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East AND West: Clearing the burn

December 7, 2013

By Angela Jeffs

November 2013

I had no idea when I set out to clear the burn – the Scottish word (from the Gaelic) for stream – on a cold frosty day in mid-November that it would take me on such a journey.

This burn is our boundary on the long side of a triangular piece of land that my aunt gifted to my mother back in the late 1960s.  Sourcing from high above on moorland, it winds its way down following the contours of the landscape to emerge from under the road that links Blairgowrie and Dunkeld, the A923.

In the good old bad old days it flooded on a regular basis; more recently a bright blue plastic pipe was laid tunnel-like under the road to resolve the problem. It is here that I start work, wearing several pairs of socks against the cold and Wellington boots to keep them – and me – dry, and armed with secateurs, saw and garden fork to do the jobs in hand.

My intention: to clear the water of autumnal debris that dams the stream; also cut down dead bracken and willow herb, so that in Spring the flow will be free and the ground to either side open to new growth.

Yet as I stand in presence with the clear cold spring water gushing pristine and perfect into the muddying pool at my feet, I am transported: into a wood paneled room in Worcestershire where, in the May of 1941, I emerged from my mother into a less than peaceful and far from perfect world.

Interesting, I think. But then put aside all attempt to understand what is happening to begin clearing the way ahead…

Gardening of any kind is a very right-brain activity. Go outside to pull the odd weed (any plant in the wrong place at the wrong time) and surprise, surprise: an hour passes without any consideration of time. Here too, I soon become as much lost as found: throwing up silt to form an even higher bank to protect century-old redcurrant bush roots; pulling down brambles and nettles; heaping compost and combustibles.

Yet as I twist and turn, I am aware that the burn – coursing its way through ancient root systems of willows – is mirroring my early years of postwar struggles.  As a family we coped, we got through, but personally I found them far from easy. Every time I am ripped by briars or tripped by a stone, the pain I feel (and vocalize!) is as old as ever.

After the burn widens into a long shallow pool, shaded by yet more willows (my childhood?) it suddenly twists and falls into turbulence. (At age eleven – and much to everyone’s surprise, because I was considered ‘bright’, I failed my 11+ exam for grammar school. Too much pressure, but this was not considered a good enough reason. Life was never the same…)

So I move into a constricted choppy stretch, with many hurdles – stepping stones to carry us across to the orchard on the far side but now conspiring with twigs and leaf fall to block the natural current. After a relatively dry summer the burn had been dry for months; now it races, an outraged babbling brook…

As undergrowth trails below the surface of the water, the pace slows, moves into calm: at college maybe, when I had some control over my life. It’s cold though, even through my boots, and I feel hungry, just as I had done when away from home, surviving on a meager grant.

Back among saplings struggling through the remnants of a dry stone wall, the ground below the soles of my boots becomes more and more uneven. Several times I stumble. Back home for a year as promised but endless arguments about my lifestyle, my choices. Then another water fall and this time so do I… pregnant in London; my father’s death; struggling to get back on my feet, find a way forward…

Is the burn throwing up my past, or am I imposing my past on the waterway? Either way, does it matter? I’m aware of the connections surfacing in sequence, but as revelations rather than thoughts in my head; this makes me trust the experience rather than laugh it off as an imaginative creation too far.

I use decaying tree stumps and mossed green boulders to help me along; they are soft and gentle to the touch, yet I’m aware of an underlying strength. Mysteriously complex in its mini twist and turns, the burn is now richly evocative of years forging a career and bringing up family.

It culminates in a brackish frothing pool where rotting detritus has blocked the course – a relationship that was unhealthy from the start, just as I was: cervical cancer followed by a period of emotional turbulence leading to breakdown.

At this point, the burn dives underground… out of sight beneath a ground-level stone bridge built centuries before to allow horse-drawn carts (and later tractors) cross from one field into another. A massive fallen tree holds the passage of the burn in shadowed thrall. But no sooner have I dug in the fork and unplugged the mess than the water plunges down out of sight with a roar of relief.

Just as I plunged out of sight – or rather soared eastwards to Japan – in 1986. I was far from roaring, however. Simply breathing the deepest relief to have survived.

Again the water emerges clear and healthy, descending into a pool of silt and stone. But the way ahead lies hidden beneath tangles of vegetation that I find hard to make sense of, hack my way through. So it was with a new country, a new culture, a whole new world.

Last winter, we found a spring emerging from the far side – the uphill slope of the copse where raspberries once grew – together with the remains of the well used by the tenants of Burnside until the 1950s. Again I excavate, unblock, but this time redefining, redesigning… just as I did with my self in Japan and via journeys made through Asia and South America over the next two decades.

There are amazing trees along this next near-straight stretch – mystical rowan, holly, elder and sloe, their branches tufted and twisted with grey lichen.  They feel as old as Japan, as old as newly discovered ancestry and just as profound, with roots that hold and carry the water like a row of linked open welcoming hands.

With as much respect as I can muster – deep gratitude to find myself guardian of such a hallowed spot  - I cut and dig and throw, moving ever forward; I find my self determined to keep going, not give in to the stumbling blocks that are continually – but purposely (of this I’m sure)  - placed in my way to make me stronger, the person I was born to be, who I really am.

At one point two trees converge and liquid silver wends its way magically under and between roots. There is a circle of tiny fungi on a mossy bole and I remember my mother calling me out into the garden as a child and pointing them out as fairy rings.  She – a woman who found it hard to ground herself in the here and now – believed in fairies. I believe in my self.

And here I am. Grounded. Up to my calves in icy water, true… but still grounded.

At one point, there is a muddied crossing place, with delicate hoof marks in mud indicating a deer path, used for foraging food and following the herd.

I think of all the people who have crossed my path over the years… so many ships that passed in the night, just as deer glide by in the darkness of winter. But then there are others who stay close: the roe who keeps her offspring hidden all day but brings it down to the water’s edge on summer evenings to drink; the pheasant that comes to our door every morning to be fed; and the many other creatures that find sanctuary from the myriad dangers of the outside world.

I stand still. Return to presence and realize that the sun has set and darkness is descending through the copse. Snow begins to fall, and I feel a chill seeping into my bones.

To my far right, the part of the field that the children next door use as a playground. But I can no longer see the cherry tree where they have a swing.

To my left, the ground rises sharply – an ancient midden. I have planted bamboo there to help clean the earth, with the dream of one day walking through our own forest.

Ahead, while disappearing into the gloaming, the course of the burn moves into disturbance; the children (as children do) have deliberately built dams, made bridges, generally created their own sense of purposive disorder.

Is my life a disturbed mess? In moving here, have I deliberately built dams, made bridges, generally created my own sense of inner and outer chaos?

I look back along the road once more traveled and again the way is unobstructed. Meridians have been stimulated. Channels cleared. Energy flows…

What lies ahead could easily be seen as dark, muddied, disturbed… Yet here is only this moment. And right now this feels like a good place. Maybe even the right place, because lights from the cottage are calling me home.


LABELS:   Connection   Family   Gardening   Life History   Past   Transition  
About the author: After training in theatre and Laban dance, Angela Jeffs ( stepped sideways into London publishing. She worked freelance as an editor from 1973, then reinvented herself in Japan as a journalist and writer from 1986. She was a weekly columnist for The Japan Times for 22 years, and Japan Correspondent for Asia Magazine in Hong Kong from 1989-1996. Her book Insider's Tokyo, commissioned from Singapore, was published in 2001. Since 2005 she has been developing and facilitating a programme of therapeutic creative writing under the title Drawing on The Writer Within ( Her latest book, Chasing Shooting Stars: A South American Paper Trail into the Past, can be ordered via
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