Over the holiday I read Wildwood by Roger Deakin. It is his quiet celebration of a life spent with trees; learning their ways, being amongst them; using their fruit, and in their second life, their timber, their tinder. What is striking is not just how different one species of tree is from the next, but how each tree is an individual: its burrs, its knots, its shape, its bifurcations; down to the separate world that lives deep within the folds and knurls of the bark itself; each in a way as a separate from one another as our cities; distinct but unique, able to communicate, an interdependency of richness. It is both an uplifting read and a soul-stirring one. As the story of our lost ancient woodland unfurls, as the realization of how much has fallen under man’s saw, then it takes on a haunting, elegiac quality; not in morose prose but in accenting the profoundness of our loss.
This week I was uplifted by trees though. Driving through the weaving, wandering, looping lanes of Herefordshire, one minute I would be surprised by the forceful push of large lorry wafting along a road built for carts, the next confronted by a green verge running along the road’s centre, high banked hedges and overtopping trees, their outermost leaves gently dangling and waving above your head. I had forgotten how that land is defined by short, steep hills, fields that pitch and flow into the distance and stands of ancient trees; uneven in height as the eye pans across them; uneven too in shape, colour, form. Trunks of brown; deep greens and grey; and, even at the start of Autumn, abundantly, vigourously plump with life, sap, fruity vitality.
Just outside Ledbury, heading west, is apple tree land. The trees follow the natural contours of the land, planted years ago in immeasurable stands forming today’s superficially boundless orchards. The apple seems a proud tree, rounded in form yet spiky close to; planted en mass yet independent, shapely, interesting to the eye. This year, apparently, has been a bad year for wasps and a good year for fruit. So it seems; trees lining the roads hang saggily under the weight of a large and ebullient crop; dessert apple in size; preening themselves with red-robin bellies to the sun. Earlier I had drunk some farm-pressed apple juice; it was rich, fat and delicious; now I looked forward to the fermented version from these same apples.
Later that evening, I inspected my hops. They’re ornamental not for brewing, but they snake and bind pleasingly through a corner of my garden; bullying some plants, clinging on to others, finding holes in my fence where knots have fallen out, and pushing through, looking for the sun. The cones are just passing their best but are still lime green and resinous, almost to the point of dripping their oils. Some I will dry; others I will put in the house for the aromas; most will be cut back in waiting for next year’s hop shoots and riotous cycle of growth.
The apple-hop connection was only made later when a former colleague, Jo, posted some pictures of a Ledbury hop farm onto facebook. She had been to the farm the same day as I had been gazing on the apples and to watch their harvest; the bines twelve to eighteen foot; broad leaves like maples and dark, fleshy cones in bunches like a prize fighters fist. Most cones are stripped from the bines on a heath robinson contraption that cycles a hook round and round at head height; the bines dangle like a freshly butchered carcass before being sifted and sorted by hand and laid out like a thick pile carpet to dry. Like the fat apples, they spoke of spicy, citrusy, earthy beers to come; I licked my lips in anticipation.
For many, and for many a long year for me, cider and beer are like cats and dogs: you are a ‘beer man’ or a ‘cider man’; the fruit or the grain; the press or the boil. But nature doesn’t see it that way. In this thick tilled soil, on those rolling hills, both are at home; growing, ripening with the passing of the sun; blossoming richly in time for harvest and to sustain us all.
Also posted on www.beertintedspectacles.com