After days of solemn emails, a continuous loop of news – radio, television, newspapers – and sad and wary exchanges in the farmers’ market, the rhythm of the seasons takes over. The monumental John Deere combine glides out of the farmyard and harvest begins. On two perfect summer days, the winter barley disappears under the powerful blades of the 24ft header. A good crop: malting barley, three tonnes to the acre, with a moisture content 14.2 degrees. This means a reprieve from the relentless hum of the grain dryer blowing day and night, what we call the Suffolk mistral.
The harvest feels like a modern miracle: 110 acres harvested in two days by two men. The crop is already sold (£85 a tonne) but will stay on the farm until December, when grain lorries will start coming onto the farm to collect their loads. This crop will go to a maltster in Norfolk and we’ll buy back some of our own barley for our beer, Good Dog Ale-‘Makes you want to sit and stay’.
Even without a beer in my hand I find that I mostly want to sit and stay these days, to suck in the reassuring continuity of the farming year. The land is still our genesis. The haymaking on the front meadow has filled the air with that sweet farmyardy smell, even if the white vinyl slipcases round the bales make it look more Dounreay than Akenfield. The hens sprawl in their dust bowls, looking more like roadkill than prissy rare breeds, and the sheep, shorn of their priceless wool-priceless because I’d rather give away their beautiful fleeces than sell at the Wool Board’s paltry prices-look embarrassed, more like goats than the distinguished Shetlands and Jacobs they were in their wool coats.
This year the broad leaves of the fig trees have covered the windows of the barn where our main crop-people-sit in shady coolness, drinking wine and eating organic salmon pan-smoked over vine prunings. The 400-year-old barn is a little patch of peace, a sign-free zone with nothing that says we accept Visa/Mastercard, feature in the Good Food Guide/Michelin/Zagat, only a large ‘God Save the Queen’ that went up over the bar during the Jubilee year and never came down, and discreet indications of ‘loos’, ‘men’ and ‘women’, essential modern comforts in this secular cathedral that once housed oats and hay and cows. And I’ve learned that tending this modern crop of customers requires the sensitivity of a shearer who works his flock with amazing grace. People come here for a reprieve. They do not want to discuss if Iraq has made us less safe or whether the special relationship between Bush and Blair is not in our interest. Eyes glaze over when I start talking about the need to drain the swamp, starting by closing Guantanamo Bay. It’s not enough to be a smoke-free zone. Folks crave a time-free, opinion-free zone.
So I am practising the politics of shutting up. I start by reminding myself that I’m lucky to live in a little patch of planet Earth where man and nature mostly collude peaceably. I turn off the evening news and go out to watch the young hares racing across the unexpected nakedness of the stubble. A tawny owl swoops out of the oak tree whose leaves provide me oxygen. I try to push the infernal roar of terrorists/bombs/war out of my skull. ‘Beauty and grace are performed,’ writes Annie Dillard, ‘whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.’ I know she’s right. I am trying as hard as I can.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on July 21, 2005.