This is a story about time and wild roses. About certain moments in which life changes its form and its direction. Time is what makes sense of everything in the end on the earth, and only the heart, lover of mysteries, can tell us why. When you are young you know that time is precious and when you blossom, like the rose in the hedge, you think that moment of the heart is forever.
You think the moment of the bee arriving is everything. Then as summer comes and you become busy with leaves and stems, you forget about blossom. And then one day you discover the fruit. At a time when you thought everything was over. There in the middle of your life you find its green rewards, ripening in the autumn of your time. And you realise, as the birds begin to gather, as the people begin to look up into your branches, that the fruit was what everything was really about.
When we return to England, we stay in a cottage belonging to a writer who is away researching a thesis in Mexico. On a shelf in her kitchen, there is a book about vegetables by a writer called Colin Spencer. Sitting in the sunny kitchen, under the thatch one afternoon, I begin reading the introduction to this book and halt abruptly half-way through: I have found a sentence about slaughterhouses. I have not, until this moment, considered slaughterhouses, though I have all my life been an eater of meat. The sound of a thousand cows are bellowing through the kitchen.
When I was young, in my blossom time, cooking was one of my greatest joys. I met Colin Spencer whilst was working as a food and style editor for a magazine. Many of my friends and colleagues in those days were food writers. They were critics and cooks, restaurateurs and barmen. We all lived in a world governed by batteries de cuisine, and set our clocks by the migration of game and the vintages of fruit and wine. We were hunters and gatherers of a modern sort. Travelling abroad, taking trains into the countryside, we went gleefully in search of local produce, fresh ideas, new dishes, raiding markets, farm stores, smoke houses, roadside stalls. We always returned laden: we wrote of our voyages in the newspapers, produced photographs, cooked up storms in each other’s kitchens.
But Colin Spencer was different from us. He was older, in his fifties, and did not roam the world like a conquistador. He lived modestly in a forest in Suffolk, grew his own vegetables, kept a wicked-temperered goat in his orchard. But what distinguished him most was the fact he was vegetarian and held very strong principles about the production of food. He ate game – duck, rabbit and pheasant - when they were caught by the local hunters, because he said they were wild, part of the fabric of the place. Food for him was not the quarry of holiday markets or Soho restaurants; it was sustenance that came out of the land he was living on.
Sometimes we went to visit Colin Spencer in his house in the woods. It was a solitary house at the end of a forest track, surrounded by a large garden. You entered through a conservatory full of sharp-scented geraniums. A generous table always awaited us, as we turned up full of city gossip, bottles of wine in our hands. Twelve or fourteen vegetable dishes lay spread on a cloth, in the dark interior of the house, the fire roaring in the grate. Something about this welcome, this house intrigued me, the way Colin was with us, inviting yet brusque, passionate yet spiky (I did not know this but I was looking at myself in twenty years time). Sometimes you found these qualities in the food he served. I once was eating what I thought was an ordinary baked custard when suddenly the taste of an unknown fruit burst into my mouth - sour, perfumed, intense, surprising.
Colin laughed: “That was a quince” he said.
It was the most shocking dessert I had ever eaten.
One night as I lay sleeping in his forest house, I was awoken by powerful feelings running through my body. It was as if an animal were charging through me. I got up and went to the window Outside it was dark and windy, the branches of the pine trees were tossing violently to and fro. And then I heard a sound that I had never heard before, and yet knew so deeply, it was as if my self were made of it.
It was the bellow of a stag.
In October the native red deer of Britain gather all over the forests of Suffolk: in Tunstall, Dunwich, Minsmere, Iken. As dawn breaks and the mists rise they meet in the clearings under the birch and pine, for the autumn rut, carrying their antlers aloft, to decide the business of who should be running which territory. The sounds of their contests rumble through the land. To experience this primordial sound is to remember everything about wild things.
This is the sound that comes roaring through time, shaking me awake, as I read these words by Colin Spencer in this cottage in Oxfordshire on an August day. It is in that moment that I decide to give up eating cows.
Later I walk out of the kitchen, stepping out into the small lane that runs behind the garden, past the rows of evening primrose, through a meadow with a pond full of water lilies, into the barley and pea fields, across to the neighbouring village and back home past the churchyard and the great chestnut trees sighing in the warm wind. The corn fields are mostly cut now and there is that burnished feel that comes to the land after harvest, after the grasslands have ripened and set seed. I pause halfway through my walk by a herd of dairy cows. “Hello fellows,” I say softly as I approach them, and they gaze at me with their dark liquid eyes, with their implacable flanks, and then continue their business. They do not move away.
I lean on the gate and pause in the mysterious presence of the great beasts, in a moment of their endless time. The gentle afternoon extends itself through the rolling land. A red kite swings overhead. I breathe out with the soft breeze and feel myself take flight and soar over the hills and tumuli of southern Oxfordshire, over the Chiltern Hills, over Wittenham Clumps, the vale of the White Horse, passing by its rounded forms and curves, following the shining dark river Thames like a giant snake running through the land.
On the way home, crossing the long pasture behind the house, my eyes flick upwards into the hedges. And it is then that I notice the fruit among the leaves, and feel a sudden surge of happiness inside: wild plums! Soft oval-shaped fruit of all colours are shining in the tall dark hedgerows of the pasture - golden, orange, red, purple. An abundance of plums! My hands fly into the thickets and I cram my mouth with their sweet and sour tastes, gleeful as a blackbird; testing acid skins, fragrant juice, all manner of textures, looking for the best and most delicious, filling my pockets to take some home to Mark. Plums!
As I feast on these wild plums, standing happily in the meadow, new feet on green land, the autumn of my life begins. It is a radical change of direction. The wild plums herald the beginning of the fruit season for the rose. After the plums I will collect blackberries, sloes, damsons, crab apples, greengages, cherries and rosehips. After the plums I will hear the geese flying over the roof in the morning, tawny owls flying over at night. I will see the deer moving through the dawn. I am no longer in the rough male territories of the Americas and Australia, the bright spaces, the stern red rock lands of warriors and ancestors. I am returning to the place of birds and rivers and flowers, the England of the sweet wild rose. The place of time. It is a female territory and requires a different step.
The rose throughout the world is known as the flower of the heart: sweet-scented, beautiful, sharp-thorned. The high vibration of its fragrance inspire all mystics and poets to contemplate the love and divinity within all living forms. The gardens of paradise, all edens and avalons, are the province of the rose: apple, pear, medlar, cherry, peach, the sour and surprising quince. All creatures – man, beast and bird – love the sweet perfume of its fruit more than any other. The rose lies within the exalted heart of England: its presence is everywhere. For the wild dog roses, brambles and thorn bushes form all its hedgerows, strips of ancient wild wood that ribbon the country in all directions.
In Spring the cherry-plum is exultant. It stands in the hedgerows, sometimes growing into an open-crowned, green-limbed tree, dazzling, drenched in complete whiteness, fragrant, impervious to frost and late winter wind; now in autumn its fruits shine like jewels, full of opulence and sweetness. Its generosity knows no bounds. I sit in the kitchen looking at these jewels in the bowl, the summer evening light stripes all the walls. Outside the rooks begin their circular flight around the village rooves. I put the cookery book back on the shelf. I shall not make any compote tonight, nor any kind of chutney or mirabelle jam, nor shall I make a sharp plum sauce, spiced with chillies, for a cold meat supper, or a roasted duck, nor any manner of fruity English pudding or pie I have learned to make in all these years I have spent surrounded by pans and knives and wooden spoons, my apron hanging on a hook behind the door. Tonight the plums shall remain, as they are. Fragrant and alive in the bowl. A balance is taking place.
The truth of the matter is we have become like the land, domesticated way beyond our natural selves. As female beings we are especially domesticated, caught up in endless dinner parties, obsessed with diets, dazzled with fancy dishes, keeping ourselves and everyone in our houses, penned in, endlessly cooking, cleaning, decorating, tidying. Each evening the women stand, like empresses, holding sharpened knives in their hands, their aprons smeared with blood and chocolate, in front of their chopping boards; they are imagining all manner of imperial feasts, from China, from Spain, from the restaurants of Paris, from the brothels of Louisiana; they hold the bodies of beasts and birds and fishes in their hands, heedless of their beauty, deaf to their cries, blind to the rainforests and flower meadows destroyed in their name. Lost in minarets of self-absorption, it is a kind of power they wield. The unconscious will of the Empire exerting its absolute control. The scent of roses pervades the kitchen, subtle, all-encompassing, its thorns pricking the edges of conscience. I shudder to stand amongst the heartless, at the slaughterhouse door. My heirloom carving knife and fork, bone-handled, whetted on stone cottage doorsteps for over a century, remains still within the drawer.
It was not that the cooking was bad in itself (how could you resent a beautiful and tasty dish?) it was what it covered up, what connections it prevented, the ways, even as we threaded our way so carefully through the world’s markets, past meat hook and fish basket, we did not consider to whose cost it was, our predilection to these unnecessary grand cuisines. Whole geographies, whole peoples, whole biological kingdoms, enslaved to keep our palates amused, our bodies trim and satisfied.
In the modern supermarket world these small kitchen decisions are arbitrary. But on the solar path they mean everything: because they lead you back to a country you have forgotten and make you a fellow of all its wild inhabitants. After this day I will walk through the heartland of England and be able to access part of my imagination that was closed down before. I will grow more light, more free. In this lightness of vibration, a dialogue with the flowers, with the wild things, will become possible; the land will open up and reveal itself. But in the human world not everyone wakes to hear the stag outside the window. Most like to remain, fruitless, in the callow times. Why do you not eat meat! the women shout at me. I will remember Colin’s spikiness then, everything he said about ethics, responsibility, the fabric of place. It is our right, they carry on outraged. Man is a hunter! We shall remain deaf and blind!
But modern man is not a hunter, I will reply. Hunters honour the animals they kill. They respect their spirits and make a bargain with them every time they pick up their bow or knife. We are consumers and do not respect the spirit of living beings, not even ourselves. This does not mean this spirit does not exist, nor that we cannot walk again in balance, or listen or see.
The women become furious. There is nothing one can do. To become kin again with the animals, to return from our lonely exile means you have to relinquish something dear, dear to not only yourself but all those you meet. No modern person likes to look at their bargain with the physical earth, and will fight very hard against feeling even the slightest prick of the rose’s thorns. But sometimes we long for a relationship with our wild home for without knowing we long for it, and when you taste its forgotten fruits, you are prepared for the thickets and briars. When the red deer roared in the kitchen, I gave up my occupation with cooking, and everything that went with it, including my old alliance with cooks. Food became about sustenance.
Those are the kind of bargains you make on the solar path. They are revolutionary those decisions, those small moments, those irrevocable moves. They throw your life into the air. And yet they give you everything your heart ever desired. That summer’s day I left a domestic kitchen and entered a whole new kingdom, an archaic kingdom ruled by the stag, by the directions of the sun, by the fragrance of the wild English rose. At the end of the autumn, just as the hops were scrambling over the hedges, we left the village and went to live in Oxford, where our plant inquiry began the following spring.
First you taste the fruit, then you know the territory, then you find the flower. That is the way round it is.
Sometimes you travel a long way to come home with empty hands.