Saturday, 6 August 2011

The swallows only honour the houses where the people are happy

The summer house. Strictly speaking it's not just a summer house. I've succumbed to it's rustic charms in the autumn, the depths of winter, and in the spring. But it's always a place of peace, tranquility, and this summer, healing. Of mind and body. After the failure of both the Jotunheimstien and Rondanestien trips this was the place where I was holed up.

Deer, bats and badgers stalk the perimeter. In fact the bats colonised the inside of the house walls. Quiet during the day then getting noisier as evening progressed. Moving towards the exits, pre-flight checks. Then in the night they went about their nocturnal aerial missions above the fields. Other sounds permeated my thoughts. As each cloud rolled over in the afternoon the metal joints of the barn's tin roof would retract, creating a clicking cacophony that seemed to applaud each previous sunny spell. When the sun came out again the tin roof would applaud it's return.

This time of year the summer house is bordered with swathes of wild flowers. Dew encrusted in the morning, buzzing with insects and heavy with scent in the afternoon. We took a few periodically, to infuse the inside of the house with their colour and fragrance.

While maybe not up to the standards of Big Sky Country the rolling arable farmscape that cradles the summer house means plenty of open sky to watch each weather front roll into town. Storm clouds wheeled around our wagon circle of out-buildings in the afternoon. One day I was laying on my back in the grass, basking in the sun. I watched one such thunderhead come rolling into view. It started to rain, big, fat dollops of water, lit up by the blazing afternoon sun. They fell to earth towards me like silver bullets. My perspective unique enough to make it almost feel like I was watching rain fall for the first time. Medium Sky Country.

Beyond the flowers, the berry bushes, the path and the out buildings there are fields. Flowing down from the forested hills to the banks of the heavy, slow river. I've seen them in various disguises. Blanketed in snowy white and sometimes laid bare in mud and broken stems. But it's in late summer that their true purpose is on display for all to see. Swaying green and gold to the rhythm of the winds, stems strong and vertical, heads bowed with the solemn knowledge that their valuable harvest will have to be relinquished soon.

The curse of the bad year for mosquitoes continued it's theme at the summer house. No one had experienced a year like it. Coupled with the gnarly, 'come and have a go if you think yer hard enough' red and black ants and the delta-winged green eyed bitey flies there was no time to drop your guard. I stalked the kitchen before meal times with a fly swat. My attitude of insect karma waning. I was creeping death. In the middle of all this I fell in love with the hover flies. Resplendent in gold and black, with oversized compound eyes, they looked like comedy B-movie wasps. Their funny non-invasive tongue, lapping at your skin. The acceptable face of bugdom.

As well as flowers there are berry bushes galore. Bountiful spoils to those prepared to fend off briars, insects, stinging nettles and the coy berry bushes themselves that seem to shield their prize from you behind curving leaves. Raspberries. Blackcurrants. Redcurrants. Giant rhubarb. Home-made jams. Porridge toppings.

My quest for a simpler life is easier here. Little in the way of external influences and few modern luxuries. I washed my clothes in buckets, chopped wood for fuel and had to collect my water from the hand pump well. Tin bath. Everything took time and gave a sense of achievement. Could I live everyday like this? Is it just the romantic daydream of a city slicker? Would I crave a simple fucking tap after a few months?! I don't know. It's nice to think I could.

Bird life around the summer house was diverse and entertaining. Melodious little green and yellow things, the stern looking black capped ones. I know, I need a field guide. Ducks zoomed overhead, often in pairs, quacking monosyllabic instructions to each other. "Left". "Right". Geese, only usually noticed in the spring and autumn when they're on their migratory package tours, honked over head on their way to the river. Cranes, stretched out in the sky with a really casual wing beat, coasted by, lit by sunshine between the thunderstorms.

But it was the swallows, the resident aviation experts, that caught our hearts and imaginations. There is a line in 'The Summer Book' that says "the swallow... that only honour the houses where the people are happy". Their young, hidden away in mud cup nests, amongst the internal roof braces of the old barn. The adults, resplendent in navy blue, silver white and crimson cheeks, would feed on insects, buzzing low over the crops swaying in the surrounding fields. Then they would circle the summer house, check their approach and swoop in at breakneck speed, diving through the ridiculously narrow gap above the barn's rickety doors. The speed, precision and ability to cope with the change in light levels had us watching them in awe on most days.

I was told there is another Scandinavian saying that suggests it is bad luck to stay at your summer house after the swallows leave. Our timing was impeccable. On the morning of our last full day in the house there was a commotion outside as the entire colony of swallows were outside, resting on power lines and pylons while their young rested, slightly less gracefully, on tin roofs. It was the day that the youngsters were leaving the nest. More commotion as a hawk circled over head, a beady eye cast over the scene in case a hapless youngster got into difficulty whilst learning how to use their perfectly proportioned wings for the first time.

"Looks like we got ourselves a 'reader'!" - I got through some reading material in that time too. No TV and limited internet access will do that to ya. I read at home, it's just that it seems to be in small, stolen moments or as an aid to sleep. Here at the summer house I read voraciously. From first thing in the morning, while the coffee machine gurgled away, to last thing at night while I waited to locate and exercise extreme prejudice on the rogue mosquitoes that had successfully infiltrated the inner sanctum of my bedroom. I read 'Two Caravans' in one day. Lying in the sun, stretched out on the couch, sitting at the kitchen table. The books shelves were not full of what I considered my usual reading material but after some initial protestations I got stuck in and couldn't stop.

My mind and body healed again it was time to leave the summer house. A morning of familiar chores that signal the end of another visit, possibly another year. Taking in the hand crafted heart, filling the log baskets, shutting off the electricity. The shame of leaving unappreciated flowers and berries, yesterday yellow and sour, now hanging heavily on their stems, red and swollen. The last of the swallows were having a final scout of the area before thinking of Africa. Their nests empty and quiet now. It will all come around again. Not just the swallows at the summer house but the mountains, the summer, the opportunities and the promises that this country offers me.

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