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orchard notes

Random words and pictures from our apple orchard in Kent, UK

The ferns are the first to go, followed by a single Golden Delicious tree, autumn's first hostage in a row of Cox's Orange Pippins. Two wood-pigeons lift their barrelled-bodies into the air, such effort in the whir of their wings, as if the weight of summer is still with them. And it is, in the long grass, the scatter of daisies, the oak trees, the sun-busting blue sky, these stray apples I gather, missed by the pickers almost two months ago. 

Indian summer - the impatient rustle of something in the woods.

The pickers are here with their narrow tractors and trains, their baskets and bins. It is 8am and the bottoms of their jeans and sweat pants darken with dew in the long grass between the shaded rows. The bin count grows, the green moons of apples rise to the brims.

One tree without a single fruit is cloaked in hops, the sticky bines tangled around each branch, a tumble of flowers tinged with pink, a crop from 50 years ago pushing through the soil to reclaim its place.

windfall fruit the past is always with us

Indisputably the Sun's Day here in Kent today and clouds know better than to crash the party, politely nudge each other along the horizon or snicker and fidget stage right. Dydd Sul, we say in Welsh too: the sun the lord of the sky. A good day for August to take a bow, sweep its hat across the bright grass while all the sun songs I know stack one upon each other - Here Comes the Sun, I'll Follow the Sun, Seasons in the Sun, Sunshine On My Shoulders, Sunny Afternoon, You Are the Sunshine of My Life - for the month's finale. Then, sunset, sundown. The sky full of whispers.

is a collection of writings from 30 consecutive days of walking through the orchard in March and April 

This evening a fox at the far end of a row near the railway line, a smudge of russet against the grass before he trots away, his tail like an arrow. Clouds have threatened rain all day but patches of blue persist.

The pruner is 20 rows away from the house. The grass beside the last six he's done still littered with branches, wilting leaf, some blossom, waiting to be pulverised when the tractor passes next week. It feels wrong to cut the blossom from a tree and let it die but you can prune safely up until May, he assures me.

Illogical to feel sorry for blossom. And maybe for the bird the cat brought in too, its heart still beating but a wing broken. But surely better to feel too much than be impervious to nature's circle of life and death.

Back at home, Tony has finished the retaining wall. It curves like a bow, all sharp edges lost in the slowly made sweep of brick and pug. We have to notice the beautiful things in this world and try and make other things so.

I'm going to check the new trees, you say through the door of the conservatory, and I say, Wait for me, because we haven't walked through the orchard together for an age. Last month you planted over 30 of them in the spaces where older trees had died and been taken out over the years and not replaced by the farmer who used to rent the land. And the trees are all fine, some in leaf, some with the tiniest of deep pink blossom, and I imagine their fine roots pushing through the earth, this new variety of Cheerful Gold that is hardier and sweeter and claiming a space in an orchard of trees that are older by 40 years.

bonfire smoke
we talk about the people
who have disappointed us

While I am closing the farm gates, while I glance over my shoulder to the sound of the tractor growling along another row of apple trees, the feed spray like a cloud around the driver's cab, steel is crumpling on the motorway a mile away. Two cars, two lorries, a van, the lives of two people snatched from this unassuming Wednesday morning, the lives of seven others that will shake for days like a loose rope over a precipice. On the news I watch the aerial footage, miles of  traffic locked in both directions, the tiny drivers and passengers clustering on hard shoulders, leaning against central reservations, their hands grasping phones, or raised to their foreheads, sheltering their eyes from the sun, as if they might understand what happened if they continue to stare into the gridlocked distance. A second, perhaps less, divides us from our future: I step away from the gates' shade and into the sun.

I am tying bags of foil wrapped chocolate eggs to branches: in The Land of the Trees, the clue begins, if you stay on the Wide Path the Eggs will be Rightly Revealed. I have tried to imagine the mind of a ten year old but the mind of a girl, I think, perhaps the only mind I can imagine, a mind that will read a clue and read the landscape, not a mind that wants to be timed on his bike, hurtle along on the running machine at 10k an hour. I have imagined thoughtfulness and investigation not a hurly burly race to the end. I understand them, boys, but I do not know them the way I know girls. How they want to race and run and fight and win so much. But the clues unravel themselves all the same. The eggs are found, eventually. And eaten. The same result. A different journey.


waiting for a cloud to unmask the sun
the scent of fresh mown grass

For Aunty Marie (1930 - 2014)

All that remains of the buzzard that fell from the sky last month is a wing, the feathers fanned out as if flight is still a possibility, as if the long grass is only a resting place before it finds its rightful element again, a thermal lifting it above the apple trees, higher than the windbreaks, the light seeking alders in Moorland Wood. This is what we want to feel when someone we love dies, to be lifted from the hard ground and carried to a height where weightlessness can soothe our grief a while, a height from which we can clearly see the decades of their life fan out around us. Ah, what gifts they left us, our children.

How big the world seems at times, the way the trees stretch all the way to the horizon, and others how small, the space between the rows shrinking with the spring growth, first leaf and early blossom. The sky, an infinite canopy of blue, the grass a microscopic world of movement. The whole whistling rumble of the train and the small child with her hand pressed against the glass. My dreams that invent scenes beyond the capability of my waking mind, and this small  cup of coffee you have made me this morning, white porcelain, a cloud of fine foam. The balance between the two sometimes impossible, sometimes perfected.

22 and 23 

The daisies have shrunk back for the night, petals closed around their yellow eyes. A tennis ball in the middle of a row, thrown up by the tractor's pass,  its yellow skin worn away by its hibernation in the undergrowth replaced by moss. It's all apples here now, the 1970's Golden Delicious mostly replaced by Cox, Greensleeves and Ida Red, but before that the acres were planted with hops that still grow wild in the hedges, the leafy blossom in the autumn scented like a blend of tobacco and rubber. The converted oast houses hang on to the past, white cowls still twisting in the wind: no smoke escapes any more but the sulphur released through all those years of drying hops preserved their timber frames and rafters. The London train rushes by: so many stories when I stop to look.


black crow
green tree

old wood
new blossom

pruned tree
long grass

long legs
short body

living tree
dead wood

shadowed land
hill in sunlight

sun set
night rise

the road home


the journey inwards: bark, phloem, cambium, sapwood and heartwood,
the strongest part of the tree, the lifeless core
and now the journey out: amber beads of sap that glue themselves
into the grain of your skin

all day rain, you do not walk further than from the front door of the house to the back door of the greenhouse, twice

through the window you are sure you can see the leaf and blossom growing without the need for a time-lapse camera, rain

feeding each vein, uncurling another leaf, pushing out another white petal, this is all it takes - water, warmth, time, and you,

you like to think, a witness to the beauty, this gradual explosion of fresh, but take yourself out of the equation and nothing

will change: rain falls, trees grow, you are the uninvited audience. Be grateful.


Rain is falling. A big black crow walks among the young apple trees. Smoke rises from the chimney. Inside the house a table laid with bread and cheese. Two people sit opposite each other. The light from the fire glows in the bowls of their wine glasses. They hear the crow screech as it lifts but do not see the ragged cloak of its wings rise and circle once above them.

Once upon a time no one lived happily ever after.

how it all begins

something that can't be contained
pushing against
bark or skin
the wall of your mind
making space
for itself
wanting out
you welcome it in

All the time we are viewing his house he talks about cars, the dealership he used to have in Tunbridge Wells, model numbers and horsepower, the classic Merc parked up outside, five others awaiting restoration behind a crooked wooden gate. And then about his ex-wife, his sons, the farmhouse where he used to live. The land she still owns. He points out a wall that could come down, the plot of land beyond the hedge the neighbours might sell. He's had his life on hold for four years, he says.

time to move on
the car's tyres half hidden
in the long grass

Today is the loading and unloading of bricks, the barrowing from one place to another, the stacking of bricks into alternate piles of red and black, bricks that are not really bricks but concrete made to look like bricks, block pavers dug up when we relaid the terrace around the house with Indian fossil sandstone and stacked behind the Applebox, sure that we'd find a use for them. I brush off sand, moss, slugs, snails, black beetles, spiders, woodlice, an amber centipede, 14 blocks to a barrowload, breathe out when I lift the weight, 14 per column set along the footings for a small retaining wall to curve around  the edge of the new orchard. I never imagined this in my life. But maybe none of us imagine what really ends up happening. And if we did, would we change it? Tomorrow will be the loading and unloading of bricks. And I would not change a thing.


We've named this house for the fruit we grow, the farm for the parcel of land that belongs to us: 'manor' from manere, Latin for 'remain'. Yesterday I heard you say, we'll never move from here and I want to add, you're right about the 'we'. But once you're gone from me I could not stay and walk this land alone. I could not watch the trees begin to leaf in spring, the fruit ripen in the early fall, or walk along the tractor path without your steps beside me or the warmth of you waiting back at home.

dandelion clock
we name the things we love
but only love remains.

You bend the branch forward as you cut, the pruner says, though he does it so quickly it's hard to see any flex in the new wood that's suddenly in his hand then tossed between the rows before he moves onto the next. You have to get back to the shape of the tree, he says, speaking in a language I do not understand, watching him as the saw slices again and again, the clutch of trimmings growing in his fist, the tree emerging from a thicket of growth. One man, thousands of trees. How, after 7 weeks of this already, doesn't he drop to his knees, hold his head in his hands and weep at the thought of the thousands that remain? But I am thinking of me wrapped in confusion when the tree specialist left after a morning of showing me how to create light in an old tree, how I stood there with a small saw, some secateurs, a reversed cliche stock still in the long grass, unable to see the tree for the wood.

11 and 12 

even though I know it I do not really know it until I walk through it for the first time tonight the light gifted or borrowed or stolen but here it is where it was not two days ago and the sky seems as surprised as I am the clouds a funnel of smoke a feather an evaporating check-mark that says yes this is correct yes this has been completed yes this applies to you oh yes

in the camera's flash
cherry leaf and blossom
yet to be unpacked

Comma, tortoiseshell, peacock. A small stampede of baby rabbits bouncing into the brambles.  A buzzard. Two magpies a windbreak apart. The woods that border the orchard lit by yellow celandine, white anemone. Clusters of daisies between the rows of apple trees. Remember the smell of sap from a daisy stem, how the scent lingered at the back of your nail as you punctured one after another to make a necklace chain on the lawn of your Grampa's house in 1963? He'd been widowed for nearly four years by then. You remember him sitting forward in a chair and asking about the plaster on your chin and whether you'd been boxing and even though he'd meant no harm you left the house and settled on the lawn. You didn't cry. It wasn't fear you felt. But you wouldn't go back in. How easily the curtains of memory part. Though not with answers. You still don't know the words for what made you turn your back on him. But you can feel it still: like being pigeon-holed, held in a too tight grip.

Once the pruner finishes a row of trees the tractor-man comes along and pulverises the twiggy leavings, cutting the grass at the same time. The ends of the cut branches glow amber against the darker wood and the newly pruned trees remind me of dancers, their arms free again, stretched out, welcoming the first bursts of leaf, the promise of blossom.

Nearer the house the older trees wait for the saw: they make me think of widows, the spindly new growth smothering them, like grief, sharp and angry. But how can I know what another woman feels when that loss arrives like the crashing bank of a river in flood, or a tree torn from the ground, its roots parched? The pruner moves through the orchard slowly, two or three long rows a day, each cut of his handsaw creating light and space. There's a dancer hidden in the old trees too.

On peeling a clementine in the fog at dusk in the company of a black cat

A last minute thing, this, snatching it from the wooden bowl on the kitchen bar and pocketing it until I reach the corner of the packing shed where the cat squeals at me and winds herself around my legs and the moment I dig my fingernail into its dimpled peel becomes the moment a train rolls past the edge of the orchard its carriages splashed with light and suddenly this fruit in the misty gloom pulls from me the words for every shade of orange I have ever known - peach, apricot, carrot, pumpkin, salmon, coral,  tangerine as if the conjuring of its names might repel the dark. 

6 and 7 
the sound of rain on grass is different to the sound of rain on my hood and the sound of rain falling on the branches of apple trees where some of them remain for as long as they can swelling like moons

today I listened to a woman say her son died in an earthquake four years ago and I imagine how she shaped the words in her head felt them form in her throat and curl around her tongue to deliver them into the world as a witness to his life

voices of birds I cannot name the sound of rain 

For Nigel (1949 - 2014)

tractor ruts in the wet earth
some days I can't believe 
you're dead 

there was so much 
more laughing left to do
the scent of cut grass

And this is my church, this trench dug at the side of the greenhouse that I fill with hardcore - broken bricks, clumps of concrete, shattered tiles - wheeling the barrow back across the mud for another load, careful of the cut edge when I lift and tip, finding smaller stones to fill the gaps, ready for the concrete we'll pour next week, on my knees, my gloved fingertips blunted by heavy stone, a flurry of cold rain from a sky balancing sun and cloud, and rising from the wet earth, grateful for the weight I can carry. For the person I am when I am not thinking of me.

A promise does not exist unless it's kept. A hole is not complete until a tree is planted. A horseshoe dug up from the orchard is not always lucky. Things do not break when you expect them to.  We are not the same man and woman who met all those years ago. 

above the old apple trees
enough sky for me and you
and for everyone

The dregs of rain, low cloud, the horizon drones with the motorway's muffled crawl of traffic. The pile of eucalyptus logs behind the packing shed wait to be sawn and split, left to season for next winter. Containment, slowness, the long view,  

unlike the irruption of first leaf and blossom, this moment, this green and pulsing world I can feel in my own heartbeat. And now the rattle and orange flash of the commuter train behind the orchard's southern fence.

Sparrows rise in a flap in front of the greenhouse. A black crow swoops around the corner of the packing shed. The muted whoop of wood pigeons in the windbreak trees. Yesterday a buzzard fell from the sky and landed between the apple trees, one wing splayed like a fan, eyes still bright but dark as grief. 

The pruner says he's been watching a pair of them on the other side of the railway line, the way they plunge towards their nest in unison, wonders whether it was shot. Then tells me his son had melanoma, a course of chemo, but didn't lose his hair. Three years on he's clear still.

Buzzards mate for life.  I can't tell if it's a cock or hen. But a flock of buzzards is called a wake. Wake, from the Old English wacian, to be awake, keep watch.

We keep watch over the people we love, pray for them to whatever gods we believe in. 

sudden roll of wind
above the railway embankment
the flash of a jay


  1. 25 and 20, I particularly loved - but what a wonderful project - I loved it all xx


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