Robocrop

The farmer rises early (lots to do)
Eats breakfast, settles in his comfy chair,
Logs on to FarmCommand Pro (Version Two).
From deep within a datahub somewhere
Instructions are dispatched. Now on the screen
The big John Deere pops up: tasks verified,
The engine fires and, unmanned, the machine
Rolls off to work, with laser beams to guide
Its every move. The farmer nods. A wink
Of infra-red detectors in the shed
Tells him how much the calves have had to drink:
Another click, and all the beasts are fed.
New window. Scroll-down menu: highlight ‘Hive’.
Check status, scan for viruses, click ‘Run’.
A hum of minute motors and they’re live;
The day’s first wave of drone strikes has begun,
While through the whispering stems, unheard, unseen
More tiny workers fan across the land
As programmed, picking wheat and barley clean
Of pests and weeds too small for any hand.
And all the while, beyond the empty skies,
The sleepless satellites are on patrol
Like gangmasters with hard, all-seeing eyes,
Reporting ceaselessly to Ground Control
With data from each square inch of the fields.
The farmer smiles; he’s constantly on top
Of fertilisers, pests, projected yields
And profits from this season’s robocrop.
No senseless labour in the heartless sun;
No wasted effort; everything exact
And micro-managed, all resources run
For optimum production, based on fact
And real-time information – farms reduced
To mere facilities; a factory floor
Where food’s no longer grown, but just produced
According to a new, unnatural law.
So, with a robot made for every task,
Our mastery of Nature is complete.
There’s only one more question left to ask:
Is this the kind of food we want to eat?

 

On a long drive up the M40 last week, I listened to Costing the Earth on BBC Radio 4, which investigated how “satellite technology and advances in robotics are set to revolutionise the future of farming”. It was fascinating, but I have to say I also found it absolutely chilling – it seemed to be predicting the end of everything I know and love about farms, farming and the countryside. There’s a good deal wrong with current agricultural practices, of course, but if this is the answer, I’m not sure we’re asking all the right questions yet. N.

(NB There’s no such software as FarmCommand Pro Version Two. Or at least, not yet!)

A thorny issue

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I hear it up ahead – the age-old threat
That haunts the lanes around this time of year.
For months I’m almost able to forget
That creeping sense of doom, the lurking fear
Until I see the signs left where it passed –
The shattered stems, the blasted branches, white
As clean-picked bones. And here it is at last:
Deep diesel growls as whirling steel teeth bite
And chew the hedge to splinters. Every thorn
The beast spits out across the road a baited
Trap primed to treat tough Kevlar tyres with scorn
And leave me stranded, beaten and deflated.
So while these hungry monsters snarl and stalk
I’ll ride prepared to turn around – or walk.

 

Seems our local farmers are obsessed with trimming their hedges. All autumn they were out there with their big mechanical flails, and now they’re at it again, leaving every lane like a bed of nails, and the dreaded P*ncture Fairy rubbing her hands with glee. It’s something to occupy the winter months, and as an erstwhile agriculturalist myself, I appreciate the husbandry benefits – but as a cyclist, I wish they’d leave the poor hedges alone for a bit!

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Bullfinch

December. Winter’s milk-teeth gently clench
On feet and fingers. Cloud battalions march
Before the easterly, and in the ditch,
A fortnight’s rain gleams gunmetal. On such
A day, I take the road again in search
Of reason and revival, when I catch
A corner-of-my-eye glimpse: on a branch,
My own memento vivere – a patch
Of rose-pink on the hedgerow’s rags; a peach
Hung on a hawthorn twig, bright as a torch
To light me home again. At my approach
He bursts, grey, white and sunset, from his perch
And vanishes. No time allowed to watch
But just enough to lift the heart, bewitch
And make me smile, as usual, at his rich
Defiant colour that seems to reproach
All weariness, dark thought and sombre speech.
Life’s canvas begs no shadowed skull to preach
The need to seize the day; a little touch
Of humble magic conjured thus can reach
Into our hearts and days, and say as much.

 

Many things catch my eye when I’m out and about on the bike, but one sight that never fails to cheer me is a bullfinch – especially in winter, when the male’s vivid pink plumage positively glows against the grey of the hedgerows. Having never managed to photograph him, I’ve been meaning to write about him for ages, and here he is at last. I think of his splash of colour in the drab countryside as the opposite of the memento mori lurking in the background in old paintings – a reminder of life that does me good every time it see it. N.

A round of rondelets

In rides the rain;
All day the crow-black clouds have grown.
In rides the rain
To lash the sodden land again –
Soak wind-bent thorn, time-scattered stone
And high-hedged lanes I walk alone.
In rides the rain.

Up comes the gale
With teeth and fists and dark intent.
Up comes the gale
As power-lines and barbed wire wail
With twisted trees in shrill lament;
The world the wild wind’s instrument.
Up comes the gale.

Now falls the night;
A lean wolf stalking round the hill.
Now comes the night;
The twilight yields without a fight.
I turn my collar to the chill
But long miles lie before me still.
Now falls the night.

Approach the door:
Old oak, black iron, bolted fast.
Approach the door
Where my road ends; I’ll march no more.
Cast coat and hat aside at last,
Find rest until the storm has passed.
Approach the door.

Beside the fire
With four thick walls enfolding me;
Beside the fire
All journeymen like me desire
Is here: with wine and company,
The hard road’s just a memory
Beside the fire.

The sun appears –
And with it, hope for better things.
The sun appears
To banish night and all its fears,
Strike copper fire on kite’s broad wings
And warm me on my wanderings.
The sun appears.

 

More from our festive sojourn in west Wales, and another form I’d not tried before – the rondelet. Like the triolet, it has a refrain line (A), which in this case appears three times and is written in iambic dimeter; the rest is in iambic tetrameter. The rhyme scheme is AbAabbA.

Having played around with it a bit, I must say I like its straightforwardness and economy. It has a rather ‘naïve art’ feel to it, so I chose simple subjects, which ended up telling an equally uncomplicated story, partly inspired by some memorably weather-beaten walks in the country around my mother-in-law’s house.

As well as the red kite, the wolf, extinct in this islands for almost three centuries, emerged unlooked-for as a recurring theme (can’t quite bring myself to use the term ‘motif’) while we were away. It may have something to do with my reading over the last few weeks, which has consisted largely of the Norse legends and Icelandic sagas! He’ll be back again soon, I’m sure. N.

Englyns: From Ceredigion

1.

I’m lost. I had not planned to come this way.
Heart gripped in Fear’s chill hand
For there are, I understand
Dragons living in this land.

2.

An island in a sea of rain-raked grass
Where kites wheel watchfully.
Thick-walled, four-square sanctuary
With food, fire and family.

3.

Two circles, dug deep, high on this bleak hill.
Walled with stone, roofed with sky.
Where we watch the red kites fly,
Armed men stood once, doomed to die.

4.

The red kite, wind-borne, keeps his lone watch while
The frozen forest sleeps:
In the hearth a bright fire leaps;
Round the house, Midwinter creeps.

 

The englyn is new to me, but it is, of course, a very ancient form: part of the Welsh bardic tradition, englyns are still regularly recited at Eisteddfod. Like the Japanese haiku, the englyn is based on syllable count – 10 in the first line, then six, seven and seven – with the added twist that the sixth syllable of the first line introduces the end-rhyme for the following three lines. Confused? I was.

Anyway, we were staying with my wife’s family in west Wales over Christmas, so it seemed the ideal opportunity to blend medium and material. The second poem in this sequence is about my mother-in-law’s house, while the third was inspired by the Iron Age fort on the hill above it. No apologies for the repeated red kite references: having once been hunted virtually to extinction, they’re now as common as sparrows in those parts. And very beautiful they are, too. Happy New Year to one and all. N.

A trio of triolets

1.

To ride a bike today, a man must be
A hero or a fool. So which am I?
One thing that I can say with certainty:
To ride a bike today, a man must be
Gripped by great need – or why else willingly
Leave warmth behind for hard roads, hostile sky?
To ride a bike today, a man must be
A hero or a fool. So which am I?

2.

The mistletoe hangs in the empty hall
And somebody is knocking at the door.
A year’s passed since you promised me you’d call.
The mistletoe hangs in the empty hall:
To let my hopes rise is to risk a fall;
And yet, what else have I been wishing for?
The mistletoe hangs in the empty hall
And somebody is knocking at the door.

3.

He haunts the hedge; longdogs pad, patient, behind.
No intention of heading home hungry tonight.
With his eyes on the field and a kill on his mind,
He haunts the hedge; longdogs pad, patient, behind.
Wary, quick as the rabbits he’s hoping to find,
Checks the lamp, whets his knife in the fast-failing light.
He haunts the hedge; longdogs pad, patient, behind.
No intention of heading home hungry tonight.

 

For my final post before Christmas, I thought I’d experiment with a form I’ve never tried before. The triolet is rather haughtily dismissed in one of my books as ‘slight’, which I think is a little unfair. Originally, it was used for quite weighty subjects, but for reasons unclear it came to be a ‘light verse’ form, reserved for the frothy and the fanciful. I thought I’d try to redeem it, at least a little, and quickly discovered that it’s both more complex and more versatile than it first appears. The rhyme scheme is an interesting one – ABaAabAB – with the first two lines (AB) repeated at the end, the first line (A) popping up again as line 4, and only two rhymes for the whole thing. Having written one it seemed inevitable that I should write a trio of triolets, just to explore the possibilities. Since there’s no set metre for the triolet, the first two are in iambic pentameter, because I can’t help myself these days, while the third uses stressed syllables by way of a change. I shall definitely be writing in this form again.
I shall be off the grid for the next few days, so let me take this opportunity to wish every one of you a very happy Christmas, and a peaceful and joyous New Year. My heartfelt thanks, as always, for your encouragement and fellowship – God bless us, WordPress poets, every one. N.

Sonnet Cycle: The Field – Part 3

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SUMMER

No rest in these full, fiery days: the trust
Placed in me months long gone must be repaid
In fat, gold grain. The combine’s twelve-foot blade
Leaves me stark, convict-cropped. They raise my dust
With ten-tonne trailers, roll my ribs of straw
For steer and stable; when the men depart
The patient crows come gleaning – every part
Of all I’ve made picked up and set in store.
And in a monstrous sky my exhaled heat
Is gathered too. From thunderheads I’ve stacked
Ten miles high, blessed rain renews my cracked
And gasping soil. The circle is complete.
Once more I keep my promise made to Man;
Just as I have each year since time began.

Sonnet Cycle: The Field – Part 2

JD ploughing

 

SPRING

The first bite of the coulter wakens me;
Five mouldboards turn my face to greet the sun
That climbs above the wood. Work has begun.
Gulls flock my furrows; on the easterly
Crows ride like witches. Celandines appear
In my hedge-bottoms; harrow, roll and drill
Pass over me with steel and noise until
The seed lies warm and deep. Another year.
Then ancient war breaks out. In elder days
I gloried in my arsenal of flowers
And weeds: now men have new, undreamt-of powers
And subjugate me with their soundless sprays.
The urging in the warming earth grows strong;
My young shoots rise up with the skylark’s song.

Sonnet Cycle: The Field – Part 1

Frost-004
 

WINTER

Cold, silent, colourless. A kind of death
Has taken me; my mourners are the crows
Who stalk my stubbles as the land-drain flows
And swells the swirling ditch. My shallow breath
Hangs in the air at dawn; at dusk I bleed
Where sunset strikes the still-raw chevron scars
Of tractors; while the Hunter’s seven stars
Burn over me, I dream of sun and seed.
For life still smoulders in me, though it burns
Its lowest as dark days die young, and men
With hounds and guns find food in me again;
Beneath my sleeping soil the great wheel turns.
The year is buried deep in me for now;
Awaiting resurrection by the plough.

Kestrel

Out of the alders
The kestrel arcs
Like a thrown knife;
Drives himself deep
Into the oak. Glares,
Dares me to want or wish for more
Than this short, sharp shot of him.

I don’t.

In a kinder, saner life,
That scimitar slash
Of slate and copper
Would be all I needed:
Here, now,
Inch-deep in leaf-mould and winter slop
I feel the weight of this
Unmanufactured moment
And all the riches of his weaponed grace
Settle in my pockets –

The harsh, hard coin of worlds
Away from our imagined realm
Where debt is credit
Gluttony no mortal sin
And greed is made
Our highest good.

 

As so often before, I find myself gratefully indebted to Tom Davis. I’d been thinking about writing another ‘bird poem’ for a while, and when I saw our resident kestrel down in the woods yesterday, I knew I had my subject. But it was Tom’s comments on my previous piece, Battleground State, that finally crystallised my ideas; I hope he won’t mind my appropriating some of his wise words for this brief detour into free verse. N.