Poetry Map of Scotland, poem no. 255: Dunbar

Doon Hill
One day as I stepped out from my house
Into the dawning spring morning
And smelled the fresh rain-washed air,
And heard the melodious chorus of woodland birds -
Blackbird and wren, robin and chaffinch,
And the curious gurgling call of the young rook -
High over the rough grass of the field by my house
A skylark warbled, unseen at a great height,
Like a singer direct from heaven,
Or a friend calling me from a distance.
Straightway I stepped from the warmth of my cottage,
From the home smells of cooking and the body of my family,
Into the rain-rinsed morning where the birds seemed to greet me
As some dear, long-lost comrade. I spoke back to them,
Called them by name as they appeared in tree and hedgerow and long rough grass.
There I met neighbours and other people of the town,
The early-joggers and dog-walkers,
The commuters hurrying along the track to the station -
I greeted them and they me, and the early summer sun greeted us all.
But as I strode on, only pausing to study a just-opened wildflower here,
Or stand entranced by the call of an unknown bird,
I was glad to welcome solitude, the fellowship of the empty country road.
The road was met by a well-trimmed farmer's track, 
And if solitude can grow deeper as you step from road to path
It did grow deeper, though only solitude from man:
A hare stood on hind legs and watched me pass,
And startled ahead, one deer stood from the corn,
Then another and another, a family of their own;
All naturally frightened of me,
They bounded high and balletically, melting into the wood
That I approached reverently where it stood,
A temple in the fields.
I climbed through the ruined fence where the deer had leapt,
Through hawthorn and under holly,
And under the ancient pollarded beeches.
The green was deep, and the silver trunks of the beeches
Were the columns of this temple and the canopy its roof.
Behind the sun shot through the hedge of hawthorn and blackthorn,
The rays touching here and there on leaf and branch,
A glittering array of dancing jewels the morning light seemed,
And no church more beautifully adorned before the sight of its god.
Above I could see and hear a morning breeze sway the branches
And make that sighing music
When tree sings to tree as bird sings to bird,
And all a great choir that no man heard but I,
Though they would have sung as harmoniously had I not been there.
As I walked, slowly now, greeting each tree as dear friend,
Rowan and oak, birch and ash, even the foreign sycamore I greeted,
An immigrant as I am an immigrant, 
But more firmly planted in this land than I.
I was as glad to see them all as I had been glad to see the townspeople,
Regarding them as equal in interest and cordiality,
But freer too, to touch and caress and speak my heart softly to them.
For though I would like to be equally tactile and soft with my friends in the town,
The men and women whom I love and whose company I cherish,
Still I could not touch them as I touched that rowan,
Speak my deepest heart to them as I spoke it to this oak,
Nor lie as close to their bodies as I stretched out on the low branch
Of an accommodating beech.
Only one hundred yards long, and it seemed
As if that wood would never, could never end - and yet it ended.
Now an iron fence stretched across the track,
And with a wave and a backward glance I left the wood
To follow the track back through the fields.
It passed by a isolated farmhouse, 
Its outbuildings huddled around for company under the wide sky,
And though I knew the farmer,
And knew coffee could be had for the asking,
I only cast him a cordial thought through the clear air and kept walking,
My eye set on the height of Doon Hill.
Up the track slowly climbed where the land climbed,
And a sudden avenue of trees appeared:
Tall ash and beech and oak stood as if to guard the field from the walker
Or the walker from the field, or the field from the wind, 
Or because a long dead farmer was disturbed by the uninterrupted crops
And craved a friendly row of saplings to cheer him on a summer morning
Like this summer morning.
That farmer is dead but these immortal trees have grown,
Have put out sprouts and shoots and saplings of their own to fill the gaps,
And I am heartened by them all.
Now the avenue ended hard against the flanks of the hill,
And instead of following the path around to a mains farm
And more fences and cattle and hens,
I chose the wild ancient track
That traverses the hillside steeply
Through groves of gorse and hawthorn,
Breathing deep yellow gorse-flower scent
And delicate bittersweet hawthorn-flower scent.
Here rabbits scurried almost underfoot 
Through warrens as ancient as the tree avenue,
Where their families have lived through countless generations,
A noble lineage, arriving with the Romans,
Another immigrant gone native. They nibbled grass and watched me
With careful eyes. But I did not approach them, only spoke gently,
And their ears twitched.
High I climbed as the sun now climbed,
And sweat slicked my arms where I rolled my sleeves back.
The track was steep and rough, 
And though it left the gorse thickets and meandered under trees
Clinging perilously to the slope,
Their great weight and height in perfect balance - for now -
Still my breath came quick and my pace slowed with each step.
I stopped more frequently - to admire the view as well as rest.
But just as it seemed I could take no more, as if the hill and the steep climb must last forever,
I reached the top. The ground levelled off. There was another fence to climb
And I climbed it.
And now, at last, the wide world round opened herself to my gaze.
The sun was free of the sea and the land and soared overhead.
I felt the breeze that only the birds and the treetops felt before,
And it cooled my arms and face and made me laugh with gladness.
I heard my laughter echo across the hills, and down over the fields and through the town,
And I imagined the housewives at the market stall, 
The commuter at the railway platform,
And the sailor putting out to to sea, hoisting his sails to catch that same morning breeze,
I imagined they caught that echo of laughter 
As if a distant friend were calling them to look up,
And they looked up.
Paul Milne
"I learn by going where I have to go." - Roethke




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