Loyalty

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In dire fettle and foundering, I pushed up through the broken ground to find altitude. This was an act of desperation in a bleak moment; the hill always provides a shift of perspective and leaves me smiling and renewed. I hoped that height would bring clarity, but now the high ground was dark and cloud-bound, and the grass rushed in eddies like foam. Night would soon come, and small birds rushed away like flecks of spit.

There was no cheap comfort on the hill, but it was a relief to be alone. I love to fly through this country and follow thin tracks through the deep grass. When friends come with me, I chafe and stamp at their slowness. Streaks of this land have grown thick and coarse with white grass which crowds in tussocks like an army of busbies; newcomers stumble and quickly tire, and of course I wait and say I don’t mind but real freedom is to pound through this stuff at a loping jog, hunch-backed and alone.

Rain came, and darkness slumped the wide horizon into a passive blue. Two miles from home and still outbound, I stopped and felt the sweat prickle my back. Sheep recoiled in horror as if I were some blood-hungry beast in their midst. Clouded and dark with frustration and gloom, I swore at them for their panic. Vague wings passed over head, and then came the onset of utter night, still bounding over grass and scored with flecks of ice and rain which soaked through my trousers and rasped the blood into my face. It’s a miserable damn place on the edge of day when all life has gone away and even the birds are scared to steep their feet in the moss pools. Snot trailed on the beak of my nose and then blew away or was trailed in long, streaking tracks up my cuff.

Geese moved on the edge of the last light; new birds rumbling in the clouds. The swallows have gone and now the grizzled ganders have come to replace them. They are tourists and refugees from Greenland and the Arctic Circle, come to carry the baton and keep the lights on. There is always something on the move, but these tidal tilts can leave me feeling lumpen and immobile. I am the only living constant in a world of shifts and relays.

I can hardly grudge the freedom of birds, but it’s an uncomfortable balance to my own static life, squatting on the same few acres like a toad under a stone. And I impose that stasis upon my cattle which would soon move away if they could. But I ring them in with dykes and wires and keep them as  my prisoners, bottling their aspirations for soft grass and mild  living. My ancestors would follow their herds around the seasons in a gradual, steady revolution. Those folk were not from Galloway as I am; they had a claim on all the grass from Glasgow to Liverpool. Perhaps they would think it was odd to stand all year in the same glen, enduring.

I turned for home. Long gone are the fine days when this place is a balmy, barefoot cushion of skylarks and ticker-tape. Gone too is that brief moment in autumn when this grass comes up peachy and red and the rowans are bent with berries. Now the hill is grey and blue and there is nothing but granite and the bones of dead summer. Even in the pits of grim bother, I drew some solace in my unnatural loyalty.

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Winter Feed

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Even since I last wrote, the wee birds have doubled and then doubled again in numbers. I spy all sorts in the harvested field, and now they are joined by dark and sodden woodpigeons which cruise above the fallen crop like plashy rags.

A rush of rain battered into the glass windows and made me stand from my desk this afternoon. I looked onto the field to find a queue of seventy yellowhammers grimacing into the smirr along the dyketops. There were greenfinches and linnets in that listed mess, and they flared away like sparks from a grinder as a merlin came off the moss and tried his hand with the wind behind him.

This is no mere improvement on last year, when this field was in grass like almost every other in the parish. This is abundance which has sprung from nothing at all. I wonder where these birds have come from, and now I am almost reluctant to bring livestock here in case the balance tips away again. Cattle will mash the wasted crop and strip this field, but I reassure myself that the best is yet to come. Buxom bundles of oats are waiting in the sheds and the mice are making their skirts rustle with impatience. This is the cream of the summer, and it’ll be dished out to the birds and the dripping cattle when the long nights come. And just as I was the man who cut this crop in sweat and short trousers a few months back, it’ll be me that cowps the sheafs and slits them open beneath rakes of bleeding rain and the black ruts of winter mud.  It’s one hell of a job, this.

And if we finish the sheafs, we can rely on the meal. I have a roller mill now, and by Christ it works. It’s a knuckle-busting brute from the “Albion” works of Messers Harrison and MacGregor in Leigh, and we nearly crapped our puddings in moving it. The machine is older than my father, but now the weight is in place and the belts are tight. We’ve already flattened a trial bag of oats into light, waxy flakes; they sputter out of the chute like sleet and the whole place smells like porridge to make your mouth water. Our buildings shudder and drum with the rumble of heavy wheels, and we power the machine by a shaft through a hole in the wall to the tractor. Making that hole was a day’s work in itself, and many a tough-tipped drill bit was buggered as we battled the old granite.

Our oatmeal will be fed outdoors in a trough I am yet to build, and the bull will surely make a bastard mess of it. He will belch the crumbs into the snow, and I am touching wood that the mess will keep us all busy until the spring.

 

Resurgence

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We took a ton and a half in the end. This had been my goal from the middle of July, but it was a sore and steady business threshing the oats by hand, and the final few days of labour fairly drove the joy off it. We packed our tall piles of straw into seventy small bales, then stashed them into the rafters of the old byre where the last swallows busily fouled them with flecks of shit. I thought the job was more or less done, but if we had sixty bags of clean oats in the shed, I reckon that another sixty lay out in the field. Every hard fought mugful of grain had a twin which had been dribbled into the ribbony stubble. The sheets we used to thresh the sheafs sprung holes and the yellow oats pissed through them like water so that when you pulled up the floor to move somewhere new there were heaps of seeds to mark the time and location of your passing like an hourglass.

Soon this wasted crop grew back into itself. The shining stubbles were green again in a week and thicker than ever with the passage of a month. Far from the orderly sowing rate of spring, this was a dense and crazy crop without sense or reason. Some patches were utterly bare, but millions of thready stems crowded together in other places with the plush thickness of a new towel. The tiny plants were starving themselves in panic and the crowded rush to get ahead. There was something headless and demonic in this second-life; new plants rising up from the destruction of old, warped and bottomless and lacking value.

I began to think that this crop could cycle forever. I had been naive to imagine that my harvesting would be an end to it. I had infected the field with oats, and their voracious recovery came to me with a swell of worry like the throb of a sting or the tolling tug of a blackening tooth. Maybe I would rue the day I ever sowed this crop, but now winter comes to nip the leaves and slow this healing process before it can gain momentum. Soon the cattle will be treading in the green leaves and mashing this disorderly surge. Rats and mice rustle beneath the rooty straw, working through the seedbank and undermining future generations of plants. I watch an owl hunting them in the half light, pouncing with a cat’s crunch into a bundle of black and fallen sheafs.

And now there are birds in their thousands. I peer across the field from my desk and spy whirling clouds of life like smoke above the field. We left a few patches of the standing crop, and I told myself it was for them. The truth is that I was exhausted and could not bear to cut and bind another sheaf, but these standing rows were torture to me at first. They seemed to represent waste and my own idleness, and I found that I was under the farming spell. I coveted neatness and tidy bags of well-found crop, and I had forgotten the limitations of old ways.

During the early days of the harvest when I rode the peak of my enthusiasm, I would have taken every damn grain in that field. My blood was hot and keen and wild to boast of weights and productivity. What farmer does not want to take the most and fastest? There is a hardwired need to maximise your output, and that was all very well in the days when we were limited to the power of our own muscles. We strove to take it all in the knowledge that we could never do it, but now we have machines and brains which leave nothing behind and expect still more. I had done well to get as much as I had by hand, but wildlife prospers alongside old farming ways because they are fundamentally wasteful. We used to be happy with these techniques because we could not imagine doing any better, but I have seen combine harvesters and I know all that is possible. I set out to feed the birds, but the process of growing made me covetous and greedy. My labour was old, but my brain is very new.

And I see yellowhammers in the field; broad gangs of seventy and more. There are linnets and buntings and finches which say “finch” when they rise and turn their bellies beneath a wide sky. Hawks have come to fleg them, and now there is a hare sleepwalking through the icy foam of yarrow. It is no surprise that wildlife prospered in the old times when the countryside glowed with fields like these.

I do not have my crop in hand. The stars have come out as I have written these words,  and there are comparable galaxies of spilled oats in the dark soil below my window. I am learning to live with it, and I peer at the birds and try to weigh their value.

Wetness

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The moor is groaning with water. I flush a dozen snipe as I walk at last light through mushy pans of moss and grass. They rush away into a chart of stars, and then I am in the woods where the trees are cool and tangy. Here the undergrowth is crackling with thrushes; redwings and the first fieldfares hunker down in the treelands which drip and tip with the weight of the fallen rain. There is some pull to this place, and the newly arrived birds clatter into the fallen bracken year after year where the birch trees leak like trailing taps and soon grow naked.

I am almost at the safety of home in a growing swell of moonlight when lapwings come in a flaring hum, lit up by light from the kitchen window. The electric bulb dabs them in glitter as they pass through the yard at head-height. They are brisk and single-minded like a covey of grouse and they race and turn and head for the low ground where the mist bleeds up from the busted burn and curlews rasp in coarse, answerless questions.

Silage

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Late silage is a bastard job. Gone are the fine barometric subtleties of haymaking in June. Now is the time for distracted contractors and ham-fisted hurry. The grass is thick and heavy like a fold of sodden fabric, but the goodness is waning and soon the wads of growth will dissolve into juicy soup. We have to act in spite of the grey days and frosting dawns; this stuff is the fuel to power the project and we are doomed without it.

The field is mowed but there is little scent of fallen grass. Instead there are muddy gales of diesel and sweat beneath low clouds and the first few migrant geese. We have moved beyond the hope of dryness, and now it’s just a race to the bottom; a last minute smash and grab against the elements. We don’t turn the crop too often because that would bring up muck and scar the field. Instead we dance around the edges and ladle the green broth into plastic bags with heavy machines.

I should be glad of this second cut. There was a time in June when I wondered how I would feed my beasts this winter. Now I have sufficient volume if not quality, and I am rocked back on my heels at the memory of my former sanctimony. I used to rail against silage and commercial grass production, but now I depend upon it. I can roll back some shreds of this work to improve the world for curlews and wild birds, but I begin to see that you cannot look objectively at this industry until your own neck has been on the line.

Storm

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The wind ripped over the rocks and bore the trees away. Needles birled in the yard, and our grand old pine was pulled to her knees. We are left with splintering shafts of yellow wood and red bark like scabs of rust; the pigs wrestle with the wreckage and munch the bristling tips with gulps of sappy spittle.

The owls nested in a tall ash tree which burst like a cracker in the storm. I did not notice this disaster at first – I was preoccupied with cylinders of beechwood and sawdust; the rush to lift the first pick of firewood which had fallen on the roads. But then there were owls in broad daylight; a group of three youngsters hunting along the dykes at noon. One flew almost within arm’s reach and tried to land on the tip of a dead foxglove. Of course the stem bent double like a sweep’s brush and the bird fell like a fool on the grass. Owls are not born wise.

It was only later that I realised why these birds had become bold day-things. They had not chosen to leave their nest; the wind had cracked them out the trunk like a second hatching. Now black streaks of hollow heartwood show where the nest used to be, and I run my hands over the fallen bough where the owlets clambered like oafish kids in August. The young birds were “out” because they had lost their “in”. A disaster like this might have killed these owls a month ago, but they are almost strong enough to try the world without help. Even as I stared at the broken bark, another youngster wobbled past and turned into the wind.

I stood and watched the birds fly as evening came and they moved in a loose pattern onto the moor where they hunted in long draws like a team of setters. They wandered  into the wind, frowning downwards in steady concentration. I went to join them, and I found the three birds milling like moths above dank beds of cranberry and myrtle. Sometimes they would flare up at a glimpse of something mouseish. They would paddle for a moment in thin air, trailing long shanks and black feet like bait below them. The pounce would come with all the passive certainty of falling; the birds dropped flat-faced into deep grass. But they are novices, and they seldom killed anything I saw.

Crows came to rattle at them as the sun sank, and the owls caught the failing light in their hoods, red as apple jelly. Their steady, innocent beauty was pathetically fragile. This would not be the first year I find inexperienced owls wrecked by hawks or buzzards. But now there is now more darkness than daylight, and safety will come when the young birds learn to ply their trade in the dusk.

Movement

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I step out before dawn and find the sky is thick with snipe. They call in the darkness, and the noise comes to me wetly like wellies pulled from mud. Soon I am climbing over dewy gates and up onto the hill, where grouse cackle and blue day begins to leak between gaps in the heavy cloud.

The hill is wet and the burns clash and rattle away the night’s rain. Our land is surrounded on all sides by commercial spruce plantations, and the rushing growth of trees has thrown up new walls and a sense of dark claustrophobia. Each summer draws the young trees higher, and new thickets blur like stubble in the half light. The spruces bleed a veil of sweaty cloud onto the open ground and the heavy air moves through the dykes like a grey illness. This old moorland world has become a soggy pit in an ocean of treetops. Two pigeons boo and swell in the draughty forest, but the trees are otherwise silent.

Sheep peck through knuckles of granite and blue whinstone on the high ground. Here are more snipe, and the clattering flicker of blackgame like grainy images from a silent movie. The wet hollows are filled with scabious and the grass of parnassus; globes and galaxies of flowers in a flat blue light. There is a swirl among the distant sheep as they see me coming and recoil like wild animals.

I stand for a time and watch the sun rise from the highest point. The cairn is spattered with raven’s shit, and the stones are gritty with beetle wings and splinters of bone. Swallows pass overhead, two thousand feet above sea level and three miles from the nearest nest. They are unmistakably on passage, gathering speed for the vault over Europe and away to safety. They bicker noisily and head south in groups of half a dozen, and I feel a twinge as I remember the brood which only fledged from our byre last week. They left it too late, and the fragile youngsters emerged to a world of rain and cold winds. They scrabble to make up lost time, but now they are dying like flies and I have found two of their bodies in the yard, sloe blue and empty. Their lives would have been very different in June when insects moved like smoke through the sunset and hunting was a mug’s game. One hundred and seventeen new swallows flew away from our sheds this summer, but I cannot help dwelling on these final failures.

Now pipits pass in clouds of fifty and more across the open land. I hear the thin, seeping whine of small birds as the sun comes at last to pour cool, jammy light on the land towards Langholm and Annandale. These birds are impossibly ubiquitous, and the gentle simplicity of their calls has been worn flat by overuse. They are also heading south and I am just in time to relearn the pleasure of their tiny details before they go.