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
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.