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

Country Life Every Week - - CONTENTS - Il­lus­tra­tions by Philip Ban­nis­ter John Lewis-stem­pel BSME Colum­nist of the year

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 ’

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