To my left-brained
Eye and mind
These fields should now
Be an abomination;
No discipline by plough
Or corrective cultivation.
A shameful parade
Of gleeful weeds appears;
Led by a brigade
Of over-eager volunteers.
But as I look around
All that I can see
Is my native ground
As it’s meant to be.
The fields close to our home have been left uncultivated this year and the weeds – and we – are making the most of it. As well as wheat plants seeded from the previous crop (known as volunteers) there’s an amazing profusion and diversity of wild plants that would normally be sprayed out of existence. We’ve followed the rewilding process right through the lockdown period (we’ve been allowed to go out for exercise) and it’s been fascinating and inspiring to watch. Sadly, all the plants, and their attendant birds and insects, are doomed, but not for reasons of husbandry: the entire farm is a development site and is slowly disappearing under what will eventually be 1,000 new houses. I studied agriculture at university years ago, and I still like to follow the rhythms and workings of the farming calendar. But this spring, I’ve learned I’m even happier seeing what Nature can do when left to her own devices. N.
Now the breeze brushes the barley
Sweeping through the crop like a cavalry charge;
Darkening the bright awns
Like velvet rubbed against the nap;
Then switches, swings, retreats in waves of pale gold;
All the field in motion, shaken by a hidden hand.
A power – all-present, fierce, unseen –
Swirling, sleepless, through the land.
A faint breeze wafts the feathery tops
Of the grasses in the hayfield;
Soft, tawny with sun, downy with pollen.
Shut up safe all spring,
No hungry mouths to tear and chew,
No hard hooves to spoil and trample.
But soon the end will come
In the whine and slash of spinning steel
And thus laid low, all will be withered, gathered up,
Neatly compressed, and then consumed.
The sward close-cropped, shocked
Pale and scarred as a convict’s scalp.
The careful husbanding of months
Undone; stripped and carted, buried deep
Beneath black plastic. Overhead
The buzzard circles, patient, watchful.
While in the shattered stems
The urge to grow anew gains strength
And, irresistible, prepares a second crop
To be cut down in its time.
From the hot road
I watched combines make wide-wale corduroy
Of gasping fields cast in bronze and gold;
Racing balers trailing fine brown dust
Build their fleeting henges and tight-rolled scrolls of straw;
Felt the fat, satisfied summer –
The goodness and greenness of the place –
Wrap itself around me.
I come from here. That can never change.
Its deep rhythms are my heartbeat;
By its moods and seasons, I measure out my own small days.
In these dark times I cannot look upon it as I did:
Forces far beyond these gentle hills conflate
A love of one place with a hatred of The Other.
But this country is deep-grained in my hands, clings fast to my boots:
I am bound to it, and it to me
Until I too am gathered in, and finally ploughed under.
Events of the last three years have changed the way I look at the UK. But on a long, hot ride yesterday, I came to realise that it’s not my local tract of countryside that’s changed: it remains as lovely as it ever was, and I still feel very deeply about it. That, I guess, is one of the worst aspects of what our politicians are doing: their nationalism taints any innocent expression of love for the place one lives in. Just one more item on the lengthening list of things I’m not sure how we fix, or forgive. N.
One of the many amazing vernacular buildings at the Weald & Downland Museum is a 14th Century cottage, painstakingly reconstructed based on evidence from a medieval dig at Hangleton, near Brighton. Exceedingly basic, it makes you realise just how many of the things we believe (or are led to believe) we can’t live without our ancestors – well, lived without. We’ve gone soft in seven centuries, a nation of designer peasants, for whom ‘country living’ has become a lifestyle fantasy.
Simply built, but strong
To ward off a hostile world:
Thick reed thatch
And an open hearth
In a floor of beaten earth.
Few comforts in those dark days
When a horse was worth more
Than the man who drove him:
And when the mills and factories came
The workfolk rushed to flee the land,
Their poverty and shame.
Yet to live their way –
Tend my own flocks
Kill my own meat
Reap my own grain
And cook them over a fire
Made from my own wood
Pass my days under the sun
And withdraw at night
To a corner of the world
Free of others’ noise and light –
Is a dream reserved for millionaires –
Not simple folk like me.