The snow makes me think of Maine, and Maine makes me think of E. B. White, a writer who spent the second half of his life writing for The New Yorker from a nine room farmhouse on an 11-acre farm in Brooklin, Maine. ‘As a writing man,’ he says in one of his essays, ‘I have always felt charged with the safe keeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.’
All week long, the snow at Wyken has been like an unexpected miracle of enchantment. Fields with rackety fences look like canvases by Andrew Wyeth. The sheep appear brave and biblical. The cows look sad and majestic. And everything with feathers-chickens, turkeys, peacocks and guinea fowl-is abject and long-suffering. I, on the other hand, have never felt so competent and worthwhile, striding across fields with sledgehammer slung over my shoulder, ready to attack the Arctic sheets that cover the water troughs. I heave bales of hay and sacks of sheep and cattle nuts onto the wheelbarrow and push my way to the feed troughs, where I shovel away the snow. As I work, my impatient diners nibble the tops of my boots, graze on my hat, nuzzle my coat. When the troughs are finally filled, their gratitude is noisy and palpable, and for a few moments, standing in the sharp air, I feel insulated from all the big, unsolvable troubles of the world.
Insulated, and guilty. In Maine, they take winter seriously. In his essay The Winter of the Great Snows, White describes how all the towns are ready with money and trucks and men and sand and salt and derring-do. The roads stay open, no matter what. And the animals stay warm because they live in the barn. White’s most famous book, Charlotte’s Web, takes place in the Zuckerman barn through the passing of four seasons. ‘Life in the barn was very good-night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days… with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure and the glory of everything.’ Reading that, I can smell the hay, can see glints of light through slats, light that illumines the lacework of spiders, few of whom are actually as clever as Charlotte A. Cavatica, a large grey spider ‘about the size of a gumdrop’.
The trouble is, the barn on this farm no longer provides refuge from the winter for cows and sheep. In the name of progress, our 400-year-old barn now shelters people. The dirt floor that softened the hooffall of 1,000 cows is now covered with Canadian maple. The closest thing to hay is the seagrass matting in the old dairy and the warmth of cow breath is supplied by two woodburners. Any memory of garrulous geese is drowned out by the noisy grinding of coffee beans and the whoosh of the espresso machine. If the literate Charlotte was spinning this story, she would write with spidery irony: ‘Some diversification!’
Farms like the Zuckermans’ in Charlotte’s Web or the Hoggetts’ in Babe, the undiversified farm, have been lost to us. Barns that house animals are rare. All around us, barns have been turned into conference centres, architects’ houses, office parks and studios for artists. When a farmer’s barn is worth more than the farm, decisions have to be made. I’ve welcomed these barn conversions as new leases of life-but then again, I haven’t seen a snowfall like this in nearly 30 years.
And here’s the problem. After years of being told that this corner of England will be the new Medoc, we must now consider that we may be the new Maine instead. In which case, rather than planting vines and olive trees, we should be building barns. Real barns that provide shelter for creatures who are affectionate, brave, responsive to moods of weather, creatures who are unmoved by the enchantment of snow.
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