Monday 18 December 2017

Soundtrack for a springtime session at work with a spade in the potato drills

By David Medcalf

David Medcalf
David Medcalf

Spring has sprung, the grass is riz, I wonder where the birdies is.

That great poet Anon need not have worried. The birdies is alive and well and chirruping merrily in the ditches which line the rolling acres of Medders Manor. I know this for a fact since I have at last emerged from hibernation, pulled on the wellies and donned the old sun-hat to labour in the open air. Efforts to catch up on digging left un-dug, because of a combination of wet winter weather outdoors and the indoor demands of mere paperwork, dictated that a full day must be spent in the potato patch with spade in hand.

Country folk in Victorian times used to consider digging a sport, with rich patrons putting up substantial prizes to reward those young bucks who could clear ground neatly and speedily. Sweating over my spud drills, it did not take long to conclude, first, that I am no longer a young buck and, second, that this must have been the oddest of odd sports, a truly masochistic pleasure for the participants.

With no crowd of spectators to egg me on, and no sponsored engraved silver trophy in prospect to act as incentive, it was much easier to adopt a pottering approach rather than set about the task all guns blazing. More tortoise than hare, I settled into a gentle routine, making gradual but steady progress, slicing off sods of modest size with the spade and pausing frequently to pick out stones or admire progress.

The process also allowed plenty of time to admire with grudging respect the way in which weeds find ways to colonise the places where they are not welcome. Different weeds have developed different strategies. Red shank play the numbers game, popping up by the score in maddening profusion. Buttercup are devilishly hard to pull up. Docks grow tap roots down deep in an incredibly short time.

Left unchallenged, nettles and scutch grass develop underground networks from which fresh waves of plants spring up to mock the efforts of the despairing gardener. Without the need to grow useful crops and without the protection of mankind, all of the weeds have a ruthless, driven, streetwise nature which means that they are up and running before the pampered domestic plants stir themselves. The intruders may command respect but they should never be allowed sympathy, just dealt a rigorous digging and an occasional dousing with a good herbicide.

Meandering thoughts of such matters while away the horticultural hours, an opportunity combining exercise and meditation more valuable than any pilates session. It is also nice to have a soundtrack to one's labours. Sometimes, it suffices to have those birdies provide backing vocals to a session in the potato beds, with robins contributing some impressively loud solos.

Occasionally, the radio is called up for musical diversion or intellectual stimulation, depending on whether the mood leans towards pop or chat. However, the most restful, most natural, most heartening background noise must be the clamour coming across the fields from the parish primary school.

Turn off the transistor. Ignore the carolling of the finches. Let the sound of children happily at play burble its way into the recesses of the semi-conscious.

Whatever way the school timetable is organised, the yard seems to be full of life from eleven in the morning until close to two in the afternoon with little or no break. They must work in shifts. On a dry day, with the wind in the right quarter, the stream of noise comes over the meadow to caress the ears of the toiling labourer.

Is it the innocence of those youthful calls? Is it the implicit hope for the future in those uninhibited cries? Is it aged wonder at the joyous energy of the young? Whatever, the reason, it really is the purest and most wonderful sound…

Next spring time challenge is to tackle the rizzen grass with a mower notoriously reluctant to spark back into life after the winter.

It is an unlovely prospect. The clatter of the engine, once revived, will certainly not be conducive to the transcendental, overpowering birdsong and the children alike.

Wexford People

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