Last weekened, for the first time in my life, I met a combine harvester. Or rather, I met one of the wheels. And one of the wheels was enough; it’s almost as tall as I am (and I’m not short) and probably similar in size to my whole car [i]. The machine itself, even without the wheels, was probably bigger than the house currently I live in.
The farm I visited was entirely alien to me, but the strangest thing about it was the noise it made in the evening. When you stand in the middle of the fields (and there’s quite a lot of land there, especially for a girl who measures floor space in square feet), you can hear nothing. Actually nothing. I like peace and quiet, but peace and quiet to me comes with the background noise of living under the Heathrow flight path (when I was small) and mere metres away from the M40 (now, when I’m not so small). Vehicles of one form or another tick away quietly in the background of my life, ever present and for the most part, unnoticed (though listening for concord at 11am when I was at primary school was a definite exception – everything stopped when concord flew over; it was far too noisy to think, especially when you’re thinking complicated four-year-old thoughts). So for me, Countryside Quiet is quiet on a whole other level. It truly does ‘echo with the sound of silence’.
Everyone knows the sound of your ears ringing when you subject the poor things to a lot of loud noise for a continuous length of time, whether it’s a concert, festival or screaming child. But stood in the middle of a field, with zero background noise, no matter how hard I strained to hear, my ears were ringing with the lack of noise. It was like they couldn’t cope without sound, and so generated it themselves.
If black is in fact the absence of colour or light, then silence is the black of the auditory realm. Quiet you can hear, but this was the complete and utter absence of anything – and I can’t stress that enough. Very occasionally you could head a distant moo of cattle or squark of a pheasant, but that only heightens the lack of sound the rest of the time. Nothing happening, the world just Is. It lifts everything from your shoulders, the world is put on pause… it’s wonderful.
Another thing I liked about being on the farm was seeing the animals. Not just the farm animals, but the wildlife. I’ve developed a familiarity with game – I’ve had to, as it’s emblazoned on everything in the shop where I work, from jumpers and cufflinks to crockery and boxer shorts. Partridges on side plates and bowls, woodcock on mugs, pins and brooches of roe deer and snipe, pheasants embroidered onto jumpers and grouse woven into silk ties. I’ve been presented with a brace of pheasants, a few rabbits, pigeon and even haunches of venison as gifts, and I even have a tiny silver grouse hanging off my charm bracelet as a gift from my mother. But I’ve not yet actually spent any length of time around the live birds. Seeing them around the farm provided not only a novelty, but immense amusement.
They really are funny little things. The plumage on a cock pheasant is stunning, and stationary it looks almost elegant with long slim tail feathers, a proud face and the spectacular shimmering mallard-green and holly-red head, subtly speckled and smoky feathers on the body. But then they start to move, and the show begins. Strutting around with his chest puffed up, the cock pheasant assumes a comically arrogant persona: a rich portly gentleman of class, red face from years of overindulgence and cigars simply because he can; one thumb hooked into the pocket of a silk waistcoat, gold buttons straining, as he consults his shiny pocket watch pretentiously, rising onto his tip toes in that sort of way as he proclaims something supposedly insightful, concluded with ‘… don’t you know old boy’. Tail thrust out proudly behind him, our Mr Pheasant –sorry, Sir Pheasant, swaggers about as if he owns the land and terribly kindly lets the poor farmer work it. And yet, for all his apparent pride, if you walk or better yet drive towards him, the two scrawny little legs that support his rotund body start spinning round in circles like a Loony Toons character. Both scared and hilariously indignant, huffing and puffing he scuttles away.
Partridges are simply a smaller, rounder version of the same. Quiet and peaceful on the surface, not quite so proudly plump in the chest but they are just as funny to watch. Given that despite their wings, they’re not the most proficient fliers, partridges and pheasants both really do have tiny little spindly legs, with movement limited to just two options: the overinflated strut and comical scuttle of resentful desperation.
In the fields at dusk we watched the Mad March Hares playing (before returning home for tea with Alice and the dormouse no doubt). Bounding through the sprouting wheat and barley, pausing occasionally to box each other before carrying on their whimsical game of tag. Roe deer spotted in the distance, only as tall as the hedges around them, slim elegant legs and necks, they walk sedately though the fields. Admittedly at this point I only saw the farm, I didn’t do any work or get involved in any way. But watching the wildlife at dusk you see how nature endures calmly and happily, barely disturbing the silence and flattered by the twilight, providing gentle entertainment, amusement and wonderment. I’m sure Mother Nature will reveal her nasty side to me soon enough – and eyes peeled because I’ll write about it when she does – but for now, I’m smitten.
I know some of my friends would ask how I could reconcile this attitude towards nature and wildlife when I am in favour of shooting. On a farm like that one, small shoots are held during the season, and Sir Pheasant, who I’ve been writing about with such affection, becomes a target. While I’m desperate to go, I’ve not yet actually been game shooting (one day… one day) but despite my lack of experience and my appreciation of nature, I will still defend it. The shooting industry is actually responsible for an awful lot of conservation of the wildlife and habitats involved in shooting (see BASC for more info). Birds are bred specifically for the sport, and are looked after from birth – after all, a weak bird that can’t fly a good distance, for any length of time or with any speed makes for a very poor target. Anyone who takes issue with game shooting should consider the source of the meat they eat from their local supermarket – I for one would far rather eat a bird that’s lived its life outdoors and been shot mid-air than a battery farmed hen. It is very possible to appreciate the elegance and comedy of the puffed up pheasant strutting his stuff on the farm, the challenge he provides as an airborne target, and the flavour of the pheasant breast wrapped in streaky bacon on your plate at dinner.
[i] The overgrown toboggan that is my little blue Peugeot 107.