Keeping the lid on it – a rural interlude


I am back in my room looking through my window into an evening light of gold and green.  It is several months on from when I started this. Neither the room, nor my seat in it, has changed much. The season has, of course. It is now high summer and the light nights allow me to sit and regard the fading scene outside. My window looks out over a lawn, communal to the other people living in this little row of cottages but rarely used by either them or me. Across the lawn and to one side is a large rust coloured wooden shed which acts as a garage.  Beyond the garage is a large dull brick house, wherein lives my landlady. Past that, several fields and hedges are traversed by a path which at points runs alongside the clear, trout-filled River Itchen.

To the right is a gravel drive, on the far side of which is a row of enormous, dense trees – chestnuts in the main but with the occasional sycamore and pine among them. They are immense trees whose scale quite overwhelms me at times and they are full of birds and squirrels.

To the left, but out of my sight as I sit here, the lawn stretches away to an old stone wall and beyond that a small church. The church is on the site of a Norman structure which burnt down in the 19th Century. It still has the Norman arch on the door, rescued from the ashes. A strange bell hood on a small chimney-like tower, the roof of which protects two bells, tops the building. These are rung out at times for reasons I have yet to fathom. The churchyard, full of old and new headstones (including one for the last person to be hanged for sheep stealing in England) is still used for the occasional burial, as the church is for the occasional wedding. The churchyard is on the other side of the house and I can’t see it from this room.

The view in front of me is full of life. I mean full of living things. The grass and flowering plants in the gardens and the great trees are obvious. The cherry tree outside my widow loses all control in spring and becomes a gigantic puffball of pink, laying a rosy carpet below when the petals fall. There are many birds. For the most part these are common garden birds – robins, great tits, blue tits, chaffinches and the like. These are supplemented by rarer and more (to me) exotic visitors like the great spotted woodpecker, green woodpecker, the nuthatch, coal tits, long tailed tits in small flocks and, in the pine trees, tiny goldcrests. I can sometimes hear strange noises coming down the chimney in my sitting room caused by the chattering jackdaws who sit there and seem to discuss the things that matter to them with great animation. Rooks live in the trees in some numbers, herons fly over to their fishing spots on the nearby river shallows – even egrets are not an uncommon sight. Ducks walk across the lawn in spring with families of ducklings (once, tempted by crumbs, coming into the hallway and sitting room). Kestrels hover and buzzards soar above the grounds. Evenings bring the mad calls of the peacocks in Avington Park. Owls sit on top of the telegraph pole and swivel their heads when I shine a torch at them. In all I have counted over 40 species of birds within a few hundred yards of the cottage.

What else? Well – squirrels, rabbits, roe deer (sometimes just outside my window on the gravel drive), foxes and badgers. Wood mice and voles and hedgehogs live all round. The river is full of trout and grayling and other fish and aquatic animals and plants unnameable by me. All these creatures live on either each other or the plants and insects which cover the earth here. Slugs, snails, bees and beetles, butterflies, moths, damselflies and a thousand tiny flying creatures of whose names and lives I am ignorant. In the churchyard the worms, bacteria and fungi which devour the bodies interred there are at their work as I write. Indeed, one would think the millions upon millions of microscopic soil creatures that live within the scope of my view all but make the lawns heave with movement!

So even given that this area is populated and built on, is full of roads and tracks and traffic, that there are three major highways close by (including the M3 motorway whose roar can be heard at all times) this place is swarming, heaving with living things.

A friend said recently that if one might describe a general French attitude to the value of nature it would be via the question ‘can you eat it?’ My friend also said that the English version of this might be ‘can you trim it, clip it, tame it or ride it’. The rural peace one might expect of a place like this is not all it’s cracked up to be. The roar of a thousand lawn mowers, electric hedge trimmers, leaf blowers and chain saws which rarely stop, sometimes make me feel as if my room is in some kind of rustic factory whose machines are eternally manufacturing trimmed and neat versions of plants and landscapes – even animals, looking at the dogs and horses.

All this activity and bustle, the buzz and rrrrrr of the machines, is to impose order, to stop or contain growth. To give the illusion of frozen permanence to a thrust of life which will, we must know, eventually change everything. But my neighbours try hard not be caught off guard. If they turn their backs for an instant rogue nature will create havoc. The square hedges become mad green explosions, the clipped and copsed trees will let drop their unwanted branches over roads and into swimming pools willy-nilly, the imported and nurtured flowering plants will die in their unnatural, unsought habitats – and the lawns – Oh the lawns! And Oh the rabbits! Rabbits cannot be allowed to impose their own control on this landscape. Their success means their failure and ferrets are imported to seek them out in their burrows and kill them. Herons are chased from ornamental pools, sometimes being replaced by plastic look-alike herons which have the advantage over their living counterparts of having no appetite. Fresh water cormorants, who have found the river trout to their taste, are scared off so that the fishermen, who don’t need them, can take the fish for themselves. The rivers have sort of underwater haircuts when the weed is deemed out of control. The woods are ‘managed’, the streams guided in between their banks and the hills strapped down with hedgerows, allowing the patterned, portioned and partitioned fields to organise and defy the eon-long turning over of life forces. The phrase one sometimes hears of a piece of land untended for a few months is ‘I’ve let it go’.

I have in front of me, as I write this, a marvelous image of the very thing I am wrestling with in this book. Here we are, balancing on that tossing, boiling sea of amoral, indifferent, primitive energy, the universal id, trying desperately to keep it in control by any means we can muster. We strut around thinking we have it sewn up, cocky in our confidence that, if only we keep our eye on the ball (or the grass), we rule our green empire even as we see it writhing beneath our shears. And so the illusion indulged in by our various identities (all of them certain that the rational voices we hear every minute of the day inventing our personal myths and performing our daily dramas, are those of our ‘selves’), is that all is in control; we are in mastery of our situation and that the seething, limbic universe, just out of consciousness, is of little consequence. As long as we keep the lid on it.

The point is we also profoundly regret the strictures and chains. They represent the expulsion from Eden, the lost ecstasy of Dionysus and the hell-placed thundering madness of Dante’s lovers’ whirlwind.

And so, being inventive and devious creatures, we seek ways of having our cake (civilisation) and eating it (amoral emotional adventure). Which brings me to the next story and the next drama.