Wednesday, 12 August 2015


I was bored this evening, so I went out into the fields and took photos with my phone.  I spent so much time walking and playing in these fields and in the woods as a child and a teenager, but they are suddenly become small.  The hut that I built and used to live in is gone now; even that corner of the field where it was is gone, taken over by alder trees and blackberry brambles.  I found the rusted woodstove on its side in a patch of thistles, and a wooden bench nearly a foot thick, and some mint I planted still growing along the fence.  That's all that's left.

Those are reed seedheads in the foreground, and behind them silky white thistledown starting to blow away, and cedar trees in the background.  The fields are boggy most of the year, hence the reeds.  It's no good for keeping horses in, because the lush grass and the wet causes them to founder.  Foundering is really awful; it's laminitis, an inflammation of the tissue that attaches the hoof to the bone inside the horses foot.  It's pretty gruesome if it's not stopped and can kill the horse in severe cases; you can google it if you want the details. I ended up selling our pony to a horse rescue for a dollar quite a few years ago, because he was foundering, but there was nowhere to put him that wasn't grassy and I couldn't pay for a vet.

Another view of the same field.  Those are alder trees on the left.  There's a creek in there.  It used to be big, my mom and her sibling used to swim in it.  By the time I was a child, it was smaller, but there were still fish in it and you could still fall in and get totally soaked.  Now it's only a trickle, hardly even a stream.  So many tributaries have been covered over or diverted by the new subdivisions that there isn't much water in it anymore, and no fish or tadpoles.

Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) going to seed.

Canada thistle is an invasive weed commonly found along roadsides and in cultivated fields; it spreads laterally by root to form huge patches, and by seed.  Its common name in the US and Canada is misleading, because it's native to Europe and northern Asia.  It's widely considered an injurious weed even where it's native, but the seeds are an important source of food to European Goldfinch, Linnet, and other finches; the leaves are food for over 20 species of butterfly and moth caterpillars, including the Painted Lady; and lots of insects visit the flowers.

Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense)

These alders by the creek are the biggest alders I've ever seen.  The fields were probably cleared by logging at some point in the late nineteenth century, but there are young alder trees springing up in the middle and they'll going to go back to forest given time.  But the farm will be sold and subdivided before that can happen, so nobody is bothering to pull them.

Grass seedheads behind the barn.

The wild roses are still going, surprisingly.  I knew wild roses flowered in June, but if I ever knew that they continued all summer (I must have, I spent so much time in the fields), then I forgot.

The blackberries are still doing their thing.

Common ragwort, native to Britain.  The English poet John Clare wrote a poem in praise of it in 1831:
Ragwort thou humble flower with tattered leaves
I love to see thee come and litter gold...
Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields
The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn
So bright and glaring that the very light
Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn
And seems but very shadows in thy sight.

 The alkaloids in ragwort make it somewhat toxic to livestock, although they don't usually eat it when fresh because it's bitter.  It is usually removed from fields that are mown for hay, because livestock will eat dried ragwort in hay and in large quantities it causes cirrhosis of the liver, although confirmed cases of poisoning are rare.

In ancient Greece and Rome a supposed aphrodisiac was made from the plant; it was called satyrion.  Ragwort leaves can be used to obtain good green dye, and the flowers to make brown, orange, or yellow dye.

John Clare, the poet who wrote that verse, lead an interesting and very sad life.  He was born the son of illiterate farm labourers in Northamptonshire in 1793 and had very little schooling, but he is known for his poems about the country.  He suffered from depression and psychosis and spent nearly thirty years in an asylum.  He was mostly forgotten until being re-published in the 20th century.

 He became an agricultural labourer while still a child; however, he attended school in Glinton church until he was 12. In his early adult years, Clare became a pot boy in the Blue Bell public house and fell in love with Mary Joyce; but her father, a prosperous farmer, forbade her to meet him. Subsequently he was a gardener at Burghley House. He enlisted in the militia, tried camp life with Romani, and worked in Pickworth as a lime burner in 1817. In the following year he was obliged to accept parish relief.  Malnutrition stemming from childhood may be the main culprit behind his 5-foot stature and may have contributed to his poor physical health in later life. [...]

Clare was constantly torn between the two worlds of literary London and his often illiterate neighbours; between the need to write poetry and the need for money to feed and clothe his children. His health began to suffer, and he had bouts of severe depression, which became worse after his sixth child was born in 1830 and as his poetry sold less well. In 1832, his friends and his London patrons clubbed together to move the family to a larger cottage with a smallholding in the village of Northborough, not far from Helpston. However, he felt only more alienated.

His last work, the Rural Muse (1835), was noticed favourably by Christopher North and other reviewers, but this was not enough to support his wife and seven children. Clare's mental health began to worsen. As his alcohol consumption steadily increased along with his dissatisfaction with his own identity, Clare's behaviour became more erratic. A notable instance of this behaviour was demonstrated in his interruption of a performance of The Merchant of Venice, in which Clare verbally assaulted Shylock. He was becoming a burden to [his wife] Patty and his family, and in July 1837, on the recommendation of his publishing friend, John Taylor, Clare went of his own volition (accompanied by a friend of Taylor's) to Dr Matthew Allen's private asylum High Beach near Loughton, in Epping Forest. Taylor had assured Clare that he would receive the best medical care.
Clare was reported as being "full of many strange delusions". He believed himself to be a prize fighter and that he had two wives, Patty and Mary. He started to claim he was Lord Byron. Allen wrote about Clare to The Times in 1840:

    It is most singular that ever since he came… the moment he gets pen or pencil in hand he begins to write most poetical effusions. Yet he has never been able to obtain in conversation, nor even in writing prose, the appearance of sanity for two minutes or two lines together, and yet there is no indication of insanity in any of his poetry.

During his first few asylum years in High Beach, Essex (1837–41), Clare re-wrote famous poems and sonnets by Lord Byron. His own version of Child Harold became a lament for past lost love, and Don Juan, A Poem became an acerbic, misogynistic, sexualised rant redolent of an ageing Regency dandy. Clare also took credit for Shakespeare's plays, claiming to be the Renaissance genius himself. "I'm John Clare now," the poet claimed to a newspaper editor, "I was Byron and Shakespeare formerly."

In 1841, Clare absconded from the asylum in Essex, to walk some 90 miles (140 km) home, believing that he was to meet his first love Mary Joyce; Clare was convinced that he was married to her and Martha as well, with children by both women. He did not believe her family when they told him she had died accidentally three years earlier in a house fire. He remained free, mostly at home in Northborough, for the five months following, but eventually Patty called the doctors in. Between Christmas and New Year in 1841, Clare was committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (now St Andrew's Hospital). Upon Clare's arrival at the asylum, the accompanying doctor, Fenwick Skrimshire, who had treated Clare since 1820, completed the admission papers. To the enquiry "Was the insanity preceded by any severe or long-continued mental emotion or exertion?", Dr Skrimshire entered: "After years of poetical prosing."  He remained here for the rest of his life under the humane regime of Dr Thomas Octavius Prichard, who encouraged and helped him to write. Here he wrote possibly his most famous poem, I Am.

He died on 20 May 1864, in his 71st year. His remains were returned to Helpston for burial in St Botolph’s churchyard. Today, children at the John Clare School, Helpston's primary, parade through the village and place their "midsummer cushions" around Clare's gravestone (which bears the inscriptions "To the Memory of John Clare The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet" and "A Poet is Born not Made") on his birthday, in honour of their most famous resident.

In his time, Clare was commonly known as "the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet". His formal education was brief, his other employment and class-origins were lowly. Clare resisted the use of the increasingly standardised English grammar and orthography in his poetry and prose, alluding to political reasoning in comparing "grammar" (in a wider sense of orthography) to tyrannical government and slavery, personifying it in jocular fashion as a "bitch".  He wrote in his Northamptonshire dialect, introducing local words to the literary canon such as "pooty" (snail), "lady-cow" (ladybird), "crizzle" (to crisp) and "throstle" (song thrush).

In his early life he struggled to find a place for his poetry in the changing literary fashions of the day. He also felt that he did not belong with other peasants. Clare once wrote:

    "I live here among the ignorant like a lost man in fact like one whom the rest seemes careless of having anything to do with—they hardly dare talk in my company for fear I should mention them in my writings and I find more pleasure in wandering the fields than in musing among my silent neighbours who are insensible to everything but toiling and talking of it and that to no purpose."

It is common to see an absence of punctuation in many of Clare's original writings, although many publishers felt the need to remedy this practice in the majority of his work. Clare argued with his editors about how it should be presented to the public.

Clare grew up during a period of massive changes in both town and countryside as the Industrial Revolution swept Europe. Many former agricultural workers, including children, moved away from the countryside to over-crowded cities, following factory work. The Agricultural Revolution saw pastures ploughed up, trees and hedges uprooted, the fens drained and the common land enclosed.

This destruction of a centuries-old way of life distressed Clare deeply. His political and social views were predominantly conservative ("I am as far as my politics reaches 'King and Country'—no Innovations in Religion and Government say I."). He refused even to complain about the subordinate position to which English society relegated him, swearing that "with the old dish that was served to my forefathers I am content."
John Clare, painted by William Hilton in 1820 (Wikipedia).
The house where Clare was born in Hepston, Peterborough.  The house was subdivided, with Clare's family renting a portion (Wikipedia).

Clare's poem "Autumn:"
The thistledown's flying, though the winds are all still,
On the green grass now lying, now mounting the hill,
The spring from the fountain now boils like a pot;
Through stones past the counting it bubbles red-hot.

The ground parched and cracked is like overbaked bread,
The greensward all wracked is, bents dried up and dead.
The fallow fields glitter like water indeed,
And gossamers twitter, flung from weed unto weed.

Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun,
And the rivers we're eying burn to gold as they run;
Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air;
Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.


  1. Replies
    1. Aww ty! I am trying to see the beauty in Canada and not just hate it.

  2. I was like that the first time I was forced to spend the summer in Muscat;). I'd take my camera and see what I could see without my own prejudices, and just let the camera show me things:)

  3. It's amazing what interesting pictures you can get of ordinary things! Unfortunately using a cheap smartphone means that I can't often get GOOD pictures, but I take a tonne and occasionally one works out. I have found a lot of beauty I didn't notice before, by photographing things.