Andy kindly provides me with regular updates on the progress of crops; the gooseberry harvest, the rhubarb, the French beans and the asparagus crowns. It always strikes me that the allotment gardener is sensitive to the seasons in-between the main events of spring, summer, autumn, winter. Many cultures name these as micro-seasons: the Japanese calendar, for example, was traditionally divided into twenty-four seasons each of which has three phases, resulting in a total of seventy-two micro-seasons in a year. Each cycle in this Japanese classification is named for a unique weather pattern, flowering shrub or bird song. The rhythm and measured flow of the seasons are observed with a keen respect for the life force of nature; the atmosphere’s small adjustments characterise change and move forward with all their twists, turns and challenges.
The second stage of ‘Frost Falls’, is known as Kosame tokidoki furu 霎時施 roughly translated as Light rain sometimes falls where the weather is changeable, the intermittent rain and cold winds indicate an edging towards winter. I am sure gardeners everywhere tend to mark their calendars in such a nuanced way, anticipating the subtle changes and necessities associated with tending to the land, especially crops of seasonal fruit and veg. Regardless of the weather forecast, the list of jobs remains. Increasingly I notice how many people seem keen to declare ‘it’s summer!’ just when spring has commenced its elaborate and detailed cycle. I suspect it is related to the desire for a change in temperature, a slightly warmer day and suddenly it’s summertime. Still, I feel a certain protectiveness over the seasons and hope they continue to occupy a firm place in our cultural imagination: the ritual, music, poetry, art and meals created in honour of the turn to spring, or icy winter mornings.
Evelyn Dunbar’s oil sketch Sprout Picking, Monmouthshire, 1943, documents the efforts of the Women’s Land Army working in the Welsh countryside. Beneath a mid-winter’s sky, Land Girls harvest sprouts. In a choreography of sorts, their bodies are doubled over the neat rows of stalks. Blending into the landscape the women are dressed in shades of green with scarves and pointed hats to cover their ears and keep their heads warm. As they work their way closer towards us, we anticipate their upward glance. Perhaps in an effort to straighten out they place a hand on their back and, opening out their shoulders, take a deep breath. There is so much movement and rhythm in this small image; dove grey clouds linger around a radiant sun as it sits low in the apricot-buff sky, and the horizon line is painted three strips thick in varying tones of slate, with the tips of the bare hedge defined with a frosty halo. The helical pattern in which the buds grow on the stalk is obvious only to the Land Girls as they stoop over to collect leaves and sprouts. Perched slightly above ground level, our view sees only the last of the daylight catching on the top of the plants. Dunbar’s other paintings of the Land Girls outdoors pea-picking, potato sorting, threshing and bailing, show an interactive and lively group engaged in the demands of agricultural labour.