Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Garden of Mud and Stone: Part 2

Hi folks. Sorry it's been so long since my last post! Things have got in the way. I'm too busy at work; I've been editing Jude's soon-to-be-published book 'Mother-in-Law, Son-in-Law' and working on the garden as well. On top of that, I've had flu (the seasonal variety, not the much-dreaded H5N1!), necessitating three days off work. Returning to work once I began to improve, I then was alarmed to find myself relapsing, quickly becoming even more ill than I was before. I was diagnosed with a bacterial chest infection and instructed to stay off work the rest of the week and "take it easy". I think blogging counts as 'taking it easy' so here goes.

Once I'd explored the garden and ideas had begun to creep like rampant slime moulds through the recesses of my mind (nice simile, eh?), it was obvious that the first job was to clear the crap at the bottom of the garden. The previous occupants had simply used the bottom ten yards or so as a dump, piling it high with hedge clippings, timber offcuts from DIY projects, broken patio furniture, plant pots, tree branches, soil, stones, old bricks and broken concrete. It was a mess. The hawthorn hedge marking the boundary of the garden, where it meets the woods, was buried under this ton of shit, to the point where I didn't think it was even alive.

One of the first things I did was set light to the dry prunings and twiggy rubbish, which formed a barrier some four feet high, across the garden. This was very dry and the flames raced through it in seconds, reducing it in height and saving me a lot of work. I stamped the fire out before it reached the healthy hedges on either side, but had cause to regret the fire, when I discovered that beneath the mountain of rubbish were some perfectly healthy hawthorns, bent horizontal by the weight. Unfortunately, these got scorched and a couple of them never recovered.

There was still a hell of a lot to shift, so I got one of those garden incinerators from B&Q; one of those metal dustbins on legs, with a chimney in the lid. Know the ones? They are an ace way to burn stuff quickly and in a controlled way. For several days, I fed mine with the woody rubbish from the garden. It burned it up as fast as I could throw it in. All the plastic, metal and non-combustible stuff, I bagged up and took to the local tip.

Above: me burning the twigs and rubbish in my incinerator

It took me a couple of weeks altogether but I eventually got it down to bare soil. I lifted up the poor, flattened, scorched hawthorns, staking them until they could stay upright. Only two died as a result of my fire. The rest formed a fine, if leggy, hedge which was just begging for a man with a billhook to get cracking and lay it; a job for the autumn.

It was good to be doing this stuff. Moving into a new house is all very exciting but it's really only when you start getting to grips with the soil and the growing things out there that you begin to feel some sort of bond with the place. This was enhanced by the fact that our garden is so long and at the bottom, you are, quite literally, in the woods. Going down there from the house is like making a little journey to a different place and, when you're down there, you get a sense of being watched, not by neighbours, as might normally be the case, but by the trees, the birds, the unseen creatures out there. By the woods themselves, which I'm sure some of you will understand.

Once I'd cleared the bottom of the garden, I left it to its own processes for some weeks, whilst Jude and I converted the house into our home. When I came back to it, it was well into Autumn. The early November winds were bringing blizzards of brown and yellow leaves down, covering the ground in deep drifts. Sitting at the foot of the garden, the woods suddenly sounded echoey, empty. The air smelled different, now carrying a rich perfume of decay, laced with the exhalations of fungi, as contrasted with the oxygen pumped out by the green trees just weeks before.

I always reckon that you can tell when autumn arives, irrespective of 'official' starting dates, or of the onset of so-called 'autumnal' weather. The real measure of it is when, quite suddenly, over the space of a week or two, the trees, the big trees of the woods, stop breathing out. That change in the air, as their oxygen production shuts down for the winter, is the real herald of autumn.

That change is married to a change in the woodland soil, too. In summer, through into the weeks leading up to Autumn, any rain falling in the woods is quickly sucked up by the thirsty trees and other plants. The soil never really gets saturated, except during freakishly heavy rains. Come autumn however, the trees are going to sleep. They aren't photosynthesising. They are busy pulling all the goodness back out of their leaves, into their branches and trunks and roots, to store and re-use next year, leaving the leaves empty, the green chlorophyll removed, browns and yellows and reds of unwanted pigments and dead cells painting their drying, rustling remains. The trees seal off the join at the base of the leaf stalk, and it eventually drops off, blown by the wind, to fertilise the soil, the tree eventually feeding on itself as it takes up the nutrients released from its own decomposed foliage.

When this process starts, the trees no longer need the water. They no longer take it up and liberate the oxygen from the water molecule, releasing it to sustain our lives and those of all animals. When the rain falls, it sits there in the soil, only a few evergreens staying awake to drink, and to keep watch over their sleeping cousins. The soil becomes wet, a different wetness to that which you normally encounter in summer. That, and the change in the air, are the true signs that Autumn is here.

Most of us who live in urban areas, and many even in rural areas, have lost that connection with the seasons; our ability to smell the onset of Autumn. Not so long ago, almost everyone working out in the woods and fields would have known that smell, those signs, and would have nodded to themselves and checked their store of firewood against the hardships of the months ahead.

Spring is the same. You know Spring is here, not because you have a few warm days, or it's the 21st of bloody March, or because daffodils are out but because, all of a sudden, some time in March, the woodland soils dry out. What has been wet and cold, sticky and dead, becomes, over the space of just a couple of days, merely damp, seemingly warmer and somehow filled with life. It's hard to describe in words's as if something has suddenly sucked up all that standing water from the winter-sodden ground. Which, of course, is what has happened. The big trees have woken from their winter sleep. The sleeping giants have woken thirsty, and they immediately begin to drink up all that rain and snow-melt. The breaking of the buds comes some days after this initial explosion of invisible activity but is, to most people, the first visible sign of life in the trees. For days leading up to that, however, the water being sucked up from the ground by these giants goes rushing up, through their trunks, to swell the buds and unfurl new leaves to the warming, life-giving sun. It even makes a sound that you can hear - the pulse of the living tree!

It's at this time, given a good reading of the signs, that certain trees can be tapped, bled of a little of their sap, which can be boiled down to make syrup (that's how Maple Syrup is made) or fermented into a delicate wine. The sap rises strongly enough to do this only for maybe a week, ten days at most, each year, until the buds break when it slows to a comparative trickle. To draw sap, you have to be able to read the signs. Tree hugger? You may laugh at the notion, but I know things that most people don't. I've rediscovered them, just by making connections, listening, smelling, observing the lives of things around me.

Anyway, where was I? Oh aye. Autumn in the garden. Sorry about the digression, but the woods are such a barometer of the seasons I just had to wander off into a bit of a Jack Hargreaves.

The hedge along the bottom boundary of the garden caught my attention. It was tall; some of the hawthorns were perhaps twenty feet high. But it was also gappy and leggy. Anyone could just walk into the garden through the gaps. What I wanted was a solid, thorny hedge; a living barrier to people, but not to wildlife. But, crucially, I also wanted to be able to get out into the woods whenever I pleased. So I needed a hedge with a gate set into it, Secret Garden style.

Outside the hedge, the slope of the garden flattens off, right at the top of a steep bank, dropping down to a small beck (a stream, to non-Yorkshire folks. Bloody off-comers!). The top of the bank was crowded with a tangled growth of a nondescript shrub, something like an old privet, with straggly roses growing through it. To help the hedge, I had to get rid of that first, so I set to with loppers and bowsaw, burning the still-green offcuts in the incinerator, until the top of the bank was clear, letting lots of light in (or as much as the overhead sycamores, ash, lilac and spruce would allow!).

Many years ago, in the 1970s, a moody teenage Brian used to spend a considerable proportion of his weekends undertaking a variety of practical conservation projects, in the Tong-Cockersdale Country Park, just South of Pudsey. I was a member of the Tong-Cockersdale Volunteers, or TCV. We were based in the old Stables Block of Tong Hall, which was then a public museum owned by Bradford Council (they later sold it off, scandalously, to become a 'Business Park', and the Stables Block became a private home).

The TCV were affiliated to the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, or BTCV (patron; Prince Charles). Indeed, should any BTCV members read this, I and my TCV colleagues were the first people to go and have a look at Hollybush Farm, then derelict, as a potential Northern HQ for the BTCV, who wanted to move out of their tiny place on Copley Road, Doncaster, to somewhere bigger. We were impressed. Our Head Ranger, Bill Shaw (who later became a Green MP, I believe), recommended it to the BTCV and the rest is history.

Anyway, whilst normal teenagers were drinking cider in parks and bus shelters, talking about imaginary girls they'd shagged, and mugging old ladies, I was out in the countryside, learning drystone walling, hedge-laying, fencing and footpath construction. Brilliant stuff, and I'm forever grateful to Bill and the all the rest (see list below) for giving my adolescence such an odd and lasting spin.

What the hedge needed was the application of my rather rusty hedge-laying skills, something I'd only done once since the end of the 70s, when I laid a huge hedge alongside the allotments where I used to have a plot, in Pudsey.

For the uninitiated, hedge-laying involves cutting partway through the basal stem of a healthy hedge tree or shrub, in such a weay that it can be bent over and 'laid', literally. Adjoining stems can be laid in turn, until one is left with a strong, interwoven, stock-proof hedge of horizontal stems, sometimes supported by stakes. It will regrow and is almost infinitely renewable. Look at any old hawthorn hedge and you'll probably be able to see some gnarled old stems at the base which are laid along horizontally, with new growth coming out vertically from them. That's where a hedge was laid, perhaps generations ago. And that's what I chose to do with ours, where many householders would have replaced it with a short-lived fence or just filled the gaps with wire. The old ways are the best. They didn't evolve and last for centuries without good reason, you know.

So I laid the hedge, all the way around the bottom of the garden. I have a small collection of billhooks, the choping tool used for this practice, because I love them; they are an tool which is redolent with history, and can be picked up for a few quid at car boot sales or on ebay. Go back four hundred years and you'd find men using billhooks identical to those in use today (indeed, the mediaeval military bill - a heavy spiked blade on the end of a long pole, was developed from the billhook). And to make it more fascinating, there are myriad regional variations on the blade shape and length, and each manufacturer had their own patterns within those regional styles. Lovely things, billhooks.

So I got to use my billhooks, which was fantastic. To begin though, I used loppers to trim bushy side-growth off the hedge, and to reduce the height of the tallest stems (which also encourages new growth and the production of defensive thorns). This made the laying easier, as some of the larger bushes were pretty big and heavy and, of course, covered in heavy thorns!

Above: this is from a later stage in the garden, but clearly shows the recently laid hedge behind me
I'm right handed, so it was easier for me to lay left to right, using the billhook in my right hand. It took me, all told, a whole weekend to do. A good hedge-layer would have taken half a day, probably!

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