Sounds of Summer

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I think George could hear it over Skype – the click as the vacuum pulled down the security button on each jar of Mrs Turnstone’s bramble and elder jam. Before long we will be looking for more clean empty jars as we clear the cupboard under the stairs of all we’ve accumulated over the year.

My 5lb of wild plums must wait to be cooked till I’ve raided the sugar aisle in the supermarket. They came from Ash Lane Crossing. All along our stretch of  the old South Eastern Railway the company seems to have planted plum trees in the crossing keepers’ gardens. They survive even when the cottage is long gone, as it is here or at Hamford, where the plums are big and sweet and purple, asking to be pickled. An expedition for another day.

The summer and autumn jams and preserves are already being passed around, extending the common table to family, such as Mrs Turnstone Senior, and friends, like the group we met up with in Wensleydale. One family, one feast, one table, at the root of it all.

The Dogs of Wensleydale

 IMGP4692

Mrs Turnstone’s friends had gathered in Wensleydale so we accepted their invitation to join them. Yorkshire has a different palette of green to Kent, and hills that rise higher and steeper than the gentle Downs. Though we do have the White Cliffs and the Devil’s Punchbowl… but this is about Yorkshire!

As we were walking around Kettlewell, a shepherd and his dog roared by on a quad bike, the collie braced to keep his balance behind his master, but clearly enjoying his high speed ride. The next day we saw them from a distance, out on the hill, hard at work rounding up this flock. The black and white collie is running along the wall, centre right of the picture and once again giving every impression of enjoying himself.

These black and white dogs were in every farmyard and on almost every street corner in the small towns in the Dale. We met another in York who appeared to be quite overwhelmed by all the different people going through the market place, as well as the many new smells; he did not know where to look or smell first and had that ‘mad collie’ look about his eyes that means his humans will have their work cut out keeping up with him. Perhaps he would have been happier out on the hill, rounding up sheep, but if he’d been let off the lead in town he would have been herding all the humans towards the Yorkshire Sausage Shop in The Shambles nearby. Wild boar pie, Shep? Yes, please!

Another Commensal

There were a few screw holes left in our walls where fixtures were removed for the builders to get to work. One has been taken over by a line of parcels! IMGP4676Not brown paper but carefully cut scraps of rose leaf, each wrapping a food supply for the egg that the leaf-cutter bee has laid in there. This faces almost due North, so the outer larva will not roast to death.

That mother works hard for babies she’ll probably never know. And how well do we ever know our children? Off they go, God bless them, and how did they get like that?

Here is where you can send your sightings of bees in the United Kingdom: info@theBigBuzz.biz  or beecount@foe.co.uk . There is great concern that bees are losing ground in Britain.

Rememberings Unearthed

Those finds set my memory going. Years ago I used to care for a garden behind some offices; the building had been a private boys’ school until about 1920. From time to time I would find glass marbles or copper halfpennies, sometimes Victorian ones with both lighthouse and sailing ship behind Britannia on the reverse, but the find that stays in the memory was easily overlooked, more prosaic yet more poignant.

When clearing St Tydfil’s churchyard forty years ago I was struck by the number of clay pipe stems in one corner, till Trevor told me that the shop next door had been The Three Salmons pub. Pipes were sold cheaply to patrons, or given away with tobacco, so one that was drawing poorly would be snapped and tossed over the wall.

This one that turned up in the office garden must have had a story to tell, for it bore the legend ‘St Omer’. My predecessor, I guess, would have returned from the Front in 1918 and resumed his gardening work. When his pipe broke, he thought little of it, but took a short walk to The Three Tuns, where a beer would have been most welcome, and a new pipe waiting for him. Did he feel that throwing the French pipe away was another short step away from the trenches?

I trust that caring for growing things helped heal the spirit of that nameless gardener-Tommy.
You can see a Victorian halfpenny here: Australia was using British coins at this time.

http://museumvictoria.com.au/collections/items/82283/coin-halfpenny-queen-victoria-great-britain-1870

Delights unearthed

A few weeks ago, digging in the back garden, I turned up a small toy cat, what my daughters used to call a China animal. Friday by Friday, each of them collected a set of dragons, ducks, horses or cats from a tiny shop near where I worked, each animal brought home in its own tiny paper bag. At 10p apiece they provided hours of imaginative play. When the girls saw this relic of their childhood there were gasps of delighted recognition.IMGP4674

Delight, but puzzled delight for us when the good people from Regency Floors brought us a white Scottie dog found wedged between the floorboards they were renovating. None of us recognised him: a Monopoly counter perhaps, but not one we had ever played with.

At Dylan Thomas’s Boathouse in Laugharne/Llarregub a cabinet displayed half a dozen toys unearthed in the garden, including a Dinky  car like one my cousin Anthony used to let me play with. Good to think of those children playing in the garden: the toys a concrete reminder that A Child’s Christmas in Wales would have been blessed, even with little by way of material things, as ours were in Birmingham.

Domestic archaeology, unearthing happiness! Dylan praised Laugharne/Llarregub for its smallness in a small land, smiling under the Principality of the Sky. Delight is beyond measure, a tree from a mustard seed.

Si vis pacem pare hortum

willow

shoots aiming for the sky from a fallen willow.

Higher and further into Wales: from Laugharne to the Brecon Beacons, to stop and stare and absorb the tranquillity at a friend’s place: marjoram with meadowsweet; the herb colonising the paths above the damp land, where meadowsweet shelters the pheasant family from kite and buzzard if not weasel or cat.

Tranquillity has been carefully nurtured: planting a tree here, a day lily there, giving the Mermaid rose room to spread herself into the trees around.

Robert Frost wrote of good fences, and wondered

“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

                                                          What I was walling in or walling out,

                                                          And to whom I was like to give offence.

Here, sometimes, there are Hereford cows, though this day the fence and hedge were holding back a mixed flock of sheep – the valley sheep are fatter, and would be fatter still were they able to chew the cud on spinach, beans and garden flowers. Not maintaining this fence would cause offence and distress. Distress and offence had already been caused in February.

Our friend’s Eastern boundary once had a hedge and ditch on the other side of the line. A good hedge provides a home for insects, birds and small mammals; its roots protect the soil on either side from being washed away. The old hedge had been grubbed up, the ditch levelled, in the name of efficiency, today’s acceptable euphemism for laziness and greed. Cropped to the edge with spring-sown maize, year upon year, when the late winter storms came nothing could hold the top layer of soil from being scoured, and a stream formed around the little willow, undermining it. This tree was part of the informal hedging our friend had planted below the field edge, six feet on her side of the fence.

Now the willow lay across the bench that commands a view across lawns, trees, bushes and beds, bulbs in season, and always the birds. This tree had grown from an osier thrust into the ground and now had half a dozen stems, twelve feet tall and more. Only one was near vertical, the one that before the landslide had leant towards the field. I set myself to rescue the bench by cutting back each leaning trunk to a vigorous vertical shoot while leaving that one upright trunk to point the way.

There were plenty of shoots to choose from, some of them six feet high already. Unchecked, the weight of this vegetation would have brought the willow right down onto the bench and maybe have broken it.

I would have enjoyed having Dermot with me, with his love of trees and quirky insights, but had to commune with myself and Whoever might be listening. And I had to listen to the tree: where do you want to grow? How can I get you back to a pleasing shape? And my apologies for tearing a strip off your bark, misjudging that first cut across the front of the stem.

Squirrels had barked the tree before me: did they use it as a painkiller? A few days later, Dermot didn’t think so; he says they’ll go for any bark, just to be destructive. Dermot doesn’t like squirrels.

Job done as the ladies returned from the village; logs, pea-sticks and rubbish sorted. ‘Wait’, our friend said, as the barrow was laden with bonfire fodder. She took a handful of vigorous twigs and thrust them into the soil nearby. ‘You never know!’

I wonder: the next time we come, perhaps they will be six feet and we will know they have taken.

Llagerub

Tranquillity is not the state that springs to mind when Dylan Thomas is mentioned. He seems to have been fleeing tranquillity even while desperate to find it, like another addictive poet, Francis Thompson, pursued by The Hound of Heaven:

I dimly guess what Time in mists confounds;

Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds

From the hid battlements of Eternity;

Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then

Round the half-glimpsed turrets slowly wash again.           

But not ere him who summoneth           

I first have seen, enwound

With glooming robes purpureal, cypress-crowned;

His name I know and what his trumpet saith…

For his part, Dylan admits the fear that Thompson describes; he acknowledges the fear-bred anger, and flees in an ark of roaring poetry, commandeering for his heart the boat that Noah entrusted to the waters when the flood washed against his home. Fear and anger ­­– such emotions show that a man is alive, that the spring or fountainhead of being bubbles up inside him.

Hark: I trumpet the place,

From fish to jumping hill! Look:

I build my bellowing ark

To the best of my love

As the flood begins,

Out of the fountainhead

Of fear, rage red, manalive …

 

Dylan may mock his little town in the very naming of it, but he loves it, seizing the angelic trumpet to celebrate it. And he sees God not through the fog, but in ‘the close and holy darkness’ about the town; a loving presence ‘All through the Night’.

………………………………………………

We came to Laugharne last week, saw how cramped the Boathouse had been for the poet’s family, how far from tranquil it must have been on a wet winter’s afternoon with the children running bored around his feet. We looked into Dylan’s little writing shed along the path and out through the windows about his writing desk. Here, on a golden summer’s day, it is easy to believe that Wales, including Laugharne-Llaregub, is a tranquil ‘God-built garden’. It smelt of marjoram, mint and salty mud.

There was an old television programme showing in the upper room, which dismissed the notion that Dylan’s poetry was religious, but claimed he celebrated life. He did that; indeed he did, but Milk Wood and the Prologue to his collected poems are the religious works of a reluctant saint, trying against himself to be, or not to be, a sinner. Ask St Augustine; ask Kathleen Raine; ask Rowan Williams.