The hunger games

It might seem serene, but, for John Lewis-stem­pel, Au­gust her­alds the end of summer, the de­par­ture of swifts and a lean time for many a crea­ture, es­pe­cially foxes, which turn to fruit for sus­te­nance

Country Life Every Week - - From The Fields - John Lewis-stem­pel

STRANGE days in­deed. The nine o’clock shad­ows are long, but the fields glow from the in­side, like the Habi­tat pa­per lanterns in my stu­dent digs in the 1980s. The silent stub­ble in the wheat­field is run­ning with har­vest­men arach­nids. Vote Leave posters re­main nailed to the tele­graph poles on the lane. A fox stands on its back legs to pluck black­ber­ries from the hedge.

How I loathe Au­gust. All seems seren­ity: the heavy evening peace reaches out from the lawn to the rim of blue hills, we’ve got the hay safely gath­ered in and the cat­tle went on the grass ‘af­ter­math’ bang on the tra­di­tional date of Au­gust 1, Lam­mas Day. The lambs are weaned and the ewes and rams sorted and checked, from teeth to trot­ters. I’ve a glass of Pimm’s in my hand, a gor­geous val­ley in my eyes—an agri-cul­tural val­ley, mean­ing land­scape shaped by farm­ers over cen­turies.

The coun­try­side of Eng­land is the great­est work of art in the world. The scene is so per­fect, so still, we might be trapped in a giant glass dome. Sounds come singly and pre­cisely. A pea­cock’s squawk, the toot of the Here­ford­aber­gavenny train six miles away.

Then I see and hear the signs our English summer is shot. There is no es­cape from the clues. A robin is singing on and on. Past his summer moult, the robin is al­ready claim­ing the or­chard as his winter ter­ri­tory. Pup­pety daddy lon­glegs hang in the tired air, then catch and break their legs on the sweat of my face. Midges swarm. Mos­qui­toes whine (a pleonasm, I grant you: their name comes from the Greek muia, an at­tempted ren­der­ing in a word of that ir­ri­tat­ing noise they make when fly­ing).

Our swifts would have en­joyed hunt­ing the mos­qui­toes, but they’ve gone back to Africa. There was no pre-flight mass­ing or cer­e­mony, un­like with house martins and swallows. I just walked out of the house yes­ter­day morn­ing and re­alised that the rip-cal­ico sound of swifts in the sky was ab­sent.

Ridicu­lous, of course, to call them ‘our swifts’. You can an­thro­po­mor­phise swallows and house martins as cheery neigh­bours. Swifts are re­mote and un­know­able, the lords on the hill.

My neigh­bour’s Land Rover thrums past on the lane, throw­ing up a pale dust cloud into the heat of the evening. On the lane­side hedge, the lad­ders of goose grass are still in place, but are grey with weari­ness and dirt. The cow pars­ley and the hog­weed, dry and gone to seed, rat­tle in the air-wake

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