England’s pale and flaxen land

England’s pale and flaxen land

Intimations of green where trees shelter the ground for a few precious hours. In the distance, 22 verdant yards shock the eye. A carefully-tended cricket pitch, watered faithfully day after day. The ground will yield to the leather before it hits willow come the weekend.

The view from a bench on Barnes Common early last Wednesday morning.

I had the picture of earth burned sandy-beige in my head from the day before. Drove across Bushy Park to meet a friend. Normally I walk – it’s a regular meeting place and a glorious walk under towering chestnuts lined up elegantly along The Avenue, past the fountain, where Diana looks lonely and shiny, all newly-gilded on her plinth in the middle of the pond. She must be sweltering.

Like the Common, the park is a pale version of its normal self. From the car it all looks different. Sitting higher you get a longer view but must absorb it in a shorter time as you ease past observing the maximum 20 mph and scanning the verges.  Suddenly, skittish deer can dart in front.

The colours fix as you snap them quickly onto your mind’s eye. Sharp at the edges. Bare ground dried to the shade of tired wheat under trees that, ironically, seem a little healthier this year. Whatever has ailed the chestnuts these last few seasons, turning their leaves to rusty brown by late July, has not yet started or, perhaps, has abated – a virus withdrawing after a few years, its destructive power spent. Contrast between parchment-coloured ground and dark green canopy is abrupt. No subtle calibration required.  Image lands on retina and flips into memory.

In the middle distance, another snapshot. Ferns clumped thick and squat hold fast to their colour. Resist the bleaching of sun, the withering of unrelenting heat, the shrivelling of dryness. Come the autumn they’ll be bronze. Then brown by winter. I capture the edge of a memory. Gairloch in the north-west Highlands. A low November sun glints on damp, deep russet-brown bracken. Nature’s rich decay.

Here and there, enough shade to detain a hint of green where the trees throw their shadow. As if the ground has memorised its incarnation as grass. The south-facing edge of the pond, ducks, geese and gulls sun themselves. Drying off after their morning’s ablutions. A daily sprinkling of precious liquid from webbed feet and watery wings. Smudges of green.

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