Plowing the Home Hills

by HENRY WILLIAMSON

1

WHEN I bought my derelict Norfolk farm, and saw its weedy condition, its tired and tufty grass, its boggy roads and overgrown hedges, I determined to begin with it as a farm all over again; as it were, regarding it as virgin land. All the grass must, as soon as practicable, go under the plow. “Even those steep Home Hills?” asked an old fellow with ragged cap, tattered coat, and hands like roots, who worked on the farm, such as it was, before I bought it. “Yes, even the Home Hills,” I said. “But no plow could do it, guv’nor!” he protested. “You wait and see, Jimmy!”

Two years later, the hills were still unplowed. But the war had broken out, and there was a call for the plowing of a million acres of grassland in Britain. Then another million acres, and again a third. Many of the grass fields plowed up when Napoleon was likely to beat Britain had not been plowed since those times, until they were turned over again in the middle of the Hitlerian war. For over a century they had been grass, fattening grazing bullocks in spring and summer. What more could a man want, asked the inheritors of those pastures, when confronted with plowing-up orders in 1941 or 1942.

The correspondence columns of the Times had many letters about the wisdom or the foolishness of such acts. Modern grasses, such as those bred by Sir George Stapledon in Wales, had more leaf and less stalk than the old; some grew more quickly, others of the same family were bred to grow more slowly, thus providing a “bite” both early and late in the year. But the opponents of plowing-up declared that their old pastures — carefully grazed and kept almost like lawns — contained herbs (otherwise weeds) which the cattle selected for eating as they felt the need for them; they insisted that a layer of the new improved grasses was too strong, causing indigestion, or “blowing,” and “scouring.” To this the new-grass enthusiasts replied that the new layers required as careful grazing as the old pastures, though for different reasons. Once the new technique was understood, they said, the new pasture would be, for its greater grass virility, far superior to the old.

I came from Devon to Norfolk, from a country of lush pastures and frequent rain to an arable country with a small rainfall. Sixty-four inches of rain fell in Devon for twenty-two in Norfolk. The West Country was famous for its cream, the Eastern Counties for their pheasants and partridges. The chicks of game birds survived in the dry East because their tiny feet did not get balled with sticky soil, which in the West caused them to fall behind and die of exposure.

Owing to the rainfall and the warm airs, some of the grazing fields of Devon I used to wander over in my youth earned in rent for six months, between May and September, a sum that would have bought outright twice their acreage of East Anglian arable land. Nearly three times, in fact; for in the depth of the depression of British farming, when Devon grazing let for £5 an acre for the half year, many a Norfolk farm, with an Elizabethan house and twelve cottages, and 500 acres of land, sold for £1000, or £2 an acre, including the buildings.

Devon is a warm county. The air is soft, and the speech is therefore soft; the rain falls and the sun shines; the Gulf Stream keeps the winters mild. The grass is green in the West when it is gray in the East. Like Ireland, Devon is a country of grazing beasts.

Before the war, I used to get in my open car and cross England from the coast of Norfolk to the coast of Devon in a day, leaving the shining North Sea in the morning as the sun was rising beyond Sweden, and coming to the emerald-green fields of Devon lying under the vast glory of an Atlantic sunset. What a companion, the sun, for the spirit of man, as I followed in its course to Labrador and beyond, to greet it at the door of my hilltop hut next morning after its Journey through the Night!

Throughout the journey across England, whenever I stopped, I heard the dialects varying with the soils; from the shrill, hard, clipped North Norfolk of the east winds and sandy soils, to the easy burring voices of the rich-red soils of Somerset. And so to the relaxed life in Devon, served by the slow and easy speech arising from fertile land, soil that was easy to plow, where a seedbed could be made in any season except in heavy rain or frost.

In those pre-war days there was little plowing; half a million visitors in summer wanted half a million pounds and more of Devonshire cream a week, and who was going to bother about growing oats or barley bringing in a gross return of £5 an acre, and costing all but four fifths of that to grow, when an acre of grass by the sea might yield £100 a summer as a caravan site, or £50 in milk and cream? And if you were particularly easygoing, and couldn’t be bothered with milk or visitors, your 100-acre farm was looked after by one man, whose job it was to attend fourscore bullocks which would fatten themselves merely by walking about, and lying down to chew the cud. Agricultural depression in Devon? Not likely!

Why bother to cut the thistles, even ? Everyone had plenty of money. Missus took in visitors, maybe at four guineas a week, and they were well satisfied, for they returned year after year. The coastal districts were crowded. In the old towns of Barnstaple or Bideford, on market day, the farmers did their business, arriving in smart new cars and sitting hours in the taverns, discussing everything except farming. The grass grew; that was their farming. They had no complaints. Their harrows and their plows rusted in the corners of fields, hidden by nettles, and in the broken-down sheds.

I returned there by train the other day. What a change after five years of war! During the 1944 harvest, which lasted until October, I saw sheaves of corn sprouting six inches out of the ear, still standing in the swampy fields. The year before, I saw hundreds of acres of corn laid flat on the ground: oats and barley, overfed from the rich plowed turf, unable to stand up on the stalks; field upon field of overfed corn which had to be cut with the scythe.

2

MEANWHILE we had set about reclaiming the Home Hills. The first thing to do was to clear what Jimmy called the “great old bull-thorns.” These trees, which wore a mantle of creamy white blossoms in May, were gnarled and black of trunk, their branches growing thick and matted, guarded by long spines which left a blue mark in the hand or leg they pierced. Turtledoves nested in them, when the June air was athrob with their gentle notes. Was I a vandal to think of cutting them all down? I decided to leave one here and there, the shapeliest trees, so that when the corn was rising green I might also see and smell the flowers of the May.

Sharpening my axe, I went out one morning to start what I knew would be a long job. After I had thrown one — a morning’s work, my muscles unused to the seven-pound axehead — I went home, and over a pint of beer I thought that what we needed was one of the bulldozers that were leveling many airfields around us. But such luxuries were not for small farmers — certainly not in wartime; so I thought to telephone the owner of a traction engine which used to travel about threshing the corn stacks of small farmers like myself who could not afford to own one themselves. A few days later the cumbrous fifteen-ton machine, sixty years old, arrived, to chug sideways up the hill and affix a great steel hook, attached to a fifty-ton steel cable, to the first “great old bull-thorn.” The strain was taken; the smooth flywheel moved round; the cable trembled; there was a shriek and a crack, and the trunk splintered above the root.

He was the first, and obstinate; but the others were more timid; they came with all their roots, dragged out on their sides with two or three tons of soil on the roots, leaving a crater like one made by a small air-bomb, of the kind dropped by Heinkels in 1940. Not all came so easily; the cable snapped nineteen times during the deracination of sixty-four trees. They lay on their sides, for it was then time to drill corn, then to hoe the sugar beet, then to cut and stack the hay; then came the harvest of corn, and after that the dung-carting from the cattle yards — the trodden straw of the last harvest made into muck in the winter — and overtime plowing for winter wheat, which made us late for the lifting of the sugar beet. No time that year to attend to the uprooted thorns of the Home Hills.

The old thorns lay on their sides during the next twelve months. “At least,” I said to the boys at our long oak table at supper, “they will make a grand beacon if the war ends suddenly. The greatest bonfire in Norfolk will blaze from our hill.” But the war did not end that year, or the next; and when at last we came to clear them, the nettles had grown high among them.

After the constant winds sweeping over the hill, the wood was dry and hard for the axe. Bit by bit, however, we got the main branches lopped off, the small branches burned, the limbs and trunks laid in heaps to be carted down to the circular saw. At last the Home Hills were cleared, except for a few trees which the engine-driver, with his ragged lengths of cable tied together, had not dared to tackle. Standing on the slope, the fifteen-ton engine might have got out of control, or even turned over.

When we came to clear the hedges round the hills, we found that they had spread in places as much as twenty yards into the grass, from the original boundary. In one I found the rusty remains of four barbed-wire fences, each several yards from its neighbors. Brambles had covered them, the homes of scores of rabbits, which had spoiled the grass during the neglect of the long agricultural depression between the wars. We cleared the wire and fences, but the roots stayed in the ground, most of them belonging to the hard and sullen blackthorn.

We made fires on the root stubs, but the fires had to be doused every evening, because of the black-out. The fires had to be relit every day. Even so, the roots remained, and when we took the tractor with the deep-digger plow to rip up the worst area by the hedges, for a summer fallow, we had to avoid most of them. The furrows left were very rough, heaps of roots of bramble and lesser thorns. The soil under the turf looked dead and dry, as though neither air nor rain had penetrated there for centuries. We could do no more that spring, for the time was come to drill the corn once more.

Sometimes during the summer I used to walk up the hill, my feet pressing on the springy turf in which grew restharrow, wild thyme, harebells, cowslips, and a strange thistle whose leaves were low on the grasses, in the shape of a star. Its flower was a purple-red, lower than the grasses. Had a thousand generations of sheep taught that thistle its cunning habit of selfprotection? In the old days of free wandering over field and moor in Devon I should have admired it and been glad that it was, as a small unit of life, enduring by its own strength and tenacity; but now, as a farmer dreaming of fine cattle grazing on the hill, I saw the legions of dwarf thistles as enemies that had to be obliterated.

There were other thistles, too, the creeping thistles and the tall annual spear-thistle. The creeping thistles were in colonies; even they found it hard to push their roots through the dense massed and intertwined roots of the ancient turf. Thyme grew on the hill, with eyebright, sulphur-yellow cowslips, pink dove’s-foot crane’s-bill; and in July the fragile harebells trembled on their slender stalks, azure as summer sky, in the breezes of the uplands. But I had no time or inclination (as I have now in retrospect) to admire or to identify myself with wildflowers or the birds which passed over the hill; I was a farmer, wanting to see corn growing where it had never grown before.

One winter some tanks had come on the hill and cut up the turf with their tracks, and in the following spring I had cultivated those torn places, leaving a loose tilth behind, on which I had broadcast a few handfuls of trefoil and rye grass, before rolling the seeds in and forgetting them. Along these irregular bands of new land the thistles rose, tall and thick, and the trefoil and rye grass grew luxuriantly. That alone told me that I was right in my idea to put the old worn-out turf under the plow.

The fire circles left by the burning of the torn-out thorns remained bare during the summer. Those headlands by the hedges, which had been roughly cleared of the roots of brambles and blackthorns, lay in sullen weathered furrows. Our sheep had been sold a year previously; they had kept the grass down in previous years. I wanted to begin plowing at once, but the hydraulic tractor had broken down and been sent away for repairs; and about this time something broke in me, and I too was sent away for repairs. So the hills were left to the winds and the flowers, to the kestrel that hovered over the plateau for mice and beetles, and the village cats, which prowled on the slopes for rabbits.

3

THERE were about ten acres of the hills altogether, of varying slopes lying north, west, and south. The official trowel had prodded and scooped and the official bag had carried away for analysis a light sandy soil deficient in phosphate and possibly able to support one crop of rye. This opinion had been given before the thorns had been wrenched out with arboreal cries and groans. It was only when the root craters were visible that I saw to my delight that below the topsoil of sand was a brownish-red medium loam similar to that of the field over the eastern hedge. There were pockets of sand on the hills, for the rabbit burrows were yellow with it; and there was gravel also, for on the western slope lay a saucer-like depression which was obviously an old pit covered by grass; but under most of it, not too deep for our plow, was that brown loam!

It was curious how the soil was light or sandy among the roots of the congested grasses. As I broke it up in my fingers — a blackish sandy mold — it occurred to me that this ancient colony of grasses had, during the centuries, eaten all the heart out of the soil, leaving only indigestible sand. None of the original clay was left; only small grains of rock, called sand, amid the wreckage of centuries of dead roots. Under that layer of compost a fine medium soil was lying, ready to be enlivened by sun and air and rain. Plow and reseed directly on the upturned sod? And have the finest crop of thistles in the district? No; I would plow in the ordinary manner, leave a bare fallow to kill the thistle roots, and drill with corn after a year.

The War Agricultural Committee were, as usual, pleasant and considerate in their attitude toward this idea; and a suggestion was made: Why not utilize the thistles for silage? Young thistles so treated were not unpalatable; and if oats and peas were sown in early spring, they might be cut in early June; after which the seven duck-foot cultivator feet behind the hydraulic tractor would keep the stubble stirred throughout the hot, dry months of July, August, and September, and thus wither the roots and fallow the soil in accordance with my original idea.

Meanwhile, would we be able to plow those steep slopes? The village said no. But the village didn’t know the powers of a hydraulic tractor invented by a Belfast engineer; a tractor that he could not sell in Britain, but which, taken to America and shown to Henry Ford, at once found recognition, of one man of genius by another.

The plowing was started on Armistice Day, 1943. The Ferguson tractor, bought in 1937, with one engine-reconditioning, was still as good as new. The plow was a ten-inch double furrow. I opened the first furrow along the plateau, running from east to west, and returning west to east. I was on top of the world; the village lay below, with its trees, flint walls, and red-tiled roofs. Afar was the blue line of the North Sea, the sand hills, and on the horizon sailed a convoy of small ships.

I felt an extraordinary exaltation as the bright breasts of the plows turned up the sod and cast it over. It was sandy soil just there; it was level; it was easy. Nevertheless, I had begun what I had waited seven long years to do. My eyes felt clear, the world looked fresh and good, filled with color. A cock pheasant flew over me with rocketing wings, and I turned to watch him glide into my wood behind, thinking of the pigeon-shooting there in the coming months. I had a hide against one of the oak trees, made of boughs and interlaced with branches; this year would be the first I had shot since 1938. There had been no time in the interval.

The wild and ancient grasses certainly were tough. I was on the easiest part of the hill; yet even in low gear the engine needed all its compression. The little fifteen-hundredweight tractor was Gulliver among the Lilliputians: hundreds of roots were protesting and holding against the shear and lift of share and breast. Sometimes the furrow wheel with its iron spuds turned thumpingly, as the resistance of an extraordinarily strong clump of roots held the plow shudderingly still. Jumping off, I found they were the roots, long, thick, and dark, of restharrow; and immediately I thought that this was how the wildflower — I did not like to call it weed to myself — with its pink pea-like blooms, had got its name in olden time. Rest harrow, or stop harrow.

The tractor did not rest. A slight lift of the lever, and the hydraulic oil-pump lifted the plows; it went forward again, another touch of the lever setting the points deeper once more. All the way, we were held up by the roots of restharrow, which went deep into the loamy subsoil.

I saw that I could not hope to penetrate to the rich brown loam at the first plowing. It took the engine all of its multiple synthetic horses to cut two furrows each seven inches deep. The furrow slices, too, were by no means tractable; I longed for moldboards or plow-breasts of the Old Norfolk “Olland” shape, by which the slices would have been screwed over nearly 180 degrees and laid flat. My furrow slices often wavered behind the tractor, before deciding to sit upright, the grassy edge at right angles to the earth from which they had been torn. Never mind, I thought; snow and frost will subdue those obstinate furrows, and in the spring our new disk harrows will chop them to bits and press them down. So I went on with my task, easy in mind.

It was a warm day. The convoy on the sea-horizon proceeded without the bomb-rolls we were used to; for now the tide of war had changed, and along the far coast of North Africa the German armies were in retreat, passing over the sand which once had been the cornfields of a great Empire long ago gone to ruin: to ruin, some said, because Rome in its urban pride had forgotten that the strength and virtue of a race are based not on its art, or culture, or civic pride — but on its soil.

4

IN the days that followed, as I plowed the thick turf of the hill, I wondered whether Dr. Johnson, had he been with me, would have discovered an original and ironic meaning in a phrase often used among farmers and laborers to describe a stubborn object which temporarily frustrates their strength and ingenuity. Restharrow might, on account of roots like tarred ropes, cause a pair of horses to rest, and the plowman with them, in sympathy; but as any plowman of virgin soil will tell you, an old sod is liable to do more things than merely arrest the forward movement of a plow.

Toiling up a slope of one-in-four, I heard a report like a rifle shot, followed by a grating noise. The two-inch steel axle had broken suddenly. Six years of arduous work on the other hilly fields, often gouging twenty-pound flints out of a sea-laid chalky subsoil never disturbed during the millions of years since the waves had receded, had crystallized the steel — broken its heart — killed it — so that in dying it had gone back to its ancestral crystals. Fortunately we had a spare half-axle, and my dejection was equaled by the confidence of my son, who came up the hill with the new Ford-Ferguson tractor drawing a trailer with jack, tool roll, and spare axle. I left him and one of our men to it, and strolled away, feeling myself to be a coward, yet arguing that as the doctor had ordered me to go easy after my return from hospital, I would obey, and spend an hour or two as a naturalist.

What a hope! The farm was in my blood; and after all, the boy was only seventeen and had no experience except that picked up from me. To my delight when I returned, the new axle was fitted, and almost at once I was going slowly up the steep slope again, in low gear, peering backwards over my right shoulder for the pleasure of watching the turf rising up and flopping over. Always my hand was on the hydraulic lever, to raise the plows should the furrow wheel begin to “scrap,” or race in the furrow, when the pull of the turf was greater than the 2400-pound pull of the tractor.

Once the furrow seemed to scream. My heart jumped; but it was only a stone caught between rear furrow wheel and scraper. At other times the furrow would smolder; a dull-red spark glowered there; smoke fumed out of the damp earth. This was when a flintand-steel spark had ignited dry roots. Sometimes, for a reason I could not account for, a strip of turf reared up behind the plow in contortion; it hesitated, and then with the aid of gravity unrolled along its length, yard after yard, sometimes as much as fifteen yards, settling itself as it had lain originally, grassy side up once again.

While I was plowing up and down the hill, old Jimmy walked slowly from where he had been milking the cows. He stared slowly about him. I got off, throttled back the tractor, and gave him a cigarette.

“Well, Jimmy, what do you think of it?”

“Humph,” said Jimmy.

“What does that ‘Humph’ mean, Jimmy?”

He puffed at the cigarette.

“Yew bruk its back, di’n you?” he said presently.

“Yes,” I said, “but that axle was already strained by the flints on Hilly Piece, two years ago.”

“It was an’ all, guv’nor.”

“Shall we get a crop off the Home Hills, d’you think, Jimmy?”

“Yew might, guv’nor.”

“I might?”

“An yew might break your neck, too, I’m thinking, ‘bor. Fare you well.” And with this encouragement, the old fellow walked away. I knew Jimmy did not approve of pulling out the old hawthorns; and as I clambered into the sack-covered iron seat again, I thought of W. H. Hudson’s story, “The Old Thorn,” and the Wiltshire legend that only harm could come to one who hurt a May tree.

It was suddenly cold on the hill; the Arctic Circle air that usually stole over the land about five o’clock all at once struck through my clothes. I walked to the sullen furrow, trying to heave it over with my arms, knowing that if it lay like that it would not rot, but live to grow with greater exuberance in the spring, stimulated by the nitrogen of the coming snow and the cutting of the old roots. Kneeling down, I soon found it was vain to try to heave over the dull resistance of many hundredweights. There the furrow slice lay, ten inches by seven inches by fifty feet, a strip unbroken, marked by two parallel lines showing where the disk colters had cut the turf.

The gulls which had been following the plowing, soaring and sweeping down on white narrow wings, with open red mouths screaming for lugworm and wireworm, now were drifting disconsolately in the upper air. They were finished for the day; their brethren had already flown away in silent V-formations to their roost in the distant sand hills. I felt suddenly hopeless, and getting on the tractor, took it downhill to the hovel or cart shed where it stood during the night.

Then I went home, slowly, thinking of the dead in the sands of Africa, in the snows of Russia, in the gray wastes of the Atlantic, among the far islands of the East. I recalled the young pilot of the Luftwaffe lying in hospital with broken legs and bullet wounds, and how he had thrust his knuckles into his mouth to stop any cry in his throat. Having refused a blood transfusion, he had died two days later, with hardly a sound.

I passed Jimmy in the village street, coming back with his week’s rations and his weekly ounce of tobacco, for it was pay night. He was a queer old fellow: a year before, when a mine had exploded a mile away on the coast, with a terrific reverberation and a column of smoke above the woods, Jimmy had come running to where I had been plowing, gasping out that he had heard it, and thought it was the tractor blowing up. Jimmy felt the land through his whole body, as his forefathers had for a dozen centuries; he did not trust machinery. “What’s it all lead to, guv’nor? Why that!” And he pointed to the bombers, hundreds of them in the height of the sky, going east over the darkening sea.

5

I COULD do nothing with those stubborn furrows. They beat me. I tried to replow them, running down the steep slopes in reverse gear, then stopping, dropping the plow again, and going uphill again. In vain; the wheel sank in and revolved impotently; or the slices curled up, reared, doubled, and broke, choking colter, moldboard, and frame until I had to stop, dismount, and then shove, kick, heave, and push the heap apart. What a mess, I thought, and remembered the injunction of the War Agricultural Committee to “plow in a husbandlike manner.” Well, some husbands kicked, pushed, and swore; so perhaps after all I was carrying out the order literally.

Yet on the whole it was not a bad job. I do not think any other tractor, even a crawler, could have tackled those slopes. Certainly not horses with an ordinary plow, though a special match-plow, of the kind used in competition, might have turned a few nice furrows, till its share was blunted and “wrung.” Some parts of the hill had to be plowed sideways; these were the most difficult, for the tractor was often leaning over at an angle that made me wonder if it would topple and I fall underneath it. It was then that I longed for a Devon one-way plow and a pair of strong horses. I had in the past watched a man with such a team plowing the side of a hill which rose at an angle of 45 degrees. He began at the bottom, and at the end of the field turned round, threw over the other plow-breast, and plowed back along his furrow, creeping slowly up the hill, parallel all the way up.

While I was going slowly round the headland, to finish the job, the intermediate strips having been plowed, the gulls which had been accompanying me suddenly flew up, and I saw six small boys on the skyline above me. One explained that they had been trying to reverse the sullen furrows; and might they follow behind the tractor and push back any furrow slice before it made up its mind to fall the wrong way?

“You are like Bliicher at the battle of Waterloo,” I said. “You come when the work is over.”

“We didn’t know,” said the leader, who was Richard, my youngest son.

They fell on the obstinate turf with the eagerness of starlings, dropping on knees and pushing and heaving with teeth clenched, a picture of Man wrestling with brute Nature. After a while this became somewhat arduous, so they turned it into a game, under a leader whose job it was, apparently, to stand above and with a wave of a stick, which was also a tommy gun, to lead his men down to the assault of the backsliding furrows.

It was not long before small hands and knees were grubby with soil, and their minds had invented other rules of the game, which took them from the wake of the tractor to the inside of a distant henhouse, their headquarters. The gulls, which had been waiting above, swept down once more and the scream and scramble for worms, mice, and insects restarted behind me.

There were a few more “rounds” of the headland to be done, then the hills would be finished. The sun was disappearing in the west, small and smoky, when I began the final round. Frost in the shade by the lower hedge began to look whiter. The engine seemed to be noisier. I began to feel that probably I had been foolish to think of plowing the hill, and how much more sensible it would have been to remain a writer, to sit by a fire and be my own master of time, instead of having a farm as my master. But at least I knew these thoughts for what they were worth: they were end-of-the-day thoughts. One more round and I would leave the tractor by the hedge, water drained from the radiator into that old can left by the Army, the cloth tied over the aluminum body. Only one more round.

The flights of starlings had gone across the sky; the gulls had flown away to the sand hills. Well, it was nearly over: let the mind stop thinking, running back upon itself, canceling out its hopes maintained despite the war; switch off end-of-day thoughts. Go home, take off boots and puttees, wash properly, change, and relax before the fire. To relax is not to be idle. Don’t animals and birds relax? Are they then idle or lazy? Take a drink of whiskey; that is not indulgence, it is food. Wasn’t there some still in that bottle bought before the war, the only one in the house for seven years? Whiskey made from barley; you grow barley, so why not drink whiskey when you are tired? That puritan complex, driving the body to do things beyond its capacity, comes only from early inhibitions. So, in the twilight and the thunder of the bombers, in the midst of my own veering thoughts I came towards the end of the last furrow.

In front of me, where a long snake of green turf had curled back, something white lay; and stopping the tractor, I got off and walked stiffly forward, to pause above a pair of delicate gray wings spread motionless on the frosting grass. One of the black-headed gulls, alighting and dipping for a worm, had been caught by the back-curling furrow of my penultimate round, and its head was pressed under. It must surely be suffocated, after lying like that for twenty minutes, I thought as I knelt to heave back the strip of turf.

It was very heavy, and I felt tired, but at last I got it free, expecting the head to be limp and crushed. I held the fragile bird in my open hands. After a while it raised its head, turned to look at me, and a feeble scream came from its red mouth. Then it elbowed itself lightly into the air and with slow strokes of those slender gray wings flew slowly away. And slowly I went down the plowed hills to my fireside, to sit and rest among my children, to think of nothing, while slowly a feeling of contentment came upon me.