Shafts of sunlight over Harry Schnitker's farm
Framed by the edges of my bathroom window is a scene that is ancient and transient at the same time: hunkered down amongst sedge and grass is a small herd of cows and a few calves. To the left is the loch, grey-blue and ripples, to the right a small copse of oak-and-ash, still leafless in an emerging sea of spring green.
The cows have placed themselves in the classical manner: most lying down, one standing amongst them, and somewhat to the right, the only brown-and-white one amongst the grey-and-white herd stands to give meaning to the scene. With the blue and white sky above, this could be a Dutch landscape from the 17th century, except for the steeply rising field behind the cows. There was no steepness in the 17th century Netherlands!
It is a wide view, taking in most of the farm’s fields and woods, as well as the loch. Yet the past month or so, it has been the small views that have framed my vision and made my world. I love this retreat into the small and particular, away from the wide concerns of the world, away from the grand and the grandiose: in smallness lies real life and true greatness. There are several small views that dominate my every April.
To the east of the house and steading, just below the oak-clad hanger, a huge branch had crashed from a venerable old tree some years back. I climbed up to it to claim it for our always hungry wood burner. I took a bow saw, not wanting my peace shattered by the chainsaw, and, after some good old-fashioned sweating, sat down. Below me was the vegetable garden. On the scale of it, our quarter acre plot does not amount to much. It is small. But it is also beautiful and life-sustaining. Elevated by a stone retaining wall above the fields, surrounded by sycamore, ash, blackthorn and elder, shielded from the westerly winds by the hulking stone steading and its slate roof, it holds gallons of my sweat.
I dug the whole thing out from stony ground, fed it with tons of compost enriched with chicken and duck manure, and now, well now it is a gardener’s dream. The big plots lie raked and ready, fringed by grass paths. Amidst them stands the duck pen, with its plum tree overhanging their pond which my son and I dug out this March. Behind, the greenhouses and fruit bushes and the old horse mill, soon to become a tangle of wild flowers again. The large white Aylesbury ducks lie sleeping in the sunshine, the dug ground breathing its promise of growth. Plots like this were once common, but no longer – yet there it was, in all its smallness and simplicity and richness and life-affirming-ness.
Life-affirming, too, are the faithful primroses that claim the sun-facing open banks around the farm. At the top of our path, where the old stone dyke reaches the passing place road, facing directly to the south is a clump of yellow primroses. Whoever named this plant knew nothing about it. It looks nothing like a rose, and with us it is so promiscuous that the ‘prim’ bit is just silly (except in Latin, of course, where it quite rightly means ‘first’).
This clump at the top of the path, though, more than any of the other few hundred clumps around the farm, is my favourite. Again, it is small, insignificantly small - just a patch, a smear of yellow and light green. But it is also life-affirming: it is here when no other flower has the guts to show itself, and is still here when all the trees are in full leaf for it has chosen where it lives well. There are no trees, no tall grasses, no brambles, in fact, no shade at all. And so it flowers from late March well into late May, small and triumphant.
Small but perfect
As I write this, I just realised that most things on our farm fall into the ‘small’ category. It has small fields, small copses of woods; our loch is small, our barns and steading small, at least by modern standards. Our road and path are small, and so is the stream that runs across it. Our place comes from an age when ‘large’ had a different meaning from today. Nature underscores this. We have a waterfall on our stream, but it is, yes, you guessed it, small. It hides out in one of the woodland copses and is modest in the extreme. The burn comes tumbling down our western hill that protects us from most gales, and shades us in winter. It has carved its way down to the bedrock, which is particularly hard here. Yet it has found a chink, and has worn down a small cascade. With a drop of a yard or so, it is hardly Niagara! But that does not matter: it sounds like a waterfall, it acts like a waterfall and when I go there and sit by it, it feels like a waterfall. And unlike Niagara, I have it all to myself.
There is a pool below it, which never dries out. That is fortunate, because many of our small streams are running very low after the driest winter in decades. Yet the pool is there, fed by the waterfall, and it is alive with little black fish. These, like the pool and the waterfall are small, but they are full of life, darting in the dappled sunshine below the trees, invigorated by the oxygen from the plunging water. Our small and beautiful corners on the farm do the same for me.
And, of course, our whole glen is small. It can be seen in its entirety only in winter from a forested ridge to the south that rises high above it. It is barely three miles long, one wide, and has only six houses. Ours is the last one, sitting where the hills take over and stretch empty of people for thirty miles westwards. From on the ridge, the smallness of our glen is obvious, the fields almost drowning amongst the woods and hills. Our own little farm is hidden from most of the rest of the glen by its own woods and soon, when all the leaves are out, will be almost invisible. Yet with its quarter-acre vegetable plot, its bank of primroses and its miniature waterfall it contains all the world, all one needs, and is ever so life-affirming.