Do not fal­ter, lit­tle don­key

Hav­ing lopped a trail­er­load of holly boughs on a bright, clear De­cem­ber day, John Lewis-stem­pel is re­minded of the Na­tiv­ity scene as he watches his cat­tle chew con­tent­edly on the leaves, ac­com­pa­nied by Snow­drop the don­key

Country Life Every Week - - From The Fields - John Lewis-stem­pel, BSME Colum­nist of the Year Il­lus­tra­tions by Philip Ban­nis­ter

WHAT’S in a name? The ar­chae­ol­ogy of mean­ing. On an old field map of the farm, there’s a pad­dock marked ‘Hollins’, in­di­cat­ing a holly plan­ta­tion. The trees have long since been cut down, ex­cept for five cop­piced an­cients on the blunt U-shaped penin­sula, which sticks into the pond. They’re as tall and green as firs.

I’ve come down to Hollins in the Land Rover, the Ifor Wil­liams flatbed trailer be­hind. It’s one of those pure win­ter morn­ings you thought ex­tinct, when the sun is blind­ing and the air nee­dles. The grass is frosted into white, sea-bot­tom fronds. A sin­gle cir­cling buz­zard has the whole blue dome to it­self. As I get out of the cab, it sud­denly drops down and the gang of long-tailed tits work­ing the bare alders twit­ters ‘keep still’. The lit­tle birds and I and the land do, un­til the shadow of the preda­tor moves on.

On the far bank of the pond, the grey heron stands in the mess of dead reeds, be­tween two alder pil­lars, look­ing fiercely re­li­gious in the way that herons do. The pond is sheeted with ice, ex­cept where he’s dag­gered holes with his beak. The tem­ple pri­est of the pond, de­cid­ing I’m too close for safety, flaps off on slow, sad wings. He emits a sin­gle craaak, which breaks the val­ley’s frozen si­lence apart. I’m sorry to have dis­turbed his fish­ing.

There’s al­ways a cer­tain amount of Mr Bean com­edy in cut­ting holly with pruners. Sure enough, as I’m climb­ing up the lad­der, a bough springs back, catch­ing my fore­head. I bleed berries. The blood drips down my face into my mouth and I re­mem­ber that blood tastes of the fer­rous earth. Small won­der some civil­i­sa­tions thought mankind was made of clay; the word hu­man and the word hu­mus, ‘soil’, come from the same root in Indo-euro­pean lan­guage.

I have to go up the lad­der be­cause of ‘spines­cence’. Holly leaves at the bot­tom of the tree are prickly, to de­ter graz­ing an­i­mals. Leaves at the top are spike­less ovals. By now, you’ll be won­der­ing why I re­quire holly with­out spines, or in­deed with­out berries— it’s to sup­ple­ment the diet of cat­tle and sheep in win­ter.

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