Flat earth? Not here.

No Martin, beaming home a report on the terrain round here (should he, that is, have the good judgment to land in North Yorkshire on his first visit to planet Earth), would be fooled into thinking that the world is flat. He or she is likely to conclude, in fact, that the world isn't even round -- it's bumpy.

The poet Ted Hughes has written of this landscape as if it were the sea, and it is true that it seems to have retrained, in a stilled state, the surging and rolling, heaving and mounding, of a restless ocean. I say "retained" because it persuades you that, primitively, it must have been in a fluid condition.

This sealike character is accentuated in a different way, in the fields immediately near my house in midsummer when the grass (now sadly almost nothing but grass, without a trace of the rich intermixture of wildflowers once usual and surely a deliciously various diet for cows) is allowed to grow lush and tall. Because of the frequent rain, and the almost-as-frequent wind, these meadows not only glisten wetly but also seem to move in response to submerged currents and forces, eddies, whirlpools and other fancifully thalassic commontions. As the blades of grass shoot taller, the unknown deeps become more unfathomable to the imagination. You forget that this pasture is rooted in mere soil: a diver could plummet through it to realms of subaqueous wonder and mystery. . . .

The trouble is that all these great grassy waters do make walking a problem. The dog and I have developed a set route for the nightly exercise: it's a habit, really -- follow the wall down to the ash tree, over the corner stile, across the beck where a slab of stone has been conveniently placed, over to the broken-down gap in the far wall, cross the stream again by the railway bank, and so on -- a route with known and avoidable hazards, easy to trace in the blackest night, and inexhaustibly interesting to both man and dog. There is not a flat moment in it. the sky dome magnificently overpowers these fields, vast and dramatic, yet the fields are not awed and submissive; they seem to reflect and answer back.

But it is these very fields that the farmer allows to grow for hay and silage , and the dog and I are forced either to try other paths (involving unexpected encounters with awkward cows, or walls that are too high or offer no foothold for scaling or crumble ruinously just as we reach their tops, or marsh, or bog, or thistle, or gate that won't open, or unforded stream, or electrified fence, or barbed wire, or bramble, or collapsed field drain, or much midden -- the countryside is alive with possibilities) or I simply have to wade thigh-deep through this endless herbiage while the dog becomes a porpoise, exuberantly leaping and vanishing, leaping and vanishing. We return home ragged and soaked.

Then, at last, it is mowed and carted away and the ground reappears, bristling with stubble, like the facial contours of a man who has recently shaved his beard off. Once again there is terra firma, and it has bone structure, hollows and humps. It rises and sinks, a topographical game of concavity and convexity, like an age-old seabed left high and dry but not forgetting what it has been through. The dog and I (as pleased as the farmer but for much less practical reasons) feel released: she makes visible the surge of freedom that thrills me. I stretch my legs energetically, but the dog chases and races like a mad thing, wild with the delight and the silliness of open space. The seas have parted.

On the whole I would recommend to any potentially visiting Martian that he or she (and I am becoming increasingly certain that it will be a Martianess) try to time her arrival just after Ken has finished making his hay. Of course, it depends -- but that ocean of long, sopping grass is scarcely ideal for a touchdown, and if our friends from the Red Planet do happen to be only a few inches high (and the rumors, despite the scientists, persist), then that first great step of Martiankind might end up being a drowning kind of swim rather than a saluting kind of stride.m

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