christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: scarecrows

The Hay-Man and the Scarecrow Princess

A princess danced in the middle of spring
in ragged white skirts with her heart on a string.
She had a sheep bone jaw and stones for eyes
a cornflower gown and a tiara of flies.

She had perched all winter through frost and thaw,
heard the song of the robin, the old crow’s caw,
dreaming of fox gloves, poppies and teasel,
a friend to the badger, the field mouse and weasel.

In bog beans and brambles a hay-man stood
as lonely as a beech tree away from the wood.
His heart cried out for the princess of straw
who he watched from the hill and loved her more.

Through summers of heartache, winters of grief,
they were divided by ditches, bracken and heath.
Fixed to the earth, staring up at the sky
friend of the birds, he wondered why,

they could not be together and dance in the wind
their rags flapping gently, even though they were pinned,
he wanted to know if she felt the same way
or if she was happy alone in the hay.

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So he called for a swift who was quick through the air
and sent her a stitchwort to slip in her hair.
He waited ’till dusk for a gift in return
but nothing came back, no flower or fern.

So he spent the next day feeling sorry and flat
while a sparrow made its nest in his old top hat .
It left speckled eggs in his old jacket pocket
while his eye came loose in his old eye socket.

The princess meanwhile watched each setting sun
as the world slowly turned and she had begun
to wonder if ever a prince would see
her dance in the clover, and say, marry me.

For though she was not but a mile away
from the man on the hill, she faced the wrong way.
She could not look upon his scarecrow face
or see how he longed for her soft embrace.

Then one day the clouds turned black
a barn door blew open and then blew back.
The rain clattered down, on the rooftops it beat,
it splattered the mud and darkened the wheat.

But when the storm passed, it was then they found
the wind had blown the princess around.
As the sun crept out of its cloud hideaway
the scarecrow gazed upon his princess of hay.

Their love grew strong, that pearl of a summer,
and at every night’s end they danced for each other
and so all that was left, was one last thing:
she sent over at last her heart on a string.

But it was carried in the beak of a mean-hearted swallow
who dropped it down into a tree’s dark hollow.
The hay man waited for the heart to arrive
as a blood-red sun set in the blood-red sky.

Until at last he sent out his old friends the crows
who rescued the heart and dropped it down at his toes.
And the moment it fell there, a strange light shone,
a real man stood and the hay-man was gone.

He strolled down the hill, his shirt flapped in the breeze
and holding wild flowers, he went down on his knees
at the feet of the princess, now warm to the touch
and said, ‘do you love me’; she said ‘yes, very much.’

And so they married in a field of white flowers
in the eyes of the birds, in the cool evening hours.
A confetti of petals were dropped from the sky
then they slept in the poppies, the orchids and rye.

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The Sultans of Spring

We made a discovery of some unusually flamboyant scarecrows in an allotment in Corpusty, North Norfolk. All are dressed in rather nice old suits, with shiny buttons and bottle-top badges. Every so often a new character appears, in this case a guitar-playing gentleman.

Scarecrow guitar

SINGING THE GREENS

The scarecrow
with the chicken-wire guitar
sing the greens.
In an old suit
by allotment gates,
he plays Leadbelly
to the parsnips;
Blind Lemon Jefferson
to the peas.
A briar pipe at his lips
he sounds root notes
and juicy sevenths,
grass bursting
from his shoes.
An iron bolt for a nose;
pearl-button eyes,
the sparrows hang
on his every word.
He does string bends
for string beans;
vibratos for potatoes.
Behind him,
the wild garlic swoons
as he does his thing,
while the cabbages sway
to his songs of spring.

What’s happened to all the scarecrows?

An alien with a large white head and purple jumpsuit flaps around a pole at the centre of a Suffolk field. High above, two plastic kestrels are pinned to the sky on wires. In the opposite field, futuristic silver blades flash and glisten in the sun as they spin in the wind. They are mounted on a kind of translucent plastic ball like a prop from an abandoned low budget science fiction film. Welcome then to the world of the 21st century scarecrow.  

While improvements in scarecrow technology might mean higher yields for hard-pressed farmers, it is rather a shame for those of us who have enjoyed the sight of the more traditional looking hay-man. The classic image of the vagabond in tails, top hat with the missing lid, turnip head and body stuffed with straw is now more myth than reality. Nowadays, you are hard pressed even to find something in human form.

Cycling through Essex into Suffolk I did a mini audit, where gadgets, for want of a better word, out-numbered scarecrows at least four to one. What scarecrows there were, were sorry looking creations; little more than a knotted bin bag with the suggestion of a head tied to a post. No flippy-floppy hat, no dungarees, no ghostly Christ-like figure just as likely to scare the local school children as much as the birds.

Scarecrows (or Tattie Bogles, Guys or Murmets depending on where you live) are part of the iconography of our countryside. They form part of the cultural as well as the agricultural landscape of rural Britain and are as much art installation as bird deterrent. Their value in preserving crops and seed has always been somewhat spurious – and in fact there is an argument that says that birds are more useful in fields (devouring insects and other pests) than out of then. They are a link to a more ancient time – when superstition gripped the land and determined a farmer’s fortune even more so that the wind and the rain or birds of the sky. They are mannequin, voodoo doll and false god, bundled up in a slightly tatty Paisley shirt.     

For most, scarecrows are object of fascination rather than affection. To me anyway, Jon Pertwee’s comic grotesque, Worzel Gummidge, was always more hide-behind-the-sofa TV than Dr Who. They are not to be approached, especially from behind for fear of springing into life; hovering on the edge of the animate, they are totally effective in enforcing the unwritten rule never to cross a farmer’s field.

While scarecrows may be disappearing from our countryside, they live on in poetry and song. Syd Barratt, the boy genius of British pop knew the slightly sinister nursery rhyme world the scarecrow inhabits, with his song from Piper at the Gates of Dawn: ‘His head did no thinking/His head didn’t move except when the wind cut up.’ Walter de la Mare brilliantly evokes the doomed man: ‘All winter though I bow my head/beneath driving rain.’ His scarecrow is reawakened by the turning of the season: ‘But when that child called Spring, and all/his host of children come/ . . ./ some rapture in my rags awakes.’   

Read my own poem, The Extraordinary Meditation of the Scarecrow, which suggests where scarecrows travel at night, in my first book The Invention of Butterfly.