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Who?

My little car has been chugging around the Marches this week, ferrying my family and me and all of our luggage through the various places I have called home over the past year.  Introducing your family to friends and foreign places is always a bit fraught.  Worlds suddenly collide – personas emerge and are unmasked, habits and habitats revealed.  But when you have lived in several places and met many people, the act of condensing them into a one-week tour can prove dizzying.  Who am I?  Who have I been?  I drive towards Old Chapel Farm, recalling the nights that I slept in my little cell in the glass house, thinking of the last conversation I had with Gareth about a variety of yellow cherry he had discovered in someone’s back garden and was attempting to propagate.  I think of a summer day spent bathing in the creek at the bottom of the valley with Crystal and Bjorn.  I think of the last day there before I left, when Tess the cow was lying in the barn, breathing heavily, waiting for he calf to be born.  But all these memories, vivid as they are, feel slightly stilted and grey, already receding.

I am someone else now.  I am living in Ross, working on a cider farm.  I spend my evenings in the cellar with Mike and all the regulars, talking nonsense and laughing.  I listen to Toby’s blues band practice at the Blues hut down in orchard.  I go to yoga with Mell.  My flatmate Hetti makes me tea as we chat about our days.  This is my new habitus, my day-to-day.  But I had another habitus in Old Chapel, and yet another at the Stables in Bishops Castle.  As I step out of the car, and walk down the drive to Old Chapel, the grey film lifts.  The glass house is still there, by the barn. I knock on the door of the farmhouse, and a person I don’t know answers – a new volunteer, and he puts the kettle on to boil while I walk out to the gardens to show my mum where I have spent time weeding and digging in previous summers.  There are different vegetables in the plots this year.  Everything is rearranged.  But I ease into this place again – I find my footing on the steps up to the garden.  I find my seat around the table for dinner.  It seems clear and right in the flow of conversation around the big table

And in Bishops Castle, as I walk down the dark street towards the church, the bells start ringing, clanging unevenly as the bell ringers ring them up to begin practice.  I am afraid I will have lost my skill.  I walk back through the door.  Everyone turns and smiles at me and says hello, with the smiles of friends who are glad to to see you, who are glad you have returned.  I have not held the ropes for at least two months, maybe three.  But John calls me up, and I take the rope for the third bell.  I pull the bell by myself while the rest wait, just to get the feel for it again, the weight and the momentum, the slight tension of finding the balance at the top of its swing.  It comes right back, and soon I am ringing in rounds, and then picking up the changes for kings and queens.  I can feel the pulling in my arms, and the warmth of the exertion glowing in my chest.

And when I finally arrive back in Ross, driving up to Broome farm, it now seems a little distant, a little grey, faded under the clarity of my re-animated lives elsewhere. Until I am back listening to Toby’s blues band at the pub, the familiar cadences of the set settling me back into this place.

Who are all these Marias?  And where do they live?  And who do they love?  I think this is the hardest question sometimes, if you take the measure of your life by the smiles of friends and the crack of conversation and the moments of immediacy.  The problem is letting them go, feeling these moments slip away even as you embrace new ones, and new people.  Holding on never works.  You simply cannot hold on – time doesn’t let you.  You can only remember, and use your memory as tinder to fuel the next burning moment shared, the next time you meet, the next time you smile together.

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Spring

I think it must take a terrible amount of patience to live in the country.  A patience that is either a natural gift, or a skill learned slowly into the fibres of your working body as it eases through the seasons.  My little hamlet of Acton has often felt lonely and solitary, each person or family tucked away into their own houses, puttering on with their own affairs.  Friendly and lovely they are when you make the effort to go out and knock on the door or stop in for a chat, but I often wonder when it is appropriate to stop in?  When is the time to break into someone’s privacy?  I am surrounded on three sides by neighbors who are retired, who have a whole life’s work and memories and family to keep them company.  And Keith Jones over the way, whom I finally met today after living her for six months, has his menagerie of animals and his childhood mates to keep him company.  Nogbert the sheep, who was raised in the house as a lamb, still remembers, he says, and tries to get back in.  As I chatted with him today, he climbed out of his digger and waved his hand towards the bags of special lime that he uses to restore old buildings and the castle walls of Ludlow, a passion that began when he fixed up his own house, right here in Acton, which had been the cider shed and the grain store.  Next door to him is Mary Jones, whose late husband was born here and died here in Acton.  And then there are the family of farmers (again another family named Jones) – the retired father in one house, and his two sons and their families in other houses on either side.  And lastly, an architect and a teacher and their daughters, nestled into the 14th century thatched house.  And me in my little stable.

But life is quiet here in Acton, and everyone mostly attends to their own business.  And some days, when the air refuses to be warm, and the sky refuses to be bright, I sit in my stables reading my ever growing pile of books about rural life and wonder where the young people are in the country?  Or how people keep from going slightly mad from the isolation and the quiet.  I dig over the vegetable beds for my landlords in the farmhouse across the way, and I wait for a bit of wind or sun to dry the grass enough to mow it.  And with a week of warm weather, I begin to sow seeds in the little glass house in their back garden.

The patience of country life waits for the moments when the sun shines, and all the sudden you notice that the hedges are beginning to bud with green, and the blackthorn is blooming, its snow white blossoms on the bare hedges the first sign that leaves are not far off, and the drab lonely days of winter might really be behind us.  But even the snowy blackthorn blossoms cannot hold off a real snow, which sweeps down from the Welsh hills in the first week of April, and makes you doubt Spring all over again.  The top of the Long Mynd is four inches in snow, and although the farmers are grateful for the water after this dry winter, you know they are worrying about the lambs out in the fields that have just been born. 

And on a sunny day, a warm beautiful day, you may decide to put on your boots and go for a walk, and all the lonely hours in the Stables, all the times that your ill grown and poorly cultivated patience has withered in the countryside you have not yet adjusted to, fades away.  You walk up the green lane, admire the blackthorn blossoms, feel the movement of the air, feel yourself moving along beside the fields of green fields of wheat and yellow rapeseed, and the pastures filled with new lambs, and you feel that the hours of loneliness can be endured.  As one of my friends put it, you feel you can live for the next glorious moment like this one.  Patience can be cultivated.

At the bottom of the old lane sits the old rusting tractor I pass on all my walks, so peaceful in its resting place that lichen have begun to encrust its old tires.

I visit Mary for tea.  And I chat with Keith by his digger and his bags of lime.  The clouds move over and past the sun, and I put my trays sown with winter squash in the sun, hoping they will germinate soon.  The sheep and the lambs bleet in the fields nearby, and the slow patience of Acton carries on.

Since my last post, I have been working my way through the Christmas and Wassail seasons.  Round about the middle of December, I started making a list of wassails to attend, and it exploded beyond my wildest imagination.  While the traditional wassail date is supposed to be Twelfth Night (Jan 6), or for the truly old school folks who still abide by the old calendar, Old Twelfth Night (Jan 17), I found wassails going on just about every weekend in January, and believe it or not, even into February.  There were multiple events to attend – I could not possibly get to all of them!

It began as a bit of a lark – I first encountered Wassailing when I was working on a small farm down in Devon back in 2004.  While lounging in the cider shed, drinking the homemade scrumpy tapped out of the barrel after a hard day in the garden, I also happened upon some books about apples, orchards, and the various customs and traditions therein.  I believe one of these books was Cider The Forgotten Miracle by James Crowden.  I copied out passages from this book into my journal for reference.  I was intrigued.  I was enchanted.  How fun to go out drinking, shouting, shooting off guns and singing to trees in the middle of winter.  Back in grad school, needing a topic for a research paper (and probably longing for a raucous night out instead of being in the library), I decided to look into the subject further, and eventually found myself impulsively buying a plane ticket back to the UK in the middle of winter to find out more.

So, here I am finally in the UK.  It is winter.  Not too much garden work to do.  So I figured it was time to indulge in my not-so-secret fascination with wassailing and attend as many as possible.  Suddenly I find myself on a wassail/cider/orchard adventure, the likes of which may indeed change my (research) life forever….  Ok I am also indulging in hyperbole, but everything to do with wassailing, cider, and orchards seems to involve hyperbole and indulgence, so I am going with the flow here.

One should start close to home, and so I found myself joining in with the local wassail in Bishops Castle, held the week after Christmas.  Led by the local male voice choir with a bit of an attitude, the Men From Off, the wassail worked its way through various establishments on the main street of Bishops Castle – a couple of pubs, a couple of houses.  Rather than join them for the full excursion, I had been invited to dinner at one of the houses they were to visit, so I waited with my hosts after dinner until the wassailers spilled through the door and out into the back garden to the little cluster of apple trees, where we lustlily sang several wassail songs by the light of the moon and several torches, our feet crushing windfalls on the ground.  The Men From Off, accompanied by families and some former students from the high school, sang in wonderful harmonies.  We trooped back into the ancient tudor timber frame house and gathered round the dining table in front of the huge inglenook hearth to sing more songs and drink hot glasses of mulled cider.  But the wassailers could not linger long – they were off across the road to the Six Bells pub, for more singing and drinking.

Over the next few weeks, I hopped in my car just about every weekend to go to more wassails, criss-crossing the counties of the southern marches: Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Monmouthshire, and Shropshire: The Leominster Morris Wassail in Eardisley, the Foxwhelp Morris Wassail in Preston-on-Wye, The Chepstow Wassail and Mari Lwyd, the Welsh Cider and Perry Society Wassail in Llanarth, and a final one in a farm near the village of Little Hereford, organized by the local vicar.  I found myself driving down tiny lanes to walk through torchlit orchards at night, where morris dancers performed songs, dances, and mummers plays under the apple boughs, and seeing it all through cider-glazed eyes.  After the last wassail I went to this weekend, when the local folks had drifted home, and the vicar was helping the host farmer clear up the barn, I found myself tagging along with the Silurian Morris Men to the local pub.  My new friend Ann had introduced me to several of them, and one, whose long silver-blond hair cascaded out from beneath his black top hat and from whose arm dangled the supposed garters of appreciative women, offered to buy me a pint while kissing my hand and caressing it for a rather long time, remarking on how warm it was.  Morris Dancers are a funny bunch.  I never knew I’d have anything to do with morris dancing, but as it seems they are involved in or organize most of the wassails, I’ve met quite a few now, and while each group varies in its character, in general they seem to be dedicated to general noise making, singing, dancing, drinking, and cultivation of an atmosphere of sublime ridiculousness.  This particular group of Morris dancers were men only, and devoted considerable energy to enjoying and promoting their hyperbolic image of masculine swagger. Their website says, ” Be Warned, this site may cause offence to those of nervous dispositions, Silurian do not apologize for this.”  And explaining the tradition of blackface as a traditional means of disguise, “Silurian has found the black face to be an effective aphrodisiac for female members of the audience, and now routinely blacken their faces before going to bed.”  Let’s not kid ourselves, though, most of these guys are probably over 50 (though there are a few young lads joining in too).  But it can’t be denied that the blackface obscures the lines and wrinkles of age, and the dancing is pretty strenuous, so in a way, so it does in a way create an illusion of youth and vigour.  By the time we were back to the pub after the wassail, though, the morris men looked a little weary, and several of them brought out their instruments and played some rather plaintive folk songs about lost love and disappointment.  I was well into my pint of cider and beginning to feel soft-hearted towards them, when suddenly one of the old fellows starts belting out the song, “I wish I was single again….When I was single my pockets would jingle, I wish I was single again.”  Eventually, the evening ends, and several of them call their wives on the mobile to check in, and I imagine the bravado fading away after they drive home, washed down the sink in a trickle of black face paint  before sitting down for dinner.

But why wassail?  One of these morris men talks to me after a few pints and say, no one really believes the wassail is going to bring fertility these days.  I’m not really stunned by this. But he continues talking about how it doesn’t really mean anything, it’s not a living ritual, like it might have been back when people didn’t understand why crops failed.  It all sounds a bit bleak, so I ask him why they still do it then?  To preserve a tradition.  And for a good time out.  Pretty simple really.  Neither answer surprises me, but it is the bigger context of the event that begs more questioning.  Most wassails have been revived in the past 15 years or so – they aren’t continuously performed traditions.  And why are people so excited about apple orchards?  Orchard conservation has become a rather trendy movement during the same time period.  After the large-scale destruction of many traditional orchards in the middle of the century in favor of more profitable crops, now there are conservation movements to preserve orchards, apple varieties, and revive the production of craft cider (or cyder to the discerning drinker).

Which brings me to the other large constituent group I have encountered via the wassail.  Besides the morris dancers, there are the cyder makers.  This past weekend, I went to the Welsh Cider and Perry Society Wassail at the Raglan Cider Mill in Llanarth, Wales (incidentally, home of my great grandparents George Jones and Alice Tedman, both buried in the churchyard there).  Good cyder is something that most Americans have probably never tasted, let alone good perry.  There are mass produced ciders: Strongbow, Magners, Bulmers…..  But the small batch, craft made, home-brew stuff has become something of a myth, the drink that used to be made on every farm and given to every laborer as part of his wages.  And at its height, a sophisticated drink equal in quality and reputation to good wine, according the author R.K French in The History and Virtues of Cyder, cyder has become surrounded by a cloud of legend and myth – a lost drink to be discovered again. What fodder for the folklorist.  I met several cyder makers at this wassail, and also at the Leominster Morris Wassail, where I made the acquaintance of the Marches Cyder Circle, almost completely by accident.  Making random conversation with a young guy at the bar who was waiting for his mates to arrive, I suddenly found myself swept into their group as we trudged out to the orchard and was handed cups of their home-made cyder.

Indeed, apples and wassailing and cyder seem like topics ripe for feelings of fate and destiny.  No sooner had I begun to venture into this world, then suddenly I seemed showered in unexpected opportunities and chance meetings all leading me straight down a path towards inevitable trees of knowledge I didn’t even know I was looking for.  And no sooner had I mentioned to my professor via skype that I was thinking about spending more time looking into orchard conservation issues, then suddenly I find myself, through a series of fortunate coincidences, invited to lunch at the house of Gillian Bulmer, grand-daughter of the famous cider family, where she tells me tales of her orchards and of all the oral history recordings she made years ago with old farmers and cider makers, now archived in the Cider Museum.  What is there to do but walk through such doors when they are opened to you?  Who knows what will happen next!

You want to see and here what it looks like?  Some video from Leominster Morris Wassail:  Music, and the torches before the procession.

It is a windy, rainy day outside, and at 3:30pm, I definitely need the lights on inside.  I am perched on my little snug chair next to the woodstove. The darkness of winter here has definitely been one of the hardest things for me to deal with, and if left to natural devices, I would probably take a cue from the other furry mammals about and go into hibernation for the next few months.  The days are definitely shorter here than back at home, but I think part of it is the fact that my fieldwork takes me outside a lot.  Instead of being compelled to get to work in a lighted building for eight hours, I find the waxing and waning of the sun’s light has a much greater influence on my experience of the working day.  So what is a girl to do?  Well, I have informally begun a survey of British cheeses, honey, and Perry, three of my favorite things.  For those of you unfamiliar with Perry, let me enlightlen you about this magnificent drink.  Just as cider is made from cider apples, so perry is made from cider pears.  The area just south of me, in Herefordshire, is a famous apple growing region, but where there are apples, there are also pears.  In the local equivalent to Bloomingfoods, the Ludlow Food Center, the shelves heave withe a magnificent display of local varieties of cider and perry.  And while I certainly love cider, perry has a delicate, floral flavor – I simply can’t understand why the world hasn’t caught on.

Well, as I rhapsodize about pears, I should move on to another product of the orchard which has preoccupied me for the past several weeks, and that is mistletoe.  I only learned that mistletoe favored growing on apple trees, and particularly in the south-west midlands of Britain, in October, when my wwoof host at the Hatch pointed it out to me as we were harvesting apples and pears from the orchard.  He mentioned that he used to sell the mistletoe, but the comment escaped my notice until someone mentioned the Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Auction to me some time later.  My folklore sense sprung into action, and I immediately thought this event seemed ripe with possibility.  And indeed, it has turned out to be so.

The town of Tenbury Wells is located just on the borders of three counties – Herefordshire, Shropshire, and Worcestershire, in which it is technically located.  And allegedly, these mistletoe auctions have been going on for the past 150 years, though they were threatened with closure recently when the cattle market, where they were held, closed.  In an effort to help save the auctions and retain one of its claims to fame, some folks cooked up the Mistletoe Festival to promote the event, complete with a mistletoe queen, a Druid procession, and various other Christmas activities.  You can read more about it on their website here.  While the festival itself is, of course, interesting as a consciously invented tradition, and in terms of its pagan associations, I was actually more interested in the relationship of the mistletoe sales to the issues of orchard management.  It turns out that mistletoe thrives in old and traditionally managed orchards.  I still have a lot to learn about why that is.

Anyway, I sent off some inquiring emails to the estate agents who run the auction, and received a reply from a local farmer who was happy to talk to me.  Armed with my photographic equipment, I set off to the first auction, which happened on Nov 29th.  Turns out I wasn’t the only one with a camera.  There were LOADS of camera-toting people there, from amateur on-lookers to highly professional rigs.  One guy, who turned out to be a floral photographer, even had his assistant/model, all dolled up in ‘authentic’ looking pristine wellies and beautifully matching fuzzy lavender hat and gloves, posing as if she was inspecting and buying the mistletoe.  The place was just dripping in nostalgia, or at least that is what all the photographers seemed to be framing in their cameras.

The actual business of the auction, though, seemed to go on without much notice of the photographers and onlookers.  And it was really business.  The auctioneer, with hs portable loudspeaker and cadre of assistants keeping track of the lot numbers, bidders, and prices, moved up and down the rows of wreaths, holly, and mistletoe, offering a starting price, sometimes with a comment to the quality (“look at the berries on that”) and taking the bids from the small crowd of what seemed to be seasoned veteran buyers.

So how does a fieldworker break into that scene?  I’m still trying to figure that one out.  People in the middle of conducting business transactions aren’t terribly interested in being interviewed, so this situation required a lot more balls, so to speak, on my part, going up to people and asking if they would answer a few questions in between hauling their green purchases to their vans, lorries, and cars.  The guys pictured here had driven all the way from Cork, Ireland and slept in their van and were filling it to the brim for the trip home, where they would sell it through there Christmas tree yard.  They were very friendly.  Many of the buyers were from florists and garden centers, along with some other small scale Christmas tree vendors.  My best tactic for talking to people seemed to be to stand near the bidding action, and turn to the person next to me to ask if they were selling or buying, and launch into an uninvited conversation.  The next week, when I returned for the next auction, I came armed with a printed survey in self-addressed, stamped, envelopes, which I could simply give to people to complete and mail back to me at their leisure.  Even so, it was hard to get it into a lot of hands.  I didn’t meet any sellers, but on my second visit, I walked up and down the rows of mistletoe and holly writing down the names and addresses of the sellers written on the tags of each lot.  Not all had addresses, but it might be a start for contacting sellers and talking to them later.

One group of people whom I have not had the courage to talk to yet are the gypsies.  Along with the farmers who bring mistletoe from their orchards to sell, there are groups of gypsies who gather it from farmers’ orchards and sell it on at the auction.  I did sidle up to two men who seemed to be lingering by the side of the auction yard among groups of people whom I took to be gypsies.  As I tried to start a conversation with them, their first question was if I was a journalist, after which, one of them ranted for a bit about how it wasn’t all christmas cheer and roses harvesting the mistletoe.  It was hard work, at which point, he pulled up his sweater to show me an enormous scar running across his side and up to his ribcage.  I attempted to banter for a bit, and they seemed to warm up to me, but I decided not to push questions.  Maybe later.

Anyway, I did go visit one farm, and was greeted, to my surprise, by a 22-year old guy, recently graduated from an engineering degree, who had moved home to his parents’ farm.  And while he was sorting out what to do next, he had taken their mistletoe business in hand and set up an online direct-sales business, bypassing the auction.  You can find his website here.  He emphasized the need for farmers to change and adapt to new ways of doing business.  He took me out into their orchards: organic, 60-year old orchards which he seemed to think were in definite decline.  Even though they were lovely places to be, with their widely spaced, large, old trees, he didn’t think orchards like this would last much longer, as newer orchards with more closely-spaced, smaller trees were replanted.

And there was the mistletoe, hanging in lacy green orbs from the branches of the trees, sometimes almost overwhelming them.  The farmers have to cut it back every year, or it will sap the energy of the tree and decrease the apple harvest, if not kill it slowly outright.  Piles of mistletoe lay on the ground, much of it to be discarded, as there was just too much even to sell. 

Mellington Cow Power

On Saturday morning, I drove over to visit a local farmer who operates an anaerobic digester, converting slurry and bedding waste from his dairy farm into methane gas, which is burned to create electricity.  I was referred to this farmer through my massage therapist, who was familiar with his wife.  Tucked into the beautiful hills of the Kerry Ridgeway west of Bishops Castle, this farm is down a gravel track.  The house isn’t even visible, hidden behind very functional looking barns and muddy concrete paving.  The odor of cow poo wafts in the air.  I joined another neighbor farmer and his guest, an American dairy farmer, as my host guided us around the various structures that house the components of the digester, all of which are the size of small barns.  Basically, the soiled straw is scraped out of the cow barns and shoveled by a tractor into a pit which feeds into the digester, aided by a macerator which grinds it all up.  See this newspaper article for more about his operation.

I must admit my host’s explanations of the process eluded me much of the time, but I got the general idea of how it all works.  I must emphasize that peering into pools of gloppy, poo-ey, smelly brownish muck was not terribly appealing.  And the industrial quality of the site does not inspire romantic ideals of tranquil pastoral landscapes.  I strained to listen to my host’s explanations of various machinery through the loud mechanical whirring and electric buzzing of the equipment.  The farmers bantered back and forth about some various enormous shredders, macerators, and hand-made-extensions to tractors, of which I had little idea of the purpose and use.  And since what actual farm work I have done has largely involved vegetable gardening, I listened to them discuss the mysteries of livestock farming, as well as the alchemy of soil nutrients and fertilizers in percentages of lime, potash, and nitrogen, with awe and confusion, and tried not to sound too stupid when asking questions.

When extolled by foodies and environmentalists, “organic farming” often seems to be accompanied by visions of green pasture, clean air, and happy animals.  Everything as simple and pure as can be.  The reality of this conventional farm was a lot of heavy machinery, poo-ey farmyards, and smelly waste fermenting into “Cow Power-ed” methane electricity.  However, my host is rather remarkable in his pioneering use of digester technology, which takes the organic waste from his farm and turns it into electricty.  Further, when I asked my host if he had been to agricultural college, he said that he had left school at 14 when his father died and has been working ever since.  He has built his facility himself over the years, rather than installing a ready-made digester kit.  And when asked why he decided to try this in the first place 20 years ago, he talked about global warming and the need to start making energy instead of using fossil fuels.  And through it all, he was incredibly modest, calling his facility very simple.  Though he did proudly show us an award he has recently received from the Renewable Energy Association for being a pioneer in this field.  My host also gave me the information of a scientist at Aberystwyth University who is studying the soil on his farm to analyze the impact that use of the fertilizer created by his digester has had on the soil composition.  While he isn’t an organic farmer, his use of the digested manure significantly off-sets his need to buy in chemical fertilizer.

This was not a pretty place to visit, but I think it is probably a very important place to visit.  It seems to me that environmentalism and foodie-ism often turns farmers into semi-religious custodians of pristine landscapes, rather than recognizing the kinds of technical, mechanical, and physical labor and expertise that go into running agricultural operations.  How can we really expect agriculture to be a part of environmentalism if we don’t really know what it is or how it is accomplished?   This farm visit has definitely impressed upon me how much I have to learn about conventional agriculture and the complexity of approaches to environmental goals.

Bell ringing and Winter

Winter is still officially a month away, and the weather isn’t really that cold yet, averaging around 5-14 degrees C (40-50s F).  But it is the dark that’s really been getting to me.  Around 3pm it starts to get dusky.  Then the sun sets around 4pm, and its mostly dark by 4:30.  I get the sort of dull depressed feeling around sunset, but then perk up a bit later on once I have the woodstove burning and something on for dinner.  But it does make you feel rather lonely.  Living out in this little hamlet in the countryside, there really isn’t anything to do once the sun sets except go home and light the fire.  The cafe where I read and write during the day closes at five.  Everything else closes at 5 except the pub, which is a good option if you really want to be sociable and talkative.  But mostly, unless you are going out to a specific event (which thankfully there are many of) it seems people just button down the hatches in winter.  Once you’ve got the fire lit after dark, there isn’t really much incentive to venture out again.

People here seem to be very good at creating meetings and events to go to in the evening, though, and one thing I’ve done is to join the local band of bell ringers in the local church at Bishops Castle.  Those of you familiar with my bell-ringing interests will know that they go back to my first trip to the UK, followed thereafter by a few research papers at grad school.  And now, here I am, joining in.

It is a very jolly group.  At 7:30pm the captain, John, walks across the road from the Six Bells pub, pint in hand, to unlock the bell tower, and the ringers gradually all come in by 8pm.  While they are straying in, John and other competant ringers ring the bells up, meaning they start pulling on the ropes, gradually swinging the bells higher and higher until they finally will stand upside-down.  It is from this standing position that the bells are then rung.  Our churchtower, as the pub’s name suggests, has six bells, which were all re-hung and re-furbished with a grant from the national lottery a few years ago.

One of the other ringers, David, gave me my first tutorial in bell ringing on my first visit about a month ago.  He used to be the captain, and he was taught by his father, who used to be captain, how to ring from the time he was a small boy.  David is in his 50s I think, and currently works as a carpenter / builder, but has in the past owned and run the Six Bells, and owned a hairdresser shop in town before that.  A real gentleman.  With a ribald sense of humor in the pub, but always a real gentleman.

Ringing a bell takes quite a lot of skill, and the captain informed me that I may well be able to learn to control a bell within the year that I have here.  Strict rules are followed concerning the ropes.  Once the bells have been rung up to standing the ropes are looped into a knot when not held by a ringer, and one is not supposed to sit cross-legged in the tower in case a rope got loose and caught you by the foot and dragged you up.  When ringing, you are NEVER to let go of the tail of the rope, so that it doesn’t go flying around hitting people and let the bell get out of control.  To actually ring the bell, you must not only pull the tail of the rope, but also a section marked with felt called the “sally.”  First the Sally, the the Tail.

And then, you must do all this in coordination with the five other ringers.  It is one of the most bodily-oriented musical activities I’ve ever encountered.  You must really put your whole body into feeling the motions of the bell through the control of the rope, pulling it with just the right amount of strength, waiting to feel it balance at the top of the ring, waiting until the right moment to coordinate with the bell before you, and pulling it again.  Here’s what an attempt at the “Plain Bob Doubles” pattern sounds like:

http://youtu.be/Q6_-rnCf_H4

Well, with all of this to stress you out at practice, you need a pint afterwards, so, after practice, many of the bell ringers trek across to the Six Bells Pub, where a roaring fire and good conversation make it feel like a living room more than a pub.

Soon, hopefully, I’ll graduate to ringing a bell all by myself, but for now, I remain supervised.

Wild Food

One of the things that drew me into this research was the River Cottage Cookbook by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and especially, the chapter in this cookbook entitled “Hedgerow,” which addresses all sorts of foods one can find in the wilder places of the landscape: animal, plant, and fungi.  In Britain, the hedgerow really is the beginning, and sometimes the end, of what we might call “wild” landscapes, since there is relatively little untouched land, virgin forest, or un-managed grassland, making the hedgerow a sanctuary for birds, insects, plants, and mammals, and a resource of wild food and wood for people.  Since I’ve been here in Britain, I’ve been told by several people about the upsurge in the culinary popularity and interest in wild food, and I’ve wondered, what is the draw?  While working at a wwoof farm down in Devon, I helped my host tear out burdock plants, the burrs of which were matting the fleeces of her alpaca herd, and she described how restaurants were apparently paying top dollar for the burdock root.  While I have yet to dissect the popular adoption of wild food in urban foodie-ism (though I have some ideas about that), I’ve been diving into the appreciation of wild food out here in the countryside.

I went on my first mushroom foray here in Bishops Castle after seeing a poster advertising it in the windows of the local baker and the grocery.  I drove up to the car park for the Bury Ditches, a local hill fort, and met up with a group of about 15 or so people, children, parents, middle-aged folks, a few of whom I recognized.  We assembled, and our leader John Hughs, a local guy from Shropshire Wildlife Trust.  We began our walk going down through a field, heading towards some woods.  John had instructed us to call out if we found a mushroom, but not to pick it.  Soon enough, we all crowded around and watched as John deftly dug out the entirety of the base of the mushroom and explained the important points of observing all parts of the mushroom for proper identification.  Our first mushroom was the common field mushroom.  Our hunt brought us through a piece of property called Walcott Wood, part of what was once an old deer park, and home to an astounding collection of old oak trees dating from Elizabethan times.  John, and some of the other more experienced mushroom hunters, found an astonishing variety of fungi I had no previous knowledge of and which I never would have noticed: from waxcaps to parasols to the honey mushroom.

My second mushroom foray took place at none other than River Cottage Headquarters itself.  Together with my intrepid friend Challey visiting me from the States, we had travelled down to Dorset to make the pilgrimage to River Cottage and take a day long Mushroom course.  We arrived at 9:30 in the morning in the car park overlooking the River Cottage Headquarters farm and were greeted by boisterous Steve, the events manager, and John Wright, our mushroom expert, and a sweet strong apple brandy drink to fortify us for the day’s forage.  We boarded the bus with about 20 other participants, mostly middle-aged folks who looked like they were used to good hike.  From the conversation boarding the bus, it seemed some were serious mushroom hunters too, although some were complete novices.  We got off the bus a few miles away and ventured down a lane into a mixed woodland owned by the forestry commission.  Though conditions for mushrooms were not ideal, due to the dry fall weather, John estimated we would find at least 35 varieties of fungi.  I was sceptical, but indeed, by the end of several hours of foraging and several times getting a bit lost in the woodland, we had assembled examples of 44 different types of fungus.  I have to admit, I am not so great at spotting the fungi, and as others called excitedly to alert us to a new find, I grew somewhat frustrated that I was coming up empty.  But then, as we fanned out through the wood, and I ducked under tree branches and through brush, there it was: a beautiful red-capped toadstool, serenely perched on a rotting log, dappled with sunlight falling through the forest canopy.  Fly Agaric, the famous hallucinogenic toadstool right out of fairy tale illustrations.  I felt like I had found a rare jewel.

Back home in Shropshire, Rob Rowe, one of my fellow mushroomers from the Walcott Wood foray called me up yesterday and said conditions were perfect:  it has rained several times in the past few weeks.  The weather looked clear.  A crisp bite to the damp air.  I joined him in Bishops Castle, and he led me out on a walk he has taken frequently, following public footpaths through pastures and down into a little valley south of the town.  We found loads of field mushrooms, and I spotted at least one waxcap, passing on the way a majestic 300 year old oak tree perched on a hillside which Rob had recorded as part of a survey of Ancient Trees for the Woodland Trust.  On one particular hillside far back in the valley, which seemed to be on pasture that was older, unimproved grassland, we stumbled on ring after ring of mushrooms, filling the bag and walking until dusk started to set, and we ventured back to town.  Walking down in the fading light felt almost surreal, watching the lights of the houses burn softly against the delicate lush textures of darkening foliage, and the shadows fall over the outlines of the hedges and the hills, layers of the landscape before me in shades of dove brown, charcoal, and umber, tinted with the smokey rose purple of the last light in the sky.  This was the feeling I can only partially bring up in my mind when I conjur up nostalgic notions of the English Countryside, which can only really be felt in the moment.  The crisp damp smell of the air and wafts of woodsmoke, the mysterious sounds of night birds hooting and calling over the hedges.  It is the feeling of being outside, drifting into the dark, your senses shifting into new muted palettes of sound and color.

Driving home through the evening mist, I spied a large white sphere beneath a hedge by the side of the road.  Excited, I turned the car around, got out, fumbled for my flashlight, thinking maybe I had found one:  a giant puffball!  I walked down to the hedge and shone my flashlight on the glowing orb, only to find a white soccer ball.  Alas, it would have been too good to be true.  And the wrong place to find a giant puffball anyway.

Here at home, I have been studying my new mushroom handbook and succumbing to both the fascination of the fungi world and a slight twinge of fear of the poisonous varieties with names such as “Death Cap” and “Destroying Angel.”  The serious mushroomer, however, seems to know them by the latin names: Amanita Phalloides, Amanita virosa.  I look from the page on “Death Cap” to my plate full of recently gathered field mushrooms with trepidation – did I pick the right ones?  They seem in every way NOT to be any of the poisonous varieties, and conform to the entry for “Field Mushroom,” or Agaricus Campestris.  And my experienced friend Rob seemed to have been sure they were fine and had eaten mushrooms from those fields before.

Now I think I have it.  A small and partial understanding of the wild food phenomenon in a country with a landscape so manicured and managed: Thrill seeking. The WILD half of wild food.  A small feeling of danger, of entering in some way into the life of the uncultivated realms of nature that elude the constant human effort to control the environment.  It is the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden, planted only by the hand of God, tempting, myseterious, alluring, full of insight into another world beyond our daily cultivated toil. 

Many more wild foods and medicines remain to be discovered.  “Hedgerow Medicine” sits on my bookshelf waiting to be perused, and I intend a foray soon for sloes in order to make some Sloe Gin.  And then there is honey, but that is a post for another day…