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.

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.

An unequal match

8 October 2010 § 2 Comments

Another ploughing-match poem…

NO CONTEST

Inching forward, earthworm-slow,
Eyes front, rigid as a guardsman
He opens up the ground.

From this first furrow all others follow;
With coulter, mouldboard, share and landside
The battle line is drawn.

At once, the Sussex clay
With a night and day of rain in it
Fights back;

Clogs and butters churning tyres
Sets front wheels slickly sliding
Plucks at the plough; leaks, collapses.

But in our annual fixture with the fields
We lead the land three thousand-nil
And this year will not break our streak.

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.

Work and play

21 June 2010 § 1 Comment

Yesterday, there were special Fathers’ Day activities at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum. For me, the main draw was the chance to drive a tractor, which was how I spent my summers in my student days. It’s been a long time but, like riding a bike, you never entirely forget how to do it. And even though it lasted just a few minutes, and I was simply trundling round a field between traffic cones, it brought back some happy memories – and stirred some old regrets.

WORK AND PLAY

Two steps up into the dusty cab
Is all it takes to leave the world
And twenty years behind me.
One hand falls to the wheel
As surely as it lights on
A switch in the dark;
I sit half-turned in the ragged seat,
My eyes everywhere
Alerted by old instincts and recalled disasters,
Though today there’s no long trailer,
Plough or harrow hanging off the back
To swing out wide;
No fence, gatepost or steel stanchion
To gouge and smash in a moment’s inattention.

There will be
No more long nights hauling the harvest home
Ten tonnes at a time,
Ripping September’s stubble open
Rolling down miles of shining leys
Or coming in from spring seedbeds
Every surface dredged with a grey flour of clay.

Yet in a five-minute spin
On soft turf and a sunny Sunday
I can still connect to shirtless summers
Of big kit, hard hands, boots and jeans blotched with oil,
The smell of straw, the taste of dust.
The labour of life. A man’s work.
The first and last I ever did.

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