Susan Hill's "Spring" chapter in The Magic Apple Tree may just be the best writing I've ever read about English country life. It was so beautiful that I almost couldn't believe she was talking about a real place. It sounded like a fictional Eden. But this was her real life in the early 1980s in a town called Barley. Even that name! It sounds made up, but England is full of interesting town names.
I know that she is living somewhere else now, but I would so love to read her reflections about that town now. I'd love to know about any changes she sees in weather or birds or outdoor work or the people living there.
As Giles Wood wrote recently in The Oldie magazine,
Weather has certainly become less enjoyable to discuss.And that's really the truth. Weather is now political, like most everything else it seems. I love hearing about weather in the past. I like to see how much it was like now, or was different. Giles again, quoting an 1878 nature diary by Richard Jeffries,
Summer cold in June. Shivering in the parlour with lilac and flowers in the grate and apple blossoms in the garden. Yet cold, and all the green things dripping.I recently read an entry in my mother's diary from the early 1970s, I think, where she was lamenting that it was 80 degrees in the morning!
Memory is just not reliable. Tom keeps a weather diary, and it is a good thing for us all to do. "It hasn't rained this much in July ever" someone might say, but unless we look at the facts we don't know if that is really true. And now when we hear someone talk about the weather we either think it is an example of global warming (which Mr Wood says scientists are now calling global heating, "as warming sounds too agreeable"), or the listener is reminded of a period of time just like that years ago. It's a funny old world just now.
All this is a long-winded preface to talking about Susan Hill's words from nearly 40 years ago. I liked reading them without any political connotation. The weather just is.
The weather is grey, it is cold still. The blossom looks like snow against the sky. And then, one morning, there is snow, snow at the very end of April, five or six inches of it, after a terrible stormy night. ... And another day, just before the blossom withers and shrinks back into the fast opening leaves, there is the softest of spring mornings, at last it is touched by the early sun, and the apple tree looks as it should look, if the world went aright, in springtime.Does anyone use that wonderful word "aright" anymore?
May, which can be the most perfect of all months, has crept in miserably, while we still light fires and draw the curtains early, still wear winter woolens and despair of early seedlings coming through the cold stone ground. People talk of how summers used to be, in their childhood, long and hot and golden. But I notice that it is the springs that are no longer what they were.On an early morning bicycle ride about town, she ponders,
But the same pair of swallows come back five thousand miles, year after year ... Migration, and this sort of regular return across so many thousands of miles of sea, is the sort of common, mind-boggling fact of nature which seems more incredible the more we find out about exactly what happens, but I often wonder what the country people of hundreds of years ago thought; not too many of them can have had any idea about what happened to all those birds that appeared in their villages in March or April, and were gone again at the end of every summer. Did they speculate, or guess accurately, or have folk-tales to account for it?She writes of the swifts,
Around and above the church tower are the swifts, soaring high and circling and diving, screaming all the time. When we lived in Stratford-Upon-Avon, the arrival of the swifts, which come in huge numbers into the town, and their departure during the first week of August, put inverted commas around the summer.And decades later she laments the loss of the swifts and other small birds in
Jacob's Room is Full of Books.
A wonder of this book is that Barley is only five miles from Oxford. Amazing that such a bucolic life was being lived in such proximity to this city. Again, I wonder about now. I've read about the rural English properties which are being bought up by the very rich, which is what Chris Wood is singing about in The Cottager's Reply, here.
Susan goes out for a morning bicycle ride, and sees birds and flowers and farmyards. And then she writes
I stop and get off, climb on a gate and look over it, and away down acres of sheep field that slope steeply towards the last, flat acres of meadow before the main road, a mile away. Here it is quite quiet, the sun is getting up a little, warming my back, there are dewdrops trembling on the spider-webs that are draped over the wooden gate, and a thistle is glinting with moisture. Here, there is no sound, no sign of human life at all. Down there, beyond the sheep and their lambs, what gleams silver is metal, the roofs and mirrors of cars and lorries, silent because what breeze there is is blowing in the other direction, taking the rumble of engines away from me. But, when the wind blows uphill, and especially if the trees are bare between, you know, just here, that you are on the very edge of the city, and all the pastoral remoteness is an illusion.
And there, five miles off and beautiful against the sky, are the dreaming spires, ethereal, glittering, insubstantial in the pearly, misty air of this early spring morning...Our Windy Poplars Farm is three miles exactly to our little town. I can't imagine what it might be like - two miles further to be in Oxford!!
I don't think there is anything more quintessentially English to the Anglophiles amongst us than a "bluebell wood." Maybe there are bluebells in this country, but I've not seen them. A few here and there, but not a "wood" of them. Maybe they grow in warmer climates than here?
By the gate to the bluebell copse, I stopped, just as Stanley stops the car at the end of every day when he reaches this point, and gets out to look and to smell, while the ground is a sea of that magical blue, and the scent is so fresh, under the encircling trees. ... I have memories of bluebells, perhaps everyone who has lived in the country has them; mine are of walking through Raincliffe Woods near Scarborough with bluebells all around me and stretching away, like another ocean, of bluebells up to my middle, of lying down in them and of pulling them up by their sappy stems until my fingers were wet and green, unable to learn the repeated lesson that they would not last, would droop and wilt so sadly long before home. There is no sadder sight than armfuls of bluebells thrown into the ditch and left to rot because someone has felt cheated and not even bothered to get them home.I think I have finally learned my "repeated lesson" when it comes to some flowers. Lilacs, in particular. There is nothing more fragrant and beautiful as the end-of- May lilacs. For years and years I would bring in bouquets and they just didn't last. Now I spend time at all the bushes, just taking deep breaths and enjoying the moments rather than putting them in vases.
She speaks of cowslips
this sort of old grazing land is the last haunt of those increasingly rare flowersGardeners' World this year had a program on bringing back meadows, and cowslips are one of the flowers being planted! I am always elated to hear such good nature news.
And the rabbits! Do you have rabbits where you live? We don't. We'll occasionally see one, and I thrill to it as if it were the rarest animal in the world. I have such a love for them. When we brought the kids to England in 1992, we stayed in a house in Forthampton. In the evenings, we would walk out on a dirt road to the very end where there was a gate. We would stand there and watch the rabbits cavorting in the field. I so wish I had taken a photograph, though the sight is etched in my mind.
Almost every morning in March, I had looked out across this field, and the Rise that leads up from it, to see hares behaving in that legendary way, going mad, racing around in circles, the males boxing one another to impress the females.I can only imagine such a sight in one's daily life.
Along with the lesson about picking certain flowers to bring indoors, there is another lesson which often takes a long time to learn, for many of us. And this is the lesson of planting vegetable seeds later in the season, when the ground has warmed up.
In my experience, you rarely gain anything by sowing too early, but, instead, lose rather heavily, in both seeds and labour. ... Mr Elder, a good, old-fashioned country gardener, was in hospital last spring, for almost six weeks, and when he was fit enough to be out and doing again in his garden it was May. Even I had sown most things by then and they were coming on well enough, whilst his plot still looked bare and brown. In a couple of days, in his quiet, unhurried, steady way, born of seventy-odd years' practice, he had accomplished more than takes me a couple of weeks, and by the end of June his crops were further forward than mine. My beans and peas had simply been sitting in the cold soil waiting to germinate when the sun eventually shone, his went straight into the nicely warmed-up ground and came through within days.Susan Hill also tells a tale that is familiar to me, and maybe to you, as well. When we first garden, we grow everything. I well remember planting cabbage, for example, a vegetable I use maybe half a dozen times a year for coleslaw, period! Our gardens are also often huge - way bigger than we can take care of! These are things we learn over time until we reach that perfect garden, growing only what we love, and in a space we are able to keep looking relatively good throughout the summer. You also have to learn your weather. For example, she can't grow anything taller than three feet because of the winds. This is always a consideration here, too. Tom had to use wooden stakes to hold our tall tomato cages, even more important in the new garden which is more exposed.
Potatoes may be hard work, too, in the planting-out and earthing-up stages, but after that they are no trouble, and they don't seem to mind what sort of soil they grow in, nor how hard it rains, or blows, though they are vulnerable to late frosts.The joys of having one's own potatoes are worth any amount of sweat ...To which I say, yes! We didn't even "earth-up" the potatoes this year, and still we got lots and lots.
Lettuce is one of my favorite foods - the big leaved, Bibb or Butterhead types. I don't care for the many "spring mixes" that are available now. And I don't use dressing. And I prefer eating it by hand all by itself, like those rabbits I love so well. However, we just can't seem to get it right when it comes to planting it and picking it. But in a gardener's mind, there is always next year, and I think I have a good idea from Susan Hill.
Lettuces I do in succession thoughout the spring and early summer, from a packet of mixed varieties, including Cos and Webbs and Butterhead kinds, and, although I try to sow them thinly, I never thin the seedlings themselves out at all until they are quite big, and as dense as parsley. Then I use half a dozen at once, when they are in young, tender leaf. Whenever I have thinned them early - a dreadful job, in any case - and let them grow to full, individual heartiness, lettuces in this garden have come on too slowly, and become tough, snail-and-greenfly-ridden, and inedible.So, I will try this next year. This kind of planting is very familiar to me from British gardening shows and books. In the US, most gardens, especially flower gardens, are planted with a plant, then a space which is weeded, then another plant. It all looks very neat and tidy, but it is not my way. Everything I have seen and read from England encourages planting close together, like those cottage gardens I love so much with plants intermingling, and sometimes hanging onto one another for support. I love that, and have done it for years in the flower gardens, but never thought of doing this with the lettuce. Am quite excited, to tell the truth!
In her "People" chapter, Susan has a lovely description of the old and the young, which I now, thankfully, know so well.
That close proximity, in a small village like Barley, of the very young and the very old, is a fine thing, especially for a child like ours, who does not have grandparents to hand. Small children will talk to anyone, once the guard of shyness has fallen, and they have, like the elderly, a sense of immediacy, a need to say or do something, now, now, the minute it is thought of, combined with that other sense, of the complete irrelevance of time.I'm sorry to be writing "out of season" but it has been quite a full spring and summer, and now with Tom's mother and step-father settled into the assisted living facility, and the grandchildren all in school, pre-K for Indy, and Kindergarten for Hazel and Campbell, I have more solid time to not only read, but also to be more thoughtful about my reading.