“All that was left of them, Left of six hundred”
Aspens All day and night, save winter, every weather, Above the inn, the smithy, and the shop, The aspens at the cross-roads talk together Of rain, until their last leaves fall from the top. (First stanza of a poem by Edward Thomas)
Pioneering spirit to the fore, my idea was to blanket the far south side of the property with hardy poplars: an area of approximately one acre. Plant poplars useful as timber trees and we’d have a veritable plantation.
I duly ordered six hundred poplars: Tasman and Veronese varieties which grow into good timber trees. I say trees, but you’re actually planting two metre long slender poles.
We planted them twenty-seven years ago, during our second winter at Little Owl Gully. A semi-permeable hard clay pan sat about 30 cm below the soil surface: a stratum of the soil profile that presents major challenges when it comes to getting trees established.
The roots struggle in extremis to penetrate a hard clay; the soil on a hilly slope gets too dry: the water that doesn’t just run off, percolates down, much of it glissading on a slippery clay, sliding to the flat floor at the slopes base, where it water-logs the sub-soil, the clay behaving like a clogged-up filter.
That was what we were faced with: A paddock on a steep slope tailing off to a flat base.
And we were not prepared to so much as contemplate the prospect of breaking through the clay by digging a deep hole with a shovel for each pole. In hindsight, I probably should have investigated the option of hiring an engine-driven post hole borer; I’ve always been a bit machine averse so no wonder that at the time I didn’t explore the possibility.
I’d been intrigued by the prospect of using a mole plough to speedily carve through the clay and open up an underground water channel – more laborious options were summarily dismissed. A farmer recommended a local who, as well as farming his own land, did some contract work. He gave us a reasonable quote and was duly hired.
A week or so later, on a fine day in late autumn, it was all go. There was no way I was going to miss the drama, so I was on hand when he asked if I’d stand on top of the blade as it sliced its way up and down the hillside. Apparently it was tending to bounce off the pan rather than go through it.
That old Fordson Major and a mole plough Iron Age heavy, should, I thought, have been up to the job without my modest 65kg of flesh, blood and bone acting as a damper to the bounce; I risked it bouncing me off as well as bouncing off the pan! But as a spritely guy in the dying days of his thirties, I was up for it.
It certainly concentrates the mind, but what a bone rattler. I was all shook up for days afterwards, and not in a good way.
Job done, the lines of grooved uplifted earth suggestive of a major mole invasion.
We planted that winter; we must have had a lot of rain, possibly snow as well, because the flat pasture at the bottom of the slope had turned into a swamp. All to the good, because it meant plenty of moisture in the ground to help establish the trees farther up on the hillside that could go dry at the whisper of a nor’west breeze. We had no way of getting water to the trees, either. “Not ideal” one of the constants round here – I should turn it into a chorus line or a poetic refrain.
We had help from June’s parents, which greatly eased the burden. On the hillside we pushed a spade or shovel in and slotted the stick into the groove formed at the back of the blade. But it’s planting in the boggy ground where the memory lingers. I’ll never forget my father-in-law’s expressions of disbelief as he pushed the poles into the mud. I don’t think he believed any new plantings could possibly survive: utterly water-logged in a bog.
But they did: We didn’t lose a single sodden-rooted tree. And four hundred and fifty odd trees on the hillside died during the bad drought the summer following the planting. So we now have a triangle of nine trees in the top right corner, a pocket of fourteen trees about halfway down the paddock and the clump of one hundred and eight down the bottom on the flat.
All thought of growing trees to sell to a timber merchant went the way of the majority of the poplars. But I’m always amazed and eternally grateful! – after it becomes crystal clear that yet another of my projects has turned out to be “not ideal” – at how much remains to be salvaged, adapted and finally, appreciated.
The aspect is a satisfyingly balanced one, especially considering the placement of the top and middle plots was a case of good luck, not good management; there’s still a surfeit of autumn’s russets and yellow-golds; trees aplenty for firewood, and they shoot from the stump to grow back into fine trees; shelter for the land and the stock that graze under them; open pasture land on the hilly slope to gaze at and to gaze beyond to the distant mountains to the west; in spring, pasture rendered vibrant and vivid by big patches of red clover in flower; and in winter, a dry, firm, hilly paddock full of saved pasture that won’t get churned into mud by cattle hooves as they stomp about grazing the long grass blades and seeded stalks.
And poplar leaves – well, it’s not just Edward Thomas’s Aspen poplars that “talk together”, and as he says a little later, “whisper”.
That’s all from Little Owl Gully for this week. And talking of poems, I’m going to write one for next Monday’s post. It’ll be about Paradise Ducks (well, sort of): How could it not be a Garden of Eden poem, eh? All that talk about Holy Grails a couple of posts ago has obviously agitated me!
Bye for now. Thanks for your company.
P.S. The title is taken from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’.