First of all, I Greatly Appreciated all your comments from the last post. It turned out to be a real thought-provoker for me and also comforting when so many of you stood up and shared similar stories.
I am still feeling a bit jittery (recovering from a migraine last Sunday doesn't help) but having gone through the diary and cancelled a number of things that were threatening to sink the next three months in the run up to Christmas, life feels more manageable. No doubt that will eventually filter down and sooth the ruffled nervous system, given time :o)
I mentioned the need to jettison things and slow down to one of my lovely bosses at college this week and it turns out he is feeling the exact same way himself. I think perhaps it's modern life, sending all of us the message that we need to be stretching, stretching, stretching all the time if we're to be of any value. Nonsense of course, but a pervasive sense nevertheless.
My session with my First Years this week gave me a much-needed boost. We worked on public speaking, which most of them are very worried about but which they will all have to do more than once on the course. I got them all reading a verse each of The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. It's such a great poem to read out loud among a group of people and for public speaking exercises it's top notch, having a good pace, a cracking story, good rhymes and lots of punctuation marks as hints for where to pause and breath. We messed about with ideas like walking about the room instead of standing still, looking up at the audience at the end of each line etc. There was laughter; there were some interesting theatrics and interpretations and most of all there was improvement and engagement. They were fab and I was proud of them all. It isn't an easy thing to step outside your comfort zone but every single one of them did it. We celebrated with chocolate eclairs and congratulatory smiles and applause at the end.
I spent a nice hour or two out on The Chalk this morning, which as you know is my Favourite Place To Be. The dogs are furious because they weren't allowed to come. Poppy has expressed her annoyance by Illegally Removing A Plant Pot from the greenhouse and throwing it into the middle of the lawn where I can't reach her without her seeing me approach, thus giving her plenty of time to grab it and run off. She's busy ripping it to shreds as I type. Ted, meanwhile, contents himself with casting Long Reproachful Glances my way and emitting the occasional small, disgruntled woof, when he isn't dragging the new dog bed noisily across the room while I am trying to write an essay. This is done by him holding one end of the raggedy old pheasant toy while Pop sits inside the bed holding the other end and being pulled across the floor. I will try and get a video for you. I have promised them a decent walk tomorrow and on Sunday.
We were collecting samples on The Chalk from our nitrate/ cover crop trial, or trying too this morning. It's been so dry there was nothing in the pots. I got there a bit early and went for a wander to admire the hedge that runs across the arable field. At first sight it looks raggedy, unkempt, a bit sparse and thin here and there and mostly dominated by ivy...
But as you walk along you begin to notice signs of Ancient Hedgeness in the number and type of species growing there...
Ash, Oak, Blackthorn, Hawthorn, Hazel, Ivy, Spindle, Willow, Purging Buckthorn, Yellow Lichen, Mugwort, White Dead Nettle, Nettles, Thistle, another type of lichen.
Hooper's Rule states you can age a hedge by the following formula: number of woody species in a 300 yard stretch multiplied by 100. I walked broadly 300 yards, so by that calculation this hedge is 900 years old.
It's not impossible that it is that old, although there are flaws to Hooper's Rule, not least of which is that hedges have been ripped out and replanted here over the last 50 or so years and the replanting tends to happen with a number of species in the mix, so a hedge that is actually 20 years old could be taken as being 1000. Even so, I have a feeling this is an Old Hedge. A Guardian of The Chalk. In all likelihood a remnant of Ancient Woodland.
Chalk isn't especially fertile. The vegetative communities that have grown up on it and which we still have (on the Downs at least) today are the result, mostly, of human activity. Animals have been grazed on it since the Bronze Age, and as these were mainly sheep, who close-crop the ground and don't give much back in the way of fertilizer, Chalk soils tend to be low in nutrients and the vegetation growing on them tight and compact, ergo (great word) not much use for farming. Until Haber and Bosch came along anyway.
I've heard their process (which enabled Hydrogen and Nitrogen (from the air) to be combined under extremely high pressure to create Ammonia, and therefore the mass production of artificial fertiliser, and the destruction of vast swathes of the countryside and the explosion in the world's population to boot) called the most important invention of the 20th century. They were working on it in the early 1900s and went into production in 1913. As an ecologist I wouldn't put it that way: we're picking up the pieces now, in polluted ground water levels and river water and in the widespread loss of habitats in the countryside and the damage done to ecosystems which ultimately rebounds on us as they provide us with the air we breath, the water we drink and the soils we grow our food in.
Anyway, Chalk being largely low nutrient stuff it was more or less left alone until the Haber Bosch process meant it could be forcibly made fertile. Since then we've ploughed it, stuffed it full of fertilizer and stuck vast swathes of it into agricultural production and as a result, we've lost much of the rich botany and invert life it once supported. The Downlands are the last refuge for much of it. All of this explains why I suspect the hedge is as old as it seems. Because it's sitting right in the middle of an ancient landscape that has more or less stayed the same for the last 5000 years, and only really shifted in the last 50.
It was cold out in the fields, but the Hedge offered an amazing amount of shelter. It deadened the wind entirely and the air on the lee side was definitely a few degrees warmer. You forget how important that simple word "shelter" is when you live in a house with heating and electricity available at the merest touch of a button, and you have access to warm, thick, waterproof clothing and somewhere to hang it to dry.
One of the things I love best about being outside is the way nature reconnects you to the most basic elements of life. It's more realer than any other environment (as Granny Weatherwax would say). I don't have to hunt my food and I can sleep at night in a warm, safe bed, but I would really hate not to get out into the woods and fields, the hills and valleys, and pick up a sense of what life was like when life was like that.
I'll leave you with some people who have made a much-welcome return to the garden this week and wish you all a pleasant weekend filled with nice, calming, happy, relaxing things.