My grandfather was a farmer, by which I mean he was endowed with all the wisdom and knowledge that one can only absorb through a childhood and several decades spent in dialogue with nature in all her many forms. I used to spend my summers on his farm. He would greet me at the start of my school holidays with the same expression; “you are free to do all manner of things, from pitch and toss to manslaughter, and if anyone says anything you should tell them to come and talk to me. I will tell them that you have my authority and all my blessings.” And with that as my ambassadorial seal, I headed for the mountains.
There was always something new to be found where the earth met the sky as if all things were drawn by an upward magnetism towards the heavens, momentarily delayed only by gravity and larksong. And so all things gathered there to wait and drink hot sweet tea from re-purposed jam jars. “Nottingham.” I ran my fingers over the raised glass at the bottom of the jar, rapidly cooling now as it filled with mountain-top emptiness. Between bites of soft white fresh and thickly cut bread I would pick small blue berries from among the heather that covered the slopes. The berries were both sweet and tart at the same time. They were delicious. They were mysterious too because we could never translate exactly what they were. In Hiberno-English, drawing from the old Gaelic language, they were called hurts. They were known throughout the mountains as such and if you asked people they would speak of them as a half-remembered blessing, an unexpected generosity of nature, like an old 50 pound note found in a tea-caddy. But when I returned to the city, no one knew what I was talking about. I told them they were called wild-hurts but the teachers would stand mute, their black ties as long as their suspicion. I tried looking up the word in botany books in the library but I could not find them there. These ambiguous berries remained the exclusive fruit of a linguistic oasis in the sky.
Between the summers I dreamed of those berries, crushed with the back of a fork, sprinkled with sugar and transformed into an instant smile-producing, eye-closing, white-shirt destroying jam. From some angles they looked gray. From another dark blue. Some were more sweet, some more tart. They were wild – untamed and only ever to be consumed in locations where the wind rushed through your hair and you had to turn your face in on yourself to catch a breath. They were to my childhood tongue and memory the taste of freedom.
As I added the final full-stop to the final answer to the final question in the final exam of my school year, red-curtains, like those on the Muppet Show, would separate in my mind’s eye and I would see myself in the arms of the mountain eating wild hurts. As I grew older and my head became more and more filled with thoughts of progress, standardization, output and the machine, I thought that these wild hurts had frolicked in freedom long enough and that I would bring them down from the mountains and grow them in the low-lands, on flat ground where machines could run through them in summer and we would have hurt-jam – an elixir, the absence of which in the commonwealth to that point befuddled my understanding and inflamed my greed.
My grandfather interrogated me as he saw me heading up the mountain with shovels and equipment with which to dig out the root-balls.
“I am going to see if we can grow them down here and perhaps make something of it.” I replied.
“You can’t. No one ever has.”
“Tosh – I will.”
The wild hurts didn’t have a root-ball like most other plants. The soil on the mountain-tops was less fertile and so the roots spread out close to the surface and were feathery with only an occasional stem here and there aspiring to any sort of woody permanence. It was frustrating, but in the end I had what I thought might be enough – six or seven clumps of roots. I imagined that they would be a little shocked when I took them to the lowlands but that once they adapted they would bask in the nutrient rich soil and grow into cohesiveness. The violence of my labors would be overlooked and a rich bounty of those magical blue berries would come with the harvest.
They died within days. It was not for want of water or sunlight. It was not for want of fertilizer. It wasn’t even for want of their original soil because thinking as much I brought sufficient enough of it that their roots must have been ignorant of their new surroundings. And yet they dried out and faded.
My Grandfather, in passing, said there are things that cannot be cultivated. There are things that are born wild and it doesn’t matter what anyone does, once that freedom is taken from them, they die.
I remember the sight of larks soaring in the sky.