A strange new structure has landed in a farm just near us – not very high, it’s domed with no windows, a bit like a flying saucer. Leading directly up to it, there’s even a spanking new road, complete with kerbs, new drains and proper passing places.
Our little lanes round here are quite different. It’s as if they’ve never been built at all, winding their apparently inconsequential ways round the hillside: disinclined to follow a straight line, they seem to have just grown. Sunk deep in the ground, the width of a cart, dependent on a gateway for two vehicles to pass each other they do their job well enough. They take a car, a single car for sure, but it’s necessary to drive slowly, hesitating at bends and being prepared to find one of those gateways. As for larger vehicles – they and their loads scrape and scour both sides, which at least has the benefit of maintaining such narrow width as the lane provides.
I know and love these lanes well from walking and running. It’s bad enough with a car, but when a tractor and trailer lurch towards you, it’s necessary to squeeze yourself up against the bank to allow them to pass. Many times I’ve been pressed into the edge, up close and personal with the plants and shrubs – the nettles, brambles, honeysuckle, ivy, dandelions, buttercups, primroses, violets, willow-herb – the list goes on and on – of the bank. And then the smell of disturbed earth after they’ve passed, and you straighten up, reviewing where you’ve just been, hits you.
Sometimes the trailer leaves a trail on each bank of what it contained. Those convenient black plastic-wrapped round bales leave no trace, and the caged mashed-up maize, fully enclosed, is unable to shed fragments. But exposed big bales shed stalks of straw as they rub along the lane’s edges, as do the loads of thatching reed which is grown round here. You can tell when one of these has gone through, just as it must have been in past centuries when a high, hugely-laden wagon was dragged along after the harvest – yellow stalks draped in the hedge, some pressed (like me) into the bank and bits of loose straw blowing around on the rutted old surface of the lane afterwards.
I enjoy that link with past harvests, old vehicles and the idea of hauling the harvest home, to be used in all sorts of ways – be it food and fodder or warmth and protection. And interestingly, glimpsing once more that incongruous UFO as I breast the hill, I realise that the aneurobic digester – a hungry monster lurking in the dark under its dome – needs feeding from the fields around it as much as the stock in their barns. And through its production of natural gas and high-quality slurry, it provides similar benefits. But its great appetite demands larger vehicles which require wider vessels to bring its nutrients…
I continue down the other side of the hill on this autumn afternoon into the setting sun, with my attention suddenly caught by the flash of reflected gold from a stalk of straw at eye level.
The lane’s been scrubbed with straw.
A packed tight wad pulling through,
drew out brambles, swept up stones
and brushed flat bankside grass.
Those loads that passed down here
on a day like today, scouring the lining
strewing parallel lines of straw
to point the dusty way home –
they’ve always come this way,
scraping the edges down the hill,
leaving a trail of discarded straw
once more, as in years before.
This straw’s the last of the harvest,
what’s left when all else is done.
Soon the rain of the autumn
will wash away that which remains
where the fat wagons went.
Slowly the bolus passed.
Delivery’s done, the vessel is cleared,
a memory’s left of straw.