Monday, 11 June 2007

June Days

The past few weeks have given us Mediterrean like weather making The view from Kiltumper, quite stunning. The Husband says we no longer need to go to France for our holidays because here the sun is blazing away upon flower and human alike. The Son has returned from his 2 month exchange in Maredsous in Belguim. His French is nearly perfect and the Daughter, who has just finished her second year studying Fashion at NCAD, (The National College of Art and Design in Dublin) is happily working away on Oxford Street in London as an intern for Harpers Bazaar. She says it's not at all like Ugly Betty or The Devil Wears Prada. In fact she is sitting on the floor in an unairconditioned room tagging clothes and returning them to Bond Street. I remind her that we all started somewhere, most of us at the bottom. The Husband is busy writing on his laptop as he sits at the long table overlooking the garden. Last year this time he was conjuring images of a sun-soaked landscape for his characters who walk sandal-footed across herb encrusted hills somehere on a Turkish island. ('John' comes out in the US in February 2008 and in the UK/Ireland the followng autumn.) Now the characters of his next book 'Boy and Man', the sequel to 'Boy in the World', (Harper Collins, UK) are in Ethiopia.

Meanwhile in Kiltumper’s garden the last of the poppies are fading. Their petals scatter on the flower bed like discarded coloured tissue paper that has been left too long in the sun. They leave as big a mess behind them as the great show they perform in the month of June. Truth is they are a bit sloppy after their grand appearance but the garden wouldn’t be the same without them, especially this season when they held the setting sun in their crimson cups.

I took a walk one evening when the cottage was quiet. Everyone was away. I followed the small road that borders the big meadow behind us and climbed over the gate into the field known locally as ‘Lower Tumper’. Before most of the lower hill field was planted with hardwood trees and spruce, the field was home to our grazing cows and their calves. Back in the days when the Husband and I tried our hand at farming we walked up these hill fields to count our small stock and stand amongst them, listening to the bird song. It was a different time in our life. It was a different view. I never thought I’d be thankful for that massive monument of metal that stands in the corner of the big meadow but I am. It has saved a remnant of the field-that-was as a long swath beneath the wires of the pylon. A fifty yard path separates an emerging forest on either side. Without the pylon the field would be total plantation. It occurred to me that as the rest of the country is becoming more developed, here things are becoming more wild. You can sense wildlife everywhere. I was walking across the thistle and tall grass into the heart of the hardwoods when some movement in the edge of my vision made me stop. I turned in time to see a fox climbing over the stone wall and into the field at the back of the house where two brown horses stay for summer grazing. Sensing me, the fox stopped still. Then it turned and looked at me, and I looked at it, both of us perhaps marvelling like neighbours at the stillness and beauty of the warm evening. In a snapshot second it was pastoral picture perfect. Sometimes everything comes together, and alone on the hill I recalled last year when the Husband and the Student were discussing Robert Frost’s poem, 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' for his honour english Junior Cert exam. And now here I was, a single and yet not so single viewer in the silent landscape of ash and oak, of fox and horse, of meadow and sky. My brother, Stephen, who passed away under the first full moon of May, would have loved that image. He would have loved the idea of me standing alone in the field of my ancestors and thinking not of Yeats but of Frost.

Friday, 1 June 2007


The cuckoo and the swallows arrived in Kiltumper in the last week of April. We had been waiting for them, those cheery harbingers of summer, with the kind of expectation that one holds for much-loved guests. For weeks we listened to the skies, asking our neighbours, ‘have you heard the cuckoo?’ While out in the garden we watched the skies for the swallows. The anticipation of their flight promising, surer than anything, that summer was on their wings. When the cuckoo did finally arrive, he circumnavigated the townland, calling down to Mary Breen’s and then across Downes’ farm. He flew above the fairy fort at Behan’s, then back across Hehir’s forest, past our cottage garden, and settled somewhere near Coughlan’s bog. Summer had justly arrived. The same day, the 26th of April, the barn swallows returned to our cabin and boldly resumed their flight patterns in a fashion that suggested a fundamental faith in the great, grand design. From the top of the rafters, where they are rebuilding their nests, diving down through the opening of the stone-framed passageway they flew out into the garden like travellers returned from a long journey. Their swooping flight would cheer an aching heart. Each time I walk into the cabin to find some garden tool they startle and leave their perches, thrilling me as they daringly dart past. I find myself wondering what our African counterpart looks like, what their winter home is like, and what they think of Kiltumper.

A red-orange poppy, bright as an African sora, has opened above a sea of green in the flower bed in front of the house, shocking everything else in sight like some electrifying force and clashing with the red tulips in a minor collision of colour. Like the first call of a cuckoo and the first sight of a swallow, the first pop of a poppy breathes new life into me because it means some summer-like weather is around the corner and, like the poppy shedding its shell, I can de-cloak. Meanwhile, the Japanese cherry is festooned with layers of blossoms much like the soft bustle gowns in the painting ‘Women in the Garden’ by Claude Monet, with petals billowing in the May wind. The colour blue zigzags its way across the border with the tiny belled flowers of Jacob’s ladder, forget-me-nots and aquilegia, pansies and bluebells. The swelling of greenness bursting into leaf is, thankfully, unrelenting this time of year making the boxwood hedge neon green with its new growth--rapidly in need of clipping before the month is out. Above the boxwood knot garden sits the small glasshouse. Planted with tomatoes and cucumbers, lettuces and carrots, and early strawberries, it becomes the favourite place for our cat, Neidin, who relaxes on the warm soil. She winks at me with lazy eyes as I pot on the delphiniums and dahlias that I’ve been protecting from the slugs. Do I dare to plant them out?

I love this time of year maybe more than any other. The energy in the garden is steady and determined and nearly every day there is some new marvel to notice. Likewise, I the gardener am steady and determined, but trying to keep pace with the tireless blitz of growth can be a challenge. I have to stop myself and sit down to enjoy it. I should be taking a note from Neidin’s diary--‘today I lounged inside in yer one’s warm glasshouse, closed my eyes and soil-bathed until dinnertime’--or whatever it is that cats think about when they’re not hunting. The garden tasks are as plentiful as the harvest they bestow, however, and although I have elected the Husband as Chief Groundsman I am largely responsible for the garden’s upkeep. To give him his due, the Husband graciously accepts the chores I assign him—hedging mowing, transplanting, barrowing—the kind of jobs where I know his mind is still half in the book he is writing.

In Kevin Danaher’s wonderful book, The Year in Ireland, he writes about Bealtaine and the many May-day and May-time beliefs and customs. I didn’t know this, but seemingly May is the time of year when women gathered the May dew, believing in its virtues as a medicine and beauty aid--“Bringing immunity from freckles, sunburn, chapping and wrinkles during the coming year.” It also cured, or prevented, headaches, skin ailments and sore eyes.” What you do is: in the early morning go to the meadow and knock the dew off the grass with your hands. Collect it in a jar or a plate. Let it rest in the sunbeams and once the dregs have settled pour off the good stuff until you have clear but whitish dew. Danaher says to walk barefoot in the dew will cure all sorts foot ailments. Better still, if you’re daring, roll naked into the morning meadow and be assured of good health and a fair complexion for the coming year.

Lately, I’ve come to the conclusion that working in the garden is being in the garden and being in the garden is enjoying the garden. Something akin to understanding that the journey is the destination, or as the American singer/songwriter Harry Chapin sang, ‘it’s the going, not the getting there, that’s good.’ So out I go. May in the Kiltumper garden will see us harvesting lettuces and scallions and rocket and spinach, and bringing in bouquets of blue flowers. And before the month is out, who knows, the swallows and the cuckoo that arrived from Africa just might see two naked humans out rolling and bathing in the morning dew of a Kiltumper meadow.