The correct reaction to spring, and the approach of summer, is to indulge in the sort of bacchanalia of pagan fertility rites of Scandinavian legend.
Even today, in Finland, as the snow melts and the country approaches the 24-hour daylight of high summer, youths and maidens, maddened by the wicked and musky aroma of hawthorn blossom, are heading for the forests, bearing aquavit, to make love and celebrate new life. Not for nothing are the Finns the most fertile race in Europe. To be fair, though, these modern fertility rites are referred to as ‘raves’.
Here, in my own Anglo-Saxon village, this year’s unusually dry spring has been celebrated by no such paganism in the bluebell wood at the top of the downs. Neither, down here in the village, have we seen any of the traditional English rituals of the maypole – where phallic symbols were danced around for centuries. Instead, recalcitrant lawnmowers are being coaxed out of their hibernation in damp sheds. Their low drone drowns out the call of the cuckoo, as all budding life is suppressed in a mass demonstration of what might be called reverse paganism.
Spring, for such villagers, is also the cue for dusting down the knapsack sprayer and tackling those pernicious seasonal weeds like bindweed, cleavers and nettles before they ‘get away’. And now, like something from John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, dead nettle and cow parsley writhe in agony on the verges approaching the village pond.
Verge-spraying by councils has died out almost everywhere. The cessation was dictated less by eco-awareness than the fact that the councils simply don’t have the budget for it; what with all the giant pension deals for council workers, struck during the Blair era, which need to be honoured. There was still an urge to suppress weeds among locals who would have willingly tackled the chore without payment, almost as an atavistic hobby. In previous centuries, lengthsmen were employed to keep the road verges clear of weeds. They were responsible for the ‘lengths’ of road between two villages, for digging ditches and for mending fences. It’s in the blood.
In this village, however, I had successfully convinced the feudal overlords that, if coarse weeds and wayside herbs can’t grow on verges, where can they grow? Moreover, it was counterproductive to kill cow parsley, the most defining plant of England, which is useful to various moths. What really swung it probably was the overlord’s wife, seeing mothers of the bride use cow parsley from unsprayed hedgerows as decoration at fashionable weddings; then learning that it is now sold outside the Conran Shop in London at £3 a stem. Nevertheless, I counted this as one small conservation victory under my belt.
But this year is different.
It’s easy to see why the perpetrator has broken the informal gentleman’s agreement with myself and his employers to comply with the cessation of unnecessary cosmetic spraying during the invertebrate crisis. The 19th-century nature writer Richard Jefferies was not only an acute observer of nature and wildlife, but of Wiltshire folk too, and his observations of the agricultural labourer in general still pertains.
In The Toilers of the Field, he writes, ‘They work and live and have their being in grooves. So long as they can continue in that groove and go steadily forward, without much thought of trouble beyond that of patience and perseverance, all goes well, but, if any sudden jolt should throw them out of this rut, they seem incapable of regaining it.’
The jolt of being told he could no longer commit herbicide each spring, to placate limp-wristed euromeddlers and local environmentalists, was clearly destabilising. And then came his Eureka moment. Brexit was his cue to regain the spraying groove.
In his mind, Brexit has restored the Englishman’s fundamental right to spray wayside herbs. Next in his sights will be the environment wildflower stewardship strips around arable fields. This, despite the fact that wildlife strips create more habitat for rabbits to graze; hence more foxes to predate the rabbits. This hunt follower has not made the connection.
I had hoped that the arrival in the village of Peter Mandelson would help my cause; with literary-minded friends in common, I thought he would be sympathetic to my plight. Now that I have cleared a white poplar at the end of my garden, I have revealed an uninterrupted view of his country residence in general and his bathroom in particular.
In a further spirit of neighbourliness, I gave the architect of New Labour a copy of a Jefferies tome – Wildlife in a Southern County – hoping that he would read the section on trees. But, while I felled one white poplar, he has seen fit to restore his view of the downs by felling seven out of eight noble pines – host to a significant local population of nuthatches.
Mary says that grumbling behind closed doors will get me nowhere and that the way forward is through chatting ‘pleasantly rather than bitterly’.
But where are the forums for such chats? Says Jefferies: ‘The places where agriculturalists and the principal inhabitants of the parish do meet together and discuss matters in a friendly spirit are the churchyard, before service, the market dinner, the hunting field, and the village inn.’ The village inn was the only one ever open to me, and now it has closed.