Ploughman

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Working beneath clear blue skies

Cold winds and clear skies drove the water away. The sloppy fields had been freeze dried, and it was time to make a start.

A jumble of swans flew at first light; heavy whoopers which made the sky sing like wind over empty bottle tops. The old plough was raised up on hydraulic arms, and the rust was rubbed away until the wide mouldboards shone in a low, cold sun. You could see your face in those boards, and the tractor shuddered away from the yard into open country.

A two furrow plough makes slow progress. Each laborious pass gnaws at the turf like a planer, shaving inches away in long, heavy curls. This ground has not been ploughed for a century or more, and it was impossible to tell what the iron teeth would find beneath the grass. Bare folds of soil flopped upside down, and the mouldboards polished them in passing with a glossy sheen. A biscuit brown m was soon stretching slowly out behind me; a garish streak a washed-out world of green and yellow. A wagtail came to watch.

And there were boulders of every shape and size. The smaller ones were rummled out into the daylight and lay on the furrows like litter. The bigger ones brought the tractor to a juddering halt, and there was always the risk of bending or breaking the plough. We would have had trouble if the tractor had been any more powerful. The plough would have given out if we had pulled too hard, but there was a way out of each crashing collision.

Most of those granite chunks were round, crumbly blocks. More often than not, the points would bump once before gliding noisily over the impasse. When I was slammed to a standstill, the plough hooked me into the soil like a salmon gaff, and the tractor wheels turned unthinkingly in the turf until I jumped on the clutch and relaxed the tension. These boulders required a proactive response. I adjusted the plough’s height by increments until the points could find a workable slope and began to climb over the obstacle by themselves.

It sounds like a disaster, but in reality this ground was mainly clear and workable. I only ran into trouble when I worked at depth, but it was always tempting to go deep and then see red streaks of subsoil boiling up into the daylight. The earth was soon powdering in the fresh easterly breeze, and the first wagtail had become many. Little birds plundered the ground, bobbing and hunting through the troughs of soil and filling their crops with orange beetle larvae. Black headed gulls looked on keenly, and a red kite followed my progress as I worked into a final corner with a series of short cuts.

I returned to walk the field beneath the moon. The smell of drink was on me and my ears rang with the clamour of the pub. A golden plover was moving somewhere in the stillness – a lonely whistle over the moss. The soil had been bare for hours, but it was still reeking. Every footstep I took sank me up to the shin in clean, crumbling powder; soil, and a gossamer of tiny roots. I sat for a few minutes in the falling frost; parked on a cushion of folded turf.

This is how it has always been. Here was another vital connection with the oldest ancestors. Fresh soil and old stars in a timeless cycle; an empty world renewed once more with silent potential.

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