Nature Notes

There is a Little of Spring in Autumn.

On the last day of the strangest school holidays ever, the oats are being brought in from Home Field. Across the lane, fields of late-grown seed hay are being tedded; turned, woofed, floofed and dried before being teddered again into windrows and baled. The warm, biscuity scent from the thick, strewn mattress of grass mingles with the smell of ivy flowers. It’s at once fresh & nostalgic, like spring in autumn.

I’ve been reading about a woman who farmed these fields in the 1940s and took the almost derelict Manor Farm from horse to tractor power. It was necessary, gruelling work, with little manpower, no running water, sanitation or electricity – but plenty of support and camaraderie. The effort it took getting the reaper binder to work or the threshing machine and its eight human attendants to the fields is humbling.

I am beguiled & haunted by past, indomitable, local women farmers at the moment. In the historical section of my local paper, was a latterday Bathsheba Everdene; a lone woman selling her harvest in The Corn Exchange, in 1920, resplendent & remarked upon, not for her corn, but her smock & her billycock hat. And then there is Honor Atkins of Enborne, Miss Mason and Miss de Beaumont of Shalbourne and Miss Boston & Miss Hargreaves of Starlight Farm, Lambourn (immortalised in Rachel Malik’s brilliant book.)

A young buzzard quarters the field, mewing and picked on by jackdaws until it learns, with feints, foils and baffles, to shake them off. There is a flattened straw, shellac gleam from the underside of its wings, a flash of mother-of-pearl.

A feather from its parent lies along some sort of dividing line between the wilder land & the farmed. The buzzard that moulted this feather makes no such distinction. Owns none of it, belongs to it all. She raised her fledglings through lockdown in the usual nest, near the eye-gap in the canopy of Nightingales Wood.

From there, a reverb, an echo of March: a little over-the-shoulder reprise of spring amongst the autumn clatter of farm machinery and acorns falling through branches. There is always the last breath of spring in autumn somehow. A willow warbler subsong drops in to my consciousness, as if I’d forgotten its daily musicality already; all the notes, softer and in mild, self-conscious disarray: an after-party lilt, the punchline of the last joke told, repeated to itself, a little tired now, heading inexorably home through the country, south. 

And then in the strange, grey, heavy weather, I hear the sudden clarity of the village church bells; only ever heard faintly here, but unmistakeable, they grow loud and pass in a pocket of air, travelling as if in a bubble blown from a bubble wand. As if an ice cream van has gone by. What strange alchemy is this?

Later, a warm whisk of a wind blows chaff dust through the open door of my hut. I am wearing a crown of craneflies that are reading my face and laptop screen like braille, with their tentpole legs & long, sad, horse faces. It should be Harvest Festival time. Newbury Agricultural Show time. All is out of kilter.

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