The untamed shrew!

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

I am rarely at a loss for words, as I guess you all must know, but this week I truly struggle. I would like to write something uplifting and cheering, but as I write this, the only positive on the world scene I can think of, is the opening up of grain shipments from the Ukraine to the rest of the world, otherwise is all gloom and doom.  

Additionally, once upon a time, to have warmth and sunshine on a family holiday would have been a source of great cheer and happiness, but that heat was not like today’s energy sapping non-stop heat and sunshine – it’s just not British!  

Mind you, we did have one hilarious passage of time as Anne and Sophie strove to catch a shrew which unwisely had ventured into the house. Using the well-tried method of attempting to persuade it to enter a glass, in our fairly cluttered sitting room was bound to fail. As to where it might be now, who knows!  

Farm News

On the farm all has shut down as we attempt to minimise the effect of the heat on our sheep and cattle by locating the animals in the most sheltered areas, together with plenty of water. The cattle in the barn are obviously getting fed, the sheep outside will soon need feeding.  

We are not alone, indeed relatively speaking we are doing well. We even have green grass on some fields, and still little signs of distress in hedges or trees. There is still water in the stream, but the level is falling daily, while the ditches are completely dry. Rain is at least forecast from Sunday onwards. But so far, the ground is coping far better than it did ten years ago, and should we have the joy of heavy rain, floods are not inevitable.  

Bow brook

In our area cereals have been harvested, but there is no chance currently of a second cut of haylage. The maize sown for that purpose already looks all but dead. This is going to be a difficult winter on farms, as of course it will be for all. The current claim is that it is 500 years since this kind of year was last experienced. I won’t just write that idea off, for reasons I go into later.  

As you can imagine, farmers are busy sharing concerns and sharing options. All good stuff, but not for sharing widely because I am determined not to sink either you or me into doom and gloom. What I will confirm is that farmers can use various measurements for drought levels and, as I have shared with you previously, also know, from both a theoretical and practical level, the patterns of grass growth.  

None of this is of any help, we are where we are, and just have to stay calm and think about the future if this weather pattern is to be repeated.  

Irrigation is used in this country for specific crops like potatoes, but given the demands on water supply, as an option for grass and woodland is just unrealistic. Obviously light soils dry out the fastest, while heavy soils dry far more slowly. Every type of soil has its advantages and disadvantages and is better for different types of use. Ours is heavy blue lias clay, with the characteristics of mud in wet weather, and concrete in dry, but below the concrete, some moisture can normally be found so our parched land is slightly less dead than it looks.  

Given we need to be alarmed about something at all times, the latest scare is fire. To be fair this is not just a nonsense story, but like the lack of rain, little we can do to minimise it since the intense heat does not require human negligence to spontaneously erupt.  


The apple tree

Returning to a more positive matter, our old apple tree is carrying an abundance of apples, and props are in place to support laden branches. As I wrote this, I was coping with a half memory of the words ‘hanging on the branches of the old oak tree’ a tragic song of some kind. Could it be from ‘hang down your head Tom Dooley’? Vague memories of watching a film in a tin shack somewhere in North Wales and, together with a friend, bawling the song out loudly and discordantly until the small audience joined in! 

Farming Biodynamically: 

Continuing on from last week… Experience has shown that this influence is mediated into the soil when its surface is broken, thus a grower can steer the crop’s growth by choosing when to sow, transplant and weed or hoe around the crop. 

Working with the Calendar is useful for organic growers, but even more helpful for a biodynamic farmer, or grower, whose land has been energised by the use of the biodynamic preparations.  

There are 8 core preparations, which divide in two groups – field preparations and compost preparations.   

There are two for the fields and we start with preparation 500. 

Preparation 500 (so named after its product code in the Weleda catalogue) mediates the plant’s relationship to water. 

BD farmers use it regularly, spraying it on to the fields mixed with water, to enliven the life system in the soil, energising it to reach for water. 

Farmers can also use it in times of drought to support their crops to survive. 

Observation of root systems in crops that have received preparation 500 saw stronger, deeper root systems.  In dessert conditions observation revealed that the plants were obtaining their water from morning dew. 

Preparation 500 helps the plants connect with the natural world more productively. 

Made from pure cow manure that is composted in cows’ horns underground over winter, the preparation is a sweet smelling fine black compost.  It is rich in microbiology, bacteria, fungi and all the microbiological systems of the soil. 

Applied to the fields mixed with water, it is stirred or mixed for an hour, during which time the microbiology has time to incorporate into the water, fully infusing it with life. And should be sprayed out on the field or garden in the late afternoon or evening. 

Inspiration from the travellers

On the personal front, the Burdett’s visit to Zimbabwe, and their subsequent questions, led us to delve into our box files of letters written by and to us and saved. We arrived in Ndola, centre of the copper belt on the 31st of August 1963, and within days were established at Kawambwa Secondary School, more or less in the centre of the country of Northern Rhodesia just south of Lake Mweru.   

Independence came to Zambia that October, and of course the rumours of what was going to happen to us Mzungu were alarming and plentiful, but for us in the middle of the Bush a storm in a teacup. In truth I believe that was true across the country.  I found myself working as Head of Maths, but then so much was odd and unusual, this was just one new thing to adjust to. In March 1964 we were sent off to, what was then Southern Rhodesia to study for my Postgraduate Certification of teaching.  

1964 was a tumultuous year, the year in which Wilson refused to send in British troops to ensure the white population was protected against the growing independence movement. When that was refused, the white government declared UDI.  As university students and English, the 70 or 80 of us were soon persona non grata and became used to police cars following us about. Still, we were young and bloody minded, and apart from university and teaching practice, and to be honest lack of money, did our best to see as much of the country as we could.  

Two things followed: As a group we were regarded as dangerous malcontents, and were forced to leave the country rather earlier than anticipated: Secondly, perhaps inevitably, I had become the spokesman for our group, and our posting was not as recommended to the new sixth form college in Lusaka  but to a new school 450 miles from the capital on red dirt, heavily, corrugated roads – a boneshaking eleven hour drive – and the dust trailed behind one for miles.  

Fortunately, the roads were straight and rose gently up and down, so overtaking, always blind once you were in the dust, was less dangerous than it sounds as at the top of a rise one could see miles ahead. The other joy which comes to me as I write was the need to drive fast enough to only touch the tops of each ridge on the road – 70 usually gave the least uncomfortable ride. And of course, no air conditioning and no mobile phones or AA boxes, but how fortunate we were to go before serious modernisation arrived. How else could we have experienced a world without electricity, often without running and safe water, and no health service just around the corner. A reflection of a non-existent world in the west; where self-reliance and community support from the black and few White people was everything.  

Our travellers wanted to know about our time in what is now Zimbabwe, and the box file of letters provided us with a fascinating read, and a reminder of adventures long forgotten. How young we were, and naïve, but perhaps how necessary that was. Our reading also reminded us of the strong links we established with Christopher’s grandparents.  

His grandfather, perhaps remembering his wartime days with the Chindits and young officers, was astonishingly patient with my political views, which were, naturally, very different from his.  

Anne also turned up my first recorded falling out with those necessary parasites of the modern world, a bank. Plus ca change, I have at least been consistent for 57 years.  

We look forward to hearing of their adventures in ten days’ time and enjoying their photographs. 


A feature of the English language which I always find entertaining is the variety of meanings even simple words can have; add to that the meanings tend to depend on the generation using them, and that simple pleasure may be enhanced. I came across the notion of a ‘sponging house’ which led me to explore the history of the word ‘sponge’.  

One unexpected finding was that ‘sponging’ was not modern slang. In modern day English ‘to sponge off’ or being called a ‘sponger’ are far less often heard in recent years. I found that the original meaning of ‘sponger’ in the 1600’s described an individual happy to lend money to friends. When its meaning reversed, I do not know but it was a surprise to me.   

By the way ‘sponging houses’ were a potentially stage before debtor’s prison. Debtors who appeared to have the potential to borrow money, would have the opportunity to pass the time in a ‘sponging house’ while friends and relations rallied round to find sufficient money. For bailiffs they were good business because they could charge board and lodgings on top of the normal fees. My memory suggests they were banned in the mid 1850’s, but that may be wrong.  

The Reverend Gilbert White of Selborne

In my long-ago youth, I had fairly strong negative feelings for ‘so-called gentlemen’, whose life appeared to ensure work was avoided at all costs, think of Mr Bennet, or the man Elizabeth married. Even worse were those shoehorned into posts as clergymen, usually third or fourth sons. There was always the one exception in my mind – The Reverend Gilbert White of Selborne. His collected works were all read, and he was very much a hero, as a proto environmentalist, to my father, who in many ways, except for his bizarre and endless attack on daisies in his lawn, was deeply interested in and committed to both antiquities and natural history.  

In later life I came to realise White was not a ‘one off’ and it was the members of this group of people who provided us with data about all aspects of nature, which ensures that in this country record are available to an extraordinary degree of times long past.  

The book ‘A Natural History of Selborne’ was actually put together after his death by his brother and has been in print ever since, some 200 years.   

For 13 years of Gilbert White’s life, he had a female tortoise called Timothy, who appears now and then in his record.  

Now, an East Coast American has written a book entitled ‘Timothy’, which pulls together much of White’s writing and thoughts, and explores, through the mind of Timothy, an examination of many aspects of being a human being.   

It is an amazing, thoughtful, provocative and moving piece of writing. I cannot recommend it more highly. The author is Verlyn Klinkenborg and the writing is exquisite.  


Thrashing around for a poem that reflected heat and drought, I eventually fell back on the poem my generation faced in our English Literature ‘O’ level examination. I have chosen a quote from the Coleridge poem ‘The Ancient Mariner’. I apologise for my lack of imagination, but the poet expresses so much of the present, if not the famous line!    

But now is perhaps the time to give credit to the reality that my collection of poems, collected works and anthologies is not just made up of works inherited or acquired myself, but also collections given to Anne over the years. This means that the mix is eclectic and wide ranging. It does include modern poetry, but I am always a little nervous of copyright laws so shy away from poems that might still be in copywrite. Hence, for example, poetry by today’s Indian poets.  

All in a hot and copper sky,  
The bloody Sun, at noon,  
Right up above the mast did stand,  
No bigger than the Moon.  
Day after day, day after day,  
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;  
As idle as a painted ship  
Upon a painted ocean.  
Water, water, every where,  
And all the boards did shrink;  
Water, water, every where,  
Nor any drop to drink.   

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