THE scent of mown hay, kicked up after we emerge from the dappled woods and cross the baking fields to reach my son’s workshop in a huge and ancient barn deep in the Czech Republic countryside, brings back memories, as if the nose can remember the sweet smells of long ago.
Not that haymaking is entirely a thing of the past in Ireland, but here, in South Bohemia, thousands of hectares are given over to meadows and the scent is in the air on these days of burning sun.
As we walk, big birds of prey glide in the sky above us. The scene ahead might be medieval Europe. The barns are the same. Beneath a huge tree with red and yellow cherries shining in the foliage, six or eight pure white goats wander free, the kids on the move, the two nannies, udders milk-full, chewing the cud in the shade.
This is where my son hopes, one day, to build a small, wooden “dacha” or weekend cottage for himself, his Bohemian wife and two sons. The town is only 20 minutes away. A road three metres wide passes the barns; only half a dozen cars go by each day. A National Park begins on the other side of the road. The meadow is fenceless: the yard surrounded by trees, the meadow, then the deep forest.
That the goats don’t wander off into the endless tracts of trees that border the big fields is no surprise. Why would they bother, when life is so good at home? Bales of last year’s hay, left from the store of winter feed, are used to floor their living quarters; maybe the sweetness in the fodder, and the scent of the bedding, sweetens the milk.
They belong to my son’s friend and produce a bucket or two of milk daily, depending on the season, chalky white as the goats themselves. I enjoyed a glass with my grandchildren when we visited the workshop, one half of an 80-metre long barn where their father designs and makes bespoke furniture from the high-quality oak that abounds in this landscape.
One third of the Czech Republic is woodland. Trees are everywhere. The roads are lined with silver and downy birch, and limes. Silver birch is ideal for marking fenceless road verges: their bark reflect headlights at night. In winter, icicles hang from their branches like crystal earrings, and wink in the low sun.
Finding a workshop of high tech tools inside an ancient barn is a surprise. Broad planks of oak, stored for five decades by the previous owner from a tree cut on the land, are stacked in layers along one wall, seasoned and preserved. And outside, as outside every Czech farmyard or country home, firewood stands in neat piles protected from the weather. Winters are snowbound in this land where in summer the sun must, literally, crack the stones.
One can walk off the road and head off cross-country where ever one wants. There is no let or hindrance from landowners.
My son, out walking one day, paused to have a lie down in a meadow. He was almost nodding off when he heard a voice calling “Ahoy!”; a man, clearly a farmer, was approaching. “Oh-ho!” thought Dara, “I must be trespassing...” But the man arrived with a smile and sat down, talking all the while. The area was remote; perhaps he saw few people. Dara explained that he spoke little Czech. “Anglicky?” the farmer asked, meaning “English?”. Dara agreed. The man’s eyes lit up. “Come with me...” he indicated. Dara went.
On a field of cut straw stood an ancient tractor, with two bailers attached. The farmer produced an instruction booklet in English: it was a New Holland, made in England, 1960. One bailer wasn’t tying the knots that secured the square bales properly. Dara consulted “Troubleshooting”. There were four possible reasons. By deduction, he and his newfound pal found the cause: the string-cutting blade was blunt; string snarled the works. The farmer was delighted. How often would he find an English-speaker in the wilderness? He shook Dara’s hand, cried “Ahoy!” and waved him goodbye.
When a Czech calls “Ahoy!” it does not mean that he is hailing a boat. It simply means hello and goodbye. Of course they don’t have a sea in the Czech Republic, although of lakes, they have thousands, many dug out by monks in medieval times, the monks being, perhaps, sometimes Irish (the Irish have long since been famous for excavating tunnels and trenches abroad) because many of the monasteries were founded by Irish saints and scholars, trudging through the forests in their sandals, with satchels swinging from their robust shoulders, perfectly fashioned for digging by virtue of their ancient Firbolg DNA.
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