Michael Harding: The lights go out on another solitary country life
When a farmer dies in the countryside, there is a strange emptiness in the fields
‘There was no sound as delicious as my neighbour’s tractor in a field of grass as he sat steering and twisting his head to watch the rake toss the mown grass into perfect lines behind him.’ Photograph: Thinkstock
A neighbour of mine died recently after a few years of ill health. He was a quiet man who never married but was good to the mother and was cherished by nephews and nieces and lived in a cosy house in the quiet hills above Lough Allen.
I felt I knew him, although for more than 20 years we never spoke more than a few words. He farmed the fields all around our house and he passed along the road every day.
In November fog he would drive past our front door, up the hills, with bales of hay sticking out of the boot of his Volkswagen, to feed the cattle that waited for him in the fields.
He was a fine-looking man, thin and supple with dark hair when we first met, though he had grown grey in recent years.
The summer sky is full of sound, from the exquisitely booming bittern to the call of the curlew, but there was no sound as delicious as my neighbour’s tractor in a field of grass as he sat steering and twisting his head to watch the rake toss the mown grass into perfect lines behind him, and later the thump of hay bales being piled into the red galvanised shed where our cat moved in his wake as she hunted for field mice.
Closed every neighbour’s gate
He never allowed rushes grow on his fields, and when he brought his cattle to lower ground for the winter he closed every neighbour’s gate on the way, so that there was no danger his cattle would intrude on someone else’s land or green lawn.
He drove slowly, his hand out the window, gently banging the outside of the car door to nudge the animals further down the lane, animals that were as calm and quiet as himself. I often noticed how friendly the cows were as they stuck their heads over the fence like warm, furry pets to be touched by a human hand.
And, like many rural men, he wasn’t given to overexcitement. He’d raise one finger from the steering wheel to salute me. If I whispered my enthusiasm for the good weather as we passed, he might agree, but he would cautiously add: “Will it last?”
I suppose nothing lasts forever.
There has been much written about the brutality of rural life, but as someone who fled from middle class Ireland long ago to find refuge in the wild hills I have to say that the wilderness has been for me a gentle place, and the tenderness and dedication of country people to their dogs and goats and cattle has often humbled me.
When a farmer dies in the countryside there is a strange emptiness in the fields. They grow ragged with rushes, and without paint the galvanised sheds turn to rust, although nothing rusted on my neighbour’s land.
Grass shaved to yellow roots
I remember one summer evening when he had finished work and the sloping grass had been shaved to its yellow roots, I saw him alone on the brow of the hill, his work done for the day,
He was having one last look at the field. And the smoke from his cigarette dissolved in the air around his head. And I knew that he was well satisfied with his work and proud of his land.
The little church in Arigna was so full for his funeral that I couldn’t get in, so I stood with dozens of other men outside, a dry day in November, with the slanting sun cutting into our faces as the coffin was shouldered towards the cemetery.
People were there to witness the closure of a simple life. To celebrate a quiet man who walked deeply on the earth and loved its colours.
On my way home at night, for 20 years, I would always pass his house and see lights on inside and if I saw an extra car in the driveway I knew his brother or sister was probably within, chatting at the range, and that he would never let them go without ladening them with vegetables from his abundant garden.
But there will be no one to tend his garden now, and his fields are empty, his cattle taken elsewhere. His tractor will never come again up the hill on a summer’s evening.
And the house where there was always a light in the window at Christmas will be dark this year. Those who live in the hills above Lough Allen have lost another solitary man. But all across the west of Ireland it is the same – one by one, the lights go out.