Sunday, June 18, 2006

Sycamores There and Here

Oh, the moonlight's fair tonight along the Wabash
From the fields there comes the breath of new mown hay.
Thro' the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming,
On the banks of the Wabash, far away.
Official song of Indiana, "On the Banks of the Wabash Far Away,"
from the Indiana Historical Society website,
Some environmentalists are purists who want to get rid of any plants that are not native. To do this, of course, they need to pick some arbitrary point in time and try to recreate the conditions appropriate to the plants they have decided are native. Sycamores are not native to Caithness, but they do well here and they have been here long enough that, perhaps, as with beeches, they can be considered almost native. I hope so because sycamores are a connection for me between here and there. I hope so also because as an incomer, I, too, want to be accepted, and I don't have centuries to wait--unless I can somehow count the time of my ancestors from before the clearances.
Sycamores come to mind today as we sit in the window nook of the Strathmore Lodge to enjoy one of their afternoon teas. We had met the owners of the lodge some time ago at a friend's house and had meant to get out to the lodge for a meal and a ride in the country. "In the country" means something very different now because I live in the country, so perhaps I should say more country. To differentiate our farm from more country, two things come to mind: more sheep than people and the single track road is the main, the only road.
Despite grumbly, greyish weather, we set out for the lodge. Along the way I meet my first Shetland sheep. Although I knew a bit about sheep before I got here because I dabbled with spinning and weaving, I was at a loss to tell one breed from another and to remember their respective characteristics. Morris is so intrigued by the sight of a Shetland sheep that he backs up (no mean feat on single track road with wet boggy ground and sheep and lambs on either side) so that I can get a close look. Shetland sheep have, according to Morris, a hairless, rat-like tail and a face with an intelligent look. I can see what he means about the tail, but the intelligence in her face eludes me.
Nickie, the hostess and co-owner of the lodge, is an incomer, too, but her husband is local aristocracy. Patrick is the second son of Lord Thurso. His brother passed up a seat in the House of Lords to get elected as a member of the House of Commons. Tucked unobtrusively in the lodge, which is their home as well as a hotel, is a photo of Patrick's grandparents with Winston Churchill.
From the window nook, I look down to the river and the broad flat area--the strath--from which the lodge has taken its name. Firmly established on the other side of the drive to the house I see three large sycamore trees. Their size and location between the river overlooking the road to the house contribute to the stately aura of the house. To have obtained that size in this country where the wind can whip the leaves off broad-leaved trees before they have even fully opened, they must have been young when Patrick's grandparents were young.
Although I am grateful to be able to enjoy the beauty of my new home--the coast and the heaths and moors and the arable, rolling hills with cattle and sheep and ancient stone ruins--I miss corn fields and trees that rustle in a summer wind or slowly shed their leaves after turning outrageous shades of red and orange. I look at the Strathmore sycamores and I am reminded of the grand sycamore along the back road that I took to my old house. It too had grown old after the person who planted it had moved on. I always saluted it even as I drove home late at night.
Sometimes the deer that lived in the fringing woods on the other side of the road could be seen under the sycamore. I drove slowly to try to catch a glimpse of them although they saw me more often than I saw them. I hope the sycamore is still there. My car was destroyed not long after I left when the new owner collided with a deer.
After tea with clotted cream and strawberry scone and home made jams and little sandwiches and cakes, we go for a drive along the old farmsteads around the river. The road is full of pot holes and uninviting, but Morris takes the car as far as it can reasonably go. After going through a couple farm gates, we come to the edge of a bridge that looks as if it is remaining in place simply out of habit. My relief at turning back is short lived when I realize that there is an area about the size of a postage stamp in which to turn the car around. I have visions of pushing the car out or getting one of the tractors we have seen go by to pull us out, but Morris's car is a farm car and behaves like a well-trained horse in a tight spot. We are soon back jostling along the road while he runs his eye over the fields and the grass and the sheep and I think about how to capture the colors in yarn or water colors.
At the end of the farm road, he hesitates because the main road hardly looks larger than the farm road. The rain comes in fits and starts as we turn toward home. The afternoon light suffused through the cloudy sky makes the white blossom of the bog cotton shine pearly-white against the heather and the rushes. Some of the heather is beginning to bloom. Each flower is outrageously purple but tiny . When there are broad stretches of heather, the tiny blossoms become a chorus of purple in the brownish landscape. As we get closer to home, the heather, the yellow blossoms of the gorse, and the dark green of the evergreen trees give way to the gentler rolling fields. I laugh softly to myself thinking that I will some day walk again under that old sycamore and perhaps be homesick for heather.


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