Gleaners or thieves?

Blackberrying may appear to be a trivial subject in John Clare's poetry, generally referred to in passing as a characteristic autumnal activity, along with collecting elderberries to make wine, or hazel nuts, or mushrooms, or water-cress, or gathering rotten wood for the cottage-fire. Essentially, it is not different from those other rural activities, which formed part of the cottager's economy in every part of Europe.

In Helpston, too, "it was highly dangerous, to say the least of it, to walk or ride on any of the highroads... at dusk, and... during the night." In the English fens, the inhabitants believed that the produce of the wasteland came to them by right. Also in the fens: "At dusk, the passer-by might be confronted by silently-moving lines of shadowy figures, their backs bent under the weight of trunks and piled-up wood, as they headed for home". Clare referred to this wood as "rotten," omitting the word "wood" occasionally.

Where stickers stroll from day to day
And gather loads of rotten wood
And poachers left in safety stray
When midnight wears its deepest mood.
(from Walks in the Woods)

Clare's natural sympathies are with the "stickers," as he calls them: the "wood-men," on the other hand, the agents of the landowners, are "terrifying rascals" who "make a prison of the forrests and are its joalers." (sic) Just as the fallen wood belonged by right to the local inhabitants in the forests in all parts of Europe, so, according to popular belief, did the fallen wood belong to the locals near the oak woods of Stamford, and, in both regions, led to conflict between landowners and peasants, between the lord's steward and gypsies, or the woodman and villagers.

The conflict over wood extended to other products of the waste -- rabbits, hares, birds, withies, reeds, cresses, sloes, dewberries, nuts, mushrooms, elderberries, wild strawberries and blackberries, not to mention eggs, snakes, deer, eels, fish, and other edibles. The custom of nutting, which Clare celebrates, was particularly disliked by the landowners, their servants and the tenant-farmers. The pages of the Stamford Mercury and Drakard's Stamford News are filled with advertisements and articles regarding the practice; the Mercury, upholding the rights of the landowners, the News those of the rural population.

From a essay by Eric Robinson ~ Wordsworth Circle (2007)

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