Beating the Bounds

I think it was in somewhere towards the end of March that we started. Lockdown was beginning to bite hard and we were very much feeling the effects of being prohibited from going anywhere other than to the supermarket in the village for our weekly shop, and even then, not together.

But while the mood was sombre and fearful, all around us spring was bursting into cheery, vigorous life in the warm sun that smiled down from a powder-blue sky, beckoning us to come out to play. And so Mr Blue-Shirt and I began what soon became a daily ritual that was not dissimilar to a stripped down version of the ancient ceremony of beating the bounds: a full perambulation of our boundaries, not with birch or willow boughs, or with clergy and church choirs in order to reaffirm the limits of our land, but a slow and deliberate stroll around the garden, simply to take advantage of the only opportunity we had to be outside the house together and to drink in the sound of birdsong and the scent of new flowers, the sight of buds bursting and leaves unfurling, and to feel the sensation of the sun on our skin and the breeze in our hair.

Straight after breakfast, we would leave the house through the back door, climb the three deep steps to the knoll where the pigsty had once stood, and then turn left up towards the ivy-clad well at the back of the house. Here we would duck beneath the branches of our two largest olive trees and turn right along the western boundary that runs parallel to the road which at that time was still eerily deserted. Here we would crane our necks over the chain-link fence to catch a glimpse of Macerata silhouetted against the distant Sibillini Mountains, from whose upper slopes the snow of winter was receding further by the day. At the corner, we would turn eastward to follow the line of the northern boundary with our neighbour’s field, which back then was still just warming itself back into life in the gentle spring sunlight. We would stroll along the line of olive trees, taking in the clusters of tiny bead-like buds that were forming among the branches and past Mr-Blue Shirt’s enormous wood store until we reached the far corner where our dear cats Mimi and Stanley lie buried beneath a small cairn at the base of a young pear tree from whose slender branches sprouted a mass of shiny leaves.

Here we would pause again to look out over the artichoke fields where the plants, like spiky green cushions, were growing plumper by the day, and on to the vineyards where the swags of fresh, jagged-edged leaves fluttered in the breeze like bright green bunting. Finally, we would cast our eyes up to the village standing on its hill top and illuminated by the glow of the early morning sun. Back in those days of strict confinement it seemed so inaccessible and enigmatic it might just as well have been Xanadu. Then it was right again, and on through the olive grove on the long eastern boundary. Over the weeks we almost wore a path beneath the branches of the silver-green olive trees on the seaward side, and on the landward side, the fruit trees whose sturdy brown limbs were gradually disappearing behind a mass of tender young shoots, vivid green leaves and tightly folded buds. We would scan the fields on one side of the valley and point out to one another the tinges of green spreading over the patchwork of beige and brown, and among the distant clumps of trees along the sky line on the other side.

No matter how grim the statistics or how low our spirits, that soothing Marchigian landscape would always bring a sense of calm and a sense of perspective. For it is such a timeless landscape whose features have altered little for generations. Those hills and valleys, vineyards, fields and olive groves have borne witness to drought and deluge, fire and famine, earthquake, war and occupation – and have withstood them all. It is a landscape that has endured and recovered, that has provided food and sustained communities for centuries, that has continued to shift from past to present in an infinite circle of renewal. And every morning we would hold on to that thought as we performed our own daily circle of inner renewal.

On we would stroll on past the small table and two chairs in the far south-eastern corner which in the height of summer is the best place to catch a cooling breeze, before turning right again and back up the hill along the southern boundary towards the still silent road, our feet swishing through the dew-drenched grass where clover and daisies were beginning to bloom once more  Finally, on reaching the heavy sliding gate across the drive that would remain closed for days on end, we would cross the gravel drive and check the growth on the lemon trees now that we had removed their protective winter fleece, then peer hopefully at the young bougainvillea plants and the climbing rose we had only planted the previous autumn, celebrating every new leaf and shoot we spotted, before crossing the terrace and stepping back inside.

In reality, the whole circuit probably took no more than five minutes, even if we dawdled or played with Tilly on the way round as she scampered up and down trees. But those five minutes always felt as if they had set us up for the coming day, for another day in lockdown when the significance of those almost clichéd symbols of rebirth, regrowth, and recovery had seldom seemed greater than in those fear-filled times of disease and death, an oh-so-welcome daily reminder that ‘this too shall pass’.

And, to a large degree at least, the worst of it does now indeed seem to have passed. Over the last few weeks, we have eased ourselves out of lockdown, the country has come back to life again, we are becoming accustomed to the new normality of masks and social distancing. Most important of all, though, the coronavirus statistics grow more encouraging by the week. So it is as if in celebration of that recovery and renewal that we still make our daily circuit, for no matter which stretch of our boundaries we look out from now, there is colour, growth, abundance and vigour as far as the eye can see. Where once there were just shoots and buds, now there are lush green leaves and abundant fruit: the cherries have been and gone, the olives, walnuts and pomegranates are now forming, the apples, pears and figs are fattening up nicely, and the plums are already ripening. Meanwhile, geraniums, oleander, plumbago, bougainvillea, lavender and roses spill their vivid colours across the terraces and around the drive. Best of all, though, all around us in an exuberant riot of yellow and gold stands a vast phalanx of broadly smiling sunflowers whose sheer life force never fails to lift my spirits and cheer my day. And which inevitably bring to mind the adage that has long been my mantra: “Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you.”

In the last few months, never have I needed to cling to those words more tightly.

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