A sharp frost overnight, followed by a brilliantly clear day, finally goaded me into action. I should have started digging the vegetable plot weeks ago, but various reasons - holidays, other jobs, idleness - had prevented me. Now there was no excuse, and as I toiled away in the afternoon sun, I eased the hard labour by calculating how much money I save through growing our own produce. The total for the year, I reckoned, must be well over pounds 300 - and, of course, I had the extra satisfaction of knowing that everything that had come from this plot was completely organic.
Like walking, digging frees the mind; and my thoughts soon progressed from horticulture to the system of barter that prevails in properly rural areas. I do not mean the kind of haggling that takes place in oriental bazaars; I have never been any good at that - and indeed I nurse painful memories of the time I tried to beat down a Tibetan carpet merchant in Kathmandu. With negotiations only just beginning, an eclipse of the sun set in and premature night began to fall. Ah, I thought, this will unsettle the blighter - but no. He remained rock-steady, and in the sinister twilight exacted the full price for the rug that now lies on my study floor.
The barter that I have in mind here is the simple swap of one commodity or service for another. No rules govern such exchanges, except the unspoken one that nobody should specify precise values or show indecorous haste in seeking reciprocation of a favour. Our one neighbour does not eat lettuces - a pity, because he could have had dozens this summer. But he does enjoy the occasional bowl of free- range eggs, and at this time of year he strikes back with surplus tomatoes. In return for running some of our sheep in his paddock, we give him part or all of a lamb. Such exchanges are relatively cut and dried. A looser arrangement was one that we made last winter, when we offered quarter to Harry, a young horse, in return for riding instruction given to my wife by his owner. With the best will in the world, I have to say that Harry overstayed his welcome: not only did he decapitate four young oak trees, planted in a ceremonial line along a hedge; he also killed several semi-mature poplars by scoffing their bark, and developed a sinister penchant for chasing sheep until they dropped. Two donkeys which come to us for prolonged holidays make no direct contribution to our economy. Yet they never outstay their welcome, because they pay for their keep many times over by means of their ridiculous antics. In midsummer we provided temporary grazing for some of a nearby farmer's beef cattle. He needed more grass. We wanted our grass eaten off, because a low mow does the sward good. …