Caught in a cross fire

Country Life Every Week - - My Week - Jonathan Self

Iwas up at six o’clock on sun­day morn­ing, light­ing the kitchen range, warm­ing the twins’ clothes in the oven, mak­ing por­ridge and pre­par­ing packed lunches. One child was spend­ing the day ori­en­teer­ing; the other wa­ter­colour paint­ing en plein air.

I felt like the fa­ther in Robert Hay­den’s Those Win­ter Sun­days fac­ing the ‘blue­black cold’, who ‘made banked fires blaze’ and ‘pol­ished shoes’ and only called the fam­ily ‘when the rooms were warm’. He was never thanked and his son spoke in­dif­fer­ently to him. Much as I spoke to my fa­ther when he rose early, lit the kitchen range, warmed my clothes in the oven, made me por­ridge and pre­pared my packed lunch.

when I fetched the twins at 8.30am, they were sleepy but ap­pre­cia­tive. They didn’t un­der­stand, of course, how long I had spent ready­ing ev­ery­thing for them or my emotions as I did so. when I think of the last lines of Hay­den’s poem, they al­ways bring a tear to my eye: ‘what did I know, what did I know/ of love’s aus­tere and lonely of­fices?’

S‘Oliver told jokes and sang songs: “Love me tin­der, love me true”’

ome­thing else brought a tear to my eye on sun­day and put an end to the ori­en­teer­ing and art plans, too. smoke. Huge, black, bil­low­ing clouds of it. It be­gan in­no­cently enough. The clear, crisp, icy air car­ried the very slight­est hint of burnt wood, sweet and al­most flo­ral. I thought per­haps it was a bon­fire. when I walked up be­hind the house, how­ever, I saw I was much mis­taken.

The hill was ablaze, not with friendly fire, but cross fire. If we had been at home (ren­o­va­tions are still on­go­ing), rather than in a rented house, I would never have called the Fire Brigade, for it is my fer­vent hope that an ac­ci­den­tal con­fla­gra­tion will re­duce our prop­erty to ashes. also, rat­ting on neigh­bours who have al­lowed their burn­ing off to get out of hand is, as ev­ery coun­try dweller knows, the stuff of feuds.

There be­ing no prospect of a mas­sive in­sur­ance claim and no fear of a vendetta, I sum­moned as­sis­tance. I trust the farmer copped it. Burn­ing off gorse kills wildlife, de­stroys bio­di­ver­sity and rarely im­proves the soil. It is an out­dated, dis­proven prac­tice that ought to be com­pletely banned.

As we ad­mired the flames, Oliver, 12, told jokes (‘why was the fire­wood pun­ished? Be­cause it was knotty’), sang songs (‘Love me tin­der, love me true’) and pointed out that, it be­ing the Feast of Pu­rifi­ca­tion, aka (he throws aka into a lot of his con­ver­sa­tions at the mo­ment) Can­dle­mas, with its light/can­dle mo­tif, what could be more ap­pro­pri­ate than a roar­ing in­ferno?

It is a rather busy time in the re­li­gious cal­en­dar, for sev­eral im­por­tant saints’ days and three pa­gan fes­ti­vals con­cerned with cleans­ing and spring—lu­per­calia, Im­bolc and Fe­bru­alia (af­ter which the month is named)— fall, more or less, this week.

My per­sonal favourite is Lu­per­calia, dur­ing which the an­cient Ro­mans used to run around the streets naked (un­less you count dog or goat masks), a sight I imag­ine was well worth see­ing. st Blase (one of the duller saints, as­so­ci­ated with can­dles and sore throats) has his feast day now. He is the pa­tron saint of vet­eri­nar­i­ans, to whom we should pray if we want to ease the suf­fer­ing of an an­i­mal.

We could ben­e­fit from st Blase’s in­ter­ven­tion at the mo­ment. Bird flu, which has ar­rived in the UK, is a nasty dis­ease, which not only causes ter­ri­ble suf­fer­ing in its avian vic­tims, but can mu­tate and in­fect hu­mans. It is spread both by wild birds—it has so far claimed wigeons, pere­grine fal­cons, geese, gulls, cor­morants, mute swans and a buz­zard—as well as by farmed birds, es­pe­cially chick­ens, hence De­fra’s in­struc­tions to keep fowl in­side. In­ter­est­ingly, the po­ten­tial risk has re­ceived lit­tle me­dia cov­er­age.

I wouldn’t be aware of it my­self if the raw dog-food com­pany I helped to start wasn’t in some­thing of a quandary. we won’t, as a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple, use in­ten­sively reared or for­eign meat. This means that if De­fra’s hous­ing or­der is ex­tended be­yond this month we will have to drop sev­eral recipes. Heaven knows what our pro­duc­ers, es­pe­cially the smaller, fam­ily-run farms, will do.

st Brigid, whose feast day was Fe­bru­ary 1, is the pa­tron saint of poul­try farm­ers. I feel that a prayer to her is in or­der.

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