From the Fields
On a torpid July day, John Lewis-stempel cranks up the music on the long drive home from his daughter’s Scottish university and walks his wheatfields ahead of the coming harvest
John Lewis-stempel finds music for a father-and-daughter road trip and anxiously inspects his wheatfields on a sultry day
WE came over the Scottish border at dawn, like the reivers of old. Cumbria was a Tolkien shadowland until Penrith, when the power of light separated clouds from hills and hills resolved into steep, walled green fields.
My daughter woke up, programmed by an internal clock. The Lakes are one of her favourite landscapes. ‘I suppose,’ she said blearily, ‘this is how most people see the countryside: out of a car or train window.’
By Lancashire, she was asleep again. I jacked up The Killers on the Saab’s CD player. Hey, it’s only middle aged rock ’n’ roll, but it kept me awake. Not until we were 20 miles from home, on the M50 beside the languid River Wye, did she next open her eyes. ‘Of course,’ she added seamlessly to her comment from five hours previously, ‘people don’t see the work it takes to make the countryside look beautiful.’
Pulling up on the yard at home, she said ‘I like our road trips,’ which was a divertingly darling way of describing the 18-hour round trip I had undertaken in my guise as sole proprietor and driver of Dad’s Taxi. She went into the house to pack for a holiday with friends in Cornwall. I walked up the lane, still tight with cow parsley and cleavers, to check on the wheat.
High summer in Herefordshire. Off in the oaks of the wood, the pigeons called drowsily, their coo-cooing serving merely to make the morning more torpid. On the tarmac, a pile of horse poo steamed with small silvery flies.
The galvanised gate to the wheatfield was uncharacteristically warm to the touch. In the field, the hedges had already trapped the heat. Any farmer growing cereals checks the weather most anxiously in July. Corn needs rain. A single acre of corn will lift 250 tons of water between sowing and harvesting. Too much rain, however, and the grain sprouts on the stalk, which was the calamity that did for Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge.
Ah, too much sun, however, and the grain shrivels. My overwhelming recollection of the summer of 1976 is not the paddling pool on the lawn or the Robinson’s Barley Water with clinking ice, but Uncle Tom’s head bowed in disbelief. And his repeated utterance: ‘Never in all my days have I seen anything like it.’ Every arable farmer said the same. The grains were as thin as gramophone needles in the long, hot summer of ’76.
The day Freda and I got back from Fife was sultry and sweltering, what the writers of the old almanacs would have called a Dog Day, after Sirius the Dog Star. Or perhaps because of the heat making dogs, like the black lab that accompanied me, pant. But there had been a rainstorm two days previously, so all was good in the wheatfield.
The wheat was green, that day we got back from Fife. To trail my hand along through the ears was to draw my hand through a cool sea.
Watching wheat grow has an aesthetic satisfaction. First, a green blade, the wheat
sprawls, then shoots up straight and the ear, in the memorable image of the Victorian naturalist Richard Jefferies, forms ‘a sceptre’. The mature ear magnetises sunlight to become golden itself. Grains of wheat are sun rays made corporeal.
On the fence wire, a young blackbird gaped, not for food, but to lose hotness. In the wheat ears, spiders busied themselves, spinning webs to snare the multitude of insects released from stasis by the sweaty weather. On the surface of the red-clay earth, between the stalks, the starry little scarlet pimpernel bloomed. It’s a floral weather forecaster, opening its head for fine weather, closing it for bad. The ‘shepherd’s weatherglass’ the old country folk called it.
Occasionally, the faintest zephyr came from over the hill in Wales, where all winds are made. The stalks swayed a little; the sound of breeze-breath in the wheat was the sound of gently falling sand. I split a grain with my thumbnail to determine ripeness and readiness, but it was ‘milky’ and far from hard, meaning that there were still weeks until harvest.
Rarely had I known a day so still—it was as if the year had climbed a hill and collapsed exhausted. Aside from the woodpigeons, the scene was songless; the birds had begun their summer recess, when they moult and become easy prey. To sing would have been suicidal self-advertising.
The grasshoppers, however, were in full chorus. In Aesop’s Fables, a grasshopper starving in winter begs food from an ant. On being asked why he hasn’t stored up food in the summer, the grasshopper explains, with touching truth: ‘I had not leisure enough. I passed the days in singing.’
As I walked through the wheat, chaffinches flew out ahead of me and bees sailed hazily from brilliant-red poppy to brilliant-red poppy. The dog, ambling along the field margin, surprised the covey of red legs—the Partridge Family, as we call them.
Rather than fly, red legs prefer to run and they did—a wriggling line in the wheat told on their progress to the heart of the field. They didn’t stray or fly away. My traditional wheatfield is their home.
And the field looked lovely. The bright arable wildflowers in the field margins—poppy, cornflower, corn marigold, corn chamomile, speedwell—would have graced a florist’s and the kestrel, suspended like a child’s mobile in the haze, gave the final consecration.
I tried to calculate how many hours in the past year alone I’d spent working that sixacre field. Sixty? Then, the year before that. Then, all the hours other men had toiled there, right back to when the field was carved from the wildwood, in about 1450.
Looking down that valley on the edge of England towards May Hill, there were 50 other fields in sight. My mind couldn’t take it in, all the hours of work down the ages to make the countryside look beautiful.
John Lewis-stempel is the 2016 British Society of Magazine Editors Columnist of the Year (Specialist Interest & Business Brand). He is the author of the ‘The Running Hare’ and the award winning ‘Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field’
‘My mind couldn’t take it in, all the hours of work to make the countryside look beautiful ’