The sower and the seed
Certain people and places have a way of imprinting you so deeply with early childhood that the mark remains forever after. A farmer cousin, much older than my brother and sister and I, was the hero of our early years and the landscape around his Ayrshire farm out most beloved corner of earth.Skip to next paragraph
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We travelled there by train, watching excitedly for the first blue glint of the sea, the outline of the Holy Isle and the island of Arran, then for the squat granite form of Ailsa Craig, milestone for the ships sailing over to Ireland. Our cousin would be waiting at the station for us with his favorite collie, Prinny, and we would shadow the pair of them for the length of our stay. We had entered our other Eden, sniffing the salty air and the almond-sweet perfume of the golden whins that blossomed all year round.
We had entered poetry, too, for we were in Burns country and, next to the Bible, Burns was quoted most often in these parts --house walls were pictures of Rabbie with the mountain daisy, scenes from the Cotter's Saturday Night cheek by jowl with illustrations from Bible stories. In our minds we wove them all together into a childhood mythology: the herdsmen of the Old Testament, the good shepherds and fishermen of the New, Ayrshire fisher and farm folk, the ploughman poet and our cousin.
We lived in a world close to animals, spending hours in byres and stables or up in the hayloft where the cat had her kittens and Prinny's pups wriggled in an upturned barrel. Our affection for these creatures was colored by Burns's pity for the field mouse and by that ironic and democratic glance of the Twa Dugs, Caesar and Luath, at the foibles of mankind.Every now and then we ran to our cousin with some appeal, sure of his compassion: "Please spare the runt piglet! Must the scaly-legged hen have her neck thrawed?" He would smile his slow smile. "We'll see what can be done," he said.
The devil is a very real presence in the Scottish countryside, and Burns made him so vivid that he was never far off. We rolled over on our tongues the Address to the Deil: "Oh thou, whatever title suit thee, Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick or Clootie!"m To live so near to the setting of Tam o' Shanter gave us shivers of mingled terror and delight. When our cousin took us to the Brig o' Doon and Kirk Alloway we remembered, "Kirk Alloway was drawing nigh, where ghaists and houlets nightly cry,"m seeing in imagination the fearful sights Tam had witnessed, the deil piping to the witches -- "he screw'd the pipes and gart them skirl"m -- the chase and escape over running water where deils and witches cannot cross.
On Sundays we went to church in the village of Kirkoswald, passing the cottage of Tam's companion, Souter Johnny, on the way. When, in the course of his sermon, the minister warned of the temptings of the devil, we shivered and peeped along the pew at our cousin for comfort. He smiled back at us and we felt safe, protected by his goodness from all the legions of hell.
"I was as near being resolved into the essence of things as ever I was in my life," said Thoreau, fishing beside Walden Pond, and likewise we were absorbed into the essence of farm life and the cycle of the seasons. In spring we watched for the green spears of corn to thrust up through the brown soil. In early summer we waited for the arrival of the Tatty Howkers, sailing over from Ireland to Stranraer for the potato harvest. They were a rambunctious, colorful crew, dancing and louping in our cousin's barns, singing their Irish songs.
In high summer we helped with the hay making, on other days drove with our cousin to his sheep farms, up by the Nick of the Balloch and deep into the hills. We bathed at Ballantrae, on Turnberry beach, from the Barrwhin Point at the Maidens and under high-perched Culzean Castle on Croy Bay. We lay hour-long among the bents, reading S. R. Crockett's "Grey Man and the Raiders" with bated breath, shuddering at the dark deeds of the Kennedys.
Autumn held for us one sight in especial --his fields, rhythmically flinging the grain for springtime from left to right, up and down the furrows. On winter visits the farmhouse was warm with high-piled log fires, while from the kitchen came the floury smell of baking scones.
We would run along the shore as far as Turnberry lighthouse, looking across at snow on Goat Fell in Arran, at ships tossed on giant waves. At night, when the voice of the sea was a wild thundering and gales howled round the farm, we thought of the fishing smacks going out from Girvan and of the ships crossing by Paddy's Milestone and trembled for their safety. "What if they sink?" we would ask our cousin.
He would pull back the curtains and point out into the darkness. All down the Ayrshire coast and across the sea we could see the lighthouses, Pladda, Holy Isle, Ailsa Craig and Turnberry, flashing their signals to seamen. "There's their guides," he said, and our fears were banished.
When we look back on that golden time, our cousin appears to us like some Ayrshire Thoreau, for whom, too, "every morning was a cheerful invitation to make his life of equal simplicity with nature herself." Those nights when we couldn't sleep for remembering all the richnesses of the day, tumbled about us from the horn of plenty, we lay, counting, not sheep, but the scattered grain, one, two, three, sometimes as far as eleven or twelve, falling asleep at last to the image that shaped our green years, that of the Sower and the Seed. The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man that sowed good seed in his field. . . .