Up past the farm, onto the high flat plain
where sheep spread thin and from tufts of moor grass
unseen birds sing in secret industry
I was startled to meet, through a break in the wall,
a ruddy-faced man flopped in a deckchair.
We nodded, but passing here, so often,
I couldn’t not ask about his line of work.
What he was doing, how long it took, and
how old were these walls? How old are the hills?,
he laughed. These have stood a hundred years.
Dismantled, at his feet, the flaked sandstone lay strewn,
shattered by the years’ contracting ice and heat.
A shallow trench recut. Then rising anew,
in the local style, stone upon stone. Found and used,
piled high: throughstones, topstones, rubble and flats,
his eye weighing, discarding, picking up
only once. It’s twice the work, see? A little
clap as the right piece settled; stone nestling stone
in active rest. Lengthening out just 5 metres
each day, where once assembled labourers,
farmers, and prisoners of war lined this land.
Now he doesn’t see anyone for days
mending wall, resetting past realms. He points high
across the valley. That’s Deerplay. Bullfield.
Bonfire Hill. Twentypenneth – my Dad taught me
up there. His ashes are at the crossways.
He knew the history. Picking up thick gloves,
he says he’ll brush up after his hernia op.
His first winter off, then back in Spring. The walls
must hold tight until then. Gripping contours
over long miles, the lean, grey lines, define green slopes;
pens and plots enclosing the eye, holding
livestock and field names in their place; against
gravity, ice and shifting ground. Weather-worn,
each uniquely hand-placed stone stands as one,
endlessly. With this work, you’re never done.
Peter Burrows is a Librarian. His work has recently appeared in the Places of Poetry anthology and The Cotton Grass Appreciation Society and The Hedgehog Press Tree Poets Nature anthologies. His poem Tracey Lithgow was shortlisted for the Hedgehog Press 2019 Cupid’s Arrow Poetry Prize.