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Word from Wormingford

07 April 2017

In this archive column from 2006, Ronald Blythe notes the oddity of an animal-less farm

NOW and then a casual remark introduces a lost vocabulary. Tom on the telephone from his farm down below says something about letting his Lincoln out on to the water-meadows, and I experience that glorious rush of animals out of their shed and into the new grass.

For minutes on end, they are transfixed by the spring air, waving their heads about and caught up in an unimaginable bliss. Then they thunder about and make gentle cries, and their beautiful eyes shine in the sunlight.” But I must keep them in for a couple of weeks more”, says Tom,” until the pasture is estab­lished. Otherwise it will be mud.”

If I think about the old inhabit­ants of my ancient farm, they tend to have two legs. Yet for centuries it would have been the home of beasts. There are the ponds where the Suf­folks drew up their drink; there are the ghosts of pigsties; there is the hill where the freed cattle leapt. But where are the sounds? Where that clamour, those chompings, those raised voices, that restlessness of warm creatures, that clanking of pails and ringing of chains? At this moment, if one stood out of doors, all that one would hear is Mozart on the record-player.

Yet take a wet walk, and wild an­­imals betray their presence. “We are with you still!” they say. Badgers have gone to a lot of trouble to un­­dermine the track. Hares dance on the skyline; rabbits take cover. Owls call. Waterbirds sail on Mr Rix’s new lake. Here is a fat dead rat and a thin dead mouse. Gaudy pheasants par­ade in the orchard. A stoat makes a dash for it.

Rooks are patching up rookeries, and soon the returning emigrants will be building for all they are worth. But the grain store will not be a city of goldfinches. Frog-spawn will lie like grey tapioca beneath the marsh marigolds, and, should I care to listen, I will hear eventually countless minute sounds, not to mention in early April the joyous blare of Tom’s unimprisoned cows. Duncan’s hens roam where they will, but thousands of chickens scream unheard in an Orwellian gulag.

I used to marvel at the obedience of farm creatures when I was a child. I mean, why didn’t the cows jump over the hedge and walk to Bedford, say? Why didn’t the sheep simply stroll away to some shepherdless hinterland? But no, they all stayed behind their hedges, terribly unsafe, terribly unadventurous, passive as those passengers on the Auschwitz railway — except that they could tell each other, “We’re in clover.”

There are black lambs in the top meadow and dog-walkers in the green lane. The dogs are allowed to cover me with kisses. Some have swum in the lake and are soaking. Robins rustle. Pike stir below the bridge. But the animal army that made the farm work has long since trotted and galloped away into that animal heaven called Rest.

Rest was the final word on many a tombstone, too; for this was what its owner had had precious little of in this life. R.I.P. “Come unto me and I will give you rest.” How people once laboured until, like John Clare’s father, their bones gave way. But the resting animals became a kind of promise to labouring humanity who heard their breathing and saw their great bodies borne up by the earth.

I have been explaining the lovely word “mothering” to the children, and where best to watch it in action. In a stable, in a basket, under one of those hooped houses where the pigs live, and very soon in the new nests. Of course, fathers do a lot of mothering these days.

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