Monday, 2 September 2013

Thoughts from a Walk in the Countryside: It's all in the timing

As with comedy, liturgy, business ventures, and declarations of love, agriculture is all in the timing. On my walk this afternoon, my first barley field was still intact, golden and lovely, and waiting. Along one of its edges there is quite a thick row of oats. I cannot think they are meant to be there, so I like to think of them as wild oats. Tall, straggly, waving their fertilty about in the breeze, they make me think of hippies - "hey babe, let's chill and make beautiful ... porridge". There's something very naked about the countryside, whether wild or cultivated. I had a case study as I passed into the next field, and there was a chap walking down, just in the process of unravelling his T-shirt to put it back on. Clothed, he could have been anyone. Shirtless, he could have been a model. Or at least a body-double for someone with better cheekbones. This seems to be happening a lot on my walks lately, but the main thing was the field, ploughed not long ago, naked and exposed, and now growing its new crop. People sometimes speak of the land being clothed with this or that crop, the green, the wood. But it's not like our clothes. These are its reality, it's as silly as saying that a person is clothed with hair on his head. You've either got it or you haven't. Chaps understand this. I had thought the other day this must be "winter wheat" and was struck by its insipid green, but today I looked closer, and it's not a corn at all, it's some kind of brassica, now the shoots have become leaves, it's unmistakable. An even better clue, when I started to look properly, was the army of beautiful white butterflies all over it, laying their eggs on rich pickings for their caterpillars, in the last fling of their brief, beautiful, mimsying lives. My friend Tim has had his entire garden crop of broccoli reduced to nothing by these caterpillars. But the crop would have been small, and the butterflies are so cheerful.

The next field was another of the mystery brassica, which can't be for the grocer's shop, this isn't that kind of farmland, so I imagine it's a fodder crop for livestock. And then to my Leah and Rachel, the wheat and the barley, but now the barley is harvested too. The sky today was the most brilliant blue, bright, clear, and deep. I like to think sapphires are this colour, and anyone who wore them as jewellery could guarantee that no one would look at their face. The harvested barley field was as goldenly beautiful in death as it was in life. With the glorious blue feathers of the sky, and the golden yellow of the soft underbelly of the earth, I thought of my favourite macaw, whose colours are just the same.

And so to Sydlings Copse. As I paused to look at the meadowed dell that sits next to it, a gentleman emerged from the copse who greeted me twice. That made me think twice about going in. If I go down to the woods any day, I don't want any surprises at all, still less a big one. But there were no nastinesses in store, and I played the game of seeing if I could identify any of the trees. The first ones, tall, and slender, were ash, I'm sure, I had a much-loved ash walking stick for many years, and the bark is distinctive. And underneath were nettles, wilted and sad, and longing for rain. So, I was in an ash grove, like a favourite folk song from schooldays we were taught by a slightly dubious music teacher who was later moved sideways to the state sector on the grounds that fee-paying parents didn't want to subsidise his boy-spanking habit. (Never happened to me, I was too plain.) Come to think of it, the song might well have been about life being a load of wilted nettles too.

After the Ash Grove was a rather dry meadow, whose flowers, in just a couple of weeks, have become sparser or dessicated. I saw some runways through the grass which must surely have been badgers' avenues. They're not shooting them in Oxfordshire yet, and perhaps there are too few cattle nearby to justify it. If you can. And then a new turn, and some quite different trees. "That's a mighty looking monster", I thought as I spied a vast, thick, trunk, only to see when I emerged from the undergrowth that it was quite dead, with no leaves to help me identify it. A majestic corpse. But then I found a sibling nearby in rude health, and it was clearly an oak, one, as I started to pay attention, of many. The biggest of all must have been seven or eight feet through the trunk at the base, nine or ten higher up, where its branches reached out in tangly directions like the arms of a Hindu god ("like your Nan on payday", as my Grandad used to say). And there were more and more oak trees, and they were in rude fertility, bustling with acorns, far more, a thousand times more, than the land there could ever sustain. Still green, and not yet ready for their own more random, less disciplined harvest.

How many years had the Ash Grove, and the Oak Wood, been in the making? Decades at least, probably centuries. Growing up, fruiting, seeding, dying down, growing again, bare and naked for all to see. And doubtless the barley has been there centuries too. But the acorns will fall when they are ready. The barley will be cropped when the farmer loses his nerve that the good weather will last. It's all in the timing.

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