Where I walked in fields of gold

THE first of May, a cold, wet day, a grey sky and trees still leafless across the field.

After spending a sunny week with our son and his family in the Czech Republic, we had dashed across the tarmac at Cork airport the night before in driving rain. The Bohemian Rhapsody was over. But it turned out that May 2 was a beautiful day.

However, that same morning, on a train to Linz in Austria — thence to fly to Stansted and thence to Cork — we had passed through countryside baking in the sun. The ploughed fields lay brown and dry beneath a cloudless sky. Vast pastures were so densely carpeted with flowering dandelions that I asked myself if they were grown as a fodder crop. Maybe in Czech and Austria — as in parts of the USA — the idea of cropping them had been adopted.

These fields of gold contrasted strongly with the fields of anemic-yellow oil-seed rape. From the train, their colours, set between the ploughland and the dark green forests were like segments of a giant cubist painting arranged by artistic farmers; even more so when we flew over them on the ascent from Linz. The plains of Lower Bohemia lay below. We soared over the Danube, the water of which might well, at ground level, have been blue, reflecting the sky.

What I liked most about this Czech spring was the warm sunshine, the sound of the cuckoo, and the landscape, with all its colours, so easy on the eye.

On the ditches and along the forest edges, every second tree was in blossom. I have no idea what fruit most of them would produce. There were low, familiar blackthorns which would, in time, bear sloes but small return compared with the produce of the tall, flowering trees above them.

In Slovenia, in autumn 2010, I found walnuts, plums, pears, apples, crabapples, custard apples and quinces lying underfoot or hanging from branches on almost every path and lane. It is, I think, the same throughout central Europe. Trees grow with wild abandon and, if not seeded by the birds, probably by farmers. The fruit trees on the lanes cost nothing to grow and feed not only themselves but the passersby and the creatures of woods and hedgerows.

The vast, ubiquitous pine forests are another world, with blueberries blanketing the ground in autumn; one could pick half a bucket-full in an hour. Looking into the cathedrals of tall spruce and pine, the floor beneath them barred in sunlight and the shadowy darkness beyond, Robert Frost’s famous line “These woods are lovely, dark and deep...” always comes back to me — the seductive nature of a forest.

Most urban Czech have a country house, a simple, two bedroom affair on a small patch of ground; one doesn’t have the be rich to own one. When I woke at the country house owned by the parents of my grandson’s mother, the Bohemian girl, I looked out at the forest. It was seductive indeed.

My grandson is four years old. His mother remarks that perhaps the dark forests are the reason why Czech (and German) fairytales are so scary. Beyond, the fringe of silver birches, the scary forest looms.

Walking by a lakeside, my wife and I were almost forced to adopt a motherless duckling, probably a mallard, although there were five other duck species on the lake, along with three varieties of grebe, plus coots, waterhens, greylag geese, spoonbills, egrets, and clouds of blackheaded gulls.

We came upon a woman having trouble with this duckling and, before we knew it, she had managed to escape while it transferred its affections to us.

It was fist-sized, a ball of down, enchanting as are most fledglings. When we walked off, it followed. When we ran, it scuttled after us, tiny wings flaying. There was no escaping.

Should we bring it home in our budget-airline-size carry-aboard luggage? We didn’t seriously consider it. It would go nicely in the garden pond but we already have a heron which would, in all likelihood, eat it.

But how could we abandon it, motherless and alone? Eventually, we contrived to arrange its adoption by a kindly-looking local couple passing by. However, even as we made our getaway, they were already, I think, wondering how, in good conscience, they could make theirs.

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