Feel the earth beneath your feet
My father’s Scottish parents came from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, a place of biting Atlantic gales, crofters, fishermen, and the smell of burning peat.
The Isle of Lewis was once covered in forest, but this was cleared by Viking raiders thousands of years ago to prevent the inhabitants from building boats and sailing to Viking lands to launch counterattacks. The landscape was cleared further to enable deer and sheep farming by the English, so over time and misuse, the island forgot it was once a forest.
When I visited the island in 1985 it was virtually treeless but was known for its peat. Peat is partially decayed, spongy organic matter formed over thousands of years in wetlands. In the Isle of Lewis, it was a vital commodity for everyone until recent times, used for heating, cooking, and hot water.
Grandpa and Granny MacLeod were crofters – which means they had a small allotment on which they ran a few sheep. Crofters usually had other jobs to augment their income, like fishing. But life was hard, so they and Dad’s older siblings migrated to Australia in the late 1920s as part of a land settlement scheme that was supposed to turn them into dairy farmers. It wasn’t successful, so after a few years of backbreaking work clearing giant karri trees on the land that had been assigned to them, Grandpa moved his family to Fremantle, where he took up his old trade of rope-making.
Grandpa died before my parents were married, but I remember Granny MacLeod. She was a sad woman who said very little. When she did talk to me, I didn’t understand a word because of her accent. When she visited us, she sat silent and still on a chair in our kitchen, hands clasped in her lap, staring through the wall all the way back to Scotland, missing her little croft home, the biting Atlantic gales, and the smell of burning peat.
Dad was a truck driver who liked to do woodwork in his spare time, and dreamed of turning his backyard into a vegetable garden. He probably wished he had some of the peat of his ancestors to enrich the sand he planted his seeds in.
When I was in my early forties, my husband and I bought a 20-acre property in the wetlands on the south coast of Western Australia. Potato farmers in the area told us that the three acres in front of our house were composed of peat. When I heard that, I felt a swirling inside me, as if I’d come home. I had completed a family circle. I was meant to be here, with peat beneath my feet.
In winter, the three acres of grass dotted with willow trees turns into a winter lake. It’s a yearly wonder I still marvel at 27 years later. We go for rows in our little boat; watch diamonds of light blink and dance across its surface; wait patiently to see this year’s cygnets float beside their black swan parents; count ducks and ducklings; and take photos of egrets, ibis and heron which fail to capture their true elegant majesty.
Sometimes the lake is as still as a millpond and packed with reflections, other times it carries white caps like a mini raging sea. And underneath it, dead vegetable matter settles, ferments, and very, very slowly turns into peat. It take ten years for one centimetre of peat to form.
By mid-summer the water has found its way through a series of canals to Lake Saide, and I walk across quick growing swamp couch grass, our winter lake no more than a sweet watery memory. And as I walk, I remind myself that I am also walking on peat, like Grandpa and Granny MacLeod, and thousands of my ancestors, once did.
History sometimes repeats itself.
When it does, it’s a reminder of the brief time we live on this earth.
It’s a reminder to feel the earth beneath your feet.
With love, Marlane