Essay | Living in the Country— 1 by James Stern

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I had the good fortune to live in the country until after I came of age. I could recognize and name most of the wild flowers of Ireland, ride a horse and milk a cow, before I went to school. I believe that to have had no kinship with nature in childhood, no relationship with the earth or animals, with growth and the seasons, is a serious, even dangerous privation. As is that even rarer commodity, silence.

Silence, God knows, is hard to find anywhere today, and to live peacefully in the country is becoming increasingly difficult. By country I mean an area not isolated yet removed from the sight of a car park, the roar of helicopters, fro canned music, and the fumes of petrol.

For the past fifteen years my wife and I have lived on a lane in a hamlet (adult population: 20) one hundred miles south-west of London. And three hilly miles from shops and a railway station. Even so, we are continually cursing the machine. And not only for the din it creates, the tree-felling electric saw being the most recent, most unforgiveable offender. The farm combine (probably made in the USA for domestic use) is so wide that it has twice smashed our roadside railings. Only very rarely is a hedge laid in the traditional fashion, by hand: it is chopped off square and left bleeding by a machine the size of a tractor. Some machines even curse each other, which in turn provokes howls of rage from viewers of television in this house. When the herd of cows is being milked (electrically, I hate to think what our cowman in Meath would have said to that!), it snows and crackles with lightning on the Box. Of course we curse the motor car as well, but sotto voce, for we are obliged to keep one. I say obliged because we are now reduced to one delivery a week, from the grocer. I also have an elderly bicycle on which I can reach the nearest of six public houses in fifteen to twenty minutes, depending on the wind. Pub life in the country is most important. Here in half an hour, from men he sees at no other place or time, the Regular can learn the local opinions of the Prime Minister, of inflation, of Great Britain and the Common Market; he will hear who has just given birth, gone bankrupt, married, died, been killed or maimed in a car crash, who taken to the hospital (‘they didn’t say what with, mind!’): whose wide has run away with whom; the condition of the surrounding soil and crops; with shop or cottage is up for sale, plus approximate prices— ‘Course, that’s only what I ‘eard, mind!’— ‘Ah, and you be ‘ard o’ ‘earing, or so I’ve ‘eard! (Roars of mirth.) After a beery, smoky, informative, cheerful, almost embarrassingly masculine half-hour, I have to push a bike a good three-quarters of the way home, the hills are that long. Actually, whenever possible I prefer to walk. It is good country walking provided one is not inclined to run short of breath. From my study windows in winter, when the one great walnut is naked, we can see across the valley over field after field of grass, as far as the horizon of blue, the distant downs. And up there, on the Roman road, stands a solitary milestone: HYDE PARK CORNER XCVII MILES.

Some years ago a novelist from New York City paid us a visit. After standing at the windows for a couple of minutes he finally declared ‘Golly, all that green! Say, what do you do when you want to talk to someone?’ My wife, I said, solves that problem. Anyway, we do have neighbors. Our nearest on one side (until her recent untimely death) was a widow whose love of talk was surpassed only by her hatred of work. On the other side lives Harold, son of a retired gamekeeper, an eminently useful self-employed jack-of-all-trades, whose countryman’s ear and eye are as alert as mind. He and the farmer up the hill, who owns all the land in the immediate neighborhood, are the only natives. The cowman and his wife are evacuees from the Blitz. Of the three cottages beyond Harold, one is a survivor from the 1830’s; another, not so long ago, was a pub. Today— transformed out of all recognition, covered in clematis and roses and surrounded by lawn and flowering shrubs— each cottage is inhabited by a widow, the one a highly-valued ex-matron of the hospital, the other an indefatigable pony-club-committee lady rarely seen out of her garden or her car. The third cottage, after the death three years ago of a dear man whose one passion, to the delight of us all, was the growing of vegetables, has been bought by an urban architect, who converted it into something for which today only an architect could obtain permission. The building is left uninhabited except for possibly three weeks a year. Finally, round the corner from us in what was once the bakery, lives another lone lady, a passionate lover of animals and a voracious reader. A semi-recluse save when someone is ill, she keeps a rare species of sheep with four curving horns, pigeons, mina birds, several large ducks, a beautiful cat, and a very jealous parrot whose single greeting is a harsh: ‘Get-outa-here!’ This neighbor is also the grateful customer of the miraculous Mobile Library, that huge brown book-filled room on wheels which pulls up in the mud outside the cowman’s thatched cottage on the morning of every other Monday. Like everyone else bar the farmer and his family, she gardens when whether permits and talks gardening when it doesn’t. And everyone except ourselves owns at least one barking dog.

What we do own is a small sixteenth-century manor house with an acre or two on both sides of the lane. On the south side is an orchard of ancient apple trees and a paddock on which our farmer grazes his heifers and his eldest daughter-in-law, when grass is scarce, her two young bay horses. On the north side, on a well-drained slope of greensand facing south, lies the kitchen garden where we used to grow not only most of the vegetables wen needed, but soft fruit (for the freezer) as well. Until we ourselves grew old.

It was at about this time that the ‘media’ began to inform us all that we were living in an Affluent Society. I used to think that as a child before the Kaiser’s War I had witnessed some effect of affluence at close quarters. But on my knees in the fruit-cage here one hot summer’s afternoon, I began to wonder. Hearing the cowman’s two boys talking a few yards down the lane: ‘How about picking some strawberries?’ I canned. The familiar local grunt meant that they were not interested.

‘You can have as many as you can eat,’ I said.

Grunt.

‘Where are you going?’

‘Up ver hill.’

‘What for?’

‘Watch ver traffic.’

There’s the rub. Next season we abandoned the fruit-cage.

As recently as fifty years ago this hamlet provided the labour for several large estates, notably those of a Palladian mansion a couple of miles to the north of us and an eighteenth-century castle an equal distance to the south. Today the mansion has been converted into flats for retired Gentle Folk, and the castle has become a thriving public school for Girls. Between them these great houses, which were empty when we arrived, absorb almost all the labour in the area.

One of the very few echoes of those all-but-forgotten days can still be heard on Saturday afternoons in the season, when the country calm (assuming it is not already being shattered by combines and tractors) is punctured by gunfire, and the skyline above us becomes suddenly alive with both birds and beaters. Many of the surviving pheasants, sailing noisily downwind, take refuge on our land. Here, at various times during the 1960’s I have seen deer, snipe, woodcock, partridge, hares, and thousands of pigeons. During the last five years only the deer (to the farmers’ fury) have increased. Woodcock, snipe and partridge are seldom seen, while the hare has vanished to be replaced by the rabbit. A feeble breed, this post-myxomatosis animal lives largely above ground until the doe is about to litter, whereupon she tunnels a few inches below the surface of the garden’s best weeded bed, gives birth, surfaces, carefully blocks the entrance to her nursery, and returns under cover of night. What remains a mystery is this rabbit’s diet. The most conspicuous shallow burrow is between our perennial spinach and the most succulent lettuce, both of which are ignored.

Rare or seemingly extinct are also many wild flowers, butterflies and moths, once the glory of childhood summers. I cannot remember when I last picked a cowslip in this region. In fifteen years I have not seen a swallow-tail or a fritillary. Even five seasons ago on a warm afternoon one could count, aflutter on the drooping lilac buddleia, half-a-dozen peacocks and tortoise-shells, the odd red or white admiral hovering for space. Today the once-despised and persecuted cabbage white provokes a nod of recognition, a lone early brimstone a gasp of joy.

How is it that we happen to live in the West Country, or for that matter in England, and not in France or North America, where we have spent so many years of our lives? To answer this question the clock has to be turned back to the year 1919, when my mother’s one sister and her husband left Ireland for the latter’s home in Dorset. Three years later my family followed them, to settle in the same county. Shortly before my father’s death in 1958 we returned to this region in order to be near my mother, who was then alone and eighty years old. After a long search and many misadventures we acquired the house, at a price which today would not buy a two-room bungalow. At ninety my mother died. And we have stayed on.

In four decades it is the only place we have been able to call our own, the first time I have had space for the only possessions I would be sad to lose: the books. We often yearn for the sun, for friends far away, and I for the sea, but neither of us, ever, for the city.

On arrival the first think we decided to do was reduce the size of the garden, and so (I liked to think) the endless distractions of the land. We did numerous flower beds and one large herbaceous border back to grass But grass has to be cut, and everything man-made— from roofs to fences and oil-tanks to gutters and woodwork— has to be repaired or painted, or both. A detester of barbed-wire, I insisted on hedges— thorn, privet, viburnum. All these hedges are now so high, so wide, so thick, they can be cut only from a ladder. True, Harold is friendlier towards a ladder than I am, but Harold— well, he does not exactly give his services away.

From our predecessors we inherited a full-time gardener to whom needless to say we had bid goodbye. We also inherited five snow-white fantail pigeons— whereby hangs a tail which, irrelevant as it may be, fits so beautifully William Sansom’s dictum about the short story spreading ‘beyond its economy’; short, it should be enormous’, that I plead permission to tell it here. In eight years those five fantails had become five-and-fifty. At that time our Sunday newspaper used to be delivered by an enchanting innocent of ten, named Barry. One blissful Sabbath morning in September I found him standing outside the front door, gazing up longingly at the fluttering line of birds on our roof.

Barry: ‘Coo, I’d love to look after pigeons, I would!’

J.S.: You can look after them to your heart’s content, Barry. We’re fed up with them. They’re dirty, they eat the young cabbage, they love petunias. What’s worse, there’s no end to them!

Barry (eyes popping): You mean—! You mean you want to get rid of ‘em? That-I-can shoot-‘em?

The delivery of the Sunday paper reminds me of another, more important delivery: the mail. In this age of tele-communication I still insist on correspondence, even at its present exorbitant price. In fact, as I long ago discovered, that is was I am: a letter-writer. Now here in 1960 the postmen made their rounds on foot. They delivered unfailingly within a few minutes of 8:30 in the morning not only the mail but the daily newspaper as well, usually with a smile and a word about the weather. In hard frost or snow they often stopped for a short one. In 1965 they arrived on scarlet bicycles, around nine o’clock, with, (it seemed to me), fewer smiles. Since 1970 they have been turning up in scarlet vans between 10 and 10:30, evidently in a tearing hurry, banging the front door behind them. And the newspaper, with petrol at 72p a gallon, arrives in a separate van, around 11 o’clock. The morning, the so-called writer’s time, has been destroyed. Such is life at seventy.

Although I consider myself a countryman, I often say (mostly to myself) that the only places where I feel at home, where on arrival I am promptly overwhelmed by the human element, by the familiarity of sounds and smells, are in Dublin and Paris. To this day, above all in reveries and dreams, Ireland still is Home. Dublin was my first city, the centre of life. From the beginning— in peace, in the Troubles, in wars— it was from Dublin that we always took off across the sea and on each return knew we were home. Dublinese, moreover, was my first adopted speech, the language of the rebel. Imagine the surprise and delight when, soon after moving into this house, I detected the very idiom on the tongue of the man at my bedside! In a flash we were off together down Sackville Street bound for a ‘jar’ at the Pearl, the reason for his presence by the bed vanished from both our minds. This Irishman’s practice runs into thousands, by many of whom he is seriously named a saint. Of our local friends we count him the bravest, as well as the busiest. It was he who said to me one day of his native city: ‘You’d know you’re there, simply from the Stout on the air.’

As once upon a time coffee and Caporale told me I was in Paris. No longer, alas. The stink of essence has years ago taken over. The French capital at an early age was my liberation from authority. France was freedom, the deliverer from caution, the key which at last unlocked the floodgates and let the imagination soar. Intensity of living does not depend on place: it is when absorption is such that even silence is superfluous. For twelve months I lived alone on a narrow street down which at four in the morning horse-drawn lorries started clattering over the cobbles on their way to Les Halles. The traffic continued all day. What now would drive me insane, I then barely noticed, for while in that room I was so absorbed in the farm in Matabeleland that all I heard above the roar of Paris was the occasional momentous chanting of Africans down in the valley. Such is youth.

Never since that far off annus mirabilis has the world beyond the window been so easily excluded. Soon the impersonal hoot of a barge on the Seine, the siren of an ambulance on Third Avenue, were enough to scatter in fragments the fragile drift of thought. Cursing the telephone, the doorbell, the Devil secretly welcomed the voice invading the vacuum of the mind. To earn the needed dollar, to stave off despair, fiddling jobs were silently accepted; the reviewing; ghosting, translating of books (often from German of dreadful difficulty) were almost welcomed; while all the time the dirt and distractions of the city bore the brunt, and the country grew into an increasingly romanticized dream. I am amazed, looking back and taking careful count, that out of the seventy years as many as thirty have been spent miles from a cow, from the miracle of the cuckoo.

There it came, this very dawn, the first of the year— the effortless, ineffable coo heralding the perfect day. Who, asks the Devil, save the deaf or demented, would sit indoors on such a morning?

For sanity’s sake I try to live according to the climate. Fine: walk. Rain: work. In England, in theory, this should not be difficult. I guess it’s mostly a question of character. And of remembering to count one’s blessings. Think, you might— still you may— have to end up in the Old Folks Home. Or in a city.

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