A Year In Essex

Charles Macfarlane

The smell of burning fields will ever bring to mind
A former life of someone quite like me;
With rucksack full of hope, he'd wandered off to find ...
A better world?  Well, maybe one more free!
At summer's end he found employment on a farm,
Through shameful fortune running far too rife,
And was at once ensnared in easy, peaceful charm
Inherent in the rites of farm work life.
Living in a mobile home
Travelling all day up and down, up and down.

When autumn, stealing in with early morning dews,
On trees and hedgerows burns its blood-red brand,
Their misty silhouettes in gold and copper hues
Send shadows slanting on the flat, wide land.
Around and round again, in carousel of mime,
As flakes of snow inside a child's toy glass,
The birds arise and fall, like beings trapped in time,
To feed on worms revealed when ploughshares pass;
Their plaintive cries unheard amid the tractor's roar
Until a deafened quiet for well-stewed tea;
Both hands around the mug, your weary eyes ignore
A tranquil scene that after you'll still see
Round your mind and round again,
Ploughing all day up and down, up and down.

Then winter's chilling wind holds Nature in its freeze,
Too lazy to go round it cuts straight through
And moans around the bones of naked, ghost-like trees,
Whose skeletons remain where once leaves grew.
Despite the layered clothing tightly wrapped around
There's no escaping it for hedgerow crews,
From penetrating cold there's small warmth found
In fires of burning brash and strong, hot brews.
A-whispering the snow comes swirling down the wind
And hides the moon with ranks of dark, grey clouds
And in the morning light, your eyes are driven blind
By endless sunlit fields in stark, white shrouds;
Keep the warmth by moving slow
Bending all day up and down, up and down.


The rain rolls back the snow, and then the sun the rain,
As spring arrives and not a day too soon;
There's little time to get the tractors out again
To till the land beneath the mad March moon;
The headlamps' feeble light is not enough to show
Your tiring eyes the last bout's faint, dark hue,
And so you lose the line, and wander in the eerie glow,
And hope the man who drives the drill steers true!
You sense the scent of spring at night around your bed
But fade away, and as to sleep you yield
The soil advances still, unending in your head,
Hypnotic waves adrift a slow star field.
Bout by bout the job gets done
Sowing all day up and down, up and down.

As summer settles in, the garden bulbs are cast;
And scents are now of beans and oil-seed rape;
Intoxicating, strong, but soon these too are past
As summer heat rolls on, and dry fields gape.
The work is easy now, there's time for evening walks,
On holiday with she while hand holds hand
A badger just a yard away, and sparrowhawks
Patrolling hedgerows on the hot, dry land.
But when the seed has finished setting in the crop
The combines cruise in clouds of sharp, dry dust,
In harvest over-time that never seems to stop,
Although too tired to work, it's work you must.
Combines, tractors come and go,
Reaping all day up and down, up and down.

When evening silhouettes are burning stubble straw
With symbols of the devil - pitchforks, fire -
I'm haunted by a past that never has been more
Beyond those halcyon days in that flat shire.
For what had seemed like luck was just a huge mistake ...
Some bad employers, Farmers' Lung, wrecked back,
Ideas of social usefulness a sorry fake;
And I'm marooned an urban business hack,
With a tiny, sunless garden,
Dying by day, ever down, ever down.

(Begun) Mid-1980s, (finished) 2005/6

A poem within a poem  -  the original nostalgic descriptive poem I was first inspired to write when driving through Buckinghamshire at dusk I saw, and smelt, stubble burning, counterbalanced by the greater realism of hindsight!

Scansion:  The trailing three longs are deliberate, and should be read accordingly:

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u - u -     | u - u - - -
u - u - u - | u - u - u -
u - u -     | u - u - - -
- u - u - u -
- u u - | u u - | u u -

Creative Commons Licence Copyright of this work is held by Charles Macfarlane, who licenses it under a Creative Commons Licence (Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales)