A couple of weeks back we went, with some friends, to one of Berkshire’s pick-your-own farms. These provide probably the tamest sort of back-to-nature experience possible: a controlled, regimented and essentially wholly manmade environment that still allows a frisson of contact with our inner hunter-gatherers. Freed from our suburban shackles, we were a band of plundering monkeys, with eyes, noses and taste buds fixed on the tasty prize. Sweet, yielding strawberries, sherbert-sharp rhubarb and unpromisingly tart yet ultimately delicious gooseberries: all this and more could be ours! So for once we really worked for our supper, labouring quietly in the hot sun. If we spoke at all, we employed language only for what I recall reading is supposed to have been its original purpose: telling each other where the ripe fruit was.
The only potential draw back of the PYO I can think off (besides sunstroke, nettle stings, cleaver-induced rashes, etc.) is that our ancestral urge to gather as much good fruit as we can combines with temptingly low prices to ensure that one often comes away with a nearly unmanageable haul of rapidly decaying fruit. So what followed after our afternoon’s picking was a rather frantic few days in the kitchen attempting to capture the fresh, fruity, floral flavours at their best before rot set in. Jams, sorbets, ice creams, cordials, fruit sauce, curd – two kitchens can seldom have been more productive in such a short space of time (nor, alas, can dirty dishes ever have mounted up so fast).
The following day we took a break from chopping and stirring (and the night’s moth trap catch – it’s amazing what can be achieved in a single weekend when you put your mind to it!) with a walk on the Thames Valley chalk. Our afternoon at Hartlock nature reserve – a smallish patchwork of chalk grassland overlooking Goring Gap in west Berkshire – was near perfect, despite it being rather late in the season to see the rarest of the orchids which thrive there. Somebody purely interested in aesthetics, rather than rarity, would have been more than content with the common spotted orchids which were flowering in astonishing profusion, not to mention the delightful supporting cast of other wildflowers and insects in an idyllic and tranquil setting.
It occurred to me that both our spells in the sun that weekend were overwhelmingly concerned with preservation, and that it is the latter day that may linger longest. For memories last longer than a jar of jam, especially when the latter is irresistibly delicious and slathered in generous quantities on a batch of breakfast pancakes. We bottled and canned enough treats to last a month or so, but the spirit of a single June afternoon – the fullness of its sensations in space and time – can, if carefully treasured, keep for a lifetime. It may come and go, drifting to the front of one’s mind only when evoked elsewhere on some future day; but then a transient memory – one oft forgotten, but powerful when recalled – is the most precious sort of all.
The advocate of rewilding would presumably prefer to see chalk grassland itself as just such an ephemeral thing, opening up here and there amongst birch scrub and oak forest wherever the combined whims of geology, climate and herbivorous herds permit. I would that we could inhabit such a free, dynamic, ever-evolving world. But in early 21st-century Berkshire, the current human population requires a little predictability in land use. Once housing, amenities, intensive cropland and a few of our beloved woods are factored in, I’m not sure there’s room enough in what scraps of land remain for grassland to occur by non-anthropogenic forces alone.
Faced instead with the world as we find it, can anybody blame us for being conserve-ationists? Is it small-minded, this urge to protect whatever is fragile, and scarce, and beautiful? All we’re doing in our jam-jar nature reserves is preserving those fragments of the earth which are yet ripe, sweet, fulsome and refreshing. We’re not grumbling traditionalists or uneconomic enemies of ‘progress’ but questing apes: hoarding the good stuff wherever we find it; defending nature’s diversity and vitality; bottling, like messages, flawless June afternoons and perfect, ageless places that they might float, unscathed, on the sea of our troubles until the current changes at last and brings them home.