October, and our world quietens with the long sigh of autumn as we prepare for the fierce gasp of winter that must surely follow. This is a time of reflection, as Hever returns to some semblance of what used to be. Air traffic reduces, the season of events is largely over and even the vast packs of predatory cyclists reduce to small, scavenging, groups struggling to survive the inclement weather. Even so, on a trip to Edenbridge, around three miles, on the first Sunday of the month we encountered a hundred and thirty five of the little darlings strung out in packs of between five and fifteen. On the way back, after the leader of their particular group waived us to overtake into oncoming traffic, one of these highly regarded creatures thought it a good idea to punch my friend’s car as we passed, whence he was gently chastised and encouraged to appreciate the error of his ways.
The calls of arriving fieldfares on the nineteenth (A huge flock of some 250+ individuals passed over my house on 27th) and jays everywhere, collecting acorns, once again tell me its time to put the garden to bed until spring. I don’t grow much throughout winter and mostly take the opportunity to rest and plan for next year. I clear the veggy plot, dig in the compost, and leave well alone for the duration.
Having tidied the borders and pond area I generally defer any major clear-up, here, until late winter so that it may serve as refuge for invertebrates before transferring any cuttings to the now empty compost bays. Here I keep things lightly packed, in order that they may emerge unharmed as things warm up.
Managed in this way a great deal of work can be avoided. Winter itself will do much to clear up the years debris. Worms will pull down huge amounts of leaves and other vegetable matter to enrich the soil, while the frost and rainfall will break down the rough dug sods of the vegetable plot to a fine crumb long before spring, leaving only a light tidy round before planting once more, ready for next years growing season. A little guile and knowledge can save many an aching back, in much the same way that refraining from punching passing vehicles can avoid an aching jaw.
Just as I had decided that my friends across the road were seeing brown rats, rather than water voles, so my neighbours directly opposite them, who also have a large pond to the rear of their property, have reported sightings of an odd rat with a rounded face and a short tale. This sounds exactly like the illusive beast. It seems that we may yet have a colony of these once common but increasingly rare critters right on our doorstep after all.
Another mammal that always catches me out at this time of year is the grey squirrel with its low squawking alarm calls. I always confuse these with some sort of unfamiliar bird until I remember. Also on the nineteenth the countryside was absolutely alive with the sound of rutting fallow dear as I walked back from The Kentish Horse in the evening. Punctuated with the insistent calls of tawny owls, the grunts and groans of the males were everywhere on the half mile stroll home. I have never before heard them with such intensity, it just serves to underline how rapidly their numbers are increasing. Like us there are rather too many of them for the habitat available.
I understand that the recently revealed outline local plan, drawn up by Sevenoaks District Council, has again been adjusted upward, on the insistence of central government, from a requirement for an extra 12,400 new dwellings within the Sevenoaks catchment over the next twenty years, to 14,000, while world population continues to increase by over 80,000,000 souls every year. Draw your own conclusions.
In a previous incarnation, once long ago, I monitored and analysed viruses for a living. I was, therefore, both interested and concerned to read that myxomatosis seems to have jumped the species barrier and is now starting to affect hares, which have long been thought to be immune. Populations in Suffolk seem to be the worst hit, although the national population has already declined over time by around 80% due to other factors. Ask most locals and they will probably say that we don’t get them around here but we do, in limited numbers. I’ve seen them at Bough Beech in the past and there was a dead one in the road at Marsh Green only last year.
As you may suspect, if you have read this blog on a regular basis, I’m quite possibly not the warmest or most outgoing of individuals. I was born without a lonely gene and hugely value solitude as one of life’s greatest luxuries. With the world becoming ever more insane I increasingly retreat to the relative tranquility of my back garden for long periods of time, yet even this haven it seems will soon be lost to me as there are now signs that my dear neighbours to the rear are about to initiate their building project to convert the stables/barn which forms my rear boundary into a house, with all of the attendant noise and mess that this will entail throughout the build period and which, on completion, will ruin that aspect of my property forever.
In truth I shall be glad to see this completed as at least the planning blight hanging over us will be lifted and I shall be able to get it on the market with some degree of confidence. Not that much is selling locally, mainly I fancy as the majority of vendors still seem to be living in cloud cuckoo land and are asking ridiculously inflated sums for what were after all, in the main, agricultural labourer’s cottages.
In truth I sometimes think that I should have become a monk, God knows I’m already blessed with a natural tonsure, if only the lifestyle didn’t involve endless prayer and no sex. Were this situation ever to be reversed I for one would sign up like a shot and fancy that monasteries everywhere would enjoy a hugely improved uptake.
That aside, I cannot understand why so many seem determined, these days, to waste their lives chasing rainbows, concerning themselves with self image and accruing ever more worthless nonsense without ever finding any real meaning to their lives. I thought, therefore, that I might use a bit of analogy to advance my standpoint and try and convince the world that there may be some value in taking my unfashionably scruffy, relaxed, stance after all.
That’s analogy by the way not an allergy, which is something the wife seems to increasingly suffer from and is generally the result of becoming sensitized to a food or substance over time. In the wife’s case this may be quite a rapid process. Only recently she had a bacon sandwich for breakfast but was allergic to pork by teatime! Her condition is even more complex where curry is involved. Uniquely, she has become sensitised to its absence and should a promised takeaway fail to arrive on time she experiences a range of alarming symptoms, including mood swings and debilitating bouts of breathlessness. This has only recently been diagnosed as ‘late curry syndrome’. In her case, fortunately, the victim is quickly restored to normality by administering an emergency infusion of chicken korma and a few onion bhajis.
Moving swiftly on, to analogy: If you suffer from self importance, or feel the need to worry unduly, consider this: Were the known universe to be reduced to a sphere the size of planet Earth our entire solar system from one side of its extreme outer reaches to the other would measure no more than the thickness of a piece of paper. On that scale our whole world would be virtually undetectable by any current technology available. Not only do you not matter, if push comes to shove neither does your entire planet.
Quite frankly you’re not too well off for time either. If we convert this into distance, on the scale of my back garden, a trip from the very beginning to the back wall of my house starts on the southern outskirts of York. As current scientific thinking suggests, with one enormous bang which created everything, including time itself, out of absolutely nothing and I thought the religious explanations were far fetched! If we head south our solar system begins, appropriately enough, in the bar of The Eagle public house in Cambridge where on February 28th 1953, real time, Francis Crick disturbed the startled patrons by bursting in to announce that he, together with James Watson and co, had discovered ‘the secret of life’ with their proposed structure of DNA.
On leaving Cambridge it is a surprisingly short trip to the origins of life, almost as soon as Earth becomes cool enough, somewhere around Royston, but it will be a lot, lot further down the road to the evolution of multi-cellular organisms at the top of Crockham Hill, between Oxted and Edenbridge, with the first dinosaurs arriving at Edenbridge Town station and becoming extinct between Hever Castle’s gates and The Henry VIII pub. From there we trek along footpaths, across the fields behind The Greyhound, through the rise of the mammals, towards my back fence. With around fifty five yards to go to my rear boundary Australopithecus stands up, it is one of our earliest ancestors and perhaps the first to discover bipedal locomotion. We climb over my back fence and discover something astounding. It is in itself by no means impressive unless, if you are a weirdo like me, you might measure it and, upon finding it to be precisely eighty three feet and four inches in length, are completely awestruck. By incredible coincidence, on a scale of one inch to a thousand years, my garden is precisely one million years long.
At the end of my patio the first of our own species, Homo sapiens, evolves. Less than a third of an inch from my back wall the industrial revolution begins and, aided by our newfound fossil fuel consuming technology, we start to excel as the most destructive creature of all time, capable of engineering not only our own extinction but, perhaps, even the sixth great extinction event since life first began way back at Royston.
With less than a fifth of an inch to go things take another dreadful downturn with the invention of the bicycle. In itself fairly innocuous it was not until coupled with Lycra, which first became widely available in the sixties, that all manners, consideration for others and The Highway Code were condemned to history forever.
Let’s just pause here for a moment and, remembering that I am primarily a naturalist, reflect on the fortunes of just one species other than our own, the budgerigar. I am old enough to remember these as free flying miniature parrots of Australian scrub-land and well remember how they first migrated to Britain in the fifties to a new habitat, small wire cubes, where they flourished in the front rooms of virtually every granny in our nation. At first they were available only in green but were soon to be had in many other shades, due to selective breeding. They were to be found everywhere back then, in huge numbers, but once Lycra became commonplace this versatile creature rapidly underwent a further period of evolution to become a flightless, symbiotic, inhabitant of Lycra codpieces. No longer the ubiquitous chirpy pet of yesteryear it can now only be seen as an indistinct black sausage, hovering over the crossbars of those hideous machines.
Think me wrong? When did you last see a budgie?
And so again to you. If you are fortunate to live until your hundredth birthday, on this scale of time, travelling on a train from the beginning at York to my house, you have just one tenth of an inch, maximum, to gaze out of the window, from birth, until you hit my back wall. All that you are or aspire to become must be played out in that minute fraction of time.
How much more of your minuscule share of eternity then are you prepared to waste in worrying about how others perceive you, or how much beyond your true need you can stuff in the bank or otherwise stash away by spending the rest of your life in endless toil and struggle? Personally I have long deemed myself to be massively wealthy already, in real rather than pecuniary terms, given my apparent immunity to the ‘must have dictates’ of the media that now pollute every facet of our existence. I am surrounded by a few valued family and friends and am generally content with my lot, which is ultimately all that should ever truly matter to anyone who considers themselves even remotely sane. By 1979 I was already sick of the way the world was heading and dropped out, irrevocably and forever, to become the happily contented, if highly critical, crusty old bum that I remain to this very day.
Perhaps in the final analysis we and our planet do matter after all. Statistics suggest that with around four hundred billion galaxies, each containing perhaps a trillion planets, in all probability there must be other life out there in our (just one of an infinite number according to Brane Theory) universe but as far as we actually know for sure we appear to be alone. Even if there are other sentient beings out there our universe will only be capable of supporting life, any life, for around a billionth, billionth, billionth part of its total existence. That wall’s getting awful close! How much more of your remaining thirtieth of an inch or so are you going to waste chasing those rainbows?