A TEMPEST of autumn-cleaning has hit the ancient house. Beginning in a modest way, with a reordering of the larder — a long room that began its days as the farm dairy — it swept on until rotten window-frames were exchanged with Simon the joiner’s perfect replacements, and Keith arrived with paint and ladders, and I, not to be outdone, with a fine brass door-knocker. The October sun shone with some enthusiasm, and the ash leaves began to sail down.
To conclude matters, David, a gardener who knows what he is doing, swept aside my sentimentality and lopped a gawky shrub down to size, opening up a new view. The white cat, who loves action in others, purred throughout. The first free morning when brushes and saws had vanished, a hare came to the lilac tree and stared around.
The Kestrel potatoes have been lifted and placed in a dark box. They scrub up a delicate pink, and may see me through to March. The air smells of lifted onions, miles and miles of them, and also of the mere hint of decay. There is something satisfying about all things passing, even us. Considering the appalling things many of us achieve in a comparatively brief existence, what a mercy it is that we must go.
A crocodile of ramblers swing over the hill, and a muntjac makes himself heard in the thinning wood. October. Hornets have to be let out of the bedrooms. I have never quite discovered how they get in. They rage against the glass, threatening all hell. None shall harm you, I promise. Have I not sent you on your furious way this many a year? You should be nesting in a hollow tree, not in a red-brick palace behind my vine. You have got above yourselves, great wasps.
But, they buzz, we are social wasps, and can do you great service in the kitchen, if only you did not go mad at the sight of us. And we would not waste our mighty sting on the likes of you — unless, of course, you try our patience. Your invention of glass is a great trial to us: to see our world, and not to enter it; what a mystery. To die in the attempt: how heroic, how pitiful. But what a way to treat a guest. You should be ashamed.
I preach on Ruth and Tess, women of the field. In the Old Testament story, three husbands die leaving three widows. Two of them, Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, return to Bethlehem, the House of Bread, having nowhere else to go, the foreign adventure having collapsed. “Call me Mara” — “bitter” — says the older woman, expecting the cold shoulder. Only to find that her dead husband’s fields have been cultivated and kept in waiting for his return.
As for Ruth, the humble gleaner, Bethlehem’s corn is not alien for long, and her harvest is young Boaz. So all is well, not to say glorious; for their descendant would be none other than the Christ, son of David, descendant of a Gentile and a Jew. “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile,” Paul would say.
Alien elements both disturbed and enriched Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. Those who saw the English countryside as “contented” found him upsetting. He read and re-read the book of Ruth, one and two Samuel, and one and two Kings. They were his favourites. Today’s harvest festivals are drained of all common experience. The sheaves are so near yet so elusive. “Plenty” is now something quite else.