Sunday, 29 July 2007

Flanders Fields: wheat and poppies

A field of ripening wheat is a beautiful sight: jade green stalks around the edges of the fields enclose the sea of wheat, a soft dun colour. When there is a slight breeze the ears sway in unison like dancers on a ballroom floor.

When it's not raining (which it's doing a lot lately) one of my favourite walks with Freddie is along a footpath that cuts right through the middle of a large wheat field. But first I have to negotiate the kissing gate without Freddie noticing either the hens or the giant pet rabbit asleep in the adjoining garden. That accomplished I can relax.

From the top of the field there's a 300 degree panoramic view: the land falls away to hedges and trees, a stream at one edge. I never fail to stop awhile and admire the wide open landscape, the large sky – a perfect scene - and marvel at how lucky I am to live in such a beautiful, peaceful place.

When the sun shines the wheat takes on a golden glow, the green of the hedges and trees in deeper contrast, the blue of the sky an excellent foil for the wheat: opposite sides of the colour spectrum. In years gone by, before fields were sprayed, the bright contrast of poppies was a lovely and common sight among the corn but now such annuals are an undesirable contaminate.

Freddie is less impressed with aesthetics. When he first enters the field his eyes scan the horizon: he's looking for prey. I pull him on and he adapts to nice smells mode. When I stop to admire the view he's happy to stay still for a minute and immediately adjusts to micro hunter: eyes to the ground, he's motionless, waiting for some movement among the stalks.

As we approach the farm we surprise the geese, lying in the shade of an elder. The downy yellow goslings of a few weeks ago have turned into handsome snowy white geese, small feathers on their necks still those of an adolescent.

They have not yet learned the art of the guard dog, either that or my dog and I have burglar's tread. Freddie shows no interest in the geese: it's possible that he's been on the receiving end of a goose's beak. It's a long time since we kept geese and I still miss the eggs but not the gander's battle cry.

Wild flowers, in muted shades, fill the verges of the road we follow: tall stems of meadowsweet wave fluffy heads of rich cream, pale pink bristles and spiky thistle leaves overshadow the small yellow flowers of rattle and buttercup in the grass.

But, ahead, one stab of searing colour. Where a car went over the hedge just opposite my house a stray poppy – bright scarlet – has appeared: some escapee seed from a neighbour's wildflower bank. The spinning car wheels did the job of the plough.

Poppy seed can lie dormant for years and years just waiting for a lucky break. I have gravel paths in the garden and this constantly disturbed surface is the perfect medium for poppies. I leave them wherever they appear, never knowing where they will come up next year. There are soft red poppies and mauve ones and various ones in shades of pink from cross fertilization. Some are frilly doubles, others simple singles.

I dry the heads of the poppies I like and plan to scatter the seeds immediately. Unfortunately, I often forget and find them the next year. Nevertheless I throw them onto roughed up bits of ground, if they come up it's a bonus, if they don't it didn't cost anything.

They look particularly good growing next to tall grasses – it's that old combination poppies and wheat. When the wheat field is ploughed it brings the poppy seed to the surface and allows it to germinate: tanks did the same on the Fields of Flanders.

July 31st is the anniversary of the main battle of Passendale (3rd battle of Ypres, 1917). Shelling, tanks and unseasonal heavy rain – very similar to the rain here this year - made the battle ground into a mud bath which was horrific and caused the death of many.

One of Siegfried Sassoon's poems sums it up, "I died in Hell – They called it Passchendaele". Not peaceful fields of wheat but Flanders fields of poppies must be on the minds of many: such a moving sight. Life and death: wheat and poppies.


Book Note: the poetry of those who died in the First World War, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg, and those that survived it, Robert Graves, A.E.Houseman, Edmund Blunden and Siegfried Sassoon, quite changed the language of poetry: romanticism was replaced with reality.

The darkness crumbles away -
It is the same old druid Time as ever.
Only a live thing leaps in my hand -
A queer sardonic rat -
As I pull the parapet's poppy
To stick behind my ear.

'Break of Day in the Trenches' Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918)

The American civil war and then the Boer war had exposed the reality of modern warfare but it wasn't until the Great War that the true horror of it was so movingly expressed in poetry. And the poems of these soldier-boy poets, which convey the horror of war so graphically, still have resonance today.

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) is one of the best known of the British war poets. His six volume autobiography is a semi-fictional account of his life, the first three volumes entitled The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston. There are at least five biographies of Sassoon and, for those good at 'googling', there is a wealth of information out there about him.


Susan G said...

Thank you for the very visual journey. And were there poets of WWII? Had the culture changed?

Lucy said...

Susan, there doesn't seem to have been the same flowering of poets after WWII, does there.
Those that went to fight in The Great War were leaving a very rural way of life, many were idealists: their hopes and aspirations were shattered by the terrible experience. They'd been ignorant of the horrors of war: stuck in the mire witnessing mindless death.
I think - I'm no expert - this all spilled out in poetry: by the time WWII started war was no longer glorified and that may be the culture change you wonder about.