Home & Shop Companion #0026
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
When I sit down to write these letters, sometimes I know what I want to write about, and sometimes, like today, I am not so sure. Sometimes the task, especially in these strange and probably important times, seems too big; sure I can write about whether the tomatoes are ripening [they are, by the way], but when I look outside my day to day life, even at my future prospects for work and income, it is all very uncertain, and the wider world seems yet more unpredictable and, depending on my mood, a little scary. Uncertainty has become the theme of our times. In the first months of the pandemic, it felt like we were rabbits all caught in the beam of a car’s headlights, blinded and shocked into motionlessness, not knowing what to do. Now, however, we are starting to make tentative moves, sometimes perhaps too fast, as our brains and emotions adjust to the unaccustomed insecurity.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, a renewed interest in nature was big news as people everywhere struggled with uncertainty, trying to find a fixed point in their lives. But for those of us regularly involved with animals, plants and the weather, we know that the natural world is not always so predictable, and what from the outside may seem like the steady unfolding of the year that governs the measured pace of a farmer’s life, is not without its challenges, setbacks and pressures. I remember my father, a hands-on farm manager, never saying a word at breakfast time because he was working out what should be done that day, how to best use the time and skills of eight or nine men. It is that attention and thought followed by conscientious work which keeps a farm on an even keel, making the best of things when times are good, and squeezing out the best you can manage when times are tough. Inevitably things are sometimes going to catch us unaware, but if we have put in the groundwork, a farm has some resilience, we have some resilience, and if necessary we can let some things take a back seat as we tackle more immediate concerns.
For some of us, relying on working animals is one aspect of farming which provides a significant extra degree of resilience, but to realise their advantages their groundwork needs to be solid, their experiences comfortable and their training continual. This is something that the casual observer doesn’t see. I was reminded of this when bringing Lucy to the house to graze the tiny paddock at the bottom of the garden this week, when on two occasions people stopped to say what a lovely horse she is. Both times I just thanked them, but usually I can’t resist saying something like ‘well, she is when she’s standing still,’ or ‘when she’s doing what she’s supposed to.’ The reason I say that, I suppose, is education, there are so many people who see a work horse as inherently calm and placid, a gentle giant, as solid and reliable, but as most of you will know, the horse that stands quietly while you harness it, or waits in the road while you pass the time of day is a product of repeated lessons and good experiences.
When I started with horses, I was lucky to learn on a farm where the horses were well behaved, gentle to handle and willing to work. So I learnt that if that was what you expected, that was what you got, as long as you put in the right sort of attention at the right time to make sure it was the case. Sometimes putting in that work was inconvenient, but the time was well rewarded in the long run by the trust you could place in the horse and the trust it had in you. That is not to say that some lessons won’t need to be reinforced from time to time, but it might be no more than a warning word while a horse starts to think about whatever it is you don’t want him to do.
With the vegetable patch at the start of this year, the groundwork done in previous years was pretty much obscured by my lack of attention last year, the number of weeds a legacy of last year’s illness, injury and filial responsibilities. So I started off well into deficit, but three months on the early potatoes, now nearly finished, have done reasonably well and the onions are growing nicely, but the other crops are still disappointing, not helped by the late start and the spring drought. The carrots sown in May didn’t even germinate, and the rows of mangolds, parsnips and beetroot have as many gaps as plants, but gradually it is looking better as I am clawing my way back to normality.
In the wider world, normality is not a word that comes to mind. Here the restaurants are opening again and the traffic on the roads is nearly back to its usual insane level, though the number of Covid infections is still only back down to the same level as when we went into lockdown. Life is becoming more open, though we obviously aren’t hugging friends, and with our compulsory masks [in public spaces] we can’t see each other smile. Meanwhile the spectre of another spike in cases looms in the background. But increasingly I am becoming more concerned about the widening cracks in society, exacerbated by the Covid crisis. However much we need and want to see some healing, those wounds are prevented from doing so, in fact are often aggravated and kept open by a deficit in our democratic processes. And the reason we have got into this state is the same as why my veg patch was full of weeds, a lack of appropriate attention at the right time. Even though the groundwork may have been reasonably sound years ago, at a time when people making decisions were expected to be honourable and conscientious, times have changed. Honour and conscientiousness do not spring readily to mind when describing many of our leaders today, though they absolutely should do, and a bit more competence would not go amiss either. So, like in my veg patch, it seems like we need to do some energetic hoeing in the rows of power, interspersed with a few vigorous weed-smothering cover crops, if we want to grow crops worthy of the soil they come from.
So keep those masks on when you go out, keep your hoes sharp, and be ready with a sharp warning word when he starts to think about whatever it is you don’t want him to do!
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.