Smock frocks and curlews

Once, rather a long time ago, I had a nice job looking after a forest nature reserve, an ancient woodland. It took more than an hour to walk from one end to the other, along maintained paths, where, most days, certainly on holidays, I might meet a few locals or visitors, enjoying a ‘wild’ place.

I’d be friendly and polite, but secretly, these occasional people appeared like aliens to me. That was because I was really part of the forest. I belonged. I didn’t leave and return to civilisation. I walked those paths in the dark thick with moths and bats, meeting badgers and foxes and owls. I slept nested in the heart of the forest, blanketed by scores of acres of trees in every direction, so that I felt safe and secure. My identification with the place was reciprocated. I was it and it was me.

This may seem odd, to people who find forests at night scary and threatening, but I grew up in a house in the centre of a large wood, so I was bred to feel at home, with the rustles and bird calls, rather than tarmac and streetlights and car doors slamming. I was a four year old who spent hours alone, playing in leaf litter, looking for beetles and centipedes, scraping bark off twigs, crawling through bramble patches. Later came ponies, a pet fox, ferrets, a pet buzzard, pigeons and owls and magpies, grass snakes and slow worms and whatnot. Not quite Gerald Durrell, but that kind of thing… a farm family and other animals, dogs and cats and cows and sheep and pigs and poultry, including an ancient retired great aunt who blessed me with The Natural History of Selbourne, Tarka the Otter, Wild Wales, Jock of the Bushveld, and other classics in that vein.

So, I’m a country boy, I know the bird’s eggs, their calls, their discarded feathers, how to tickle trout and snare rabbits, how to move softly and unnoticed across the landscape. It was never anything special or unusual, until I understood that only 10% of the population live outside urban areas, and of those, how few know anything about the wildlife and the plants. I have neighbours who have likewise been raised in ‘rural bliss’, who could only name ten bird species and possibly get five correct, who don’t know an ash tree from a walnut tree, or a hazel from a field maple. So just because folks dwell surrounded by fields, it doesn’t follow that they have any depth of knowledge, contrasted with previous generations. Perhaps true country men and women will vanish, become extinct, like the embroidered smock-frock which was once the common outer garment for agricultural labourers, shepherds, waggoners and carters. Vanish like the drovers, to exist only as ghosts of the imagination, conjured by old texts and photos, fragments and crumbs of history.

He was a man seemingly about forty years of age with a broad red face, with certain somethings looking very much like incipient carbuncles, here and there upon it. His eyes were grey and looked rather as if they squinted; his mouth was very wide, and when it was opened displayed a set of strong, white, uneven teeth. He was dressed in a pepper-and-salt coat of the Newmarket cut, breeches of corduroy and brown top boots, and had on his head a broad, black, coarse, low-crowned hat. In his left hand he held a heavy whale-bone whip with a brass head. (George Borrow, Wild Wales, 1862 )

What did it feel like to be that man ? To inhabit his thoughts and resentments and ambitions ? Did he ever wonder what his life might mean as he took the cattle and the sheep hundreds of miles, along the ancient grassy drove roads, perhaps from Pembrokeshire to Kent ? On that day, he made that impression upon another human mind, and Borrow portrayed it in words, like a tatty portion of sepia photo, all else is long lost and forgotten, as I too shall be.

How can country culture produce country characters, like, say, Laurie Lee or Winifred Foley, when there is no more country culture ? The old ways have mostly gone, like the sailing ships, like the lapwings and curlews, like the working horses, displaced by agribusiness and holiday cottages and retired city folk. Does it matter ? Most of you will never notice the loss of what you have never known. Like vanished species from distant mountainsides, sea floors, grasslands and deserts, like the languages of dispossessed tribes, they were never part of your world, so won’t be missed. World War II fades into history, like Victoria and her Empire, and Napoleon before her. Once it was now. Now it is gone. You have the Green Party to turn to, and the Archers to feed you a faux simulacrum of pastoral sentimentality as you sit on those vinyl chairs, as you breathe traffic fumes and block out the noise of aircraft and lorries and worries about the tax demand and the kid’s exams, and go home to the spectacle of horror and trivia on that tv screen.

Down at the far end of that forest nature reserve, where visitors could not penetrate, across the boundary upon private land, far from roads, protected by some deep ravines, rarely, if ever, visited by the farmer, I discovered a special place. I wonder how many of these remain ? Secret, unknown, overlooked, forgotten. I’m sure there are still patches of the Earth’s surface that no human foot has ever touched, because they are so hostile, remote and unattractive. But on these crowded islands ? The next best thing might be places that haven’t felt human presence from year to year. This is not something you can buy. Not for a million pounds. This is not something you can hire a guide to show you. It’s not something you can even repeat. Think about that. More like a miracle, a singularity, a one-off magical event.

Here, two or three stone cottages, abandoned for 150 years, roofs and doors long gone, a few oak window frames still partly intact, all overgrown with dense ivy and brambles and trees… I crept around as if alone in an art gallery, noticing an ancient bottle, a piece of earthenware, the stub of a clay pipe, a box hedge, once clipped to size, but released to become feral and grow to tall maturity. Best of all, like a snapshot from some exotic jungle, rising out of the bracken, an astonishing clump of Pyrenean Lilies, Lilium pyrenaicum. Here they are, photos of the very same, flowering just in time for the summer solstice.

Not native, but acclimatised. Why do I think it must have been a woman, who decided to embellish the home with a glamorous foreign flower ? She looked out of the window, as she struggled to get the fire lit, on a morning when smoke wouldn’t rise, and the baby was squalling and mewing, and the bitch was about to give birth to a litter, the pig squealing in the sty wanting its breakfast… the pleasure of bright colours, newly opened… Not everyone could boast of possessing such strange scented evocative loveliness. Perhaps the seeds were a special tender gift. Nearby a few remnant raspberry plants. No doubt, there would have been a plot of potatoes and carrots. But Pyrenean Lilies, that’s an aesthetic choice, sentimental and romantic, to brighten these little hovels, miles away from anywhere. I don’t know how they earned their living. Farm labour I suspect. Possibly as a drover. Perhaps they even wore smocks. Perhaps they oiled them to make them waterproof.

After an hour or two, lost in this enchanted fugue with no intruding thought of what my day was about or any attending to the wider world, I climbed over a fence, back into the artificiality of the standard field, the monocultural pasture that produces silage for cows, and sat down with my back against a fine oak tree, pondering the dreamy remembrances in the afternoon sunshine. Suddenly, a yard behind me, on the other side of the tree, a vixen screamed. So loud and shocking I almost leaped out of my skin. My hair stood on end. Well, maybe not. It’s the apt figure of speech, but I don’t have a lot of hair anymore, nor was there a handy mirror to check. But it felt like that. And then the exhilarating zoom of adrenaline… and a big grin. It was good. The entire Universe blessed me, and approved. What more than that could a man like me want or hope for ? I belong.

Wolfbird, also known as Ulvfugl, writes a blog at Mons Angelorum.

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