“What good is land without its bit of encircling sky?” asks Gill Baron, koan-like, in this winter’s issue of The Land. Our piece of sky here at Hawkwood can’t rival the Big Blue of the East Anglian plains, at whose centre our partners Hughes Organics stand; nor the distant hillside panoramas that cradle so many “Back-to-the-Landers”, but it’s ours, special and wonderful in its own way, and at this time of year it’s as wide and open as it gets.
The loss of leaf canopy all round sees the trees throwing starker shapes, and expands the aerial environment surprisingly, stretching it out past the old hornbeam pollards as far as Yates’ Meadow to the north, and over the reservoirs to the grey & glass rises of Ponders End and Freezy Water, now districts of Enfield both, to the west. In between, more space and time. It’s a phenomena that I believe is known to that section of people who don’t actually live in urban river basins as a “view”. Not much call for it round ‘ere.
Another atmospheric feature that us folk in The Smoke find equally splendid but unnervingly agrophobia–inducing is something they call “the stars”. On a clear night we’re lucky enough to get the odd twinkle here in the Darkness On The Edge Of Town, but the Milky Way is drowned in the street lamp glow and retail glitz, and with it that valuable reminder of our tiny place in the universe. A profound loss. It’s the oral exclamations of the creatures that claim the space when home time comes for Hawkwood workers, that we rely on to tell us we’re not alone here: the rutting deer, the wailing fox, the questioning owl. And our sowing and planting schedule is directed by the lunar cycle, so we know when it’s a waxing moon even when we can’t spot its light shed.
Globally, the International Dark Sky Association campaigns for peoples’ right to starlight, and has declared parts of this island, among them Brecon Beacons, Exmoor and Galloway Forest, as “International Dark Sky Parks”, islands of low light pollution. Doubtless I’d get short odds on East London being one of the last areas to achieve such status, but a small patch of our site now has its perpetual black ceiling on: the “Cockney Blanching Benders” are now over the Timperly Early rhubarb, removing their light for a couple of moons so as to yield, from next week, “Champagne rhubarb”. The pink stems of which are so prized, in the past for an early source of fresh fruity vitamins; in the now for its tender, sweeter, melt-in-the-mouth quality.
As much as it is welcomed, there are understandable mixed feelings about this “veal of the vegetable world”. Undoubtedly, the blanching process stresses the plant, though the work of the gardener is to stress it but not stress it out. And this rhubarb race, like the humans that grow it and eat it, is anaemic, fatigued, pale from constantly stretching for the sky, the stars beyond. Yet from these tortuous tunnels come patterns of great beauty, hope in the darkness, new forms of delicacy.
And the best kind of crumble.