Home & Shop Companion #0059
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
It is about a year since the Home & Shop Companion first hit our inboxes, a year since the people of the world started taking the Covid virus seriously, and nearly a year since I started writing these letters. A lot has changed since then, the fear of the virus’ unknown potential has subsided as we have come to understand it, but we also know its deadly power. Thinking back to the early uncertainty, I am reminded of a conversation I had with a friend last March who was hoping that the shows which were cancelled in the spring would be rescheduled for the autumn, but I had my doubts.
Those doubts were based on the experience of 2001, when there was a major outbreak of hoof and mouth disease that swept through British farms. Based on the presumption of easy exports of pedigree livestock, British policy has always been that we don’t have any hoof and mouth disease, not to vaccinate, and when we do occasionally have the disease, we slaughter all cloven footed animals on the affected farms and adjoining farms, and impose livestock movement restrictions over a wider area. In 2001 the virus spread like wildfire. The result was piles of burning cattle, pigs and sheep all over the countryside, years of animal breeding all going up in smoke, and for a few years, many empty fields, images seared into the memory of anyone involved with farming.
The nature of any virus is that it only survives by spreading to a new host, and if you don’t put in strict measures early on, it goes everywhere and continues until the hosts acquire immunity or the virus loses its potency. To have had a chance to halt the Corona virus, we would have had to stop the movement of people from China back in February last year, aggressively following up any cases that did occur. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but today, one year on, I drove into Shrewsbury to get my first jab to protect me against the virus. Being in the 56 to 59 age group, a letter arrived two weeks ago to invite me for the injection, so I am now part of the 1/3 of the British population who have had the first injection.
Meanwhile, I have started the garden; I sowed tomatoes, lettuce and cabbage in trays to grow in the greenhouse, but I brought them in the workshop to jump start them into germination. When visiting a commercial grower years ago who had a temperature controlled germinating box, somehow the temperature of 18 degrees [63F] has stuck in my mind as being ideal for germinating lettuce seed, so starting them off in the house is ideal at this time of the year, but now they are above the ground they are already in the greenhouse before they get leggy.
Outside, I picked the last of the Brussels sprouts which are just starting to blow, and caught a couple of parsnips in the field as they put out a few leaves to reveal their hiding place, while the final few carrots will soon need to be eaten before they turn woody and start to turn their attention to forming a flower stalk. So it’s turnaround time everywhere, as last year edges its way to become next year.
Last week however, winter still had the upper hand, with gales and rain and sleet. Before it came, I started ploughing the garden patch in the field with Molly and Lucy. The bed which will have a mix of vegetables I only ploughed about four inches deep, enough to bury any green growth, and with a foot-wide furrow it was quick work. I turned the bed for potatoes a little deeper, about 6 or 7 inches, to ease later preparations with the ridging plough. Generally I am in favour of shallower ploughing, or no ploughing at all, but since I need to work the soil fairly deeply for the potato ridges, I took the opportunity to plough an inch deeper than before to minimise any plough pan. The LCP plough does a good job at this depth, and once I got started it seemed a shame to stop, but I didn’t want to overstretch Molly and I wanted to leave some for another day. For the first time ever, I put the draught chain off centre on the cobbletree. There are three holes about an inch apart in the centre of the cobbletree, so moving one inch sideways means Molly has about 2 inches more leverage than Lucy, which is about 45% of the load, a concession to her advancing years.
There are some people who like ploughing and those that don’t; I am definitely in the former category. There is something fundamental about turning the soil, something singular about doing it with horses, balancing their power with my own through the medium of that peculiar contraption that turns the soil. When it goes well, it is a marvel. For the sake of this letter, I made sure to pack my mobile phone to take some pictures. I took the last one on the move to hint at the feel of it, but it doesn’t really work unless you can hear the sound of the soil over the mouldboard and feel the handles in your own hands, and in your mind’s eye, visualise the furrow horse’s front feet and any deviation from the straight and narrow. To take the picture I looped the cords round the left handle so I could hold the phone with one hand and press the shutter with the other, watching the screen rather than the work, a strange sensation without the normal feedback from my eyes and the feel of the plough through my hands. But with the two wheeled plough, the furrow wheel keeps it from cutting too wide, the land wheel keeps it from cutting too deep, so we just kept going.
Just keeping going, trusting things are set up well enough to carry on even when our attention is elsewhere, and hoping for things to come right; these have been themes for most of us over the last year. Some of us have had the shorter end of the doubletree and have had to shoulder a greater load, and that looks likely to continue, but it also will change. If the past year has shown us anything, it has shown us how quickly things can change when they need to change, but it has also demonstrated the power and the simultaneous feebleness of us humans as part of a much bigger and complex world. And that is a similar feeling I get when ploughing; it is not an uncomfortable feeling when you are used to it, once it is familiar, when you are literally in touch with the forces in action, when you know how to tweak the balance in your favour, when you are content walking a narrow line, concentrating on your own actions and aware of the bigger forces with which you are working.
For many people, for some people I know, the world seems overwhelming, depressing, frightening, the problems caused by our collective actions seem too much to understand and to cope with. The feeling of powerlessness that engenders has become particularly acute due to the added problems of the last year, but it has been there for a long time. It is a feeling I recognise, I know that feeling of helplessness, of anger and frustration; today it gently festers in the background, ready to swoop like a latent virus if I drop my guard, but in my twenties, it was a powerful force, overwhelming and destructive.
For me, the difference between then and now, and the huge betterment that has gone with it, is knowing how to tweak the balance in my own life. Some of that tweaking, the changes and adjustments, the fine tuning and the deliberate choices, has to do with what I have written about here, not especially because I write, but because that is what I do. It is about cherishing the important but seemingly insignificant, the tiny seedling, the last carrot, being involved enough to want to try lowering the clevis one notch, appreciating the balance as you contently walk a delicate line, concentrating on your own actions, despite and because of the greater forces that surround you.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.