A fire burned under a hot sun. A book lay open on the dusty ground. The air was very still.

It was swaling time.

A ring of spectators stood around the enclosure, spread out behind a dry-stone wall topped by rolls of barbed wire. Some of the watchers were throwing books and little ornaments into the flames, lobbing them over the wire onto the scrubby heather. Others stood with their eyes half-closed, their hands outstretched. No one was talking much.

‘It never used to be like this,’ said Fred. ‘Not when I was young.’

Fred was a big woman with wispy grey hair and large hands. No one was listening except for a young couple standing nearby, their eyes flicking from her pale leathery face to the flames. The fire was burning higher now, and louder too. They could feel its heat approaching the chill damp stones of the wall.

‘I did the burning myself, thirty years ago. I did it with matches and a bit of diesel out of my car. We were encouraged to do it. They said it was good for the land, good for the birds and the butterflies, good for the sheep and the cows. I had a whole flock of sheep back then, if you can imagine it.’

The couple’s young son looked up at her. ‘How many sheep did you have?’

‘In this enclosure, probably only one or two,’ said Fred. ‘But there were sheep all over these hills in those days. All the way over there, where you can see all those houses.’ She made an expansive sweeping gesture with her arms.

The boy’s parents looked at each other. This was their first swaling. They could just see their apartment building rising from behind a ridge, where the land had been cut away to make a flat surface for the foundations.

Fred lived in one of the proper houses in the old part of the city. It must have been damp after all the warm rain they’d been having recently, but she seemed to have a store of wood from years ago and she sometimes lit fires with it in her grate. The smoke gave off a perfumed, slightly acrid smell that was somehow pleasant and nostalgic.

Fred always got one of the coveted spots in the quaint old bar of the public house next door, rather than in the new extension out the back. She drank little glasses of clear, stinging spirits with a studied nonchalance and pointed to the old bits of equipment on the walls, explaining how she had used them on her farm. What she said couldn’t be true, because each of the strange objects had a plastic label underneath stating its age and when it had reached obsolescence, and most of them went out of use before Fred had even been born.

But it was like that these days. People’s memories had gone funny. Events from twenty years previously seemed so impossibly long ago that they might as well have happened in the Elizabethan age. At the time, the changes seemed to happen gradually. Everyone was distracted by everything else, and the news headlines shifted in front of their eyes, swinging from disaster to mundanity with such rapidity that they stopped reading the words and allowed their vision to be dazzled by the mesmerising patterns. In retrospect, though, it seemed much faster.

Fred was speaking again, addressing the little boy, who was rooting around in the thin strip of mud between the tarmac path and the swaling wall.

‘Some bright young thing came to my house the other day. Dressed smart, you know, most people don’t dress that way anymore. He was in money, he said. Only thing anyone seems to want to make nowadays, I said. I was trying to be rude, but in truth it’s been like that for a long time.

‘He saw a book on my shelf – wooden shelves, I’ve got still, even the floors and the stairs in my house are made of wood. The book was something about sheep farming, and he went over to it and took it down, didn’t ask first. He turned the pages over, one after another, and he had this strange expression on his face, like he was enjoying the feel of those leaves.

‘Then he flipped it shut, one handed, and pushed it back on the shelf like he didn’t want to look at it any longer. You won’t need that again, he said, might as well burn it at the next swaling. And I’ve brought it, too, it’s here in my pocket. But I won’t throw it on the fire, not now I’m here.’

The couple had brought a book with them too, something about old financial regulations. They were too young to have owned books themselves, so they had bought it in one of the junk emporiums, the hoards of obsolescence which seemed to swing in and out of fashion with each new technological upgrade. They wanted to participate in the tradition.

‘More officials than last year,’ Fred observed, nodding to the people standing just inside the swaling wall, silver badges on their chests just visible through the wire. The smell of petrochemicals floated towards them on the breeze. They watched a park warden flash a jet from a flamethrower, half-heartedly aiming at a clump of gorse. The spindly branches crackled, sharp needles singeing. The fire flared higher and the couple felt comforted by its insistent, sanctioned presence, by the violence of its hunger for the scrubby plants that grew in the enclosure.

A few people gasped as a rabbit streaked among the patches of fire. One flank, burned half away, had a curiously shiny quality. The warden watched it lazily as it darted past him, then, when it made a blind rush towards a gap in the base of the wall, he let out a short blast of flame and the rabbit dropped to the ground.

‘Poor little bastard,’ Fred said. ‘I used to shoot them, back when there were loads of them. Ate them too, sometimes, if you can believe it. Had to be careful, though, because sometimes they would all get mixy and they weren’t even fair game then, just used to stop and stare at nothing with those milky, crusty eyes. Used to give me the creeps then. Those were pearls that were his eyes, my father used to say. Had to stop the dogs from going near them, but to be honest when they weren’t good for chasing, the dogs lost interest in them. Always found that strange. Just let them die in their own time. Of course, there’s not many of them left now. Chemical selection, you might call it.’

The idea seemed to make her laugh, and she wheezed to herself until the fumes made her cough. The fire was close to them now, and the barbed wire was making little popping and creaking noises in the heat. The man opened his book and tore out the frontispiece, curling the paper into a ball and holding it in his fist for a long moment before throwing it over the wire.

‘Regulations, is it?’ said Fred. ‘We had those in my day too. Still do, I suppose. Doesn’t it seem to you, that the laws for the big people keep getting looser, while the laws for the small people keep getting tighter? That money-man who came to my house, who held my book in his hands and touched its pages with his fingertips, he was interested in laws, regulations, that sort of thing. He wanted to buy my house, see, for the government or for some big company I guess.

‘But the land has laws of its own, and they run deep. I know my rights, I made sure my house is mine a long time ago. Deep roots, in this land, even though the trees are all gone now. You remember trees? I guess maybe some of those roots are still down there, in the soil, biding their time. Not sure what they’re waiting for, though. Maybe for us all to be gone, for all this is disappear and rot away, if all this plastic and metal and wire and glass can ever rot.

‘And I guess those laws of the land, those laws I know through the soles of my feet and my stomach and my hair, I guess they’ll be done away with, soon. Too messy. But I know them. I reckon my hands know them better than my head does.’

And she stretched her hands towards the flames again, warming the cracked palms on its heat, which was nearly unbearable now. The boy looked up at her, his small face pink and shadowed by the flickering light.

‘I guess they’ll do away with me, too, before long, and there won’t be many left who remember the old laws. But who’s to say those old laws of my bones and of this place are even right? Maybe they’re not even all that old, I don’t know. It’s hard to think past your own childhood.’

She looked at the boy, who was pressing his nails into the mud again, and levering up the roots of a stubborn dandelion.

‘Like I said, I used to burn thousands of acres of this land. All over there, where your house is, I guess, as far as you can see. My dad had always done it, and his dad, so I did it too. I worked with the other farmers – there were a few of us back then and it was mostly a lonely life, but we came together for the swaling and we drank tea and whisky from a flask and we made jokes. It was hard work, and we went home with the smell of smoke clinging to our hair and our clothes, and our hands were scorched. But I went to bed happy on those days, a deep dreamless sleep that satisfied my body and my mind. The mud of my land was engrained in the leather of my boots that stood by the door, and the green wick of the living plants stained my knees and elbows.

‘And where we burnt the brushwood away, the short grass sprang up lush and tightly curled, and we set our flocks to gorge themselves there like proud parents who send their sons and daughters to school well-fed. Those deserted uplands felt peaceful and truthful. Natural, we called it. The authorities said burning benefitted the plants and the birds and the insects. They called us guardians, protectors of a way of life being taken over by screens and cities. People envied us. Now look at it.’

She gestured again towards the couple’s apartment block.

‘Then the grass grew less thickly, and the sheep became smaller with each generation. We lost some in the floods, of course, they never stood a chance in their heavy fleeces, already waterlogged by a month of rain. We only found their bloated bodies when the waters went down weeks later. Then some of them froze in the harsh winters. I lost the whole flock for days in the sudden snow, and when I found them the lambs were stiff and lifeless. They were too thin to bother eating them, so I piled them in the yard and burned them while the other sheep looked on and the dogs barked.

‘Scientists came and made tests, scraping delicately at the soil and depositing it in little plastic tubes. They put litmus paper in the water, and took samples away to a laboratory on the edge of a town. They all drove small silver cars and complained that there was no bus to the moors or the science park.

‘They sent back their results in a long document filled with charts and formulas and difficult words. They added that they were also sending a version of their results to the press. In their pithy summary they told us that the soil was depleted, injured by grazing and burning, burning and grazing. It was being compacted by the animals’ feet and washed into the rivers by the heavy rains. The landscape couldn’t support our flocks anymore.

‘The scientists’ work was reported in the news. We got a few angry letters, but no one seemed to care too much. There were other things going on back then. So we reduced the number of sheep in our flocks and we adjusted the profit margins – there was never much profit in it anyway, but then it was never really about the money for me. And we continued with the swaling, because our fathers had done it and theirs before them. But now our faces were tense as we lit the fires, and the jokes became sharper and the whisky failed to warm us like it used to.

‘Then of course the floods came and the insects disappeared and it turned out most of the soil was depleted just like ours, and the grain and the vegetables and the animals had been getting smaller for years and nobody had cared. And you know what happened then. This one’s been learning about it in history class, no doubt.’

She nudged the boy with her foot. He looked up at her, startled. The young couple shifted uncomfortably.

‘Why do they keep doing the swaling here then?’ Asked the woman, squinting into the bright fire that now filled the enclosure. The government officials had all moved back, and were walking among the crowd round the edges, watching the onlookers throw their old books and their trash over the wall.

Fred shrugged. ‘I don’t even know who organises it, or how long it’s been happening like this. I won’t throw my book in though, I’ll tell you that, I won’t throw it in, no matter how high the flames get.’

They were all sweating now before the blaze, though a light drizzle had started to fall, sweeping sideways across the hills and making the fire spit and jump. The man put the book back in his pocket. The woman took the child’s hand. They turned to go.

‘Good bye,’ the boy said to Fred. He had a dandelion leaf in his hand. The old woman didn’t seem to hear him over the roar of the swaling. The couple walked back along the path between the tall grey houses. The man started to laugh.

‘What is it?’ his wife asked, looking up from her phone.

‘That damn rabbit,’ he said. ‘That poor little bastard, with the crusty eyes and the dogs and the flamethrower. Chemical selection, isn’t that what she said?’ He laughed again and wiped his eyes. He turned to the little boy tripping along beside them.

‘So, darling, how did you like your first swaling?’