Sunday, February 9, 2014

Walking Through a Cornfield in Norfolk

"A Norfolk Hedgerow" by Edward Seago
In October, I went to visit my friend the British historian and her husband at their home in Norfolk, England. I hadn’t been out of the country, much less the Midwest, in years, and I missed England, to which I have an attachment. My friends live in a very old cottage with solar panels on the roof, a big garden out back, and a share in an allotment. This was just the kind of visit I like: staying in the country, going for long walks, working in the garden, birdwatching at the seashore—so much in so many ways so different from Illinois, though I must say the part of Norfolk where they live is about as flat as the Chicago Lake Plain, and for analogous reasons. Which is how I found myself doing something I’ve done on multiple occasions in Illinois—walking through a cornfield.

One day, after a lunch of cheese, apples and bread, we went to the allotment to harvest vegetables for dinner. We decided to take a long, scenic way back, walking along a footpath along hedgerows and through fields. This is one of the things I like about England, all the walking paths that go across farms and alongside pastures—ancient ways some of them are, even thousands of years old. It seems that landowners have a responsibility to make sure these paths are kept clear, whether by law or not, I don’t know. These narrow paths certainly beat trying to access scenery in the U. S., where what’s private is no trespassing and what’s public is either on the highway or in some park with clearly defined borders. The driftless region of Wisconsin, for example: this is one of my favorite places, an ancient, never-glaciated, enticing landscape of winding little valleys and worn and weathered, pine-covered, rock-girded hills that begs one to get out of the car and off the road to do a little exploration. But can one? No, one cannot. A perfect illustration of what makes the US countryside so frustrating.

So we walked along, me identifying plants and my friend supplying names for those I didn’t know; but when we got to where the path should have been kept open through a cornfield, it wasn’t. So, nothing for it but to trudge through, beating our way through the corn to the next part where the path clearly resumed through a copse. To an Illinoisan accustomed to vast, chemically-saturated, completely weed-free fields where the stalks stand up straight in phalanxes, in legions, in platoons and companies whose genetically modified ranks tower over one’s head, where if you go in far enough you could conceivably get lost, this small field was a novel experience. It was field corn, almost, but not quite, ready to harvest. The stalks, clearly not gmo, and apparently planted at random, lounged in a haphazard, casual crowd whose members stood between four and a half and six feet high. We could see where we were going but couldn't walk far in one direction. The soil was not hard clay, but was fairly soft, and had been fertilized with manure. There were copious weeds, many instantly identifiable. I realized I was standing in the middle of a prime example of the Columbian exchange, from the other side, as it were, “our” corn interplanted with “their” field poppies, nightshade, creeping Charlie, and a few others not immediately recognizable—at least there wasn’t any hedge bindweed. It also seemed to me that this was a site I might have seen in Illinois maybe a hundred years ago, or even fifty.

Who knows what the yield would be; it was easier to imagine the farmer harvesting for his own animals than selling it. And there were animals, too, on this farm, as my friend informed me, something else unusual to an Illinoisan. But in the soft English light the corn seemed healthy, the soil in fairly good shape, and the weeds not overwhelming. The air turned mizzly. Eventually we found ourselves at the copse and entered in under the trees, the path then continuing along a hedgerow where blackberries hung plump and tempting, mixed in with tall rose bushes—the roses gone to big fat hips—holly bushes, and an occasional young oak. Tea was very welcome when we got back.

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The Last Tomatoes
A Day in the Country