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
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