It is only a scruffy patch of grass really, about 20 yards square at the back of the churchyard, where nobody will notice it. By late summer the pale swaying grass stems gleam in the afternoon sun, lending a soft haze to the dignified headstones, which they partly obscured. Every headstone here is slate, no doubt hacked from the quarries only a few miles away across the Dyfi.
Churchyards are often one of the few remaining places to find fragments of wildlife-rich grassland, agricultural intensification has destroyed most of it in the farmed landscape. But, like many others, St Peter’s in Machynlleth let a contract for churchyard maintenance, which in effect means two men come twice each summer and strim the grass wall to wall, leaving the cut grass where it lies. This produces a tidy, but featureless, green sward – rather sad for a place set aside to celebrate Creation. In the hope of improving on this we asked the church authorities if they would exclude a portion which we could manage for the benefit wildlife – and they agreed.
I had looked at our patch a few weeks before and counted about 30 species of plants including the grasses. There was nothing unusual, we are not dealing with one of those ‘Lazarus’ situations which sometimes occur when the cutting stops and a mass of orchids, or some other eye-catching plants, come up for air for the first time in decades. But with encouragement, and time, this place should become more interesting and varied. Our proposal was to let the plants grow, flower and set seed, then cut and cart away for compost at the end of summer. This gives the chance for new seedlings to establish, which especially important for annual species. Also, raking up and removing the cut material prevents smothering and over ‘composting’, which only benefits a few robust generalist plants at the expense of more delicate ones, which often prefer less fertile conditions.
At the end of August my friend Tom and I turn out to do the cutting and clearing; Tom is an experienced scyther and has a beautifully balanced Austrian scythe that he keeps razor sharp. I am in the ‘builders-mate’ role with a rake and wheelbarrow. Tom cuts neat swathes with a ‘chop, chop, swish’ rhythm – two short cuts and then a longer follow through. I rake up and wheel the cut material to a tottering pile under a yew tree; in a couple of weeks it will be half as high and twice as hot, as the decomposers get to work. What strikes us both as we work is the abundance of invertebrate life `amongst the grass: beetles, flies, ants (especially ants), spiders, harvestmen, earwigs, aphids – this ragged patch is heaving with life. Nothing special has been done to it, we have just taken a foot off its neck and let it grow. The ants have thrown up many loose mounds which previously would have been obliterated by the strimming, and where Tom has clipped one hundreds of small yellow ants seethe with activity, repairing and defending. The soil of these mounds is surprisingly dark; it is too dry for peat here, so perhaps the decomposition of the good folk of Machynlleth is the explanation.
It is deeply peaceful around the back of the church, away from the traffic and with a fine view of the hills. A good place to be interred. There is something about the work we were doing which seems timeless. Scythe, sickle, rake and a rattling wheelbarrow. Now and again we stop to talk, leaning on our tools in a way people would have done for centuries before mechanisation. I don’t suppose this is the first time this churchyard has been scythed – but the ‘tshic, tshic’ of the whetstone on steel won’t have been heard here for a long time. Taking a break, we draped our coats over a gravestone and sat on a tomb, without a hint of disrespect.
We decide to leave part of our area uncut so insects could complete their life cycle in the long grass. Cutting it all would wipe out many of them. Rotational cutting each year will give them a better chance, but we are unsure if the church authorities will wear it. Our faded and ragged patch with its half-obscured gravestones is in conspicuous contrast to the front-of-house respectable green. I know which I prefer – but I may not be representative of the congregation. The church warden came to look us over during the afternoon, and seemed sceptical about our efforts, saying he had seen more flowers outside our scruffy patch than within it. We will need to hold our nerve.
This simple, companionable work seems paltry in the face of recent ramped up warnings about the state of nature, but I suppose if everybody……. Anyway, it has been an uncomplicated and somehow honest pleasure, which feels like a good way to live.