So much goes on beneath our feet, and beneath our gaze. For instance, if you want to find out what is going on in an English meadow, then you need to get down and in amongst it. There’s a whole other world down there, or maybe a thousand tiny universes. On the other hand, finding a meadow in the first place could well be a challenge. They have been dwindling since the 1920s. Mechanisation – bigger machines and bigger fields – plus a continuous drenching of agrichemicals has done for most of them. (One local landowner once told me he had to give his brussels sprout crop 14 separate dressings of pesticide).
Of course we have to be fed, but I often wonder if mass-production monoculture is the only way. I also wonder if there are perhaps still unrecognised consequences of us so radically down-sizing our natural biodiversity, and that what currently seems advanced, scientifically devised, and wealth-creating might in the end prove ill-conceived and ultimately impoverishing. But then perhaps we do not think it matters to lose potentially useful medicinal plants, or rich habitats that support a host of insects and other life forms, or to fail to rear our stock on the best and most varied herbage, both for their good and for ours.
In Much Wenlock we are lucky to still have several limestone meadows; fortunate too that they have been officially designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest, which gives them some protection. They do need to be managed however. A meadow does not just keep itself. My father used to talk of being roped in as a lad to help with mowing the hay in his village. He said the menfolk would walk in step, spread out across the field, each swinging his scythe with an easy, even rhythm.
These days how many people know how to use a scythe without cutting themselves off at the ankles? Our surviving meadows thus require the seasonal addition of grazing animals to keep them in some sort of order, usually after the summer wild flowers are over. And of course, in the past, the hay from a wildflower meadow would have provided farm animals with a wealth of mineral nutrients and vitamins, dietary additions that humans, too, would have benefitted from, particularly in the milk they drank.
Even back in Shakespeare’s time, the consquences of mismanaged land were well understood. The following passage from Henry V Act V Scene II is thus much cited by meadow management proponents:
The even mead that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet and green clover
Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank
Conceives by idleness, and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, keksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility.
In fact the whole of Burgundy’s speech in this scene is a condemnation of bad agricultural practices – “husbandry doth lie on heaps, corrupting in its own fertility.”
All of which is to say, wherever we live in the world, we would do well to pay attention to the ground beneath our feet and to what is going on there. Our long-term health, the health of every living thing, depends on the quality of the soil. Right now most of it needs some concentrated TLC.
My home county of Shropshire is one of England’s biggest agricultural counties, with many large gentry-owned estates of ten thousand acres and more. And so, apart from the upland sheep grazing of the hill country, most farming here is highly mechanised. Of the few exceptions that still practice traditional mixed farming, Pimhill Farm is one of the most noteworthy. It has been managed organically by the Mayall family since 1949 – wheat, oats and dairy – so it proves it can be done. Their oat products are fantastic. Even their humble, savoury oatmeal biscuits taste out of this world, and porridge made from their oats is unbelievably creamy (no milk needed). You can read the Pimhill story by following the link.
And now I’m putting my soap box away in order to get down in the dirt in my local meadow on Windmill Hill. Please also imagine the sweet and subtle scents of grasses, thyme and Lady’s Bedstraw that may only be fully savoured by lying down with them. First, though, look out for the snails:
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell