Ysella Sims

Celebrating nature, people and place

Together apart

It was the same gate that I’d passed through all of those early mornings before the journey to Exeter, the mid winter afternoons trying to beat darkfall, the dusky mid summer evenings when the air is filled with seed and husk. Today I’m trying to get back to my desk in the box room for a 9am start. I’ve most likely woken early, from a sleep staggered by snatches of podcast, rumbling lorries and the calls of cows and owls. I will have padded to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, cajoling the dog from his bed to follow me up the steep stone steps to where the light is creeping across the lawn, spreading upwards on the soft slope of the hills. I will have ambled the garden, gauging what has grown, what’s gone over – tipping from glorious to dishevelled – what has outstretched itself, where the gaps are, clutching my tea and trying to remember to be here now.

When I look up from the gate to the brow of the field I see a woman approaching. I’ve met her dozens of times. I feel as though I know her, though I don’t think we’ve ever spoken. She’s smiling and nodding as she approaches, talking into her handsfree, and reflexively I stand to the side to hold the gate open. During the pandemic I’d learned, we all learned, new ways of courtesy – of helping by not helping, being collaborative by keeping to ourselves. It had taken a long time not to feel that you were being rude. Today, as we shift back towards something more familiar, holding the gate feels like a renegade act. But it feels joyous, too. “Sorry,” the woman says to her invisible friend, murmuring hello to the dog as he lifts his head to her in greeting, “it’s just someone holding the gate for me.” Together apart. Together, together again. Sort of.

I think of a December walk down a wooded path where flood waters ran, primroses flowering beside it, the air muggy and thick. I remember wondering when Decembers would be like the glittery Christmas cards of my childhood again, snow and frost-dazzled, before realising, with a stab, that they wouldn’t. That winters were likely to continue to be wet and warm, that primroses would continue to flower in December. That this is how it was now.

All the time that I think, if I hold my breath for long enough, embrace the impermanence, that this won’t persist, that things will go back to how they were – our seasons will re adjust, the climate will reset, the pandemic will disappear – nothing will change. I won’t adapt. And I realise that this is wrongheaded, childish. It wouldn’t go back just because I willed it. Everyone knew that acceptance, one of the well documented stages of grief, was pivotal to change. Collectively we are shifting towards an acceptance that things have changed. That we need, together, to act.

In the garden, the fruits of the season are in evidence. Sunning itself, between showers, in the dim haze of an August morning, a tiger moth is spreading its wings, unfurling its orange secret in the sun. Peacock butterflies, with their titanium blue  eyes, flit between buddleia spikes of deep purple. A trio of cabbage whites spar in the grey-riddled sky and small tortoiseshells fan their speckled wings on the bench. The swallows, now on their second brood, four more new hatchlings, start and dive into the courtyard, burbling and churring. As Chris paints the house they chastise him when he nears the shed, the nestlings shrieking with each return of the adults. The swifts have gone and the skies are emptier, quieter again. I can’t help wondering where they have reached on their journey.

In the orchard the first drop of apples litters the long grass under the trees. It has provided a habitat for the tiger moth and the elephant hawk moth, the soft grey oversized caterpillar resembling an elephant’s trunk wriggling through the undergrowth and turning up on the newly cut paths. I’ve assembled some compost bays at the bottom of the orchard and gone back on my promise to myself not to keep chickens again and bought a chicken house on Facebook marketplace. I stop to talk with John amongst his dahlias about hen keeping and scroll chicken breeds online, planning how they’ll help me to prepare the ground in the orchard for planting with yellow rattle and wildflower seed and how the manure will help accelerate my new compost.

The Mulberry has produced hard scarlet fruit that are turning soft and purple. Jojo and I stand under the canopy, purring with pleasure at the surprise of their flavour; floral, sweet and tart. The medlar isn’t as bountiful as last year but there are plenty of blackberries. I imagine Mum out there with a punnet when she visits, fighting over them with the blackbirds and thrushes.

When they fledge, the four new swallow fledglings sit on the ridge of the roof, fluffy and dazed, buff and white and black. They wait expectantly for their exhausted parents and siblings from the first brood, who dart back and forth to them with beakfuls of insects. I learn that swift parents often set off on their migration leaving nestlings to build up their wings in the nest. That, once they take flight, they don’t come to ground again for two years. 

As I walk home with the dog, the family of swallows are playing in Eddie’s orchard, flying low to the ground, barrel rolling, darting over the heads of the sprinkling of starlings scouring the short grass. I can hear the cows in the distance. They are calving again. I think of how the cows produce dung, attracting insects, making aerial plankton for martins, swallows and swifts to feed on. I realise that one of the reasons that the skies above Sandford are a swirl of passerines in the summer evenings, bucking the national trend, is due in part to the situation of farms at the heart of the village. We know that eating less meat and dairy are a key tenet in calls to address climate change, but I also learn that one of the factors in the decline in passerine numbers is that fewer cattle are being kept around Lake Malawi, a favourite wintering ground. Nothing seems clear cut. I think that small scale organic farming could be a solution, but how to feed our huge populations, mostly living in cities? These are the questions that face us, that we must work on together; a recognition of all those invisible connections, all of those transactions, which help or hinder our ability to thrive.

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