Under pressure

11 March 2011 § 4 Comments

Under pressure

The big John Deere
Is working late;
After so long waiting
For a reborn sun and drying wind
To strip winter from the soil
They’re staying out,
Getting on.
The ten-foot, two-tonne roller
Treads thick, green scents
From the tender grass;
Driving in frost-lifted stones,
Making pancakes out of molehills,
As it wraps broad silver bandages
Round the bruised and pummelled pasture.
But these bent blades will be re-forged,
Stronger, and in greater numbers,
Ready for the tearing mouths
And hooves of summer cattle.
The roller passes on –
No time to lose –
And the soft earth breathes again:
When pressed, we do not break;
Though crushed, we do not die.

 

I promised my good friend and fellow poet John Stevens another tractor poem; I had something different in mind, but this one came along first, during a ride on the Paramount yesterday as afternoon gave way to evening. Apologies for the pic; a long-range phone-camera effort, I’m afraid.

The road twice travelled

9 March 2011 § 8 Comments

A different view

The spirit that drove us
Off the plain, over the water,
Through the mountains, to the moon,
Rebels at retracing a single step.
But every road
Is two roads:
Heading out
That flock of pigeons lent the shaw
An outlandish foliage of white and grey;
Now they dot the grass below
Like morning mushrooms in September;
When it was on my left
I never saw that ditch was newly cleared,
Its sloping sides scraped clean, and smooth as butter;
Those ponies are on their feet now;
A new buzzard casts its shadow over Plashett Wood;
My old friend the kestrel
Is back at his habitual post on the telephone wires,
Where his vole-revealing eyes relentlessly defoliate the field;
And I’d swear those primroses
Weren’t shining palely in the hedge-bottom
When I passed five minutes back.
In the time it took
To stop, decide, dismount and wheel around
The world has turned,
Reshaped itself:
The steep ascents I struggled up
Are gentle swoops and whooping glides;
The sun is warm and on my face
And those two magpies in the meadow
Cancel out their single, sorrowful brother
And send me smiling home.

Reckoned it was about time for another cycling poem. Normally I aim to ride in loops, but on Monday, I ended up doing an out-and-back. A simple switch of direction and suddenly everything was different. I was amazed by how many things (even if only small) could change in a few minutes, and how much I noticed going back that I had missed completely heading out.

You’re through to voicemail

5 March 2011 § 8 Comments

Off the hook

I’m sorry;
I’m not available
To take your call right now:

The air in there
Is sour and sick,
Thickened with work,
Tainted by worry
Like the gust of last night’s beer
From the pub door Sunday morning.

Now I’m out
Of reach of the bank, the Revenue’s men,
The trivial tyranny of whencanyougetitdoneby,
And the world falls away
Like the sheep-speckled hillside
Beneath the red kite’s wing.

Just a coat between me and the wind
That playfully snatches at collar and cap;
Boots pressed into the old, soft turf
Like the fifty-pence-piece in my Grandad’s palm;
The dog stops, turns, looks at me and laughs
And a lone crow tips me a knowing wink.

Can’t say
When I’ll get back to you.

This should give you some idea of the week I’ve had. Wish it was half-term again, and we were back in Wales.

Close encounter

3 March 2011 § 7 Comments

To boldly go

In his overalls, bulky boots
And thick fleece hat pulled right down over his ears
He lumbers, slow, stiff-legged,
Over the sodden ground
Like a spaceman on an alien planet
Where the atmosphere’s thin and bitter cold
And the gravity’s turned right up.

The mission commander remains behind
On the quad-bike that squats like a moon-buggy
On its fat balloon tyres
And from the seat, he barks peremptory orders
At the half-dozen sheep
Gathering round the trough,
Grateful for this daily visitation
From another world.

I saw this little scene played out on a dog-walk in Wales the other week. I think the whippet (who was wearing his fleece jacket at the time) felt rather inadequate when he saw the collie standing on the quad-bike seat in the freezing wind, barking joyously, having almost certainly spent the night outdoors too. I was certainly conscious that I’m not nearly tough enough for a life like that. Then again, how many of us are?

Life force

1 March 2011 § 6 Comments

Miracle

I don’t need
To see five thousand fed
On loaves and fishes,
Blind eyes opened,
Or a man shake off the tomb like a twenty-four-hour flu.

Just show me
A calf
Thirty seconds into life;
A heap of wet rags in the straw.

Her wide-eyed dam licks every glistening, astonishing inch of her;

And with the steam still rising
From her new piebald coat,
The calf snorts, shakes her head and strains to govern
Those outsize, unruly legs
And stand,
Drawn to the udder by a power
She can’t resist, and I cannot explain.

My mother-in-law’s house in Wales is on her brother’s dairy farm. My daughter and I went down to visit Uncle R one afternoon, and arrived literally seconds after a heifer calf had been born. My daughter, who’s nine, was captivated by the new arrival (who’s since been named after her) and I was reminded that miracles not only can happen, but do. You know them when you see them.

Sunday shepherding

27 February 2011 § 2 Comments

A price on their heads

Out on the Forest feeding sheep
Marking time on rented keep
Too meagre for such eager beggars.

Haul out two bales of precious hay;
Enough, I hope, to last the day
And overnight. A sodden August

Followed by a savage winter
Has made barns into bank vaults,
Stacked to the roof with summer’s riches
Bound in bales, tight as wads of tenners.

I slash the strings,
Releasing long-imprisoned scents
Of late July, and shake the flakes
Into the rack with the careful hands and watchful eye
Of a chef preparing Alba truffles
For a visiting head of state.

And the woolly starveling mob crowd in
Rowdy as schoolboys at the bell,
Tearing, greedy, at the pale green stems
Like shoppers in the New Year sales.
I watch them, forgetful of the cost
In their contentment. And long for spring.

I’ve finally managed to return to my shepherding roots in a small way, as a part-time volunteer helping out with a conservation grazing project on the Ashdown Forest. My charges are 240 Hebridean sheep, an ancient breed from the far north-west of Scotland. They’re tough, hardy beasts, but good winter grazing is hard to come by, and they’re on pretty thin pickings at the moment, with the soil still too cold for the grass to start growing in earnest. We’re having to supplement their diet with hay, but prices are at an all-time high, and we’re longing for the day when they can leave their winter quarters and go up onto the Forest and start doing their job properly.

In the master’s footsteps

25 February 2011 § 5 Comments

Dylan’s way

My feet fell in
With Dylan’s way
Along the Aeron,
Where it slips and tumbles
Demob-happy as it nears the sea
Dipper-deep over salmon-smooth stones.

The red kites rode the wind
Over the woods

And I drank deep
As the Young Dog himself
On the lash in Laugharne
Of the giddy, untainted air.

Dylan Thomas loved the Aeron valley in Ceredigion, and regularly walked along the lane that runs past my mother-in-law’s house. His ghost is good company.

Democracy in action

18 February 2011 § 6 Comments

A NEW LEAF?

I thought that I should never see
This triumph of democracy;

Our voices raised across the land
Forced ministers to stay their hand,

And cancel plans to sell our oaks
And other trees to greedy blokes

Who only see the beech and ash
And chestnut as a source of cash

And would have curbed our ancient right
To walk the woodlands. So in spite

Of pressures on the national purse
Our leaders paused, engaged reverse

And said that they had got it wrong
(As we had told them all along).

The law is made by fools, you see;
But only God can make a tree.

A follow-up to yesterday’s U-turn by the Coalition on its proposed national forestry sell-off. Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s poem ‘Trees’ has been parodied many, many times, most famously by Ogden Nash. I figured one more couldn’t hurt.

Victory

17 February 2011 § 2 Comments

The Coalition has just announced that it won’t be selling off our publicly-owned woodlands after all:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12488847 

If you were one of the half-a-million people who signed the petition against the plan, thank you. Occasionally, just occasionally, democracy can be seen to be working.

Red in tooth and claw RE-POSTED

13 February 2011 § 2 Comments

FIRST BLOOD

Now, he sleeps
In a croissant curl;
Warm as new milk,
Upholstered in butterscotch velvet.

Is his sleep-soft jaw
Filled with fur and bone,
Teeth closing tight as shears,
Gripping, chasing
The boiling blood racing beneath the skin?

And in his stillness
Does his unseen self
Slip back to stand sentry,
Breath steaming from his laughing mouth,
Over the limp and cooling evidence
Of his first kill?
No one calling him away,
No snap of lead on collar:
Just him
The rain
Life, death
And dogness.

Or perhaps he simply sleeps,
And all sense of deep things clicking,
Promises kept
And purposes fulfilled
Is mine alone.

With thanks to Kiersty Boon. You were right.

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