S is for Summer

Froth, Tails and TS Eliot

(The holy grail: searching for a remedy for Post Cow Parsley Syndrome)

I woke late on Friday (or should I truthfully say, even later) and when I pulled back my curtains, what should I discover hovering only a few feet away, but the most beautiful, handsome and magnificent barn owl? Having given me a long, greedy and admiring spectacle of him in graceful suspended flight, he then further obliged and dramatically plunged 20 feet down into the long flowering grass. Seconds later he re-emerged and perched (he must have been unsuccessful as his claws were empty), as if for photo opportunities, on one of the temporary sheep fence posts.

The long grass has now been cut (Mr B did a Ross Poldark on Saturday afternoon – fully clothed, I hasten to add, as well as wearing ear defenders and using a Stihl power tool! Mind you, having just folded up the washing, I now see why the original took off his shirt and used baby oil… clearly Ross knew only too well that once those damn hairy grass seeds get stuck in your shirt, it takes a heck of a lot of scratching and poking to waggle them out). So now the barn owl doesn’t need to hurl himself into the unknown, neither does Bramble need to walk on hind legs to catch a glimpse of us as we play hide and seek in the long grass. All of which is rather a shame, and which bring me to my theme…

The worst thing about June is that it is now proper summer – and if it is a damp – or in this case, a damp and hurricanous squib, then that…  is …  it, if you know what I mean. The great thing about April and May is that you know that it is all just starting; everywhere there is life and new growth, buds and birds, green of every hue and you know that the best is yet to come… In my mind, the floral emblem for this leap of nature, the very apotheosis of this is Anthriscus sylvestris: cow parsley to you and me. When you look out over the fields and see the margins laced with white froth, aaahhh! Oh to be in England in deed! I get this enormous Chekhovian surge of post-winter hope as I know that the glorious summer lies literally just round the corner, in fact, like the swallow, it has already arrived! Perhaps truthfully, the Chekhovian bit is just plain relief. Relief that you have made it through another long winter. A winter which we try to convince ourselves turns the corner after Christmas, but in reality trudges out through January, February and all of March. (Snowdrops are gorgeous but they are winter flowers and crocuses in my opinion are just a cruel tease). Here’s the thing: T S Eliot was wrong, April is not the cruellest month… a bad June is!

So, what to do now that the cow parsley – my absolute favourite wildflower by a country mile and also the very emblem of the English summer – is well and truly over?

I wonder if one can CBT oneself out of mourning and try to find a favourite wildflower for every month? That way you can roll with the seasons and celebrate with joy in every stage of the journey. That is the answer: find a flower with such impact and significance that one can look out on the wettest, windiest, greyest and coldest of even June days and still be cheered at its prospect, in the way that I was literally transported with delight by our neighbourly barn owl.

So I set out this morning, with Bramble, on a holy grail; searching for the answer to my Post Cow Parsley Syndrome. Like our well-thumbed copy of Search for Spot, I set out determined to find flower of the month…

Was it in the grass meadow? No!

Was it in the farmer’s field of beans? No!

Was in along the disused railway line? No!

Was it along the stream by the old mill? No!

Was it in the specially grown wild flower meadow? Well…

I did walk past an inordinate number of beautiful, delicate dog roses. Arching up through the flowering elder and other trees lurking in the hedgerows, it flowered from hip height all the way up to the top of the canopy. As I followed the river the different roses ranged from deepest pink to purest white. All fresh, delicate and pretty, like the softest, daintiest bunting, swagging its way along…

Nah!

It doesn’t work!

They don’t have presence. It’s the same with cranesbill, the wild geranium – such a beautiful find among the meadow grasses – it does make you say “wow!’ out loud, but it is not enough to make you stop in your tracks and drink in the scene, speechless and full of wonder. Not enough to make you long for it all year long…

One of my favourite writers, John Lewis-Stempel*, claims to have made peace with the seasons. It is probably a little drastic, but here is how he did it. He decided to only eat and drink what he found or grew on his farm or in the surrounding countryside. Here smugly, is where his journey led him:

Usually I find midsummer, to borrow Vita Sackville-West’s phrase, a “small despair,” because from this day forth the darkness begins to grow more lengthy each and every day. But not this year. If one has fed oneself by the seasons – admittedly with a little help from one’s relatives, from careless drivers and from one visit to Waitrose – then one knows the rhythm of natural life, and that the truth of natural life is both mundane and joyous.

The darkness comes.

It goes.

And that is it.

Well, bully for him! Not sure how that helps me, nor indeed if I really believe him. Perhaps the nearest I have got to that is feeling a whiff of relief last year that the days were getting slightly shorter, or rather that dawn didn’t happen quite so alarmingly early. We had old curtains up at our bedroom windows which were so old that the lining had rotted through and they were letting in the light – the dawn light – which came blasting in at whatever scary time before 5. This, plus tamoxifen insomnia, combined with an overwhelming sense of not-keeping-up-with-the-garden nor indeed the rest of life, left me completely wiped out by the time we got to July. And so, for the first time ever, I was not altogether alarmed at the prospect of slightly later mornings. BUT, hey! This year I am prepared: I have belts and braces; thicker new blackout curtains, eye shades and an SOS text to a local gardener; so bring on the sunshine, the long days, the flowers, and especially the sunshine!

No, John Lewis-Stempel can eat his wildlife heart out. I know that in all honestly, I am not going to take up hedgerow cuisine, (while youngest child would love to shoot and catch for the table, indeed, by way of boosting finances and reducing vermin and pests, he is already on that particular mission, but after the fun of skin-a-rabbit, the barbecued cadaver was not up to snuff and the only other mouth it fed was Bramble’s), anyway, this part of Oxfordshire only does rabbits, deer and pheasant – with a bit of badger road kill – and you can’t dollop those on your pasta penne, can you? No, even given my love of hedgerow floral scrumping, with all its glorious seasonal variety, I have yet to find a genuine solution for my PCPS.

My sister, often a good source of diverting anecdotes, is equally, if not more, seasonally affected, and she has done not a little R & D around the subject. Most notable of which was her curious behaviour / survival tactics on returning to her then home in south-east London after her 2 weeks’ holiday in the south of France. She was so undone by hitting the end of summer, that she went out, bought a tray of bright pink cyclamen, filled a bowl with them for each room, brought in the log basket, lit the fire, drew the curtains and holed-up to wait for Christmas.

“Embrace the winter!” was her clarion call. “You can’t fight it, you have to go with it!” she yelled down the phone with evangelical zeal.

“OK girl!” I replied feebly. “That’s brave – hitting it head on! But aren’t you a tad premature? It’s only the first week of September!”

 

More recently, probably due to the fact that her son is no longer a toddler and can therefore open the curtains, said sister purchased a special S.A.D. lamp from John Lewis (no relation to my author) and while it definitely helped her get out of bed in February and March I am not sure it sorts out the PCPS! Still, I am not sure that she is as bothered by hay cutting, nor the passing of cow parsley as I am. She is too busy hoeing weeds on her cut flower patch. She shares her allotment with some classic neighbours who themselves are a rich vein waiting to be tapped. Cock-fight-John has a diverse collection of lean-to’s, huts and sheds, in at least one of which are some chickens which look like they have just heard someone ring the bell. On the other side, OCD-Reg (more kindly known as Reg the Veg) has such immaculate rows of veg, so tall and utterly weed free, that you wonder if there are other powers at work on his plot. But Reg does serve up a very welcome and down-to-earth cup of tea and digestive biscuit. While his patch is intimidating, his words are encouraging and few, “Never give up!” he calls from the depth of his very tidy lines.

My smug and indulgent SOS text to a local gardener has not been replied to, so I am heading out into the buffeting cold winds, armed with secateurs, loppers, ladder and twine, to take on my herculean task: subduing 2 particularly “vigorous” roses. A word of wisdom: do not grow “Rosa A Generous Gardener” (real name) on anything smaller than a church tower. Our nice polite pergola is so dwarfed by the roses that it looks about as useful as the 18 inch stonehenge in Spinal Tap. In our 40 mile-an-hour winds, my artful tying up and green twine have been rendered completely pointless and the 12-15 feet triffid rose bracts are flapping and swaying about violently; randomly seeking to flail anyone or anything stupid enough to walk in striking distance. So far, the gentle clematis, the gorgeous luminous delphiniums (record height this year) and the trusty beech hedge have been mercilessly attacked. I am going out now. I may be some time.

 

*Lewis-Stempel, John, The Wild Life – A year of living on wild food

J is for January / S is for Skylark!

It is the last day of January and I haven’t written since before C is for Christmas!

B is for Bother! Oh dear – what to do?

It is no coincidence that a new year has brought changes. I have to fess up. The truth is, that I found myself writing almost “to order” (I know: I had barely got out of the starter’s blocks) and when I caught myself bashing out this rather tidy, trite piece, I threw down my pen in disgust. What I had so enjoyed in rediscovering my voice, I then began to lose because I was spending so long in polishing and packaging it for the reader. I lost sight of the reason for writing in the first place. In a sense, the important healing work was done long before I posted anything. I had enjoyed about 6 weeks of bashing out text from the heart – it was like unstopping a spring and I was literally euphoric. Friends couldn’t believe the change in me. But once it was mostly out on the page, the catharsis drew to a close and I had a sense that it was time to move on.

I want to keep this real and honest, I do not want to keep writing around a subject that currently does not still grip me. It might have changed me and the way I see things, but my soul is not full of the cancer journey; I would rather write from the heart, than keep plodding on to complete all 26 letters of the alphabet from duty. (Needless to say, if any literary agent out there comes up with an agreeable package, I might be persuaded to finish it)! Instead, in the meantime, I find myself reading, watching and thinking about the stuff that I have always been captivated by; nature and sometimes, a little bit of design.

I woke up the other day and realised that all the books on my bedside are to do with either gardens, garden design or nature or lives steeped in any or all of the above. And I thought back to conversations in my childhood and youth and realised that it was always thus. I have clear memories of talking to friends while I marvelled at what the clouds were doing, or how a particular tree could lift my spirits and being surprised to find out that these had no effect on them whatsoever! Anyway, it so happened that the very same day my dear sister popped round (not an amazing act of divine intervention, I hasten to add, she lives 10 minutes away and is always popping in) and asked me if I had written anything yet. I told her that I would rather write about “B is for Bringing in the Bulbs” (to replace the Christmas decs)! than carry on with the “C if for Cancer”, but that I also felt duty bound to plod on with it. Largely this due to an overweening sense of duty, a weird, obsessive need to finish something I have started. Also, tragically, it is partly predicated on the basis that I have mentioned here before: namely that my CV looks like a bad day in the old BHS pick ‘n’ mix and I am terrified of talking about and starting yet another idea and not bringing it through to fruition. I am embarrassed and mortified at the thought that I might be, as it turns out, one of those of our species whom I find particularly hard to respect: that is, a “chat merchant”. And as I had mentioned to friends that in my head was this book, “A is for Apple” made up of 26 chapters of inspiring, surprising and funny things that no one told you about cancer, in a desperate need to justify myself I felt I ought to plough on and finish the bally thing… Anyway, I am sure you get the point. I am now repeating myself. Sorry.

What is interesting was that Helen then said that only that morning she wished someone wrote a collection of seasonal nature sketches or reflections, as she was much more likely to read that at the moment than she was anything else! A bit more chat ensued and she confessed that my writing had become a bit more, well, formulaic and frankly, dull. It was too tidy and not from the gut. “Sorry,” she said, “you probably need feedback like a hole in the head!”

Then last week we met up with some dear friends, and likewise, when I fessed up to not having written yet this year and my perceived dilemma, Nicola then piped up (and I love her for this – she is more concerned with being truthful than liked) and agreed rather promptly with Helen!

Right, well if my sister and a dear, loyal friend think that, then who am I to hesitate?

And so now I shall tell you what little gems were strewn on my path today to give me the final kick up the rear to do this thing…

The first is a frankly cheesy little nugget that my eldest daughter had written on a piece of kitchen towel in her lovely calligraphy – here goes:

There is freedom for you, waiting in the breezes of the sky;

You say, “What if I fall?”

I say, “What if you fly?”

Well, I did warn you.

Then the other thing that happened was on my walk with our dog, Bramble. Having waiting as long as I could, trying to avoid the persistent rain, we ventured out into the field and squelched our way round the meadow. The pregnant ewes were tidily gathered at one end eating the nuts that Farmer Fred had drizzled out for them. This gave us, and particularly Bramble, most of the space to stretch her legs… And what was took me completely by surprise on such a day, and at such a time of year, was to be loudly greeted by the song of more than one skylark. Oh my word! How can they, on such a day, lift up from their soggy “nest” and ascend in this thick low cloud, all the while pouring out song as if their hearts and lungs would burst? I was shocked, then moved (hearing skylarks always moves me), and then I saw by way of contrast, my own fear and poverty of spirit.

Well if they can do it then it is about time I gave it another bash… time for another attempt at lift off… and so here we are.

I have just looked up George Meredith’s The Lark Ascending. It is the poem that inspired Vaughan Williams’ piece of the same name. It is glorious, but it is also too long to quote here… having said that, I cannot refrain from quoting a few corkers from it:

For singing till his heaven fills,

“’T is love of earth that he instils,

And ever winging up and up,

Our valley is his golden cup,

And he the wine which overflows

To lift us with him as he goes”…

…”He sings the sap, the quicken’d veins;

The wedding song of sun and rains

He is, the dance of children, thanks

Of sowers, shout of primrose-banks,

And eye of violets while they breathe;

All these the circling song will wreathe” …

Somehow, he captures the heady exhilaration of the song – to hear skylarks is to drink pure sunlight. You can’t tell what senses are being stirred: is it your heart, your memory, your spirit, all three? Well that’s what it does for me… And I don’t think I have ever heard them in the rain before. We have always had them here but I only recall hearing them when the skies are clear and also only from early spring to end of autumn. What a treat!

Rather wonderfully, if you track down the poem to the same website as me, you will also be thrilled to find a link to help you with your dodgy knees. I didn’t know that surfing the web or reading poetry was such a physically demanding activity, but there you have it.

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If you are not lucky enough to have skylarks singing outside your back door, the thing to do in January is to pot up bulbs: some to give away and some to keep. I have to say that even after many years of doing this (always after my post-Christmas clear out), I still have mixed results: sometimes the bulbs grow tall and leggy as if reaching for the sun, sometimes they barely have any stem and poke their heads out of the soil, with no neck!

But it doesn’t matter.

The best bit is seeing the buds appear, however high or low, full of promise of scent and colour and life, surrounded by the freshest pulled moss – all frothy and green and spring-like. I also poke in pretty winter stems between the bulbs – to give a framework to support them if they have a leggy tendency, but also to have something to look at while they emerge.

Just because of what I can scrump around here I tend to use the pretty pussy willow sticks with fluffy white buds, or hazel twigs with promising dangly flowers – these look fab when you cut them in the young pale stage and then really annoyingly, they elongate and drop clouds of yellow pollen. Every year I tell myself not to use them but every year I succumb… and then a week later regret it! Doh!

Finally, and I should have said this at the beginning, I always cheat.

Obviously. Who has success with bags of bulbs in dark cupboards? In the dim and distant past I was naive enough to try this, but was sabotaged by three very persistent enemies: woolly memory (I either forgot where I had put them or indeed that I had put them anywhere), mice and shrews (favourite winter snack is a stash of flower bulbs kept in mint condition in a brown paper bag in a handy, dark, undisturbed but accessible corner) and finally, mould, which quite often you find you have thrown in for free by the vendor! So now I buy my bulbs in the green – with clear and present shoots already up and at it – almost always from Steve our local market florist. On a good day, Steve will sell me 2 pots with 3 hyacinth bulbs in each for £5.00. I then either divide them up and put them in individual cups or glasses for the bedrooms or gifts, or stash them together in one large, indulgent bowl for the kitchen table. I buy loads of different bulbs: narcissi, hyacinth or mascari and store them outside in a sheltered spot by the back door. I then pot them up and bring them in as I have “need” or fancy!

Also, while I am on my January riff, finding alternative bulb containers is a whole new source of excitement, innovation and joy. Raiding charity shops at this time of year is always a good hobby, even if the irony of bringing stuff back into the house, from the very location where you have smugly deposited three full bin liners, completely eludes you! My recent such acquisition is a copper whisking bowl, which is looking glorious with its frothy family of white hyacinth. And, if I am letting you have ALL my family secrets, then muscari – those pretty little blue grape hyacinth bulbs – look absolutely delicate and charming in the pale blue glasses that we bought in IKEA just over a year ago. What is so pleasing is that these glasses have a low “waist” just where you can, and must, tie round a pretty ribbon – January bliss!

Tips on how to pot up bulbs:

If you are putting them in glass, wash the soil from the roots and stand them over clean washed gravel in the base of the glass. If you are putting them in a ceramic or metal planter of some kind, still put a layer of gravel in the base then shake the potting compost from them over the top to re-sit the roots in. Whatever the nature of your container, pull up moss from the soggy shady corners of your garden and push around the bulbs. Spritz with water from an old window cleaner bottle that you have thoroughly washed and re-washed. This keeps the moss looking lush and fresh. Occasionally you might need to run under a v gentle tap then carefully tip out excess water.

NB: Bulbs, just like cut flowers, will last a lot longer if your room is cool. (This is not a positive attribute in our house. Now that Mr B has found a local and relentless supply of firewood, the wood-burning stove is always lit, and so roughly from November to April, we find ourselves by the end of the evening, not too infrequently, walking around in our undies)!

And on that note, may I wish you a very Happy New Year!

PS I can promise that the next post will NOT be this long. I was going to leave this one at the Lark, but felt I ought to include the bulbs!