The slow-going amble of a hedgehog had welcomed our first evening, its stretched body almost lost to us in the creeping dusk as it pulled night down slowly around it. Bothersome flies mobbed us, determinedly unspooked by waving hands, troubling the eyes and tickling at the nose. Loosening our strides down towards the river for some relief (past the honeysuckle, scenting sweet nectars), our eyes chased the evening’s swallow flights as they gulleted airborne suppers. This. This is what we had come for: space to breathe and to collect nature’s gleanings.
We had driven through moors of welted thistles and lapwings whose cunning kept them hidden in the stooked marram grasses; a snipe on a brief respite from its young; and grouse that only made themselves known by an antic chuckle: all throat and no song. Taking the narrowing country lanes that corset you between jumbling stone walls, we had seen the dying back of the cow parsley, and the emergence of the hogweed – all elbows and knuckles – evangelising to the sky. Loudly-proclaimed umbels; finest lacework before our eyes. We had looked doubtfully at glowering clouds of grey, against which the moors hulked sullenly. Here and there skulked hen pheasants, dun bodies carried low and a wary eye trained on all passersby. But as we got down into the valley, the creamy, tasty elderflower blooms saucered in the lanes: gone the hawthorn-blossoms that made the Dales white in May. Down, still down, through deepening lanes almost completely overarched in tiring summer greens of ancient oaks and sycamores, the road flushed us out like two partridge into the village of Low Row.
Fetched up in the bowl of Swaledale, away from wild unknowable moors, with their secret pockets of heath thymes, trefoils and bedstraws, our eyes claimed the downy meadows as our own. Stone-barned and stone-bordered living links, threading the valley’s geography, and as old as anything else here that the eyes can see, save only the brooding treeless hills. Their brute aspects are millenia-old limestone, crumbling in loosening shale at the top: slate-grey and warning of the folly of trying to climb them. They preside over layered volumes of stone, laid down almost-accidentally like forgotten books over centuries of time; little creatures, fish and plants, ossified forever in sedimentary secrecies. A day is but an eye-blink to these Yoredale geomorphologies; they deal in deep time. Stacking up silt and organisms in archives of rock; each one speaking to a different age of the world, differently charactered, with plants and animals discoverable in distinct typologies. I have been at Wain Wath force, the river licking at the rock like a tongue at gap-toothed gums, and found the minutely-preserved frond of a palm, and the impression of a bivalve shell. I have held them in my hands and felt the telescoping of time to when each of them thrived, in a landscape I would not have recognised.
And lying so lightly atop it, as seemingly impermanent and ephemeral as fossil is tough, meadowland is a temporary greening crust. The surface glamour to buried treasure. It does not know the words ‘lasting’ or ‘forever’, yet year on year, seed by seed, it incorrigibly grows itself again. To see a meadow is to see nature’s optimism writ large. Their vernal grasses were in the process now of oldening, some farmers already busy about the first summer cutting, leaving silvery waves of sillion hay in their wakes. Touched with a million yellow stars – buttercups, upturned faces transfixed skywards, the sun reified in each one – they were taking energy and laying it down for winter. Hard not to see them without the mind playing chin-tickling, fleeting tricks. At a distance, gold and green were the valley’s mantle: a straightforward dales greeting.
I am not deceived by their delicate glamour. However fragilely they may seem to cling upon the earth, there is something antique also in the meadow’s temporary armour. Some of these dales meadows have taken centuries of persuasion to come into being and are truly medieval. Years of sunshine have sung their petals and grasses open to make this rich lexicon of flower; countless winds have dispersed and deposited their seeds; floods of rain have watered them well in and been drunk down deep. Meadows are one of nature’s finest paradoxes: they are old and at the same time constantly renewed. They speak to decades, sometimes centuries, of patient craft and alliance between nature and farmer. If it is an orchid meadow, you can reckon that at least a century of sympathetic farming – leaving the meadow to its own devices for the majority of the summer; only mowing in August or September – has allowed the orchid to establish and bloom. Each one is only ever a temporary display of splendour, and I am smote with the nostalgia of looking over old things made crisply new.
Etymologically, the word meadow carries its own doom within it, deriving from the OE mǣdwe, which is in turn derived from the proto-Indo-European for ‘mow or reap’. Its name speaks of its unique relationship with farming, but also of its yearly ending. There is the undeniable risk that, mown too early, species of wildflower can be lost from meadowlands, and far more quickly than it took to grow and habituate them there. The farmer, working with nature, keeps the meadow alive and gets the benefit of the hay bounty as winter feed for the herd. The wisdom it takes to farm in this way is perhaps what George Ewart Evans meant when he called his account of the dying way of Suffolk farming life, ‘Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay.’
The next day – a birthday – we had come to the meadows from waterfalls where I’d sluiced my feet in sharp-cool water, and felt the touch of millenia in the peat-reddened rock and silt between my toes. I’d let abluvion wash the cares from world-weary bones. Now, under skies vastly blue, and standing in the midst of meadows pulsing with life, heat seethes over everything. It beats its velvet wings at the neck and limbs, as though it were a living thing itself; it crowds and sits like flannel in the mouth, and all the air is filled with the acrid tang of green growing things and dry dusts and grass seeds. The sun is a bright white disc above, with nowhere to hide from it in the wide-open cleft of the dale; fermenting the air to a heady cider in the blood. Everything about the meadows is wanting to get in: to get under the skin. It is oppressive and at the same time friending. I look on them as presiding mysteries. I want to chlorophyll up my lungs, and make them a little into my own chemistry.
Details come slowly from this cabinet of curiosities. I look upon the meadows with a collector’s avidity: wanting to claim and name every wildflower I see; to store up memorial specimens for my mind’s eye to take out and pause over later. My eyes, illiterate at first glance, see only grass, encompassed by walls of stone which trees have bitten through. All colour is made monochrome under the bleaching sun. In the blinding light, I have only mere impressions of blooms on the retina as I stoop-bend to uncover them from the grasses that crowd them. The grasses themselves – cock’s foot and meadow fescue, sedges and timothy – are brittling before my eyes. Bees and flies rise and fall, flower to flower, in lazy flights, absorbing the stark heat into their wings. Though newly July, the meadow’s hedging trees begin to show the oldening green of their leaves, left too long out in the sun. A percussion of cricketty strings from a myriad unseen grasshoppers clamours at my ear drums. All noise and no sight of them – I kneel to look. Ghostly things. A tinnitus of leg-squeakings. The meadows are a veritable factory of such things. A world in miniature, busy in the throes of industry: so alive that I feel the more so simply from being here under the same skies, breathing their goldening air.
Time was, we believed there was a signature for every ailment here: a plant resembled that which it was designed to heal. Eyebright to mend the vision because the flowers looked like little eyes; heartsease for an erratic pulse because the petals form a heart. The doctrine of signatures was the country folk’s herbal, and how many of the common names came about: lungwort, lady’s mantle; self-heal. This kind of physick was very literal.
I bind the Dales: I am flower-whisperer, way-maker, step-slower, rain-drinker, seed-shaker, stem-quaker, wind-friender, bird-bringer, ankle-kisser, hand-tempter, bee-fetcher, cure-grower, grass-singer, leg-clinger, lung-filler, soul-lifter, dew-sparkler, wave-bearer. See my pink storksbill, jewelled to perfection in magenta with a white eye; and here the perfect white stars of my stitchwort-flowered eyes; here tormentil to stud the grass and wink up at the sky with yolky yellow. These my treasures: come try, come try. See here, this harebell, here this bell of robin’s-egg blue, for you. Here, I’ve brought the colour of sky to earth. I sat on this through a hard-bitten winter, worked all the springtime on it, awakening seed and soil to this alchemy. It is a love song I prepared for thee. Self-heal for the hurt you carry; orchids to show you that there can still be beauty; betony to knit and clean your open wound; stitchwort to sew you back together; eye-bright to help you see all my treasures laid before you. I implore you, do not pass me by without brushing a hand through all my bounty. I am the layman’s apothecary: come try, come try.
Meadow speaks the most eloquently of the two of us – with the fluency of flower and grass – so that I read its arrangements, every time, slightly differently, and always with wonder. Its fragility is inherent in the careful parasitic balance of yellow-rattle (sometimes called meadow-maker) and its host plant, grass. Like hedge bindweed, and other plants that make their way through symbiotic, mystical pairings – the yellow rattle binds itself to the grass and exhausts it, strangling its ambition to take over. Its smothering love makes space for smaller and yet more delicate flowers: dainties like the harebell, which the meadow conjures on the slenderest of stems for its little knell, such that a stiff fall of rain could lay it out.
These meadows are a vital link in the old Dales Corpse Way – the way in the medieval period linking Keld to Muker, to Reeth, to the final destination at St Andrew’s Church in Grinton. St Andrew’s was known as the Cathedral of the Dales and was the only church for centuries where mourners could bring their dead for burial. What hard-grafting business it must have been. We had walked some of the way from Keld in the morning’s heat, stifled by it with only our own bodies to carry, whilst noting the pale yellow and purple of the heartsease like a drift of snow upon the grass. The thought of bearing a body on hill-climbing and steepening ways, round about the valley until final reaching its bottom filled us with awe and horror. Did the meadows midwife them through her passages as they do me now? Through snug stone squeezes into meadows new, past green upon green of ripening winter feed: fattening and not-quite-mature-yet seeds. And did they pick some of her summer blooms to arrange in the funeral bier? Heartsease for remembrance; harebell for grief; agrimony, an old physick for melancholy.
They are sustenance in every sense, these meadows: in the practical sense, they keep a dwindling array of insect life alive; they feed the farmer’s sheep come winter; and they meet, perhaps least importantly, a deeply-felt need in me now, with the immediacy of a shot taken to the bloodstream. I inhale and draw the sillage of the meadow deep into myself: embrace the feeling of being pollen-bothered and spore-gathered and petal-fuddled in the waning light. My cantering heart won’t be still, but is attuned to smell; to the powdery puffs of pollen from the cock’s-foot grass; to a fescue’s touch. Remnants of living things thick-tickle my throat until my tongue is dumb from their clamouring.
It occurs to me that, across the whole country, meadows are kin – a dynamic chain of natured, inexhaustible being, which the bees, hoverflies, butterflies and moths, know the particularities of, and the byways between. Each one colludes to form a living map whose job is to sustain all manner of creatures. As we turn steps homeward out of the final stone squeeze, I know that soon enough it will be the time of the reddening sorrel, blazing its red-caped leaves to quarrel the grass; when all else will have gone to seed and sorrel alone will stand different and special. Then the ancient insect flight-paths, unmarked on any map, will once again lie dormant and unused: flower, seed and bee all buried, for another year at least.