In the mornings, before I go into the studio, Daisy and I walk. About half way round our usual hour-long route is a steep meadow. Strictly speaking a meadow is a field of grass ‘ shut up’ against cattle between March and June or July, mown and then grazed until the following spring. These days such places are rare, reduced to steep hillsides, nature reserves and corners of churchyards. Most grass for fodder is grown in ‘leys’, regularly ploughed, flowerless green deserts of single species, high-yield rye-grass, cut for silage in the spring. A meadow is now, in Richard Mabey’s words, ‘a place of the mind’ as much as as a precisely defined ecological system. ‘My’ meadow is a true hay meadow and, to climb over the stile into its quiet apartness is often the best moment of my day.
Six weeks ago the field was a close, springy tapestry of short herbs and grasses, embroidered, star-like, with thousands of tiny wild-flowers. Now in mid-June it is full blown, full up, breath-taking in its depth and softness. This morning my feet push through a damp world of fine roots, slugs and beetles. My knees, thighs and hips meanwhile, are in a dryer heaven of their own – clouds of pollen, laced with small white moths, rise up around me, to swirl and hang, gauzy and impossibly weightless in the early light.
On another morning I might have pushed on through, planning, keen to work, thinking about the day ahead, half an eye out for foxes perhaps but on the whole pretty brisk. Things to do. This morning however, I dawdle, breathing in the quietness, content to wait while Daisy comically appears and disappears – ‘hunting’. A huge and very blank sheet of paper waits for me in the studio – heavy and impossible. This week I must start a new drawing. Who chooses to embark on obsession, to start again, to begin the many hours? This morning meadow is clearly a happier place than studio and the mind – ever inventive when it comes to procrastination – has an idea; whilst my knowledge of wild flowers is moderately good, I know next to nothing of the sea of grasses around me. Perhaps I could pick a few? Just one or two to learn their names – won’t take long. Two hours later, the sun high in the sky, my collection spread out on the studio floor and (with my back firmly to the tauntingly white sheet of paper,) I am looking in books.
More hours pass, the studio warms. Daisy sleeps through the morning dreaming of rabbits and my piece of paper stays stubbornly pristine. I continue to sit with my back to it, earnestly studying spikelets, ligules, nodes and leaves. The names alone are distracting:
It is the trembling of the spikelets that give this grass its English name. (Much, I assume, as Quakers are said to tremble or shake when moved to ministry.) The generic name Briza (the sample I picked is maxima but the smaller, daintier media is prettier,) comes from the Greek britho, meaning ‘I balance’.
Quaker Grass has one other lovely characteristic; when the wind blows – and you need to be seriously wasting time lying down in it to hear this – it rattles. The dry papery scales on the heart-shaped spikelets rubbing and scraping together in the breeze.
Amusingly, I read it is also known by a variety of folk-names such as ‘doddering dickies’ or ‘dillies’, and ‘didder’. Dillying and diddering – exactly what I’m doing this morning! Wandering round hay meadows and burying myself in reference books – anything other than start WORK.