The Plot is a "secluded acre" edged by trees five miles from Oswaldkirk on the edge of the North York Moors. On it, in 1957, John Joseph Bunting, a sculptor and the author's father, built a chapel. For thirty years, with the either willing or faintly resentful help of his large family, he tended the plot, swept the floor, trimmed the weeds and stamped down the molehills. But he never explained his commitment to this "manifesto in stone" in the middle of nowhere. He died in 2002, complaining that "death is so boring".
In this involving and sensitively written anatomy of a small field in Yorkshire, Madeleine Bunting cleverly combines two investigations. The first is a discursive history, ranging from a lump on the Plot that turns out to be a Bronze Age barrow, through Scottish raids and Cistercian sheep flocks, to the hardships of farming where there is "nowt but bloody views", and the coming of tourists, conifers and airfields.
The second element is John Bunting himself and his motives. The chapel was dedicated to the memory of three fellow schoolboys he hardly knew who were killed fighting in the Second World War. He had discovered the plot during a school picnic on the day of the D-Day landings. But there was more to it than that. A lover of solitude, Bunting seems to felt a spiritual need to create a sanctuary, a place that brought his life experience into focus. His estranged daughter, a Guardian columnist and author of How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives, left home at 16. She lives in London and has hard, straight-nosed things to say about rural romantics past and present and Dads who left all the housework to Mum. Yet for her too, the place produces powerful emotions: "It snags the heart so violently that I'm left disorientated by the force of emotion. It's a landscape peopled with images so clear and voices so loud that it shakes any sense of reality".
So what? I started this book dreading a sustained gush of modish emotional overcharge but was soon happily turning the pages with growing pleasure and admiration. Bunting is a literary carpenter, dovetailing the stories to produce something greater than the sum of the parts. She has an enviable gift for bringing the past to life and a journalist's eye for recalling little things that we all have seen, and instantly forgotten.
Take sheep, whose nine-hour day of solid chewing keeps the August heather purple and even, and whose saliva nourishes the new grass. "Only up close can you get a sheep's attention, and it is only sustained when there is hope of fodder; the eyes stare back unflinching, the brilliant golds of the irises offsetting the astonishing black rectangular pupils...We cannot be deluded that any part of this encounter is about affection or loyalty on either part. The sheep that met us on the moor that February day were indifferent to our predicament...". That sharpness of observation, and resolute unwillingness to sugar the story, characterise the whole book. The climate is awful, always windy or raining. The local farmers are bankrupt and selling up, the tourists sometimes ignorant and ill-mannered. John Bunting has a bullying streak and wages war on the wildlife.
Yet, by the end, the author, and through her eyes, the reader gains an understanding of why the father focused so much of a busy life on his quixotic building on the moors, and why the daughter, in this at least, found "common ground" with him. "Belonging", asserts Bunting, "is about commitment rather than possession". It is "where we nurture our capacity for awareness of the myriad histories that constitute a place" and from it "draw inspiration to shape our sense of self and community".
Perhaps we all need a Plot on which to anchor our stray lives.