Early morning frosts

“This blog is the unfolding story of Rush Farm and an exploration of life by its philosopher farmer.”

I, as like many of you no doubt, watched and listened to the Service of Commemoration for the Duke of Edinburgh.  

However bumpy our history has actually been since the building of Westminster Abbey in 1285, the scene, the service, and the members of the congregation left me at least with a sense of timelessness and belonging. Now and then we need to be reminded of who we are.  

Putin seems to have totally failed to grasp genuine nationalism, exactly as Hitler did with this country in 1939, and viewing the Abbey it is amazing to remember that the building survived the bombing of his war. However, the link I want to make is that around the date of the building of the first church on the site, which became the Abbey of today at about the same time (mid 900’s), Olga, of Viking ancestry, who became the patron saint of Ukraine, expanded the Kievan Rus to its greatest extent, and this included the Russia of that time, and a substantial part of Belarus. Ukrainian nationalism has as a long a history as our own.  

The Farm

After the balmy weather of last week, we experienced something rather different this week, even if not quite the excitement forecast – at least as regards snow fall – though the week did end with quite unnecessarily heavy frost. As far as the farm is concerned, we have seen no more than a blip in growth on the pastures. The farm week has seen its ups and downs, but on a very positive note we have welcomed Alice who will be with us for two months. She comes with considerable experience, including some stock management of cattle but not sheep. With Chris needing to go to Zimbabwe again very soon, an extra pair of hands will clearly be invaluable and hopefully she will leave us feeling very ready for her post as a farm manager.  

Sadly, we had a ewe give birth to two premature and dead lambs – not the ideal experience in the weeks leading up to the timetabled lambing. Keeping sheep is not straightforward. Leaving aside their apparent willingness to just die, lambing comes not just with cuddly bouncy healthy lambs, but there are always a small number of difficult births, stillbirths, and a range of birth defects. None of this is probably different for any other animal species – noticeably to farmers no doubt because of the size of flocks. It really does force a recognition of the facts of life most people are shielded from.   On a much brighter note, now one calf has discovered it can escape, the activity has become so popular many others have discovered how to get out, requiring Tim to put up hurdles to ensure exit from the barn area was no longer possible – the attached short video scene sets for you. The obvious question is how, and the answer lies in the fact that the cattle have been kept inside for longer than in past years, and the bedding litter is now so deep the calves can hop over the feeding ‘tomb stones’. In truth, so could the cattle, but why use up that energy while you are content. 

Should you wonder why we have kept them in so long I would remind you of the graph showing the growing period for grass I shared recently. If they were put out now, they would still require feeding.  

As part of our normal reflections on farm matters, we looked at the amount of feed and bedding straw the current number of cattle have used to date this year. The problem of having enough feed is exacerbated by now having our largest fields sown with a low productivity seed mix, and the agreement we signed up to requires us to give each of all such eight fields, a six week break to allow flowers and herbs sown in the mix a chance to flower and set seeds.  

Last week I rather foolishly wrote about our rather ancient and primitive Zetor tractor in a positive way. At the start of this week, it developed clutch problems. Not the clutch plate thank goodness, and repairs were possible quickly, so once again it is trundling around again. The replacement of the clutch plate was actually done last year, but true to character I feared the worst – a hangover from a previous life where brickbats were more common the bouquets.  

The garden now looks bright and fresh with a range of colours from flowers, leaves and blossom. The witch hazel has looked better, and the Mirabelle plums have lost their blossom, otherwise for ornamental blossom trees, Blackthorn and damson the peak of their display is upon us.  

Typically, the week ended with a hard frost, but then whoever claimed nature had any interest in our petty endeavours!   

As for birdlife we are at that time of years when arguments rage as to whether now is the time to take bird feeders down or continue feeding. Obviously in our position certainly bird feeders probably aren’t necessary at any time of the year, but then we would have to give up so much pleasure. Our moorhens confused me for a while on Friday. At first sight it appeared we had a mallard female duck on the lawn but then, seeing another moorhen scuttling away I realised that the ‘duck’ was in fact a male moorhen with all its feathers fluffed out and intending to woo the other bird. Serious to them of course, but very funny to watch the chase until they vanished into a flower bed.  

This week in the very early morning as an accompaniment to the cooing of the doves we have heard the honking as a skein of geese fly over either to our pond or more likely to Feckenham Nature Reserve. 


Now that it looks likely we will have French youngsters with us this summer, given how long it is since I had to attempt to help young people who came here in part to improve their English, I decided to attempt once again to actually complete reading a book on linguistics. I turned to that eminent academic and highly respected writer in the field of linguistics David Crystal. To read the Ipcress file took a small fraction of the time to read Crystal’s ‘pelican’ publication on linguistics.  

I found it really heavy going, and the conclusions I came to were, in the main, not helpful, and sadly by the end of reading the book I could see no great interest or useful value to me in the ‘subject’. There seems to be little unity between the ‘experts’ and the temptation was to doubt that the subject has any real value. I concede my own fragility in being unable to mimic or hear alien sounds. I cannot even internalise the phonetic alphabet, but then Crystal himself seems unsure of the value of that supposed aid to speaking other languages.  

The first few chapters in the book were reasonably easy going and confirmed my own rather trenchant views on the teaching of English both here and abroad. These chapters covered the reality that the grammar taught in schools here or overseas bears little relationship to the actuality of our language. The English we speak today is a long way from the language spoken by our invader ancestors. Despite grammarians’ determination to make sense of it by imposing a Latin template, it is now accepted this was at the very least unhelpful. Neither does it make a great deal of sense to turn to the grammar of other more Teutonic languages.   

Whatever other languages may try to fix their language; English has an active changing life of its own. So, I freely admit the written language that comes naturally to me, almost certainly feels old-fashioned to younger readers. That enables me to make a separate and crucial point our spoken language is, usually, quite different from that we use in writing. The differences are many and significant.  

Additionally, while in writing, words are separate one from another in any language, unless speech is drastically slowed down, what one hears is a stream of noise and identifying individual words to a non-native speaker is often quite impossible.  

Anybody who has been to France realises this the moment they employ the French they learnt at school, and in my limited experience the gap between spoken and written French is not as wide as the gap in English. It needs little thought to understand why: Intonation, compression, facial and body movements cannot be reflected in writing by punctuation alone. Since language is about communication, misunderstanding can only be avoided by using language very carefully – actually we all know this, the small print in contracts is often so complicated as to be meaningless to all but lawyers.  

Obviously, there must be fundamental rules in the language, but these can be hard to tie down. I well recall learning that there is a rule governing the order to be taken in applying multiple adjectives to a noun. Crystal demolishes this without difficulty – the key phrase needing to be born in mind at all times is ‘it all depends’. For the native speaker or reader, ‘does it sound or feel right’ is what we commonly use. Hardly useful for the non-native speaker or writer particularly when it comes to spelling.  

We are all aware that many words in English can be used in what we probably would call ‘parts of speech’ – nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on. Crystal draws attention to the reality that we most likely are quite unaware how imprecise are the everyday definitions of these words. Does all this matter? Probably not, at least to most native-born speakers, but do teachers of English both know and teach this? In terms of updating my own approach this summer I think I may well be more direct and rejecting of the statements ‘but this what we have been taught’, and to emphasise what they need to help to decipher spoken English in all its peculiarities, because actually rational explanations of apparent oddities do exist.  

So, to quote: ‘studying linguistics may help you become a linguist but little else. It does not help one teach English either as a written or spoken language’  

Before I read this book, I had reread a book written by an American academic who had given thirty years of his life to studying three Amazonian languages which were heading for extinction. On reflection this was not really about linguistics but about language. I confess I found it no more stimulating than I had when first read in 2012.   Having written that paragraph earlier in the week, I found myself as first light came reflecting on how many issues I glossed over in that short paragraph, and in my response. Given the battles our ancestors had to overcome to ensure our language is alive and well, it was poorly done on my part being so dismissive.  

Thereafter, and perhaps therefore, I next tackled Crystal’s book on English spelling. The early chapters were particularly interesting to me because this was new territory being about Anglo-Saxon. The book as a whole is far too detailed for any ordinary mortal to retain it all in one’s head, especially as exceptions complicate matters further. However, for those of us who have wondered why English does not use didactics, an answer is provided. In every European language the roman alphabet does not have enough letters in it. Crystal suggests in English we have 44 consonant and over 20 vowels sound, while we only have 25, later 26 letters to use. The answer early writers came up with was to differentiate long and short vowels through spelling. I give one example.  So, add an e to ‘hop’ and that ‘o’ changes sound in ‘hope’. If you have the time and interest, Crystal’s books on spelling and punctuation, read for interest, and not for passing examinations are I think very interesting.  

News and content

What follows is rather a ragbag of news and content. What really caught my imagination was reading the latest thoughts on settlement in Greenland. We now, it seems, know two new things. To start with, hard evidence shows that the first settlements were much earlier than had previously been believed. In a way, more exciting was to learn that it was not the mini-ice age of the 14th to 15th centuries which ended settlement in early 1400, but a period of prolonged drought which made it impossible either to grow enough cereal or harvest feed to overwinter stock. A record exists of the last marriage in Greenland in, if I remember rightly, 1408.  The couple then joined the exodos to Iceland shortly afterwards. Apparently previous ideas were based on examining an ice core taken a thousand miles north.  

Sometimes one stumbles across needed revisions in one’s belief in other ways. I refer at the end of these notes to Sweden. It was there that in visiting a living museum of a homestead that I realised the famine in Ireland had been replicated all across Northern Europe, and emigration from there to North America reduced existing populations by up to 50%. Ireland did not suffer alone, though that cannot hide the role of British government. 

I am not going to comment on the Oscars since any interest I express would be bogus, but I do want to comment on wider matters including the current standard of interviewing, news presenting and choice of items of significance.  

I completely fail to understand how an interviewer can ask an individual, just rescued from a bombed building, ‘how do you feel’, or a mother whose child has just been mauled to death, being asked the same question. In a similar vein, why is the first priority for reporters and presenters either to ask or tell us, ‘How many have been killed’. I can understand asking the question, ‘have there been casualties’ but how and in what way are we the better for being given numbers, updated of course as time passes.  

Thinking of production values, other questions arise every day. Why if a reporter is telling us about events, does she or he have to be filmed standing outside Downing Street, for example. Why so often does the reporter merely repeat the words used by the presenter a few minutes before.  

But I suppose something I really find irritating is how often producers chose as lead items in news programmes matters of the outmost triviality, and only marginally might be called news if one was in a generous mood.  

Changing tack, and reacting as person being interviewed or questioned, for me the worst kinds of questions are those such as ‘what is your favourite book or piece of music’. How impossible such questions are to answer politely?  

Listening to ‘Record Review’ on Saturday morning the temptation to misquote Jane Austen from Pride and Prejudice after listening to a review of a piano concerto on CD, by writing – ‘it is a universal truism that reviewers reveal more about themselves than the material they review’. This reaction came after a piece of music was described as ‘so angry’, a remark which struck me as quite absurd.  

Anything to avoid mentioning the recent men’s test match series, or the women’s defeat by Australia requires me to end with the news that the Chinese report that it was geese that were the first domesticated fowl!  

At the start of this century Anne and I for nearly a decade would spend up to four weeks staying with a friend on the Baltic coast of southern Sweden. In those days there were three ways of taking one’s car to Scandinavia. The northern most route was to Bergen, but that would have entailed a three-day car journey. Our preferred route was to Gothenburg which, though we often took a day and a half’s drive from there to complete our journey, eventually was discontinued, and this left us with needing to take the ferry to Esjberg in Denmark. In many ways, though it entailed more driving, was attractive, as it took us across by bridge the various islands, and then from Copenhagen across ‘The Bridge’ to Malmo, and then three hours east drive to a small hamlet called Stenaby. In those days we had what was once called an estate car, necessary for all our clobber including a box of books. Our first use of this crossing brought back ancient memories of using a number of ferries – an opportunity for many travellers to overindulge in alcohol and crossing into Sweden by light aircraft as the strait between the two nations was ice bound!   We normally left home at the end of our spring, knowing that we would catch a second spring in Scandinavia, something we very much enjoyed, and that is why I have closed the poem below by Esaias Collin and published in 1899. The author was a well-known poet and short story writer. The poem was made up of a number of verses, but I think the three I have chosen well represent Swedish poetry at that time

“Now spring is brightening”  

Now spring is brightening all over Sweden, 
and all the buds of the trees swell profusely, 
and fairies and lakes break the bonds of ice, 
and cheerful, the streams in the moss swell. 
It shimmers yellow at the slightest ditch edge, 
it shines violet around valley and steep.  

Long-distance guests rebuild stay 
under the crowns of the roofs in old places, 
and over fields, where summer’s harvests grow, 
the song of the lark is heard from morning to night 
and the fishes in the midday sun 
on the ground sometimes spawn last year.  

More than weapons, however, is faith and hope 
and the love of the simple customs of the fathers; 
for a people that has grown up without a year, 
– in spite of everything – the sun of freedom will set, 
and he who cannot endure the gentle compulsion of virtue, 
will have to carry a heavier burden last time… 

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