England’s legendary summer, 1976: I had nothing to do when I stumbled across a college mate, who suggested I work with her at the Plant Breeding Station. Soon, each early morning, I boarded a transit van to work. The days were long, hot, and languid, and we wore little more than bikini tops and jeans.
The boss was Mr. Emmet, a middle-aged Hungarian man who ran a democratic ship. We played Radio 4 all day and listened to radio plays and stories and intellectual discussions. I met other students, one an entomologist, another a student of politics. That summer I read Tom Jones by Henry Fielding.
When we went out to the fields, we were generally weeding. One large field of what looked like a thriving crop turned out to be a rampant invasion of something called Fat Hen. It took three weeks to weed out. We discovered Fat Hen comes away with large gobbets of earth attached, which made surprisingly aerodynamic projectiles.
Our supervisor, Derek, was about ten years older — quiet, but humorous. Derek could be distracted from ordering us back to work if we offered him the Times crossword puzzle. The lunch hour stretched over two or three hours at a time, only to be curtailed if Mr. Emmet appeared in a transit bus to inspect our progress.
Sometimes I measured plants, or weeded little patches, or walked up and down cornfields for hours looking for wild oats, which had to be weeded out or else their seeds would catch in the grain filters because of something called awns on their ends. At night, when my eyes closed, I would see the shining heads of wild oats, their evil awns waving in the sun.
Sometimes we were asked to do surreal and incomprehensible things, like vacuum the fields for spare grain, or collect hay from one field and spread it out on another. We would pull out the ancient threshing machine, and I would feed seed heads into it while wearing my bikini top. The only time I’ve ever been a pin-up was when my picture appeared on a Soil Fertility Dunns brochure.
All of this work gave me a glimpse into the world Thomas Hardy lamented in his imagined Wessex: the country girls, the humor, the pubs, the fields, the crops, the haymaking, the slowness of the old ways, all still discernible in the west country in those years. To drive now between those country towns, you encounter roundabouts and streetlamps, dual carriageways and bypasses. But in those days, you could drive to a country pub and meet old people who brought you beer from a barrel in the cellar and talked about how there was no tarmac on the roads when they were children, back when the hedgerows grew meters high. It was easy to imagine Hardy’s Tess then, walking from valley to valley in search of work, in winter fields or summer hedgerows, verdant with flowers. I imagined her walking through the morning mist as it rose from the river, then watching as the sun burned it away and the fields appeared, along with the bridges and thistles, animals and stables, and a tranquility that now is hard to find.
Based in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, HEATHER GATLEY has been writing about her experiences for family and friends all of her life. This is her first attempt to go public. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Aberystwyth University, Wales, and has taught all over the world since training in London 35 year’s ago. Gatley still likes the idea of the countryside and growing things, but seems to be allergic to weeding.