Field Studies #02

Pry | I retrace the woodland paths that my son and I have walked to school, but instead of dropping down the last slope to home, I am drawn upwards out of the shadowed, frost-gripped valley to the meet the day’s dazzling brightness. The holly and hawthorns have both been extravagant in their berry production this year, and against the perfect, entirely cloudless blue, their bounty – burgundy haws and vermillion holly berries – must have never looked so good to a travel-weary fieldfare. I could stop here, but only when I find myself crossing the broken stile into Pry Farm’s fields do I realise I am on a quest, a test of how well my Covid-compromised sense of smell is returning. Above the barn’s ridgeline the waning gibbous Moon pales as it sinks into the north-west, and above the Moon, two telegraph wires buzz with the static of starlings. In twos and threes they gently slide down to the neighbouring field to probe among the rushes, until only two are left. I drink in their iridescence, a flamboyance somehow worn so lightly. Suddenly, they panic and dive off the line. Having learnt what this is a sign of from my naturalist friend Dan, I look up and round in time to catch a peregrine falcon sailing low overhead. Once above the skulking starlings it puts on a sudden burst of speed and scythes into the rushes. After waiting in vain for it to reappear, the clank of cattle against railing brings me to and confirms what I had been hoping for: that the single-figure temperatures of the last few days had driven David’s herd in to their winter quarters, as they had done two days earlier this time last year. As I round the corner into the yard, the sweet, fermenting smell of mingled muck and silage – among the less likely smells I had decided, over the past two months, would be an aching loss if I never got it back – brings a thankful smile to my face. The herd stares, nonplussed, at this beaming stranger leaning over the fence, and return to feeding. Above the yard from up on Pry Hill, I watch gulls row silently northwards and the cream livery of the 596 bus sailing over Popples Common. The hush of morning magnifies distant sounds: a cockerel the other side of the valley, water funnelling down the wooded clough, children in the village school playground. The low sun stretches my shadow down the hill across Gordon’s immaculate fields. It would easy to mistake – and it is a mistake that many seem eager, even wilfully, to make in current debates over the future of the upland landscape – this neatness for sterility, but look closer: every square metre of grass is gauzed with the gilded thread of spiderlings. In large part, upland farming does not bear down on life in the same way as so much lowland farming: sharing these fields, using knowledge both old and new, is a viable way of meeting the new goals that society is setting those who steward our land.

Sylvia Townsend Warner | A wonderful BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s strange, magical, early feminist novel Lolly Willowes from 1926 – in which the eponymous protagonist escapes a dull spinsterhood in London to the beechwoods and witchcraft of the Chiltern Hills – reminded me of my first encounter with her work 14 years ago. I was taking a deliberately meandering walk through leafy, genteel Grange in Edinburgh when the episode of Poetry Please I had in my headphones served up Townsend Warner’s ‘Go the long way, the long way home’. It remains among my favourite poems, a stirring call to savour, while we still can, ‘all this green and all this growing’.

Go the long way, the long way home.

Go the long way, the long way home.
Over this gate and that lean, at the three lanes’ meeting delay,
Look well at that field of hay, eye closely the drilled loam,
Finger the springing corn, count every petal
Of the hedge rose and the guelder rose.
Under the bosom of the blossomed elder stay,
Delay, linger, browse deep on all this green and all this growing,
Slant cheek to the sweet air, with deep greeting survey
The full-leaved boughs like water flowing,
The corn-waves hurrying uphill as the wind blows.
Look overhead into the blue, look round,
Watch this bird fly and that bird settle,
With slow treading and sure greet the assuring ground:
Go slowly, for slowly goes this midsummer day,
And this is the last time you will come this way.

Go the long way, the long way home.
Aye, and when you’ve arrived and the sighing gate falls to,
Go slowly, go heedfully your garden through.
Breathe in the spice pinks, turn face up to the soft
Ripe rose that wags aloft,
Nod to the old rake, rub thumbs along the spade’s edge,
Measure the potato hills and the tall bean rows,
Pledge cherry and currant bush, pledge lily and lily leaf spear
And rebel the nettles waving along the hedge;
Look closely, look well,
See how your garden grows,
Ponder yourself even into the secret cell
Of this year’s honeycomb:
Look long, for long has this been yours and long been dear,
And this is the last time you will stand here.

Go the long way, the long way home.
Though you are weary, hasten not ghost to ground,
Tarry this last hour out, take your last look round,
Greet finally the earth, greet leaf and root and stock.
Stand in your last hour poised, like the dandelion clock –
Frail ghost of the gaudy raggle-taggle that you were –
Stand up, O homing phantom, stand up intact and declare
The goodness of earth the greatest good you found,
Ere the wind jolts you, and you vanish like the foam.

Cherry Galls | My son and I are keen gall-spotters. My son, it must be admitted, does most of the spotting. I like to put it down to him being closer to the ground, but in truth it is because he is more attentive to the present moment and his immediate surroundings. While I could learn much from him in this regard, I do not feel inclined either to stuff my pockets with my findings, nor to adopt the gall-alarm he has developed, a repetitive clarion of ‘gall, gall, gall!’ that sends dozing wood pigeons clattering from their perches and provokes jays to screech in indignation. Gall-spotting and bird watching are, for this probably short period he is compelled to issue this alarm, incompatible. After the woodland floor was littered with artichoke galls in late summer, and alongside the usual crop of spangle galls (both common and silk button), this year’s crop of cherry galls is now being buried in the last of the leaf fall. Like all galls, the cherry gall is an abnormal growth on a plant caused by the action of another organism, mostly mites and insects, for the purpose of providing food or shelter. In this case, it is from chemicals exuded from the egg of the gall wasp Cynips quercusfolii, which lays its eggs on oak leaves. The resulting growth protects the larva while it grows inside a chamber at the heart of the plump gall. This species of wasp has a two-year life cycle spanning two generations: members of the asexual generation, agamic females able to produce fertile eggs without mating, emerge from the cherry galls and will lay eggs on the oak tree trunk, which in turn will mature into the sexual generation which mate and lay their eggs on the leaves to produce the galls. Soon these little fruits will be hidden in the leaf litter, and in the spring, if we can find any, they will each have an exit hole, through which the adult escaped its winter chamber.

Scots Pines | Over the course of 15 years of seasonal work for Trees for Life – an ecological restoration charity dedicated to reforesting a thousand square miles of the Scottish Highlands with its lost Caledonian pinewood – I planted thousands of Scots pines and led groups that planted tens of thousands. Twenty-five years on, the first trees I planted are now themselves a seed source with which nature can really get to work, expanding up the glens by means of natural regeneration. The remnants of ancient native pinewood – in Glen Affric, Glen Moriston, Achnashellach – are magical places. We would take volunteers to them at the beginning of their weeks with us to show what their work would create in a quarter of a millennium or so; an ancient ‘granny’ pine is a living symbol of survival, resilience and hope. I have been thinking about Scots pines recently as two local individuals, far south of their natural range, perform their annual trick of emerging into prominence in the heart of Horsehold Wood as the surrounding birch, beech and oak lose their leaves. So my son and I make a pilgrimage to them after school, traversing a hillside worthy of the Highlands on the faintest of paths through boulderfields and buckler ferns. We crane up at their slender, sinewy trunks, with their distinctive shading from grey to warm russet near higher up, as if their crowns were catching perpetual evening sunlight. Searching around their bases, my son crams a cone, some needles and a flake of bark into his coat pockets as offerings for his nature tray on the kitchen table, and we make our way home in mizzle and fast-fading light, along a treacherous path with a hundred-foot drop into the canal. At home I unpack his pockets for him and find two much larger pine cones from I know not where, a marbled pebble, assorted wizened berries and a sea shell.

Into the Wind | As I write there is a Met Office yellow warning of wind in place for almost the whole country tomorrow. A good time, therefore, for re-watching Into the Wind, a superb, poetic BBC Four programme from 2017. Tim Dee walks into the ‘cockpit of weather’ that is The Wash – a ‘non-place’ between fresh and salt, where the land and the sea are ‘unresolved about the status of each’ – in an attempt to record what in his professional life as a radio producer is an enemy called the ‘wildtrack’, the background noise of wind that you want a little of to prove you are recording on location, but no more. Here, he desires not only to foreground it, but to record ‘pure wind’, ‘pure’ because what we normally think of as the sound of the wind is of course the sound it makes ‘as it rubs over the surface of the world’. Rather, in a turn of phrase that reminds one that Dee is also a celebrated nature writer, he states his wish to record ‘wind as wind might sound in its own ear’. Soundtracked not only by the wind but also golden plover, brent geese, curlew and a little judicious use of Max Richter’s music, the programme is also a meditation on walking, a call to ‘walk yourself well every day’ and embrace the slowness of being on foot – an appropriate exhortation given that the new phenomenon of ‘slow TV’ of which this programme is a fine example is under threat now that BBC Four, which has nurtured the emergence of this genre, is set to become an archive-only channel and cease its role in commissioning new work. But despite the welcome slowness, I found an intense drama in the final scene: Dee stepping down to the ‘questionable shore’, holding his boom, the ‘equivalent of a pilgrim’s staff or dowser’s rod’, to capture the pure wind as it arrives, out of the north, after a thousand unimpeded miles.

Into the Wind is available on BBC iPlayer until Friday 3rd December, but is periodically repeated. This clip is permanently available.

Cruttonstall | The final curtain of the morning’s rain is falling over Staups Moor as my friend and I cross the stile into Edge End’s meadows, in which we find a Lleyn tup, after 11 months of easy living, is about the business that earns his keep. The ewes are still cropping the sward, whose astonishing diversity – yellow rattle, red clover, knapweed, common sorrel, yarrow, meadow buttercup, tormentil, bird’s-foot trefoil, pignut – is now so difficult to perceive, but it will not be long before the summer’s hay, harvested from Home Field one late afternoon in early September, is being brought out on the quad bike to fill the bale feeder beside the ruin of Cruttonstall. It is to the ruin that we now attend, my friend applying her eye for architecture to discern a doorway repurposed as a fireplace, a roofline raised to accommodate a larger family. We stop to ponder the workings and history of the horse-drawn hay rake, as I have done many times without spotting the venerable agricultural moniker of ‘Massey Harris’ in the latticework of its high seat: another benefit of being accompanied by a fresh pair of eyes to this favourite place. Cumulonimbus billow behind Edge End Farm and its sentinel sycamores; a wren flits and flickers in and out of the gaps in the seven-century-old walls; a score of starlings muscles in on the feeding found by a pair of jackdaws; a glossy black heifer mills unconcernedly on our path. With the temperature dropping during the day, and snow and sub-zero figures on the way, it cannot be long before Edge End’s herd follows the example of Pry’s across the valley and makes for the barn. Indeed, one cow is already standing hopefully by its open door, apparently waiting for her companions to arrive at the same conclusion. While the sun has finally appeared and the briny light on Eaves Wood is warm, the wind is bitter, and it is time for the school run.

First Snow | The forecast has made good on its promise, and then some. We wake to a dusting of snow and the birch bending before respectable gusts, but the conditions at 400 feet in the sheltered valley must never be understood as a guide to those at three times that elevation on the open moor: at dusk at the head of Crimsworth Dean, the relentless wind whips a continuous stream of powdered ice over the sculpted crust of the drifts, and the windward walls of the high farms are blasted with a frozen render. My son, having this morning rekindled his inexhaustible zeal for snow that has been dormant since mid-February and woken the sledge from its summer hibernation, longs to launch into the snow that banks against every fold of the moor. I try to impress upon him the utter hostility of these conditions: the warmth of the peach blush behind Stoodley Pike just emphasises the intimidating approach of a night in which we do not belong. Only the lone sycamore that marks the site of the long-vanished farm at Mare Greave, engraved in solid black against the white moor, seems to face this ferocious foreshadowing of winter with equanimity. This is nothing it has not seen, and survived, before.

Gallery |

Frosted fields above Burnt Acres Wood
Cattle at Pry Farm
Starling, just before it is assailed by a peregrine falcon
Meadows at Edge End
A late, ragged red admiral
Frosted foxglove
Rake Head and Stoodley Pike

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