoke, and thought of mowing. The birds were already chattering in the trees beside my window, all except the nightingale, which had left and flown away to the Weald, where he sings all summer by day as well as by night in the oaks and hazel spinneys…The birds and the thought of mowing had awakened me, and I went down the stairs and along the stone floors to where I could find a scythe; and when I took it from its nail, I remembered how, fourteen years ago, I had last gone out with my scythe, just so, into the fields at morning. In between that day and this were many things, cities and armies, and a confusion of books, mountains and the desert, and horrible great breadths of sea.The author describes in detail the proper way of sharpening a scythe. He then describes the proper way of mowing the grass, and the proper time to do it. He has many swathes already cut before the time for the Angelus. Later, a man comes to help him for a wage. Belloc brings out some small ale for them to drink, and later some lunch…
Evening comes. The entire two acres are finished and the two men agree to meet again next morning to gather up the swathes.
One could venture to this nurturing, balmy place just to do the simple things Belloc did there, or else one feels he could go there to die.