Summer Solstice – the Longest Day
Extract from Native: Life in a Vanishing Landscape by Patrick Laurie
Battering heat and a dry wind to take your breath away. Even the swallows are cowed by it; they pant on the tin roof as their beaks run down their necks in melting shadows.
Broom seeds crackle in the sun, but I can’t hear them behind the scream of the grinder as I sharpen the mower bar in the yard. Modern machines cut grass like a lawnmower – a drum whirls cutting blades in tight orbit. My machine is a clipper from the 1970s, and the detachable blades dance back and forth through the grass like a mad crocodile. Sparks blare and soon the teeth are hungrily keen. I will need coarse gloves to refit this bar, otherwise it will start its work on me.
Butterflies cruise over the stones. The bull lies in the shade. It seemed unimaginable in the dire, sodden days of February and March, but now it is dry and he needs me to bring him water. I lug dribbling pails out to his trough and he drinks them in long pulls, a gallon at a time. Streamers of drool blow in the hot breeze. ‘Gollup,’ then his eyes roll and he bellows through his freshly wettened whistle and the yard rings emptily.
There is no colour in this bright place. The light has burnt colour away and now the blade is just white like the nettles and the stone walls both. The grass has parched on the shallow soil, and the rocky knowes have crumbled back to cracks and powder. Grasshoppers rub their hands with delight; they slitter in the seedheads which flare up like a bow wave at my feet.
The bull’s coat has grown woolly and brown like old loft insulation. I feel the sweat in his withers and rub the fine skin
of fat which grows over his muscles. He turns his head to lick an itch and the curve of his neck bulges in rippled rows as if it were already bound in butcher’s string. His muscles grow; I can’t help seeing the cuts of meat through his leather. Clegs cannot resist an early taste. They drive their teeth through his skin and sample the blood as if it were claret.
The oats grow by the hour. Small birds crowd into the rising crop, and the house is suddenly filled with the buzzing whine of a yellowhammer. We have an old name for this garish little bird which stands like a canary along the dyke
tops. We call him a yorlin, and he stands below the kitchen window and pastes the place with long, repetitive songs
through a shimmer of heat. Yorlins are scarce here since we stopped growing cereal crops and allowed grassland to
prevail; a few linger in the fringes, but nothing to what they were. This bird is a small, yellow endorsement of my return to mixed farming, and I cherish him.
It has not taken long for the young oats to grow tall enough to hide linnets and redpolls when they land among them. Now the crop is well rooted, it carries a ripple of wind. Swallows course over the leaves in tight formations of five and ten. They fight and squabble, then winkle out flies which seem to love the warmth of the bare dark soil.
Our neighbours are making silage on the fields below the farm. The tractors shimmer in the heat, and by afternoon the
bales are wrapped in shiny black plastic. I wince in the glare and see them beady and tart like elderberries on the yellow field. I stand in my shorts and grind my blades, catching sight of my bare feet on the granite setts below. The sun rasps my back until the skin bubbles like egg white. There is a smell of burning dust, pineappleweed and cut grass.
Soon the heat will fade and the yard will fill with warm, fresh perfume: meadowsweet, bog myrtle and honeysuckle. The swallows will run riot through the doorways in the yard, shuttling bundles of flies to their gaping doom beneath the rafters. Thick twilight will come for an hour or two, and night birds will drone in the shallow darkness. The swallows will
fall quiet and bats will crackle like cigarette papers beneath the stars. But for now I am red-faced and livid, working on a
job I should have done months ago.
Forgetting the vows I made in winter, I tell myself that I would rather be too cold than too hot.