Friday
Jun172016

Stormclouds, the darkest of all possible blacks.

Ours is a beautiful country. Its mountains may not be as high as some, but they have an ancient careworn beauty that exists nowhere else in the world. Our rivers may not be as broad as they might be, but they are blue and green-banked and sinuous. Our forests may be reduced and groomed, but they are filled with calm light and birdsong. Our fields are clipped and tended and bound by hedges and stone walls a thousand years old. They are the essence of stability and order.

Under those stone-walled and tilled fields, there is a dragon lurking. Most of the time it sleeps deep under the Earth. But sometimes it's restless. Sometimes it shivers and curls under the land threatening to emerge. It's the beast that we have distilled out of our Viking ancestors, out of the worst, forgotten atrocities of the Normans, the savage and doomed effectiveness of Iceni warrior princesses, from the aggression of the Angles and the Saxons. In more primitive times, it served us well. Sometimes it rules us and it has been a long time in chains. So long that we've forgotten that it's there. Its chains have rusted away and those tasked to be vigilant have become negligent. Yesterday the dragon twitched an eyebrow.

Please let Jo Cox's murder be a heeded-warning, not an overture.

Monday
Jun062016

Meadow Milt

The wildflower garden is a source of gentle surprises and the occasional shock. I had the dog on a long lead - he runs into the fen in search of Muntjac - and he was on one side of the garden and I was on the other. The lead was pulling through the heads of the grasses which smoked as though they were on fire. Thick white smoke curling into the air like milk, like milt, like a thousand cigarettes.

Pollen, thick as flour.

Tuesday
May242016

Victory

A few weeks ago our last sleeping tree flowered. Neither of us can remember it flowering before and with the strange, mixed spring that we've had it was a surprise. We'd cut the hedges to improve the spring light levels to see if we could coax our sleepy friend into life, but that was more hunch than scientific method. On Sunday I noticed that it has bunches of cherries.

Victory.

I'm an engineer. Applying a proven solution to a problem is the whole point of engineering. But I'm an engineer from a background in biology and although biology is entirely deterministic, its arcane processes conspire to create the illusion of chaos. The human mind has its limits, there are processes which are impossible to hold in mind, and there is a vast hinterland between art and science which can only be explored with inuition, populated with strangers: architects and psychologists and so on. So when an intuition bears fruit, that's a source of joy to me. I hope no one saw me dancing around the tree like some new-age loon. Next to it is a small Gala apple which was rotten when we arrived. Over the years, I've cut back a rotten branch, let another grow to replace it, cut the next rotter branch and so on. This autumn I'll prune it and it will be a healthy tree with thick branches and a good shape. One of our new pears got fireblight and I spent a whole summer managing its retreat until it became a full rout. I cut the main stem two feet from the ground. Now it's growing away. Next to that is a quince which almost died from black spot in it's first two years. That was another rearguard action, stripping leaf after leaf until it hit its stride, suddenly greening and thickening. Now it takes the occasional black spot on its leaves in its disdainful stride. Mrs Snoutindingle once delved into the hedges that I'd carefully renovated, hacked splendid holes in them and freed three apple trees that the thought were wildings and turned out not to be. Higher in the garden we pruned a sad pear tree and discovered that it was a double graft, a comice on a conference on a quince rootstock and next to it, there's a hybrid of the two. All four now bear fruit. There is a Wealthy apple hidden in the Big Hedge which the good lady discovered and has been treating for it's nasty fungal excressences. Our last planting was a "dead" Medlar that we bought from a Fenland market for a tenner. We heard the lady on the stall give a little sing-song laugh as we walked off with it. This year it has flowered in abundnance - its flowers have a delicate marshmallow scent - and the fat lady can go sing all she wants. We bought a dried up standard olive tree for a tenner from a nursery. "Last legs, but the pot would be nearly that" they said. Five years later it's thriving, surrounded by its children, cuttings in various stages of growth. My sister bought me a Kumquat tree for my birthday. That died too, turning brown in its pot so that even Mrs Snoutigdingle doubted that I could revive it. Revive it I did. In fact, for whatever reason, the only trees that I can't save are the ones that are presents from my Mum.

Monday
Apr182016

Desert Spring

These High Plains are the estranged sibling of the Fens, determined to be different, yet underpinned with the same sinews and bones. The Fens are at sea level and water is never far from the surface. The High Plains are a mile high and thousands of miles inland. Where the Fens are a natural extension of the ocean, the High Plains are extensions of the desert. In summer the Fens steam, if not with water then with miniature thunderclouds of water-bred insects rising from every bush. In summer the High Plains burn with thin heat and it rarely rains but when the rain comes it comes in mighty thunderstorms. The Fens are always damp and never far from rain or the soft, damp mist. In winter, the dying vegetation of the Fens rots away and anything that is left is more often than not blackened with mold so that in the winter the Fens darken further. On the High Plains, winter dries and bleaches every standing plant so that some, like the Tumbleweed, dry up and break away, rolling across the open spaces. Where the Fens are graduations of dark green and black, the High Plains are a consistent sage green on grey and red soils, run through with rivulets of pale matte gold.

In the spring, around the many sinking creeks, the High Plains show their true and glorious colours. The tall, dried grasses sit on the shelves of the river-margins in thick yellow clumps like sunbursts. At this time of year they are as pale as ghosts. Imagine acid yellow with the acid faded out and then dried. This land is a mile high and flat in every direction and the winters dry out these grasses until they are almost like glass. The dryness means that they have hardly a dot of mold. In amongst these grasses, the blue-green sage bush creates a matte background. This dwarf forest of wormwoods with their thick, water-conserving leaves have a texture as dry as bones. I'm convinced that all of those artemesias fill the air with an indetectible but addictive fragance: an arid, airborne absinthe. The boles of cottonwoods rise from this straw-misted hinterland, following the rivers. Cottonwoods are the counterpart of willows on these riverbanks, although the willow has colonised America just like her European human counterparts. The trunks are grey with wounds of darker brown and black split out here and there. Higher up the branches are clay-grey as though dipped in river-mud, but washed with that same sage. In the sun they also glow with a curious brilliance. There is something strange about these trees, a limerance which drew me in. Like the deep black-greens of the Fens which radiate such powerful and obvious life-forces despite being as dark as the Earth, these desert trees are obviously alive and, more than that, virile. I stopped my car to investigate and despite pulling well off the  road, I encouraged a couple of truckers to curse my cultural insensitivity with their air-horns. The noise disturbs a red-tailed hawk which lumbers into the air stops its wings and banks into tight circles. It is no longer afraid and now it slips around the bare branches of the trees silently looking for any other creatures that I might have frightened from cover.

 Walking into the grove, I saw the source of that strange wash of bright brilliance. A fen willow will glow at the edges against black soil and black spring skies as they burst into leaf. The cottonwoods are no different. As the air warms and the winter rivers sink back the trees explode into growth, putting on two feet a week for a young tree and sustaining five feet of growth every year all their lives. On these trees the brilliant new leaves were showing through the cracks in their buds in brilliant spills of yellow and sage, subtly colouring the entire tree so that it shimmers with health. The desert pauses for breath in the tiniest crack of opportunity between winter and summer, and leaps into life.

 

 

Wednesday
Mar092016

The Last Sleeping Tree

There is one tree in the Night Planted Orchard which we have not yet been able to wake.

It will have taken four years to rennovate the hedges. Last year we pulled out stems fourteen feet long and turned them into rustic fences. Even then it took five huge bonfires to clear all the waste. That completed the western side of the orchard just before the birds called time on our marathon hedging efforts. That allowed so much more light into the orchard that we had a bumper crop in a year when most of the trees are supposed to be dormant. This year I cut the eastern side back, at least as far as the scrubby wood next door will allow. The shape and height is restored all around the orchard. In the section of the garden left to wildlife and wild flowers, I left a taller run but even the very furthest reaches, where the garden ends at a deep ditch and the fen begins, are now back to proper hedge height and trim. Now that the overgrowth is pushed right back, new growth can hold its own in the gaps. We'll take advantage of the delay from this late cold to lay some hedges in those gaps, perhaps plant some more damsons and sloes. Finally, in the autumn, we'll tidy up.

There are two objectives to renovating the hedges. One is to restore a fine set of country hedges to good health after years of neglect. The other is to bring more light to the orchard. During the process I discovered among the thick tree-like stems, a run of thinner, tamer wood. I took this back to its natural height. At the end of the day, walking back through the orchard, I looked back and saw that this old gap in the hedge aligned perfectly with a long gap between the willows at the fen's edge. In the morning, I discovered that this south-easterly gap floods the orchard with early morning light. Perhaps I would have started with that stretch if I'd known. Perhaps the light will melt the frost in the orchard and that might be a problem in itself - I've always tried to let the frost leave of its own free will - or perhaps, just perhaps, it might extend the light on the one tree that we have not been able to wake in the last five years. We think it may be a nectarine or a peach but whatever it is, its too sad to set blossom with it's pretty toes cold and damp all year.

Perhaps a regular morning sip at the light will cheer it up. We'll see.