Trespass, v. ‘any unjustifiable intrusion by a person upon the land in possession of another.’
From old French trespasser ‘pass over, trespass’, ‘trespas‘, ‘passing across’.
I went out to the field at the back of the house tonight in the gathering dark. It’s been three days now, possibly more (time is indeterminable, it is January) of blanket grey skies, still air, cold and damp.
In the gloom I could make out two figures; B, back on her feet after recovering from a broken leg, was making the slow climb up to the flat where E was standing, her young, liver-spotted spaniel at her feet. We met in a kind of triangle, each taking a corner. “I always call this the witching hour,” E said, as Cooper ran between us, like an over-anxious child.
“Have you seen what they’ve done down there?” B asks, turning to point back in the direction she’d come, to where her retriever is still snuffling in the long grass. “They’ve put fence posts up. All around!”
In the winter months, when the darkness hems us in, our options for walks grow limited. Walkers tend to congregate at the same time, on the same routes, collecting in happy bottlenecks. The fields at the back of our houses form the green heart of the village and are a godsend in these months. They mean that we don’t have to take to the roads among the speeding cars and vans to reach a green space.
“There are cattle going in there,” I reassured her, “it won’t be for long.”
“It just feels”, said E, “like we’re losing our green spaces.”
Once we’ve parted ways and I’ve set off around the fields, trying not to notice the stakes hammered in around the perimeter, I feel the jolt of reality. To walk here wouldn’t be possible for much longer – once the fence was up, it was up. It wouldn’t be coming down again. Each fence post suddenly felt like a line drawn in the sand.
I told myself not to resist, to go with the flow, but the feeling of being hemmed in grew as I looked up to where we’d just collected to talk, to where in March the diggers would be moving in to churn over the soil, chase out the wildlife, light the dark skies with fluorescent light as the housing development begins. This was what E had meant. We would be losing all three fields – all of this green space.
When I tell Calum how sad I am about it, he tells me to think of it as being a part of nature as we are a part of nature. I try to make myself feel it. But although I know that it isn’t, the hemming feels personal.
I think about the children who climb on the huge silvering trunk of the fallen oak, the kids who come on bikes to set up ramps and practice their tricks, letting off steam after school. I think about last summer when I kicked off my shoes and walked barefoot through the grasses like a child, noticing all their different colours and textures. How I’d revelled in the scents and sounds, the feeling of space and wildness. I think too, of the way the dogs always feel the rush of the space, turning circles, chasing each other around, just because they can. There is something primal about green space, about being free to wander it.
We are lucky to be surrounded by green space here in Sandford, it’s one of the things that drew us here. Just the colour green has been proven to help with feelings of calm and wellbeing. But it is true too, that much of the green space is off limits – look but don’t touch. I think of the news reports during the lockdowns about littering and fly tipping in the countryside. Of how they continue to be a costly problem for councils and countryside charities. But I wonder whether, if more of us felt that the countryside belonged to us and not to others, we might feel more invested in looking after it?
Space and nature connect us to who we are and to each other. But we’re allowing it to become increasingly commodified, parcelling it up and holding it tightly to ourselves in what Nick Hayes calls, in The Book of Trespass, ‘the cult of exclusion.’
I’m sure that we’ll continue to rehearse the same polarised arguments about the way that we divide and use the land, just as we’ve done since William the Conqueror galloped up and claimed all England as his own, casting over it, and us, the spell of land ownership. When, in the 17th century, the Enclosure Acts excluded commoners from the land, it was in the name of industry and progress, of developing the economy. Three quarters of each village had to agree to surrender its common land into the hands of the government, the gentry, trusting them to make the best decisions for us. Inevitably the best land was parcelled up into privately owned farms and shared amongst like-minded friends while the commoners were left with the scraps, sliding into subsistence or forced towards cities to find work. Still, at least we learnt that lesson.
We began as wanderers, before the ‘myth’ of land ownership became something we subscribed to and wandering became prosecutable; a prejudice which continues today with the persecution of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers (the new Policing bill includes the provision to turn trespass from a civil into a criminal offence, making it possible to confiscate people’s homes).
I can’t help but think that in a society where we have collectively chosen to prize the individual over the collective and the protection of property over everything, that we’re reaping our own harvest.
As with all change which feels inevitable, I expect I shall be sad for a while and then I’ll grow used to it and go on. As J said to me, laughing, as we walked back through the fields this morning, “Do you think that when we’re old we’ll be saying, when we were young, all these were fields! It was green as far as the eye could see?!”