Daylight robbery

1 September 2011 § 15 Comments

Blackberry picking
(with apologies to Seamus Heaney)

Summer sits
In fat, black clots,
Sun-warm in tubs
That once held ice-cream.

Thorns tear at hands, clothes,
Punishing our thievery,
Staining light fingers
Dark with juice.

And, neatly packed in glossy flesh,
The sun comes home with us
To rise again in steam and sweetness
When the cold days fall.

Directions

13 April 2011 § 6 Comments

Directions

Pass in under the wood’s eaves
And take the right fork past the tall lone ash
With the hole high up where the nuthatch hides.
Four steps down to the silted stream
Its banks revetted with iron roots
Like veins in the back of an old man’s hand.
Five back up to the field corner
And a sinuous trail, just shoulder-wide,
A winterbourne of mud between low branches
That pluck at clothes like nagging children.
Four ways shake hands in the trampled clearing;
Follow the one that rounds the rim
Of the deep pit dug by long-dead brick-makers.
Into the coppice, over twin ditches
The hunting-dog hurdles in two long leaps.
Past the great fallen tree, worm-holed, beetle-bored,
And weave through the birches down in the dip.
Hug the wood’s edge where it fronts the field
Home to rabbits and cows in the warmth of the day
And the fox in the evening. Up the short steep slope,
Sandy, seamed with burrows, to a broad, level ride
Under spreading oaks, where the bluebell scent
Hangs thick as smoke. Pause in a soaring hornbeam hall
High as a church, with a floor of beaten earth. Call the dog.
Over a young tree, still bravely bursting into leaf
Though laid low by a curl of wind a dozen nights ago.
Down the slope where the squirrels sprint
For safety in the tangled trees. Three steps down
To the sleeper bridge, then the last drag up
To the wood’s front door. Close it behind you.
Keep the key.

I got the idea for this poem from the wonderful ‘Britannia‘ atlas of England and Wales – the world’s first-ever nationwide road map, published by Scottish polymath John Ogilby in 1645. It consists of a series of 100 strip maps, drawn at the then-innovative scale of one inch to the mile, each describing a section of road, such as ‘London-Bromley-Sevenoaks-Tonbridge-Rye’ (plate 31) or ‘Oxford-Buckingham-Bedford-Cambridge’ (plate 80). It bridges the gap between modern cartography and the medieval means of navigating across country, which basically involved following directions from one town to the furthest extent of local knowledge, then asking again.

For my poem, I simply followed Ogilby’s example and wrote notes as I walked round our nearby woods. (Incidentally, Ogilby claimed to have surveyed over 26,000 miles of roads in order to compile his atlas, measuring distances using the intriguingly-named ‘Wheel Dimensurator’; about 7,500 miles’-worth appeared in the final version) Sadly, I can’t draw, so I’ve created a ‘strip map in words’, which I hope gives some flavour of what you might find if you ever chance upon our corner of the country.

Seeing the wood for the trees

7 April 2011 § 16 Comments

Call it a wood

Call it a wood
If you will,
But this is my cathedral;
A greater glory captured in a single hornbeam bud
Or papery anemone
Than any Caen stone vaulting
Or stained-glass acreage.
And this is my study;
These living trees inspire more lines
Than the dead wood of my desk.
And this is my schoolroom;
These mute tutors hold the wisdom
Of the earth, and every lesson worth the learning
Of life and death, of failing and returning.
And this is my hospital;
In these soft scents and shaded paths
Lie sovereign remedies
For all my pains of heart and mind.
And this is my sanctuary;
The fears that stalk my nights and days
Dare not follow when I claim
Protection beneath this canopy.
And this is my stronghold;
A bulwark against the madness,
The ugliness, the noise
Of all that lies outside:
Call that the world.

Weeding wheatfields by hand

24 March 2011 § 6 Comments

Roguing

Sometimes
Fickle Summer picked up her skirts
And took a short, unscheduled break,
Lending the farm to Autumn
Who, having no truck with harvesting,
Drove us from the fields
With a thin and ruinous drizzle.
Other times
A snapped belt, sheared bolt or burst hydraulic hose
Deep in the combine’s vitals
Would leave the big machine
Bellied like a bog-bound mammoth,
Spilling its guts in gouts of oil
Across the gasping stubble.
As such times
We lads, not seeking or permitted
To wait out the delay with idle hands
Would fill the old blue van with plastic sacks
Then bundle in ourselves
And rattle to some distant field
To hunt out rogues: the wild oats
Whose tasselled heads rose, mockingly,
Above the standing crop.
We’d deploy along the headland, sacks in hand,
And take a tramline each, walking steady
Like policemen on a forensic sweep,
Stopping to pull the rogues up, roots and all
And bag them for the bonfire. To relieve
The tedium, we’d tell the green boys, out from town,
Them ol’ rogues’ll hear you comin’, see,
And bein’ woild, they’ll duck down quick
And ‘ide till you’ve gone boi,
Then pop’en up again, so moind you watch ‘em.
We learned to curse those wily weeds
And the gaunt, grey man who sent us there:
Four-pound-fifty seemed so little
For an hour that felt so long,
And all the while we knew
The rogues would not be vanquished
And we’d be back to pull more out next year.
A hopeless task, but honest, and somehow
No crazier than the work I’m doing now.

Rogue n a plant that falls short of a standard, or is of a different type from the rest of the crop; vt to eliminate rogues or inferior plants from (a crop, etc)

Roguing is the traditional way of keeping the harvest help occupied when inclement weather or the inevitable mechanical catastrophes bring the main activity to a halt. I know weeding a fifty-acre wheatfield by hand sounds daft, but compared to some of the so-called ‘proper’ jobs I’ve been given since my far-off student days, it  seems like a sensible use of time.

Black and white decision

13 March 2011 § 6 Comments

Gone dry

We tried, but now it’s over:
We’ve finally closed the gate.
No milk today, nor ever –
Not from us, at any rate.

They milked here for a hundred years.
Now Daisy, Mabel, Ethel,
Buttercup and Blossom have all gone,
Reduced to lot numbers and guineas-per-head
Under the auctioneer’s hammer.
Enough to pay the bank back
And leave the family in the clear
Without a penny over.
Three lifetimes’ work
Leaked away
A litre at a time.

No waiting now for cows to cross
The road twice-daily.
No forager’s snarl, no rumbling trailers
Hauling home the rich first cut.
No rustling maize rainforest rising nine feet high.
No kicking-up-of-heels
As the ladies leave their winter quarters
And dignity behind
And feel the new grass underfoot.

The herdsman, stockman and relief
Have been let go,
And the farm is worked by just one man
With a big New Holland
And a hunted look.
The leys are ploughed under
And put down to wheat.
The sheds stand like deconsecrated churches,
In silent communion with the swallows and spiders.
And the black-and-white company’s memory
Is fading into grey.

And in the supermarket
Milk’s down two pence today.
Cheaper now than ever.
Getting dearer by the day.

 

Britain is currently losing two dairy farms a week. The main reason is the milk price: farmers receive, on average, three pence a litre below the cost of production, thanks mainly to the supermarkets and the country’s obsession with ‘cheap’ food. We could be effortlessly self-sufficient in milk  – indeed, we’re so good at it, quotas had to be introduced to curb overproduction – but today, we’re a net importer. No dairying means no cows. No cows means no grassland. No grassland means no hedgerows. No hedgerows means no birds, and so it goes on. Meanwhile, dairy farmers are rushing into arable – not because they want to (dairying is a life’s work, a family tradition and a labour of love in the truest sense) but because last year’s disastrous harvest in Russia means world wheat prices are sky-high, and farmers have to make a living the same as the rest of us. 

The farm I worked on as a student recently sold off its dairy herd after more than 100 years and four generations of the same family. It’s a story being repeated all over Sussex, and the country as a whole. It’s sad, avoidable and wrong.

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.

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.

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.

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