Country diary: The land is scarred from a summer of wildfires

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The Guardian

Late summer always opened the front door to an aroma of toasted wheat and barley. Long after the crops had been harvested, the aftermath lingered in the air until the rains washed us into autumn. This year smells different.

On a recent evening, it came in through an open window on the breath of a westerly, caught the back of our throats and posed the question – where is it coming from now? Until a few weeks ago, only the old and the middle-aged knew it by name, a different name. We called it stubble burning; now it is wildfire.

In the 1980s, and before a ban, stubble burning was – for the most part – kept under control. This summer, it races unchecked over the verges, through hedgerows, across fields – the unruly child of the smallest spark. And why dwell on apportioning blame? One blaze less than 20 miles from here was started by a squirrel gnawing through a cable.

On the hottest day of the hottest July, another one. Police cordoned off the lane that runs down to the railway. The stink prevails even now, most strongly beside the level crossing, where all that lived is charred. The roadside ditch is cindered of vegetation, exposing only the drivers’ discards – tin cans as smoked mortar shells, plastic bottles pooled like melted candle wax. The cornfields are burnt black as far as the horizon. Even so, given a carbon rush, thistle spikes are sprouting already.

Up on the sandy ridge, the land alongside a quarter-mile stretch of road opposite the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reserve has burned out. A big sweet chestnut has gone two-tone, its green crown cap contrasting with the bulk of shrivelled, sand-brown foliage. Bushes along the hedgerow are either torched bare or bear paper-crisp, curled leaves that crumble to the touch. Dead elm trunks are cooled embers. The grass meadows have been scorched, but the damage looks superficial – here a red ant, there an assassin bug, feeding on who knows what.

We return home under dark cloud skies that offer false promise, and all I can see is verges of dry grass and kindling. Merciful rains, where are you to wash away this tinderbox of a summer?

September 3, 2022 at 12:09PM Derek Niemann

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