Authors: John Lewis-Stempel
In exquisite prose, John Lewis-Stempel records the passing seasons in an ancient meadow on his farm. His unique and intimate account of the birth, life and death of the flora and fauna – from the pair of ravens who have lived there longer than he has to the minutiae underfoot – is threaded throughout with the history of the field, and recalls the literature of other observers of our natural history in a love song to the land that follows the tradition of Jeffries, Mabey and Deakin.
For Penny, Tristram and Freda. Of course.
I can only tell you how it felt. How it was to work and watch a field and be connected to everything that was in it, and ever had been. To rationalize it . . . is pointless. The Romantic poet William Wordsworth was not always the most reliable recorder of the British countryside, but this he got right:
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things
We murder to dissect.
THE ICE MOON
is already rising over Merlin’s Hill as I go down to the field at late evening to watch for snipe. There is real cold on the back edge of the wind, which rattles the dead tin-foil leaves left clinging on the river oaks. As I open the gate, my heart performs its usual little leap at the magnificence of the view: the great flatness of the field, its picture-frame of hedgerows, the sloping smoothness of Merlin’s Hill to the left, then right around me the forbidding dam wall of the Black Mountains. There is snow along the top of the mountains, snow as smooth as wedding cake.
Stepping into the field is to step on to a vast square stage in which I am the last person on earth. There is not a house or person or car to be seen. It is the sort of field where, as you step in, you breathe out.
The snipe like the wet corner of the meadow, where the old ditch is broken, leaking out its contents, and where sharp sprigs of sedge have taken hegemony. The snipe have come in here late for the two nights past, where the ground is amiable to their dagger beaks and the sedge offers shelter.
Frost already spectres the grass of the field. A small flock of brown meadow pipits rise up in front of me,
as though hesitantly climbing invisible stairs, chattering as they go. The nondescript meadow pipit is gregarious in winter, and is a true bird of grassland. The bird’s Latin name is
is Latin for ‘of a meadow’. ‘Pipit’ is for the bird’s piping song; then again the bird is also known as cheeper, teetan and peeper in verbal reproduction of its call. All of which show how impossible it is to represent the complexity of birdsong in mere human words.
I slither down into the ditch at the far side of the field, which borders Grove Farm. This is the far west of Herefordshire, where England runs out, and the rain falls. This ditch, built to take the run-off from the fields above, is deep enough to have served a soldier in Flanders a century ago.
In the seeping red-walled ditch I wait with my arms propped on the top. I like waiting in the ditch, invisible. Sometimes I bring my shotgun, to shoot pigeons, pheasants and rabbits, but not snipe. The diminutive wader with the stiletto on its face is too rare a visitor to kill by my hand. It would be like murdering guests. A blackbird spinks in a far-away hedge.
The snipe do not come. But snipe are always mysterious; their plumage is sorcery, a camouflage of earth-blending bars and flecks. After about forty minutes when I am old and stiff with cold, and about to clamber up the ditch side, I see, from the corner of my eye, a dim shape pushing under the fence wire,
leaving yet more of his silver bristles on the bottom strand of barbs.
We attribute almost supernatural olfactory powers to animals, but the truth is with the wind blowing towards me he is oblivious to my presence.
I recognize him as he advances into the field by his dragging back leg. It’s the old boar badger. Badgers do not truly hibernate but he has been underground for days, avoiding the searing hoar frosts. Brock is a Nazi, a follower of Goering’s maxim ‘Guns Before Butter’. Although he must be hungry, he chooses first to patrol his territory.
Amusingly, the eastern boundary of his territory is the same as ours; he has adopted the human’s stock fence as his national border. Along this the badger now shambles, black-and-white snout to the ground, stopping every five yards to squat and scent. The sun has long since perished, and in the quarter moonlight I can only make out his progress by the startling luminescence of the white bands on his head.
Satisfied with his noisome defences, he starts to haul himself across the field towards me.
For a sizeable mammal, badgers like the smallest morsel to eat. When he is within twenty yards I see he is flipping over old cow pats, with all the aplomb of a pizza chef. In this cold there can be few worms, but in late summer, when the grass has been cut for hay and it has rained lightly, I have seen the whole badger family
out hoovering up earthworms by the hundred. A badger can easily eat 20,000 earthworms in a year. But then this 5.7-acre field probably hosts 6,000,000
; the badgers are unlikely to run out.
Tonight, however, the pickings are poor and he shuffles off. I follow his lead. Which is as it should be. He has primacy. The badger is the oldest landowner in Britain, and roamed the deciduous forests of southern England long before the Channel cut us from the ‘Continent’. On the way across the field I push over some cow pats with my wellingtoned foot to see what the badger was eating. Small, glistening grey slugs.
I was not right to say the field was flat, although it is unusually flat for hill country. The field has a gentle tilt, west to east. At first glance, like all fields, it seems one habitat, but like nearly all fields it is more than one. Look again. At the two gateways where the cows stand and stare, the ground is bare, making scars in the gathering moonlight. Where the western ditch, which takes all the water from the Marsh Field above, leaks, the ground is going to bog and snipe. Part of this ditch sweeps into the field and is deep and slow enough to be a rectangular pond; it is here that the frogs and newts breed. A finger of the field sticks untidily out and is walled by trees, and is never cut because there is no room to get a tractor (or, years ago, a horse) and mower in. Under most of the hedges which ring the field, the ground is dry, especially the
north end of the west hedge; here the sheep like to sleep and shelter, leaving twists of their fleece in the hawthorns and their black-green dung pellets on the ground. They are doing so now, a flock of thirty Ryelands, fifteen Shetlands and ten Hebrideans, breathily chewing the cud. It is here the thistles grow, and the brilliant goldfinches descend in their charms to feed on the October seed heads.
Lie down for a floor-across view in the frost, and the grey field is not so smooth after all, but bears the bumps and pockmarks of centuries of use. An arterial network of paths spreads across and just discernibly dents it, the trails of generations of sheep. Hoof marks from last year’s cattle have collected water, reflecting the moonlight, as though someone has scattered hundreds of pocket mirrors.
The field has unseen contours too. Getting back up, I find the invisible point in the middle of the field where the air temperature changes, enough to make me shiver.
A narrow mountain river runs alongside the eastern edge of the field, finding its way to the sea. Over gravel shillets and into glass pools, and round an arching loop to leave the promontory, or finger as we call it. Most of the bankside is steep and covered in a thicket of holly, alder, hawthorn, hazel, field maple, ivy; it is the overgrown child of an antique parent hedge. There are two kingly oaks in the thicket, which
in their dotage clutch the river bank, to lean precipitously over the river, on roots elephant-trunk thick and which swirl thrashingly into the ground, leaving nightmarish, dark troll holes. The oaks, which are around seven hundred years old, are remnants from the time when this isolated valley was wooded.
Where the river leaves the field, the thicket grows out into a small copse; here, secreted in the bracken and scrub, is a fox’s earth. Foxes like to make their homes near water.
The river has a name, the Escley. In his
The Place Names of Herefordshire
of 1916 the Reverend A. T. Bannister advised about the noun ‘Escley’: ‘Wise students refuse to discuss river-names; but one is tempted to connect the word with the Celtic root from which comes Exe, Usk, Ock, and Ax-ona.’ He is likely correct on the derivation, which would seem to come from a Brythonic root word meaning ‘abounding in fish’. Put more plainly, Escley is related to the Welsh for fish, a lexical reminder that national ownership of this borderland ebbed in the past, and the field today is just a mile inside England. The Escley does indeed have fish, and the patient person who can cast flies between the alders that line the river’s route may find trout. Tonight the Escley is chattering discreetly.
As I leave the field the raven croaks, despite it being nighttime, to remind me that a pair of this species nest and roost in a small grove of fir trees just
across the river and they have the best view of the field of all. Ravens mate for life, and this pair has been here since we have.