Friday, 28 September 2007

Summer Is Over

Summer is over: as I walk up the lane behind my house the signs are everywhere. Purple damsons covered in a powdery bloom have fallen from the trees - no-one picks them now – and lie scattered like marbles. In the hedgerows brambles shoot out all over the place, their tips weighed down by tumbling blackberries: I pick the most succulent and they taste sweet.

Trees laden with apples, pears and quinces can be seen in the gardens I pass and shiny copper conkers lie along the edges of the road, their prickly cases split and discarded. I can't resist picking some conkers up - so smooth and glossy – and I pocket them to display or give little boys to play with.

The wheat has been harvested for some weeks now and as we walk through the stubble, crows and pigeons fly up, hen pheasants scuttle away and a cock rises and calls out for them to follow: fortunately Freddie is on the lead. As we go up towards the farm the geese – now very large and snowy white – stick out their chests and march towards us menacingly, honking loudly. I warn them not to push their luck, it may not be long before they meet their maker.

Passing the barn there are already trestle tables and benches of straw bales laid out for the Harvest Festival Supper (Shepherd's Pie and Blackberry & Apple Crumble). It's harvest end, tomorrow is Michaelmas, the Archangel Michael's feast day, and the Quarter Day on which landlords traditionally collected the rents.

It was on this day that servants were hired, farms changed hands and magistrates were appointed. And many tenant farmers presented their landlord with a goose as a gift or sometimes in lieu of rent. A goose was a gift to prize: dried, salted or pickled it would last through winter and roasted goose was a meal to celebrate with. But a goose produced more than just food.

Goose down and feathers – they are the very devil to pluck – made the best pillows and quilts, light but very warm. In days gone by their wing feathers were used for arrows and quills and their fat was used to keep bodies warm and waterproof a variety of things. Nowadays, gourmets will tell you that their fat is the best in which to roast potatoes.

Geese are monogamous – although some ganders may have three or five geese as a harem – and will live for up to 20 years, often pining if their mate dies. It is some years now since we kept geese: Ghandi (the gander) and Gertie were a devoted couple but sadly they didn't ever have goslings. We gave them a pond to help them perform but still nothing. When Ghandi died we found out it was due to being egg bound: which explained a lot.

For hundreds of years geese were herded for miles to be sold at the Goose Fairs in time for Michaelmas: these old goose markets have gone now, the name living on in large annual markets and fun fairs. Geese – or the eating of them at Michaelmas - have traditionally been considered good luck and they feature in many myths and fables.

In 1813 Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra, "I dined upon goose yesterday which I hope will secure a good sale for my second edition". We all remember the nursery rhyme Goosey, Goosey, Gander and Old Mother Goose was a favourite character: much earlier, it was Aesop's goose that laid the golden egg.

And, according to Livy, Rome was saved by the sacred geese when they cackled and alerted them to the invading Gauls. Geese can still be seen in flocks around the whisky distilleries in the Scottish highlands where they provide a similar service, warning of unwanted visitors and threatening them off.

That reminds me of our brush with the strident farmyard geese today. I think their luck may be running out: if Michaelmas doesn't get them Christmas surely will. There have always been feasts to celebrate the end of harvest – in England the old pagan feast of the Autumn Equinox became the Christain feast of St Michael as celebrated by King Ethelred in 1014. A crisp skinned roast goose stuffed with apples, a flagon of cider and a plum cake: now there's a feast fit for a king when summer is over.


Book Note: Some of Dorothy Parker's poems are excellent such as Penelope quoted in last week's blog but many are ironical (see my blog archive of 6 January, Twelfth Night). Having so recently looked up her poems again I shouldn't have been surprised to find another lovely one: what was a surprise however was to read this excerpt from Paths after I had written this piece.

I shall hear the pheasants call,
And the raucous geese;
Down these ways, another Fall,
I shall walk with Peace.

I don't know why, but it always makes me sit up when I realise that across continents and seas we have such similar experiences: even for sophisticated townies, nature and the wild touches us all.

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