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Thursday, 9 June 2011

Ask any writer: getting started is the hard part. Especially when you find reasons not to do so until eight o’clock at night. I ended up the day having gone on a three-hour hike, during which I considered eleven different openings, returned home and baked six loaves, then finally sat down and wrote 246 words, few of which will survive the first edit. But… I have started, on something. And I will proceed, however, rough it is.  It’s far easier, most times, to edit a piece of bad writing, to knock it into shape, than to conjure up the words with which to fill a blank screen. That old dictum about grabbing your reader in the first paragraph imbues them with such enormous  significance. You feel that they have to be just perfect.

As ever, I should have stuck to the thing I tell anyone who ever asks: don’t worry about the beginning; you can come back to that when you’ve finished. Just… get started, and forge ahead. But who ever takes their own advice?

I might have done more had it not been for the weather. The temperature had dropped a full thirty degrees since Monday, and with a stiff breeze to keep the insects at bay it was perfect for hiking. I set off up the hill and headed roughly south and west. No particular aim in view, until, after two or three miles, I hit the north-south fence-line and decided to follow it, away from the river.

I soon found myself fascinated by the many and varied fence-posts, their ages, their state of decay. That’s what I love about hiking, especially when you’re on your own, the way it frees your mind up to absorb things you’d normally overlook. Back home I keep threatening to collect photographs of all the different devices farmers use to operate their gates. We have a lot of gates in the U.K., mainly because the fields, and the farms, are much smaller than out here. Some of the gates are still wooden, and so carefully hung that they’ll swing shut behind you. Others don’t even have hinges: they have to be lifted out of a foot of mud and then wrestled back into place. Some have beautifully weathered iron latches dating from the nineteenth-century; others have cleverly crafted wooden contraptions. Some rely on a rusting spring to close them behind you; others on a length of binder twine wrapped around a brick or a random lump of iron, which acts as a weight and does the job just as well.

I don’t think Americans realise how free we are in most of Europe, and certainly in the U.K., to wander around the countryside. Our ‘green and pleasant land’ is cross-crossed by a series of ancient rights of way, dating back to Medieval times or even earlier, and most are still sign-posted – even though some farmers take an almost malicious delight in ploughing them up. One of my several walks into town (I live a couple of miles outside the city of Durham and walk in two or three times a week) takes me across a field which is ploughed and planted every year. And every year people like me, plus various fellows legging it home after a night out in town, have to trample a new path, diagonally, across a field of winter wheat, or barley, or oil-seed rape. I make a point of it, even though I hate to tread on a young plant. But these are rights granted to our ancestors, centuries ago, and I do not wish to see them eroded.

However… fence-posts. There’s an attractive mixture here, of stout old juniper posts, heavier timbers cut from pine, I suspect, and here and there a run of neat, round, machine-cut posts treated with some kind of preservative. Among them are some characterful specimens, which I couldn’t resist photographing...

…along with the odd remnant:

And now I’m going to have a quick gripe. Neither my Wildflowers, Grasses and Other Plants of the Northern Plains and Black Hills, nor my Grassland Plants of South Dakota and the Northern Great Plains is proving as helpful as I’d hoped. I’m pretty sure that this thing is flax, but it isn’t featured in one of the books, and in the other they have a picture of a specimen with five petals.

Anyway, it is bursting out all over the place, and is a very attractive shade of blue. As for this next one, I only found reference to it by accident - in the section dedicated to white blooms.

It’s a segolily, I believe, the state flower of Utah. The book tells me it is edible, particularly the bulbs, which are credited with saving the lives of many a starving Mormon after their early crops were destroyed by crickets.And now, at last, the first rose of summer – at least, the first one I have found. And what a scent. Took me right back to dear old Blighty (as the English soldiers in the Great War referred to their homeland).

And finally… I’ve posted a picture of these before, but could not resist such a splendid little clump of western wallflowers, soaking up the sunshine.

After a mile or so I hit the fence-line that runs east-west, followed that for another mile or so, and then turned north, cutting across a jumble of hills and worrying, briefly, that I might be getting lost. Along the way I disturbed any number of lizards, and a couple of what I took to be grouse. In the end, of course, the river came into view, as I knew it must - more green and lush than I have yet seen it.

Who knows, it may get greener and lusher yet. We had thunder in the night, and it’s been raining steadily this morning. I have no excuse whatsoever for not getting down to some serious work. Not that that’ll stop me looking for one.

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