Fallow ground

3 February 2011 § 6 Comments

A poem about a group of deer I spotted on a ride this week.

FALLOW GROUND

Were they cattle
I could count on them
To still be here
At sunset.
But within an hour
Or at some sudden sound
They can vanish,
Passing like woodsmoke through
The arbitrary lines and limits
Ruled across the land:

Fences, gates and hedges
Do not hold them;
Feeding like sheep
In this quiet pasture
They’re never for a second
Less than wild.
Everywhere and nowhere,
Slotting in among the common stock
Then blithely with their white rumps bobbing,
Misting into the sheltering woods
Leaving the tame, compliant and confined
Flat-footed in the field.

Cold hard truth

29 January 2011 § 3 Comments

JANUARY LAMBS

A cold wind out of the east
Like this would cause my old boss to shake his head
And mutter, “It’ll check ‘em, worse’n snow,”
And he was a man who ought to know:
A dozen winters on Romney Marsh as man
Then twenty more as master
Of three hundred acres of stubborn clay
Had taught hard lessons. He’d learned them well,
And in time passed them down to me;
And so today, riding by a meadow
Sprinkled with January lambs
Like well-floured loaves or fallen clouds
Pressed to their dams in the wind-combed sward,
I shook my head, murmured ‘This’ll check ‘em’
And felt the easterly thrust me back
Into a life now half-forgotten
And wondered if I’d grown at all.

Cattle drive

18 January 2011 § 3 Comments

Out riding at the weekend, I followed a small group of cattle being driven along a lane. I didn’t begrudge the hold-up: for one thing, I was grateful for the rest; for another, I’ve created a few bovine traffic-jams in my time, and the whole scene brought back many memories. It also set my imagination working.

DROVING

Just ten head – steers, heifers and their dams –
And still they fill the lane with their wanderings.
Like tourists, they stop and gawp,
Take snapshot snatches at the hedgerow
Or duck into drives and gateways.
The old man out in front
Never turns, but keeps step,
One mallet fist holding
A plain yard-long ash stick outstretched,
Rigid and unarguable as a border checkpoint:
They will not pass him.
Behind, the boy – six foot and four-and-twenty –
Trudges, wordless but for odd sharp yips
And gruff praise for the laughing collies,
Waiting for the grip of that hard hand
To weaken.

Doing the groundwork

14 October 2010 § 2 Comments

SENSE OF URGENCY

On the headland
Two red Masseys stand
With engines stopped;
A moment’s silence
For a snatched tea-break;
Then, drill refilled,
And ring-roller singing,
Get another fifty acres of winter wheat seed
Snug and spaced precisely in the still-warm tilth.

Three fields away
A blue New Holland stays
Hard at it, disc harrows
Raising the dust.
No time to be lost
While the clay lies dry;
Just a single day of rain and they’ll all be struggling,
With bogged-down implements and clogged-up tyres.

Under the shaw
A green John Deere roars
As the heavy cultivator
Rips the tawny maize stubble
Into brown corduroy,
Releasing the scent
That rose up to greet us
When we first hitched our oxen and scratched at the soil:
The earth’s exhalation; the quick tang of life.

Deep roots

12 October 2010 § 3 Comments

Rain makes autumn cultivations a tricky, stop-start affair on our clay soils, but in the current dry, unseasonably warm spell, they’re progressing at a furious pace. This is one of my favourite times of the farming year: I’ve always been fascinated by the heavy implements that turn ragged stubbles into smooth, drilled seedbeds, and watching their steady passes up and down the fields. On a ride with The Guv’nor yesterday, I found myself pulling off the road to observe a big rig at work; a childhood habit I’ve realised I’m in no hurry to shake off. So, apologies for another tractor poem; normal service will resume shortly.

CULTIVATING HABITS

A deep diesel drone
And the thin, brittle ring
Of steel on stone.
That sound
Half-heard
Has me
Diving for the verge
Like blue lights and sirens:
Searching
For a gap in the hedge
To peer, wary as a poacher,
At a big New Holland
With a till-and-drill machine
Beyond Jethro’s wildest fancy.
Still the lad
Who’d haunt the lanes
Then, bike forgotten,
Wait patiently on gate or stile
And watch the land at work;
An eager boy who shrugs
At the grown man’s shame.

Power on the land

7 October 2010 § 2 Comments

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.

Harrowing times

9 September 2010 § 3 Comments

FIELD WORK

In the straight-six diesel’s steady grumble
And the dark scents stirred
From the crumbled clay rippling round the harrow tines
Summer softly leaves the land.
There is work to do before winter:
The gulls that crowd the stubble
And the birds in the fruit-bright hedge
Know it; I would no longer stand and watch
But put my hand to the plough
Turn this tired soil under
And await a kinder season.

Hedge of insanity

17 August 2010 § 2 Comments

It’s a sure sign that summer’s ending when the farmers start trimming the hedges. As a cyclist, I’m always on the lookout, since they usually leave the roads strewn with thorns that can effortlessly penetrate even the toughest tyres.
But yesterday, I came across one stretch of hedge that stopped me in my tracks for aesthetic, rather than mechanical reasons. The tractor-mounted rotary flail isn’t the most delicate of tools at the best of times, but this one had hacked the poor hedge in the most brutal fashion. I know time is money, but surely there’s room in our modern world for old-fashioned craftsmanship that blends function with form.

CUT AND RUN

This quiet lane
Is a crime scene.
Everywhere
There’s evidence
Of violence;
A frenzied attack
By a maniac
Armed with a heavy, blunt instrument.
Torn, slashed skin,
Mutilated limbs,
The dark hedge splashed
With bone-white shards;
Smashed fingers grope in vain
To hold onto a life
Brutally cut
Short.
No job for a detective, this;
Send for the journeyman
Hedger-and-ditcher
With his billhook and slasher,
Flagon of cider
Long leather gloves
Weaver’s quick fingers
And artist’s eye.
Each sapling and side-shoot
Branch, twig and tendril
Sized up, selected
Then cut out or cunningly
Laced in with withies and strong stakes.
Each new year’s growth
Adding shelter and strength,
Thickening, deepening,
Filling with flowers, heavy with fruit
And ringing with voices of birds.
Not this shattered wilderness
We make with our chasing
Of Quicker and Cheaper and Now.

Peasant’s revolt

23 June 2010 § 1 Comment

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.

DREAM HOUSE?

Simply built, but strong
To ward off a hostile world:
Thick reed thatch
Wattle-and-daub walls
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.

Chasing Gabriel

21 June 2010 § 1 Comment

One of my favourite Thomas Hardy characters is Gabriel Oak, first shepherd, then bailiff and, after many trials, husband of Bathsheba Everdene in Far From The Madding Crowd. The early chapters include a memorable description of his shepherd’s hut on Norcombe Hill, and I was reminded of it yesterday at the Weald & Downland Museum, which has just such a hut in its collection. Made from corrugated iron, with a curved roof, and mounted on iron wheels, it’s a cross between a small caravan and a railway wagon. It looks very cosy on a summer afternoon, but I imagine its charm would pall on freezing winter nights in the lambing season. Still, it was another reminder of my college days when I worked on a sheep farm. In those days, I still nurtured the hope that, like Gabriel, I might one day ‘by sustained efforts of industry and chronic good spirits lease a small sheep farm’ myself. It never happened, of course, but something of that dream evidently lingers still.

CHASING GABRIEL

Take me back to when these oaks
Were no thicker than my arm
And the Southdown flocks
Covered the Hill like clouds.

Let this be my fold
Of hazel hurdles roofed with straw,
And this my flock
Safe from rain and gale within.

Let that be my dog,
Silent, knowing,
Waiting for my whistle
And curt ‘Look back’ to set him running.

And let this be my hut:
Corrugated iron against the weather;
Inside, close-planked with beech
Snug as a ship’s cabin.

The floorboards are stained red with raddle;
My crooks and candles, shears and sheep-bells,
Adorn the walls. An exhibition of honest labour
With Time and custom for curators.

And let that be me,
Stamping in, red-cheeked, snow-cloaked
From the midnight watch,
Throwing off my hat and coat

Reaching for the stove’s warmth and flagon’s comfort
Like a drowning man for a floating spar,
Snatching a soldier’s sleep before standing-to
Among my ewes in a bitter Downland dawn.

Let those be my wethers
Bearing my mark on ear and flank
Grass-fat and fit for droving
To the sheep-fair at summer’s end.

And though Gabriel Oak be gone
And all the shepherds from the Hill
This can be my dream.
Let it be.

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