Oh hello, here’s Autumn, greeting the morning and washing into evening. In between, hoarding the greater part of the day, summer lingers, bright and livid, a riot of blue, green, red and purple. The heather is in full bloom. Its heady, heavy scent spreads out across hill and bog carrying frenzies of insects. Everything is drenched in sweetness; from crimson rowan berries to plump blushing rose-hips to bright yellow crab apples. Even the scent of bog myrtle is overwritten in the warmth of midday and the ripening of briar, bramble and berry. My sinuses ache with it all.
But down on the croft, another scent clears the headiness. The hay cut has released its magic; the goodness has been captured and although the young crofters of Opinan who come to help each year have now finished their work, the aromas still linger in our riverside fields – that delicate yet powerful scent of sugar and wine and Genoise sponge cake.
The ditches and field-margins are still in full bloom. Some flowers are only just breaking through the ‘canopy’ of meadow growth, hampered by this year’s long cold spring and wet June and July. But there are grasshoppers, spiders and craneflies filling the spaces between the stems of grass and flower, and curtains and crowds of tiny flies whose names I cannot find, whose life cycles I cannot fathom.
I am not the only one enjoying this post-hay-cut micro-world. There are dragonflies and damselflies – turquoise, red, yellow, emerald – darting about then resting on the grassy stubble, their wings made of diamonds, their bodies of gemstones.
Deep within my hippocampus sit memories of summers long past. There’s always a small tinge of sadness as summer ends and I’ve never been able to put my finger on quite why, but the shift in light from bright white to gold, tonal changes in birdsong and the appearance of dew-covered cobwebs, all play their part. Scent is undoubtedly the most powerful trigger for me and perfume is the reminder of long-ago late summers, wrapped up with distant memories of haymaking.
Although I was born into the industrial heart of Merseyside, my mother’s father was a farmer. And I can recall the sensation of walking through his hay meadows, following his horses and machinery as they cut then processed the hay. I seem now to have come full circle. I’m the grandparent living on a small holding, waiting for my grandchildren to visit, managing a few acres just as my grandfather did. He was an old-fashioned farmer, a tenant on a mixed farm, who shunned the artificial means of improving productivity so heavily promoted during and after the Second World War. He had two shire horses and shared equipment with his fellow farmers as was the way then. His horses were more skilful and precise than tractors, he would say.
The contrast between living in a town that had produced chemicals since the mid nineteenth century and visiting the countryside could not have been greater. By the time I was six, my grandfather reluctantly yielded to ill-health and handed over the tenancy to a younger, fitter man. He was gassed in the trenches of World War I and his heart had never fully recovered, but ‘Grandpa’ held on to the farm given to him in the aftermath of the war until his mid-sixties. Then he came to live with us. For him the contrast must have been much greater than anything I experienced going from home to farm.
So here I am, walking about the hay meadows, remembering how it felt to follow behind Grandpa and his horses as the cutting, tedding and windrowing went on at the end of summer. He never took to silage making, believing instead that the sugars, minerals and nutrients from hay were better for his animals.
On Red River Croft the cut began as August finally warmed up, its last chance to behave like August should, like the remote Augusts I remember. Cutting began in early evening towards the end of a long very warm day. The Opinan boys have full time jobs as well as working their own crofts and helping others. This is the way of life here. Crofting by itself cannot pay for or fully support families so many crofters seek paid employment elsewhere and most offer support and help with the bigger crofting tasks such as lambing, silage or hay making, ploughing and fencing. Mutualism at the township* scale. Symbiosis at the crofting scale.
The fields are cut as part of our management scheme for Red River Croft. Its overarching purpose, our main aim, is to restore our small part of this landscape, the croft meadows, soils and biodiversity. The hay goes to feed animals belonging to other crofters through the long winter months. Not all 10.5 acres are cut for hay, almost half is made up of different types of micro-habitat – peat bog, riverbank, scrub, ditches and field margins, postglacial terraces too steep for tractors, old wells and building remains including heaps of stones known as ‘clearance piles’, and patches of tree regrowth. Together, they provide a rich variety in a compressed patchwork of interconnected vegetation types.
As the tractor passed back and forth dozens and dozens of swallows parted the air above us then stitched it together again. I had thought swallow numbers were lower this year (only two nests in our old byre) but flying overhead there were too many to count. Craneflies and other insects disrupted by the mowing were thronging in dense clouds and the swallows flew back and forth, cutting through them and feeding. We watched until the midge hordes drove us indoors.
After a couple of days of turning, drying and re-turning, the hay was gathered into windrows. The perfumes were almost visible. In my mind’s eye they were like billowing laundry on a long line. I ambled about the meadows and every so often prodded the neat rows of cut grasses and flowers. Each poke released more scent. On every row, gangs of small birds picked at the insects and seeds caught by the haymaking. There was no birdsong only wing-whispers. A gentle shooshing as they rose up and down, up and down, moving ahead of me and then behind.
Later, the dragonflies came. Whether they were drawn by the light or by the aromas, I do not know. They settled on the gaps between the windrows where glistening dampness was seeping upwards from the soil and cut vegetation. I tried to draw imaginary lines between them all but failed. They reminded me of stars I have often attempted to braid together into constellations with familiar names, Lyra, Draco, Perseus and Sagitarius.
I sat for a while on a large boulder and watched their collective silence, birds, insects and all. All these new memories being written, adding to the library already gathered in my brain. I think I know what the dragonflies have come for, they’re also gathering memories, knitting together the old stories for us all. And now I think I see them as well. Just here are the whispers of crofters in the past, setting to work, gathering hay by rake and by hand. Over there, the two horses my neighbour’s family used to pull the tedder. Here is my grandfather, laughing as he tickles his heavy horses into motion. And there, there am I, following behind, with a fistful of wild flowers and nodding grasses.
* A ‘township’ is a tiny hamlet made up of a number of crofts (fields) and homes.