“Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour’s landmark” Deuteronomy 19:14
May is the abundant month: her bounties come in showers. Overpowering mists of hawthorn, elegant cranes of buttercups: uplifted nature’s open hand. So, in the coming days, Rogationtide – when, by ancient custom, parish bounds are beaten and (in those tracks) the waxing crops are blessed. A time to consider the benefit of this particular plot: the yield of the season.
From Overton Hill, walking north along the Ridgeway – the neolithic trade route that may once have extended from Grime’s Graves in Dorset to the Norfolk coast, I am also tracing a parish boundary. Often following more ancient patterns, these frequently picked up hitchhiking landmarks – long barrows, especially – incorporating them to delimit parochial or manorial lands. In her exploration of Englands ‘spiritual topography’ Inhabiting the Landscape, historian Nicola Whyte demonstrates how a range of Christian and pre-Christian territorial markers – standing crosses, for example – linked with natural features to form a ‘mnemonic’ framework that enabled communities to learn their locale by heart. Perhaps inevitably, these lines also symbolised the threshold between life and death – burial mounds in some cases becoming sites of a gallows or gibbet, usually at a conjunction of routes.
Pausing at the Ridgeway’s intersection with the ‘Herepath’ or Green Street – another prehistoric trackway – the crops look ripe for a reading of the 103rd Psalm, one of the Rogationtide texts. Since I last visited (before lockdown), a lush velour of barley has covered these crusted furrows – the brown sweep of the fields now furred by a soft green pelt. The ‘perambulation’ of parish bounds during this week in May was, interestingly, the only outdoor religious procession to survive the English Reformation: not merely permitted but mandated by the Injunctions of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. While this accords with the growing significance of the parish as the footing for local government (whose powers accrued for a further three centuries), attachment to the enchanted landmarks of catholic – and, indeed pagan – practice persisted, only being dislocated by the ever-expanding privatisation and enclosure of common ground.
For a thousand years, these ceremonies defined community as a triangular conversation between God, land and humanity, with scripture employed as the mediating language of our dialogue with nature. In this, it was both the term of address: William Tyndale describes the “saying of gospels to the corn in the procession week, that it should better grow” and also of reply, for the same Gospel would be read from holy trees (hence ‘Gospel Oak’), that those gathered should likewise flourish. In a roughly practical outworking (Rogationtide processions could also be the riotous flashpoint for disputation with neighbours) the words of the Bible thus sealed our covenant with the soil.
That is a compact worth renewing as we land from modernity’s long-haul flight, and reckon again with the routes of community. So today, I pray from the rutted path: with suede-faced fallow deer and fly-twitched cattle; with rosters of red campion and bush vetch, and a skylark to cantor the wind’s amen.