The Borderlands

Truly to speak, and with no addition,

We go to gain a little patch of ground

That hath no profit in it but the name.– Hamlet

The high moorland was dark with heathery bogs and the flat green farmland ran away to low hills right and left. Neat hedgerows and stone walls followed the rise of the land, and on the distant ridges farmhouses stood out sharp and squat against the greying sky. Dusk was approaching when I reached the headland. Water ran before me to the milky horizon, merging into a grey-blue sky that stooped down and likewise vanished into the water. North, across the bay, another headland lay flanked by high cliffs of grey stone; to my right, the land fell away and rose again repeatedly, bay after bay, the island’s coastline sinking ever southward.

The wind had dropped as I walked and now, in the stillness, I heard the tragicomic, burbling song of the seals, who were indistinguishable from the boulders on the rocky shore below until I picked them out with my binoculars. Dark like the rocks, pale like the sand, they lay packed into a tiny stretch of sheltered shoreline. I watched as one, bobbing through the waves, tried to come ashore and struggled to gain a place with others already comfortably berthed. Further out, dark heads appeared in the soft swells, vanished, and reappeared, winking in and out of existence like seaborne wraiths.

It felt ancient, and still, and my bones felt the good of it, for the day had been hard and dull and I had been busy in my head for a long time. The noise of the road had gone, and now all I could hear was the song of the seals, the occasional mewing of the gulls, and once, the sharp, warning croak of a crow.

This could be anywhere, I thought. This sky softening to dusky grey, this pale sea rising to the horizon. I have walked bluffs on the Pacific coast of New Zealand this bare, this blunt, holding forth just as stern against the sea. I have crossed the high moorlands of the desert plain, watched the bracken run away on rising ground that unfurled into volcanic peaks. I have watched breakers roll in from the Tasman Sea onto barren shores where seals turned lazily on the rocks, and driven winding roads into empty country where the passing of men is a memory, where our illusions of power and ownership falter against the immensity and the eternity.

I’m reminded of Seamus Heaney, writing in Tollund Man: “Out here . . . in the old man-killing parishes, I shall feel lost, unhappy and at home.” So, too, here I am happy and unhappy, lost and at home, alone, yet comforted. And then my mind turns to the borderlands, the man-killing parishes of Heaney’s dark dreams, and the things that lie in wait when the storm breaks once more, when Britain is no longer European, when Britain is irked by its upstart neighbour daring to choose another way, when the border becomes a revenge for this imagined wrong. A nightmare, rising.

The land is no one’s, really. It endures us. It outlives us. We depend on it, but it does not depend on us. Though we may claim it for our own, though we put up signs and warnings and border posts, though we draw lines on maps and write declarations, the land lies silent, as it is now, slipping into dusk, waiting for dawn, while we – we slide into another darkness.

Below, the seals slumbered on, untroubled and somnolent in the spring evening. The waves lapped silently on the rocks, the gulls turned for home in the gathering dusk, and the wind began to rise.

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