The Shepherd’s Calendar - August

[Image from Carry Akroyd’s linocut illustrating August from “The
Shepherd’s Calendar 2007” published by Carcanet Publications]

The fields are all alive with sultry noise
Of labours sounds and insects busy joys
The reapers oer their glittering sickles stoop
Startling full oft the partridge coveys up
Some oer the rustling scythe go bending on
And shockers follow where their toils have gone
First turning swaths to wither in the sun
Where mice from terrors dangers nimbly run
Leaving their tender young in fears alarm
Lapt up in nests of chimbled grasses warm
And oft themselves for safty search in vain
From the rude boy or churlish hearted swain

The Fox

[Image: ‘Deep Solitude’ by Carry Akroyd]

The shepherd on his journey heard when nigh
His dog among the bushes barking high;
The ploughman ran and gave a hearty shout,
He found a weary fox and beat him out.
The ploughman laughed and would have ploughed him in
But the old shepherd took him for the skin.
He lay upon the furrow stretched for dead,
The old dog lay and licked the wounds that bled,
The ploughman beat him till his ribs would crack,
And then the shepherd slung him at his back;
And when he rested, to his dog's surprise,
The old fox started from his dead disguise;
And while the dog lay panting in the sedge
He up and snapt and bolted through the hedge.

He scampered to the bushes far away;
The shepherd called the ploughman to the fray;
The ploughman wished he had a gun to shoot.
The old dog barked and followed the pursuit.
The shepherd threw his hook and tottered past;
The ploughman ran but none could go so fast;
The woodman threw his faggot from the way
And ceased to chop and wondered at the fray.
But when he saw the dog and heard the cry
He threw his hatchet--but the fox was bye.
The shepherd broke his hook and lost the skin;
He found a badger hole and bolted in.
They tried to dig, but, safe from danger's way,
He lived to chase the hounds another day.

From "Home Yearnings"

[Image: 'Wide Fen' by Carry Akroyd]

O for the pasture, fields, and fen!
When shall I see such rest again?

I love the weeds along the fen,
More sweet than garden flowers,
For freedom haunts the humble glen
That blest my happiest hours.
Here prison injures health and me:
I love sweet freedom and the free.

Ronald Blythe reflects on the mysteries of man and plough

Folk present last Saturday at the Festival in Helpston will remember our President, Ronnie Blythe's, address -- "Ploughing and the ploughman" [my title]. Surprise, today in the Church Times, Ronnie's weekly piece "... reflects on the mysteries of man and plough."

Speaking to Ronnie during the afternoon last week, I asked if I might use his pieces in this way --- he replied "of course you may". But remember the original is on the back page of this week's CT newpaper under Ronnie's normal title, "Word from Wormingford".

He writes:

WHAT with weather, what with machinery, farmland soon becomes out of knowledge. I have two acres, and all the other acres grow around me. The contours stay mainly unchanged, yet at the same time mysterious. There is a slight amphitheatre-like rise above Lower Bottoms, and what must have been a Slough of Despond in the Top Field for many a plough.

The old horseman (East Anglian for ploughman) tells me how it was when he drew his first furrow, setting it against a holly bush in the distant hedge. Hedgers never levelled a holly, and I see them round the village still, many of them tall trees. “It would have been about February,” said the horseman. And I see the horseman as a slight, youthful figure hip-hopping along behind his Punches, the plough tipping and reeling, its share striking sparks from the everlasting flints.

In the late 19th century, during that nadir of English agriculture, when even the horsemen, the princes of the fields, were broken and half-beaten, Henry Rider Haggard, who farmed in the Waveney Valley, watched the February ploughing with humility, familiar as he was with it.

As during our present summer, it rained and rained, although with less eventual ruination of rural life. He had spent his 20s in South Africa, filling his head with the tales that would become King Solomon’s Mines and She (who-must-be-obeyed). Then it was back to Norfolk and this shocking sight of white men in the mud. His men, his demanding fields.

It was 1898 when farmworkers, even the noble horsemen, were all lumped together in the popular mind as labourers, skill-less creatures whose duty it was simply to toil. While Haggard was shocked by their servitude, he began to see their art; for their work was nothing less. He wanted to destroy the huge social barriers that cut him off from his men, but it was not only impossible, but unthinkable.

In an Egyptian pyramid, he had seen a beautiful fresco of a king and his harvesters all rejoicing in a field together, the corn shining in their arms. If only Norfolk could be like this! If only his labourers would speak to him! He could afford to pay them twice their wage, but it would put Norfolk’s economy out, of course. So he told the world how they worked, with what brilliance, with what strength.

“Ploughing is one of those things that look a great deal easier than they are, like the writing of romances. The observer, standing at a gate to watch a man with a pair of horses strolling up and down a hill for hours on end . . . is apt to conclude that, beyond the physical endurance involved, the difficulties are small. Let him take the pair of horses, however, and plough for, say, 40 minutes, and he will come away with a greatly increased respect for the ploughman.”

As boys, we watched Captain Cardy’s plough surge to the headland like a tall, clomping horse-wave, wheel, and flood back. He had fought on the Western Front, and I always imagined to myself the jingling of the horse-brasses with the jingling of his medals. He did not call out to us.

The irony was that when all the young men fled the collapsing farms for the glory of soldiering, they were set to digging trenches — vast ditches made with spades by regimented labourers. The horsemen rode. Nobody dared beat their bayonets into ploughshares. Everyone dreamed of their own church bells and forgot their own ditches and bush-draining. From No-man’s-land they dreamed of Someone’s-land.

When I went to see Passchendaele some years ago, it was drizzling, but the mud was unlike the mud here. It was silvery in the trodden grass.

“Word from Wormingford” -- Church Times [20th July 2007]

A fragment....

[Image: "Fenscape Edge" by Carry Akroyd]

Now the meadow water smokes
And hedgerows dripping oaks
Fitter patter all around
And dimple the once dusty ground
The spinners threads about the weeds
Are hung with little drops in beads
Clover silver green becomes
And purple blue surrounds the plumbs
And every place breaths fresh and fair
When morning pays her visit there

The day is dull the heron trails
On flapping wings like heavy sails
And oer the mead so lowly swings
She fans the herbage with her wings

From "November"

[Image - "Hares Chasing" by Carry Akroyd]

The timid hare seems half its fears to lose,
Crouching and sleeping neath its grassy lair,
And scarcely startles, though the shepherd goes
Close by its home, and dogs are barking there;
The wild colt only turns around to stare
At passer by, then knaps his hide again;
And moody crows beside the road forbear
To fly, though pelted by the passing swain;
Thus day seems turned to night, and tries to wake in vain.
What a wonderful Festival we enjoyed in sunny Helpston over the weekend. The highlights for me were Ronnie Blythe's talk on 'Clare the Plowman' and Richard Mabey on Clare's botanical sensibilities. Greetings to all members... see you next year?

"All Flesh is Grass"

"The contract farmer has left a bit of the big field to do what it likes; so it has grown a grass crop, which by dint of tallness has held itself up. It waves. It seeds. “We are the True Fescues,” it says. “We are perennial. We shall come again.” Ryegrass, darnel, meadow grass, sweet grass, quaking grass — here we sway.

I remember the patch of quaking grass in the peggle field near Chilton Hall when we were children, how it “went” with bulldaisies. And lying in deep, deep grass in a kind of ceilingless grassy room, and listening to the cows chomping near by — which is what the poet John Clare did when he wanted to write without being seen.

I gather some Common Quaking Grass, the worse for wear, owing to the rain. I look it up in my grass Who’s Who, in which the grassy language is a kind of faintly understood vocabulary that always makes me want several lives, this particular one for learning botany proper. Oh, to speak “Briza media”*, with its beautiful “long and wide, oval to heart-shaped, pendulous, blunt, boat-shaped with shiny keels … flowering June-July” in my track!

Ronald Blythe
(Church Times – 6th July 2007)

*Briza Media -- A perennial grass, also known as Common Quaking Grass because of the gentle rustling sound it makes when disturbed by a breeze.

Finally, for this will be the last post before the Festival on Saturday, a verse from Clare's “I am” :

I long for scenes where man has never trod --
For scenes where woman never smiled or wept --
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Full of high thoughts, unborn. So let me lie,
The grass below; above, the vaulted sky.

See you at Clare’s graveside on Friday afternoon for the children of the John Clare Primary School’s annual Midsummer Cushions Ceremony, this year actually on his birthday.

"Sacred to the Memory of John Clare, the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet.
Born July 13, 1793. Died May 20th, 1864.
A Poet is born, not made."

(Roger R)

From "The Sailor's Return"

Leading up to the John Clare Society Festival in Helpston on Saturday 14th July, (with associated events on the 13th and 15th), a short series of excerpts, through Clare’s eyes, of the heaths, fields and fens around his home.

This year not only is Ronald Blythe giving his much anticipated annual President’s Address, but also Richard Mabey is giving a Keynote Address on “Clare – Botanist or Flower Arranger”. See you there?

T’was down in the cow pasture, just at the gloaming,
I met a young woman sweet tempered and mild,
I said “Pretty maiden, say, where are you roving?”
“I'm walking at even,” she answered, and smiled.
“Here my sweetheart and I gathered posies at even;
It's eight years ago since they sent him to sea.
Wild flowers hung with dew are like angels from heaven:
They look up in my face and keep whispering to me.”

From 'The Village Minstrel' (3)

Leading up to the John Clare Society Festival in Helpston on Saturday 14th July, (with associated events on the 13th and 15th), a short series of excerpts, through Clare’s eyes, of the heaths, fields and fens around his home.

This year not only is Ronald Blythe giving his much anticipated annual President’s Address, but also Richard Mabey is giving a Keynote Address on “Clare – Botanist or Flower Arranger”. See you there?

And long, my dear valleys, long, long may ye flourish,
Though rush-beds and thistles make most of your pride!
May showers never fail the green's daisies to nourish,
Nor suns dry the fountain that rills by its side!
Your skies may be gloomy, and misty your mornings,
Your flat swampy valleys unwholesome may be,
Still, refuse of Nature, without her adornings
Ye are dear as this heart in my bosom to me.