Tag Archives: nature

The Country Diary of an Elizabethan Lady

We are experiencing what is likely to be one of the hottest summers ever here in rural Cumbria. Having lived in our little stone cottage on the edge of the northern fells since 1982 we’ve survived a variety of severe weather systems but during the bulk of those thirty-two years the outlook has been generally, if not persistently, wet. Locals will tell you that if you can see the hills it’s just about to rain and if you can’t see the hills it’s already raining. But apart from an occasional shower we haven’t had real rain for weeks and this dry hot weather is proving uplifting not merely because we are all sporting the kind of suntan usually got by forking out good money to catch the sun.

Complimenting this sultry season is the best display of wild flowers I remember. The scenery around our cottage is a pastoral landscape of undulating fields ringed by ancient hedges and mature trees which generally radiate every hue of green until the fields ripen to golden yellow, usually around the time July turns to August. But this year the pastures have already ripened and the harvest of grain ripples like an ocean in the breeze whilst the surrounding hedges look on, shaggy and dishevelled. Yet underneath their shelter lies a hidden and beautiful phenomenon.

In this part of Cumbria most fields are surrounded by hedges rather than stone walls, or fences, and the roads which criss-cross through our village are old droving roads with wide, grassy verges so the cattle or sheep could graze whilst being driven to market. Of course nowadays most beasts travel by wheels but thankfully the layout of the roads remain, and the modern lines of black tarmac are bordered either side with an amazing variety of wild grasses and flowers which spill with a bounty equalling the most carefully planted gardens. These wild borders are speckled in frothy whites, smouldering purples, beaming yellows and cerulean blues, as though nature is trying to show all her diversity. And I can almost forgive the abundance of weeds that have migrated into my garden, because who’d want to miss sunning themselves in this unusually hot weather?

I’ve tried to list those flowers I recognise. Drooping from the shadows is a froth of nettles surrounding the umbrella-like heads of meadow-sweet clustering behind. I can’t name the diversity of grasses heavy with seeds, but they are dotted with white and purple clover, yellow celandines and dandelions whose chrysanthemum-like flowers seem dull beneath the taller swathes of ox-eye daisies. Weaving between this undergrowth are purple-blue beads of vetch and golden lady’s slippers, hanging like jewels, and above them are trumpets of white bindweed and yellow honeysuckle poking their heads through the dark green hedge whilst tumbling through the very top falls a tangle of white and pink dog roses. Butterflies hover amongst the flower heads and if I stand and stare long enough I may even spy a field mouse, or catch sight of a red squirrel sidling up a tree.

As a teenager one of my favourite books was The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. A facsimile of Edith Holden’s personal notebook it’s a charming and intimate study of the British countryside during 1906 and her sketches describe the incredible abundance of wild flowers. But the countryside surrounding the tiny village where I grew up, in North Kent, seemed devoid of any native vegetation, something I later realised was due, at least in part, to farmers blanket-spraying with chemical weed-killers and DDT in order to kill anything that might harm the fruit crops that kept the Kentish economy afloat. Thankfully Cumbria’s agriculture has a completely different axis, and the fact farmers here are less willing to expend good ‘brass’ on chemicals helped give our beautiful and well-endowed landscape a reprieve. And the first thing I noticed when I moved here was the beauty of the hedgerows, just at Edith promised. It’s taken time for me to appreciate it’s true wealth but with this exemplary weather the summer of 2014 will be noted as fondly as that of 1906.

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Dust

I love this time of year. It’s late May and the weather is getting warmer, saplings burst forth beneath a cerulean sky and puffs of snow-white clouds hover upon the horizon. The days are getting longer but summer hasn’t quite arrived; the countryside radiates with wild flowers, with fresh, green-scented renewal. And that effervescent energy, that primeval life-force, seems to spill into our very being. Nature’s providence drives human motivation. But I suspect spring is also nature’s way of keeping women-kind indoors.

 

Maybe it’s the unique angle of sunlight as it beams through the windows, acting like a magnifying glass on every speck and filament of dust, but nobody would believe I ever took up arms with the Dyson. Glistening in the clarifying light is a finite veil of dust that mocks my frequent battles. I suspect this evidence proves that nothing is really taken away, just re-cycled. Like Superman, dust is virtually indestructible.

 

Anyway this got me thinking about the motivation behind spring cleaning. Were our iron-age sisters as concerned about dirt when spring cast her beams through the doorway? Because I suspect this impulse runs very deep. And how many battles might never have been fought if women-kind denied those instincts for a spring-cleaning splurge? Did the men-folk, lacking any impulse to defeat a foe as oblivious as dust, spur their energies into other (outdoor) activities…..such as hunting, and picking fights with the neighbours? And I was always taught the reason medieval wars generally launched in spring had something to do with the harvest. History could be told quite differently if dust was a perspective.

 

Which started me wondering what other traditionally ‘masculine’ sports are activated by spring? Perhaps it’s no coincidence May is the preferred month for elections? And what accolades might I have achieved if it wasn’t for an impulse to sweep the remains of winter out of the house? A quick run through Google confirms my suspicions, the activity of Spring-cleaning occurs world-wide, Wiki’ even proposes it was first ‘celebrated’ in ancient Persia! But I believe this urge is so instinctive, so primeval, it would hardly be recorded until some well-placed power-monger, realising the value of keeping women busy at home, timed the most iconic events and festivals to coincide with what was already a natural and well-known phenomenon. So the war against dirt became sacred and anyone trying to change things is still accused of ‘stirring up dust’.

 

I’m looking again at the dust spun patterns on my window-sill, at the silver-framed pictures of my family, at the pottery dancing figure my daughter made when she was twelve, and tucked in an old blue candlestick I see a Lego flower has been planted. It’s an alien, plastic creation and I know exactly which grandson is responsible. He’ll laugh when I show him! Tricked gran again, putting something where it’s not meant to be, messing up the tidy humdrum of life in wonderful creative chaos. Proof, as if I need it, that I don’t live in a laboratory, but a home. Dust is a by-product of contentment and the fact it remains in-situ merely evidence of a busy life. And what doesn’t get re-distributed can be described as enchanted, as fairy-dust waiting for action.   

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