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I am going to write about a short but wonderful bike ride, a ride that left me buoyed up by the beauty to be found in a familiar landscape. But make me a promise. Before you read this in full … Continue reading
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light” is a line from the poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. It was written as a poem for his dying father but both lines are among the most used Thomas quotes.
Thomas is an extraordinary lyrical poet, if you don’t know his work I encourage you to pick up an anthology or try reading or listening to “Under Milk Wood”, his play for voices. At Christmas every child should be read “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”. If you haven’t got a child of the right age borrow a suitable relative as an excuse to read it out loud, great for grandparents!
The line “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” has come to me many times in the past weeks because to me it sums up an urgency to take in the best of the sunlight and autumn colour before winter’s icy grip takes hold.
I think this year that feeling has been amplified several times over and I have been trying to digest why. Foremost I suspect is a legacy of our first Belgian winter which coincided with one of this part of Europe’s worst winter spells in living memory. There is no reason why it should repeat this year but I do find each bright sunny walk and bike ride precious as if I am banking them for the hibernation to come.
On a more positive note we are definitely inspired by our new home of the past year. Living at the top of a hill and being surrounded by tracks and trails that open up wide vistas means that we can see the interplay of the light and the landscape much more than if we lived in town or even in a village. Sunrise and sunset are more part of the day, the sun rises and sets over the land and trees rather than being eclipsed by buildings.
And I am sure my final influence is my blogging. I have gradually found my relationship with the light changing as I have tried to describe my travelling and my cycling life here in Belgium. I am gradually learning the way light changes scenery and enjoying trying to translate that into photography for an audience.
This sequence of photographs was taken on one short November walk that summed up the whole feeling. I was too busy to post them when I took them but they capture the urgency of the battle between winter’s dark and autumn’s light perfectly. I knew the storm was coming and I knew I didn’t have much time to take the dog out for his walk.
The sun was low and bright and lit up the fields and trees almost like a spotlight but it was made all the more striking by the glowering dark clouds that foretold the rain, making a dark contrast behind the foreground features.
And as if to emphasise the difference the crop of green manure planted by the farmer was flowering bright yellow. This is a quite unusual crop, it is planted in September after the harvest of the main crop corn and sugar beet. It then grows rapidly to a metre tall yellow flower in just six to ten weeks before it is ploughed back into the ground before the next main crop. It creates an unexpected splash of colour all over the area just as the rest of the plant life is taking on a dowdy winter hue.
In the end I didn’t escape the rain, but I did feel I had captured a precious feeling that I wanted to share.
Full version and audioclip of “Do not go gentle into that good night” here
When I am beating my head against a headwind on the open fields of Wallonia what I really want is a good hedge. A nice embankment and a proper bank of thick bushes to break up the monotony. A couple of weeks ago I rode nearly 50km into head winds and it was a pretty painful experience, I would have been happy to hide behind a single tree towards the end.
Belgian farmers seem to have adopted the trend that British farmers got into from the 1970s onwards when every hedge had to be removed to allow the plough to get as close to the edge of the field as possible, regardless on the impact on landscape or wildlife, partly encouraged by EU subsidies that used to pay subsidies to farmers by the productive metre.
Later we learned just what that was doing to biodiversity and erosion and some farmers started restoring them but here the message doesn’t seem to have got through.
And of course when they need the hedge to keep in animals the cheap response is to put up a wire fence with an electric charge round it which isn’t a lot of fun for any human or animal that happens to bump into them. Poor Murphy found that out in the last two weeks since livestock got introduced to the field next door. He spent two days in the house refusing to come out after the fence bit him.
And the loss of those hedges is just such a shame right now when the blossom is out and there are wildflowers everywhere. Last year the highlight of my visit to the David Hockney exhibition “A bigger picture” was his series of paintings of hawthorn hedges in East Yorkshire throughout the spring. There is a man who really understands the power of the hedge in the English landscape.
One of the best talks I went to when I was a member of the Chilterns Conservation Board was a great presentation by our farming officer who explained “what makes a first class hedge.” Sounds like something for gardening geeks but it turned into a fascinating presentation about the role of hedges as “wildlife freeways” allowing certain plant species, wild birds and small mammals to survive and to move about between communities in shelter and protected from predators.
They make a wonderful feature of some areas of traditional English countryside and help create that patchwork quilt effect so beloved of artists and painters but photography of the landscape during the 20th Century shows just how much they have disappeared.
A good hedge for a cyclist also has many other uses:
The perfect hedge is just right.
Thick enough to provide a windbreak and a shelter.
And exactly shoulder height for a cyclist, which means it is far too high for a motorist to see over, but low enough that we can enjoy secret views everywhere we go.
When we come back from a ride we can wax lyrical about something they have never seen and will never see. That’s a perfect hedge and Belgium needs a lot more of them.