Peace in the Valley Once Again

Who has thought about the songs for their funeral? This post is about one of mine. 

I think about death often. I write this as I am wandering through one of my favourite places, Woodvale Cemetery in Brighton on England’s south coast. As I walk, I think about lost beloveds, mine across the world, and all the unknown people, beloved by others, around me here under the tangled trees and groundsel. I remind myself how natural a part of our life the end of it is. I think about death, as a means of getting out from under the anxiety of it. 

Woodvale Cemetary today as I wrote in my notebook

OH MY GOD I’M GOING TO DIE ONE DAY… is one of the most powerful and useless thoughts in a human mind. Unless, that is, we shift the kind of power it has and allow ourselves to understand the rightness of it: accept our mortality and let it make us peaceful. 

(Bereavement and grief are not things I am treating lightly in writing this. It is dreadful to lose a loved one. I am talking about our more general midnight mind and its grappling with our inevitable mortality, rather than specific deaths, which will always cause sometimes unbearable sorrow. I send love to anyone who is suffering with grief.)

I think about death by choosing songs I would like at my funeral, by walking in the beautiful cemetery; I think about death by choosing to acknowledge it. I recommend this process. I have found Going With Grace on Instagram a wonderful and life-enhancing help with this – a true and inspiring wise-woman.

But anxiety still creeps in. Because of the ravages of Covid and because we seem hell bent on killing the planet, this is a very anxious time. Many of us feel sad and scared about the future. The harms we wreak are more distressing to me than the knowledge of my own eventual end. We are so damn reckless. 

Part of the chorus, the herd voice of feral cows, who throughout Salt Lick, comment on the lives and choices of the people in the book, and the folly of all humans.

But walking in Woodvale, to remind myself of the constant change of life and the blessing of being in it at all gives me comfort. A song gives me comfort – the song I would like played at my funeral. It reminds me that it is hubris to imagine that our end will be the end of everything. It reminds me that beautiful nature is more resilient, more wily, more profoundly powerful than we are. The natural world, though it be ever so battered and ill-used, will survive and flourish in new, unimaginable ways. 

The song is Peace In The Valley Once Again by The Handsome Family. It was a huge inspiration in writing Salt Lick – the reason I wanted to imagine places where the scrubby tide of human occupation recedes and its leavings are slowly obliterated by nature. My fascination with this song lead me to imagine an England with no farms where wild cattle create a patchwork of woodland and meadow, to picture a woman walking under abandoned motorway intersections, a wolf, lying in the sun behind the crumbled cement of a brutalist multi-storey car park in Chelmsford.

Quote from Salt Lick, as Isolde starts her journey on foot along the abandoned A12

I have always wanted to experience this landscape of ours without the choke and noise of cars; one of the great joys of writing is you get to design your own play parks and I loved writing Salt Lick. It imagines a world that is both frightening, as sea levels rise and human nature boils in the cities, and hopeful. Cars are abolished. People relearn ways to work, to co-operate, to grow food. It is not a dystopia but a mixture of muddling along, in bad and good, which is how I imagine all our possible futures. 

To be clear, I don’t want to die unnecessarily, nor do I want people to be subject to the awful ravages of climate catastrophe. None of us I think, know if we will get it right. We are like inept and greedy mages, letting demons loose that we might gain gold plate on our tableware. It IS a catastrophe. One that takes more than a song to banish. 

So sometimes we need comfort, a moment to regain our strength, to rest our minds. To make us ready for the next bit. To rediscover the simple blessing of being an animal, alive. I find a place of recuperation in this song as I step back from fearful reality and imagine wild horses breaking mirrors in the last shopping mall. It makes me think that somehow, somewhen, everything will be alright. 

What a comfort

I would like to thank Rennie Sparks of the Handsome Family for giving me permission to use the lyrics of her beautiful song. 

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