Spring at last has arrived in the pages of the Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, where the wealthy can celebrate a betrothal outside their enclosed garden. Pollarded trees shoot up new branches, blossoms burst open in the orchard, fish run in the nearby lake, and young ladies can look lithe and delicate as they gather daisies.
But check first with people who actually have to work for a living. Dorothy Hartley, in Lost Country Life, devotes April to dairymaids, cows and calves, milk, cream, butter and cheese, and pigs (who, while piglets, fell under the dairymaid’s care). Dairy work, begun in early April with the birth of first calves and then piglets, continued until the end of November. Winter’s ease, such as it was, had ended.
If you’ve ever wondered why dairymaids don’t cart the full milk buckets in a wheelbarrow or horse-drawn vehicle, you’ve never seen the insides of those buckets at the end of the trip — contents churned into butter. A good dairymaid could carry two full buckets yoked across her shoulders and spill very little before emptying each bucket into a wide, shallow pan so that the cream can rise. After skimming the cream for butter, the leftover milk was fed to the pigs.
Meanwhile, the farmer was either spreading manure across his fields, or cutting old timber and planting new trees. As Hartley explains, the farmer had to work quickly because “[o]nce frost was out of the ground the land became soft and cartage by ox team with a heavy load would destroy any land already in cultivation.”
And here’s a little item that pleased me no end (and answered a question I raised in a recent post): “In Wensleydale, when cows were released for the first bite [of fresh grass], the alder growing by the stream … gave the special flavor to Wensleydale cheese, which could only be made to perfection in the early spring. Even today in Wensleydale they disparage winter-made cheese, calling it ‘hay cheese’ and opine it is ‘only good enough for Lancashire folk to make Welsh rabbit.'” Just as I suspected. Only inferior types of Wensleydale cheese are exported.
Scott Chaskey, in This Common Ground, quotes Whitman frequently in his Spring section. Whitman’s love of the land and even the compost that feeds it, is something Chaskey understands. Over the course of 15 years steady feeding of the soil on his Long Island organic farm, he and his co-owners have improved it so that they can raise more than potatoes. But these farmers also respect the wildlife, watching for fox dens and quail nests as they plow so as not to disturb the new life. It makes sense. The foxes won’t eat what the farmers raise, and the birds help control the insect pests that will.
Rebuilding the soil — that is, putting life back into it — is a years-long, complicated process, and doesn’t rely just on adding the big three, NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium); other macronutrients include “carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, calcium and sulfur.” Chaskey warns us that not only are chemical fertilizers harmful in the long-run, but NPK alone aren’t enough, on top of which, “the energy from burning 2,200 pounds of coal will produce 5.5 pounds of usable nitrogen.”
For Ella Pontefract and Marie Hartley, spring’s arrival means they can finally lay out pavement around their Yorkshire Cottage, discovering two layers of paving under the visible one. They couldn’t help but wonder who had laid that first paving stone, when he’ done it, and what he’d been like.
Pontefract also kept busy planting food (WWII had just started, and food rationing threatened). Potatoes were their main crop, but also cabbages, beans, turnips, carrots, peas and even tomatoes. Their growing season was short, so they had to judge the end of hard frosts and place plants carefully. They were lucky: only the tomatoes failed.
Down in Provence, Peter Mayle made weekly visits to the local market, where one Sunday he and his wife bought “red peppers to roast and big brown eggs and basil and peaches and goat’s cheese and lettuce and pink-streaked onions.” Except for an oafish visitor and a broken septic tank, all was going well for the two of them.
As for Gladys Taber at her house on The Stillmeadow Road, April also meant visitors, people from the city (in her case, that would be New York City) who felt “the ancient urge of mankind to be close to nature again.” Fortunately most of her visitors were good friends and family members. But a town meeting revealed a dismaying future. Developers hovered in the background, and her rural setting was destined to become more densely built and settled, despite local opposition. She had seen the loss of old-growth trees and bemoaned the fate of the lovely woods around her. She knew, from experience, that “people who live in developments do not expect to live there always or to hand the house down as a heritage for their children. So they seldom plant for fifteen or twenty years ahead, they plant quick-growing annals, put in a few shrubs they can take with them when they go.”
So, your lesson for today: plant trees for the future. As the Greek saying goes, “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”