Look Back in Wonder


Sheep still graze in Harnham's historic floating water meadow just south of Salisbury in Wiltshire, England, where my husband and I have been staying for the past two months. For centuries, water has been diverted from a stream at the top of the meadow into a series of ditches, where it flows back into the river.  The constantly moving water feeds nutrients to the soil and warms the grasses over winter months to prevent freeze, allowing the sheep to feed year-round. It has been this way for over 400 years.

An impeccably preserved medieval city, Salisbury is part of an historic region of England that has done wonders in conserving the past. Throughout Wiltshire, Hampshire, Dorset and other regions of the southwest there are places, like the floating meadows, where time unravels. Everywhere are thatched roofs, Tudor beams, Norman churches, towering spires, Georgian closes, ancient oak trees, standing stones, and bucolic fields grazed by herds of cows and sheep whose pedigrees go back centuries.

And yet, it's true to say that I left England in the early 80s precisely because it felt old, unchanging.  The wide open spaces of the American West, so much more alive and forward thinking, drew me irresistibly. The restless energy in me met its match in California. Even the land, rattled by constant earthquakes, felt more dynamic. England’s soil rests on steadier bedrock.

But now I’m older, and have learned a thing or two about “progress.” We are compelled by it, especially in the west coast America. We constantly look to the next new thing, the next technology, breakthrough, idea, movement to come along and save us from ourselves.  This optimism is exciting, born of country still remarkably unformed and, to its European immigrants, still unfolding and new.

Today, as Bruce and I begin to pack up in order to head back to the States, my feelings are less certain. Seeing the beauty in tradition, I know there is much that I will miss when I return home. It's not that I want to preserve the past at all cost, as though set in amber. To live in such a place would be live in a museum, to be among the walking dead. But I don't want to live only for the new either. For to do so is to lose the thread of our own story, the very ground on which we stand.

Nature, as always, does it best. We have intact DNA going back millions of years. Nature holds and honors the past, but not at the expense of evolution and change. The spire of Salisbury Cathedral dates back to the 13th century, but it is bolstered by newer buttresses. In the same way, old and new support each other, as an integral whole.

Surely then, even as we evolve, we must honor and treasure what is best of the past.  Cars now crawl through the center of Salisbury, but the sheep still graze unperturbed in Harnham meadows.