It’s year two of the big biodiversity push in the burial ground, conceived as a strip of meadow grass around two edges. Advice about establishing meadows is as diverse as the list of flowers that you might find in a well-managed sward but the underlying principles are always the same, always based on what is going on ecologically speaking. Crucially, managing a meadow for diversity is all about reducing the dominance of coarse grasses and broadleaved weeds so that more tender herbaceous plants get a chance to shine. And possibly counter-intuitively, the more fertile the soil, the harder that is.
Last year, we planted plugs of Primroses, Red Campion and Ragged Robin – mainly because those were the wildflowers people had growing in their own gardens than for scientific reasons. After flowering I collected seed from the Campions and scattered it throughout the strip – to little effect, as only one campion flower was spotted this year. But the Primroses were out in force in the spring and more recently Ragged Robin has graced a number of areas. This year we’ve plug-planted Foxgloves and Teasels; come autumn I’ll sow Yellow Rattle to weaken the grasses and make space for more flowers.
This is all a bit of an experiment and one important variable is the timing and number of cuts. The time of the first cut of the year determines what plants can grow to maturity – earlier cuts meaning that spring flowers are promoted whilst summer flowering plants are excluded. We’re interested in establishing a diverse sward that peaks in mid-summer, so July is the earliest cut. The factor that governs the rest of the year is a deeply practical one: I’m using a scythe and as a novice am rather slow about it, so a couple of cuts per year is about all I can spare time for. The second cut, made at some point in late summer, is the last bit of attention the meadow will get before winter closes in.
It may not be scientific but what emerges over time will be of interest in and of itself. As things stand, the grasses are still thick and strong, mining what is clearly a richly fertile soil – so in the long run we may be on a hiding to not very much. However, this is an easy disappointment to bear, if indeed one at all. For the grasses themselves, now in full flower, make a beautiful backdrop of their own to the burial ground: a tapestry of stalks and fronds in all heights and textures. Quite unlike the lowly green carpet their neighbours in the lawn are kept to, their different personalities are expressed in all their glory. My particular favourite is the smallest – a delicate tracery of seed heads frothing through the border like a murmuration of tiny starlings, Common Bent (Agrostis capillaris) is much prettier than its name suggests.
Then there’s the soft, flouncy heads of the Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus) and the rough sawtoothed Ryegrass (Lolium perenne), the bottle brushes of Timothy (Phleum pratense) and the graceful arching heads of Hairgrass (Deschampsia sp.)
But for me it’s the action of scything itself that is its own reward. There’s something tranquilising, even peaceable, about the rhythmic swinging of the blade, as the weight of the snath (the main length of the scythe) draw it firmly and – with practice – evenly through the sward. The feel and sound of the stroke, combined with the sense of bodily rhythm and control are themselves a meditation; the gradual, transformative progress through space lends purpose and satisfaction to the task. This is not an activity to be carried out in haste or anger – rather, with patience, concentration and a still mind. Tiring it may be but no sooner have I put the scythe away I’m looking forward to the late summer cut, when it’s year’s work will be completed.
Last week someone handed me a Christmas card whilst almost apologetically commenting that he didn’t know whether ‘your lot’ do Christmas but ‘here you go anyway’. My lot being Quakers. Well, yes and no…
It’s true that just as Quaker meetings in the don’t normally involve symbols or set prayers, they also generally don’t feature the marking of any festivals or saints days. Today this is justified by appeals to our ‘testimony’ of simplicity; but its origins lie in the rebellious nature of the Quaker movement in the context of the religious turbulence of 17th century England. One of many ‘diy’ congregational societies formed at the time, its members sought a means of exploring their faith away from the authoritarian oversight of ministers and the trappings and layers of church traditions. In doing so, groups like the Quakers saw themselves as ‘friends of the truth’ and set about forming an understanding of Christianity drawn from what they read in scripture enlightened by their own insights. When it came to the question of festivals and Christmas, seeing no basis for the annual celebration of Jesus’ birth on a particular day in winter, they simply abandoned the idea as a religious prospect.
So this sense of detachment from the significance of particular times and seasons is written into the DNA of Quaker worship and, for many Quakers over the years, interpreted strictly in their daily life as well. But it would be incorrect to characterise contemporary Quakers as puritan, and I’ve certainly never met any who are immune to the Christmas spirit, or the comings and goings of times and seasons throughout the year. Far from it: we might not decorate our Meeting Houses but you might find a ‘programmed’ Meeting for Worship here and there where the odd carol is sung, mince pies are enjoyed afterwards and yes, Christmas cards exchanged.
So what is the deal with Quakers and Christmas (and Easter, and any other national holidays)? I can’t speak for every Quaker but the way I see it is this. Festivals are a way for us all to unwind, celebrate each other, pause for breath, look back on our achievements and any number of other good and socially necessary things. It just so happens that our major winter festival got wound up with the celebration of the nativity and became a time when the church focusses on Jesus’ birth; and the fact that this still permeates the secular celebration of Christmas is testament to the power of the story at its heart.
I see no reason to turn away from the telling and retelling of that story at this time of year; but to be conscious of the distance between the way in which it is commonly told and the likely facts of its origins or the implications of its message. It doesn’t matter when Jesus was born. It does matter that the narratives we have in the gospels have him born into an ordinary family of no status or wealth, outsiders far from home, with the birth being announced first to shepherds – workers doing one of the least respectable jobs available at the time. It matters that the next people to notice were foreign travellers, looking for meaning in cultures beyond their own and seeking the common ground between those cultures. The inference is clear: what follows in the life of this remarkable human is a message for all people of whatever rank or background. Whether we’re interested in that message and what we make of it is up to us – and our conclusions are for life, not just for Christmas.
When I arrived in Airton 2 years ago complete with a brace of young Bramley apple grafts ready to plant where I could find space, doubt was expressed that they would ever produce much of a harvest this far north. Still waiting in their pots, it’ll certainly be a few years before they have the chance to prove their doubters wrong; but if the bumper crop from a neighbour’s Bramley after this year’s long hot summer is anything to judge by I’ll have nothing to worry about.
It’s definitely a mast year for fruit: apples, plums, berries of all kinds seem to be pouring out of the trees faster than their proprietors can sweep them up. I spent a day last week scrambling around in the branches of the aforementioned Bramley twisting handfuls of emerald spheres off drooping twigs, the boughs almost sighing in relief as perhaps a third of a tonne of weight was taken off them. (That’s an educated estimate – six large crates easily equivalent to most of a m3 dumpy-bag at a material density of around 830kg/m3 or allowing for air assuming apples are roughly spherical hence don’t tesselate, maybe 400-500kg/m3 stacked, times by say ¾m3 for the actual quantity picked gets you to about 350kg). So numerous was the crop I started to form the delirious impression that the branches were growing new fruit whenever I looked away…
It was a scene from my childhood. Growing up in a mid-size semi-detached with a garden of what used to be standard proportions (sadly rare to non-existent for newer housing estates) one of my favourite features – indeed as far as I was concerned the only interesting feature of the garden – was the apple tree: a remnant of some long-forgotten orchard supplying the kitchens of the long defunct estate, broken up and sold to the city early last century when the local gentry’s fortunes fizzled out. Neglected, the tree grew with a Bramley’s customary vigour till it filled the top end of the garden, stretching its boughs from fence to fence and thrusting branches skyward so that by the time we colonised the garden in the mid-70s it rivalled the house in the volume of space it occupied. When the old garden appears in my dreams from time to time it’s always with a version of this gnarled old bent-bottle tree stooping low over the lawn and seeming to offer the choice between climbing it or felling it.
Climbing as far into its upper reaches as I dared was the highlight of the year – usually somewhat later than the end of August, but this year’s extreme summer has brought everything on early – tossing the blushing green spheres to my dad on the ground, filling bag after bag, dropping the odd one or ten, so that half of them would end up bruised or cut by whatever broke their fall. It might go into a second day… and then was the sorting into best’ns for keeping, good’ns for using soon, damaged or moth-eaten for this week and no-hopers for the compost. After that the wrapping in newspaper, laying in shallow cardboard boxes and stashing in the attic. Then for the next several months it would be my job to fetch the next few for that week’s culinary creation till the supply finally ran dry early in the year. Sometimes in the dark of the attic my hand would rest on something softer than a healthy fruit – a ball of speckled brown mould where once was an apple. I didn’t mind: the promise of the crumble or apple sponge to come would make any such jeopardy worthwhile.
I took scions from the old tree before it finally gave out to heart-rot, grafting a handful of new offspring, giving them to family in various parts of the country. Then again a few years ago from the one I kept and had planted in my own garden. It’s these grandchildren of my old Bramley that now sit in air pots waiting for their chance to put roots down in our northern soil. They will be smaller – I used M26 rootstocks this time (the smallest I dare for this variety of apple) but after this year’s abundance I’m confident they will eventually produce a good crop between them.
At the time I was first hoiking myself up into that old tree I would have had no other thought than ‘this is fun’. But in retrospect the years of harvest in that garden gave so much more than arboreal adventure and apples – it was this urban kid’s first and most important connection with the abundance that can come from partnership with the natural world. Without that tree I mightn’t have half the passion for nature that I do now nor as a consequence, the same understanding of our role as components within ecosystems, interacting with all other components for better or worse. We don’t own the world; we don’t even own the trees in our gardens – but we do own the way we manage them, how we celebrate them and what we do with their abundance. So here’s to Bramleys, long summers and apple pies!