Droighneach II: Harvest

High summer heat. Out here, the pressure’s palpable.
Sun-shimmer on the wheat, and yet we’re worrying
About the weather, praying it’s possible,
To keep running hell-for-leather with harvesting.

The tractors creep beside combines crawling ceaselessly.
Night brings no sleep for now; we’re hauling heavyweight
Trailers gorged with golden grain, and checking constantly
For news of rain; the threat we don’t care to contemplate.

Days drag, dredged in dust and diesel fumes. We’re wondering
If we’ve edged ahead. The work consumes us utterly.
From dawn to dew the big rigs roll through, thundering
Scorn at forecasts and fatigue. The heat builds brutally.

One last load. Black battlements brood high overhead.
On the road, racing back beneath a sky suspended
Like an executioner’s axe; throbbing thunderheads
Prepare to strike. The first cracks come. Dark, distended

Clouds tear open; an electric ecstasy
Ignites the bristling air too late: the storm’s defeated –
The fields stand silent; tyre-tracks the only legacy
We’ve left. The land exhales. Another crop completed.

 
 

I’m not going to let the droighneach beat me. Still tricky as all hell, but at least I managed five stanzas this time! My admiration for Tom and Ina, who’ve got this thing well and truly nailed, knows no bounds. Wishing you all a splendid weekend. N.

Foraging

Catch their sound:
A long-drawn snarl
From beyond the woods.

I track them
Across glistening fields
Bouldered with cows;

Through a gate
Kinked by years of heavy carelessness,
Over a stile in the wayward hedge,

A hundred yards up a concrete road;
Another gate, bent like an old coat-hanger,
And over the brow.

There: the big machines
Peeling dark swaths from the shocked hillside;
Gaudy jewels on pale skin.

As another turncoat June
Hurls wind and rain like insults
The breathless work goes on:

The famished clamps gape like fledglings
And so the trailers fly
To feed them

While I stand here,
Powerless to help,
Taking a first cut of my own.

 

Silage-making is under way at last in our corner of Sussex. Better late than never. N.

Will work for food

A day of rest? Not for this silage crew.
Hard-pressed, the forage harvester devours
The thick green swaths; the spinning steel blades chew
A month’s growth into half-inch lengths. For hours
The tractors have been hauling high-heaped loads
Then racing back with empties, raising dust
And thunder from rough headlands hard as roads.
To lay the winter’s feed in is the trust
Placed in them. In the next field, unconcerned
With hurrying machines, the engines’ roar,
The man-hours and the diesel being burned,
The cows plod in to give their milk once more.
An ancient pact, whose terms both sides accept.
A Sabbath broken. But a bargain kept.

The dark side


 

The sun’s long gone; the summer evening makes
The first down-payment on the winter night
To come. Long shadows creep out from the woods
And over hilltops, driving colours deep
Into the still-warm soil to sleep till dawn.
But in the mothy dark, new sets of eyes
Are opening; the bright, all-seeing stare
Of sleepless beasts whose labours will not cease
Until cold dews come down upon the crops,
Or diesel tanks are hollow, drained to fumes.
They sweep the stubbles, flood the fields and gaze
With halogen intensity on plough,
Ring-roll and tillage-train; while in the lanes
Red pairs blink bright on bends, then settle to
A ruby glow that dwindles on the straight
Run in to barn or silo. They will haunt
The land a little longer, then be gone
Like swallows. All their mighty works complete,
They’ll drowse the dreary winter months away
Snug in their sheds, while night is handed back
To fox and owl and badger, who will reap
Their harvest from our acres as we sleep.

 

Photo credit: CLAAS GmbH & Co KGaA
http://www.claas.com

Black and white decision

Gone dry

We tried, but now it’s over:
We’ve finally closed the gate.
No milk today, nor ever –
Not from us, at any rate.

They milked here for a hundred years.
Now Daisy, Mabel, Ethel,
Buttercup and Blossom have all gone,
Reduced to lot numbers and guineas-per-head
Under the auctioneer’s hammer.
Enough to pay the bank back
And leave the family in the clear
Without a penny over.
Three lifetimes’ work
Leaked away
A litre at a time.

No waiting now for cows to cross
The road twice-daily.
No forager’s snarl, no rumbling trailers
Hauling home the rich first cut.
No rustling maize rainforest rising nine feet high.
No kicking-up-of-heels
As the ladies leave their winter quarters
And dignity behind
And feel the new grass underfoot.

The herdsman, stockman and relief
Have been let go,
And the farm is worked by just one man
With a big New Holland
And a hunted look.
The leys are ploughed under
And put down to wheat.
The sheds stand like deconsecrated churches,
In silent communion with the swallows and spiders.
And the black-and-white company’s memory
Is fading into grey.

And in the supermarket
Milk’s down two pence today.
Cheaper now than ever.
Getting dearer by the day.

 

Britain is currently losing two dairy farms a week. The main reason is the milk price: farmers receive, on average, three pence a litre below the cost of production, thanks mainly to the supermarkets and the country’s obsession with ‘cheap’ food. We could be effortlessly self-sufficient in milk  – indeed, we’re so good at it, quotas had to be introduced to curb overproduction – but today, we’re a net importer. No dairying means no cows. No cows means no grassland. No grassland means no hedgerows. No hedgerows means no birds, and so it goes on. Meanwhile, dairy farmers are rushing into arable – not because they want to (dairying is a life’s work, a family tradition and a labour of love in the truest sense) but because last year’s disastrous harvest in Russia means world wheat prices are sky-high, and farmers have to make a living the same as the rest of us. 

The farm I worked on as a student recently sold off its dairy herd after more than 100 years and four generations of the same family. It’s a story being repeated all over Sussex, and the country as a whole. It’s sad, avoidable and wrong.

Power on the land

A poem inspired by the many vintage tractors I watched doing their stuff at a local ploughing match yesterday.

POWER ON THE LAND

I should hate them:
Raucous, oil-burning beasts
That condemned my quiet, beloved horses
To exile and extinction.
Yet my heart warms
To these homely stalwarts, still game
To plough and till the stubborn clay
Three generations on.
So simple I could drive one
In my sleep (and often did)
But with enduring rightness
Wrought in each casting and component
And the motive power of twenty teams
Compressed into a one-ton slab of steel.
After sixty years and more
They turn the earth
Beneath their wheels
And hand a man like me
The means to shape the world.