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Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The Return of the Native

If I was asked to pinpoint the moment and species where I learnt by heart my first birdsong then that’s an easy one: Skylark, allotments. Now that’s no great achievement for a person of any age unless they happened to be deprived of vision and hearing because the Skylark is one of natures great show-offs; singing and careering around the sky for the pure joy of it. It happened in this wise…

When I was growing up, in some kind of effort to save money, we had an allotment for a short while which was a shame because I think they were quite difficult to come by. But yes, the committee who looked after such things had dressed in their ceremonial robes and whilst burning incense in a back-room of the village hall and chanting the index of a seed catalogue had pulled my Dad’s name out of a jewel encrusted chalice. I don’t know much about these things but I’m pretty sure that’s how the allotment of allotments is decided.

The allotments were on the edge of the village and we had to drive to get there. The toil was predictable: hoeing, pulling, scraping, picking and planting. In order to make the work easier, at some point or other (and for an even briefer period) an old yellow rotary cultivator arrived on the allotment. This was inevitably, although I can’t be sure, purchased from ‘a chap I know’. ‘A Chap I Know’ was the absolute and unquestionable source of every second hand piece of dripping machinery that found its way to our house. Either Dad knew a lot of chaps or one particular chap used to sell us an awful lot of rubbish for not much money.

Now I’m sure you know what a rotary cultivator is but in case you don’t it’s the freakish and schizophrenic offspring of a clandestine three-way liaison between a lawnmower, a tractor and the man who invented napalm. It is a petrol-powered creature which you push effortlessly through the soil while to rotating blades coolly churn and till the soil. At least that’s the theory. This particular rotary cultivator was different.

The most popular sitcom on television at the time was Open All Hours. In this piece of very British comedy the miserly Arkwright kept his cash register draw so tightly sprung that it would nearly take the fingers off when closing. This particular roto-vator (to give it its generic name) was the Arkwright’s till of the village allotments. Goading this thing into life was a hazardous moment as it seemed to live on the edge of murdering its operative and any onlookers. My brother and I would be asked to stand well back at a safe distance while my dad tentatively primed the fuel, switched the choke and, heart-in-mouth drew the starter chord. If it fired then you had to be pretty quick because it would be off, dragging you uncontrollably through the potato rows. Once he’d managed to clamber onto the back of this marauding beast and tamed it by clicking it off then my dad would often stand back and, in a fairly weak effort to save face, admire the crazy network of barely turned soil running in a snake-like line over the whole area and say “Yes, I’m quite pleased with that. Excellent but probably enough for today.” These are pretty much my only memories of the allotments but for those skylarks. Those genre-defying skylarks.

I can remember, and the memory is fresh and strong, looking across the flat fenland in the blinding sunshine and hearing that song and my Dad telling me what it was that sang it. From then on the skylark was there, ‘dropping silver chains of sound’. The song of the skylark then became talismanic; forever associated with the fields, farms, the sky and that place. But that song, so difficult to describe or put into words, (and scores of poets have tried) is so easy to understand in its context. Since then I’ve seen thousands of skylarks perched on posts or sitting on the ground and I can recognise them as skylarks. But perched on a post it’s only half a bird, only a picture in the round view of the binoculars. Only when they take to the wing and hover high up, trilling their complex and dipping cadenza does it properly become a skylark, filling the whole space and showing us why it’s there. It shouts out to be admired and looked-at and heard. Once it’s in the air then binoculars are useless, or rather they should be abandoned, in favour of taking in the whole of the picture: the fields, the crops, the grass, the big big drifting sky and that sound. It is absolutely and indescribably part of the landscape. And it pushes me back in time thirty years to those allotments.

In more recent years that song and its presence or absence have become totemic of whether or not we’ve stuffed up our countryside completely. And to me, it’s also become a sign of whether I have my priorities right or wrong. Can I still make time to walk and sit and listen? Do I still have the ability to attune myself to the landscape and its inhabitants? If the answer to either of those questions is no then I’m in trouble. Big trouble.

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