“Mr Allen not having his own skies and barometer about him, declined giving any absolute promise of sunshine.” Consider for a moment this sentence from ‘Northanger Abbey’. Catherine is the most delightful of Jane Austen’s heroines, in this the lightest of Jane Austen’s novels. Mr and Mrs Allen have invited Catherine to go with them to Bath. She is desperate to go for a walk with her new friends, the Tilneys and appeals to Mr Allen. She asks him to assure her that it won’t rain. “but Mr Allen not having his own skies and barometer about him, declined giving any absolute promise of sunshine.” He wasn’t sure about the weather because he wasn’t at home and did not have his own skies to hand. In Bath he was, in fact, no more than 30 or so miles from his own house in Wiltshire but that 30 miles made all the difference. His own fields and his own hills, even his own skies, are what he knew.
The poet John Clare knew more about the countryside around him than anyone else. He loved his home village Helpston near Peterborough. But like many poets, Clare’s mind plagued him with delusions and other thoughts that gave him little rest and no happiness. His poetry had many admirers but it brought him little income. In 1832, when he was 39, his friends got together and provided him with a home and some income in a nearby village, Northborough. This was only four miles away but Clare could not settle there. Even that short distance from what he knew made him unhappy and disoriented. He did not have his own skies about him.
John Clare is buried in the graveyard of Helpston Church in the village where he was born. Go there if you can.
I am weeding in my little garden a patch about 8 by 15 yards just below my terrace. I am pulling up the weeds known as ‘vinagretas’ here in Mallorca. They put on a lot of growth with the spring rain and have bright green leaves that look like clover though much larger. They also have a cheerful yellow flower. When they are seen in a mass in a field near Palma, they are a joy. In my garden, where are many parts that the sun does not reach, the flowers are late and few. I use these plants to protect my garden. I pull them up and lay them under the hibiscus and bougainvillea. A few years ago, a gardener on the local TV gave a useful tip. Lay a layer of leafy weeds to dry on the earth. This will protect the soil from the heat of the sun in summer. I do that with the ‘vinagretas’. The garden will benefit in future.
But these weeds are not my weeds. In my garden near the Wye I battle with couch grass, bindweed and clover. With these weeds I wage “ a merry war”, like that of Benedict and Beatrice. Each spring I do my best to pull them up, roots and all. The weeds accept their temporary defeat gracefully.
“It’s a fair cop!” they say. “But wait till next year! We’ll all be up and growing again! See what you can do then!”
The trouble is that I am growing older, and as the years go by the weeds remain as young and strong as ever. They are like pupils at school seen by the aging teacher. Still, on we go!
I know where I am with my weeds. The couch grass, bindweed, clover and I know each other well. We are old friends as well as old adversaries. I battled with them in our garden in Somerset when I was a boy, and with any luck I will battle with them by the River Wye for a few years more.
The skies here in Palma, like the weeds, are also different. I cannot look at the sky over the mountains of the Tramuntana and say, ‘Tomorrow it will rain.’ Even the weather people on TV cannot say that with accuracy. They are always right about rain in Galicia but then they add ‘In Mallorca it will rain on Monday’. Here we know that there may be a few drops on Tuesday and perhaps a shower on Wednesday evening but Monday will certainly be dry.
There is comfort in what we know well. Stick to that, especially to your own skies and your own garden.
Austen, J., (1818). Northanger Abbey. London: T. Egerton.