Nature Notes

Starlings as Lighthouses.

The chimney pot starling is making a fool of me. I keep hearing swallow song – that twittering-buzz that sounds like a whole flock in one creature. I dash out several times, but see nothing. When the song comes from the hedge by the open door of my hut, I realise. A virtuoso starling, a perfect mimic, had ‘recorded’ and was playing back the song on a loop. A reel that incorporated blackbird song, thrush and greenfinch among the reel-to-reel, static, ‘dial-up’ clicks and whirrs of starling ‘song’. I’ve listened to this bird (or generations of him) since my eldest daughter was born and we moved here. She was just seven days old.

I’ve written down what the starling has copied, committed to memory and played back, every spring since. It’s a record of what we’ve gained and lost. This year, Canada goose and heron have been added, but Lapwing has been reduced down to just two peewit notes, the memory of it fading. The birds themselves gone from the village finally about six years ago.

We take the train to Falmouth for a couple of days, on a university recce for my daughter, now nearly 18. It’s exciting to travel so far west and see the landscape unfold from the carriage windows, as Eric Ravilious did, when he painted its downland and chalk horses.

Pewsey and Westbury slide by and the cream chalk fields give way to flat Somerset Levels and the beetroot-red fields of Devon sandstone.  We pass a field of pink sheep, folded onto a rosy field of root veg, that have taken up the colour. The fields, tractors and trains we change onto get smaller.

The woods have a greening fuzz and are filled with primroses. There are combes, streams and mudflats and cows coming in for milking. There are embankment rabbits, lone people in fields, galloping horses and rows of coloured houses like geological strata. We sail along the sea’s edge as if we were a ship. The names become a poem, metered by the train’s rhythm: Saltash, Liskeard, Lostwithiel and Par. We change at Truro for Perranwell, Penryn, Penmere.

The town is full of life and community; the university, wonderful, hidden in a Riviera garden of ferns. Every garden, wall and verge is a riot of wildflowers: I botanize out loud. ‘Ivy-leaved toadflax!’ ‘Navelwort!’ Oh look! ‘Three-cornered leek!’ The girls don’t bat an eyelid. 

Ivy-leaved toadflax
Navelwort
Three-cornered leek

We find the beach and though it is chilly, the girls step in. I am distracted by the seawrack flotsom on the tideline. Small birds are fossicking under the seaweed for sandhoppers. I think of turnstones, but quickly realise they are not: they are very confiding and in their busyness, allow me very close: I am astonished and delighted to find they are pied wagtails. Only last week I had written about their more colourful lemon-bellied cousins, the grey (or water) wagtail in The Guardian. I smile and feel a tug at my heart, some kind of butterfly-fluttering in my stomach: these are the ‘gypsy birds,’ pied as they are, and, as my Romany Grandad would say, the sign of a good stopping place, a home.

I watch my eldest daughter taking in the view that will become her first home away from home. I keep the sighting to myself a moment – and then tell her. We bend for some stones to throw into the sea and say together ‘Oke Romano chiriklo, dikasa e Kalen!’ (See a gypsy bird, soon see a gypsy).

We travel home, not looking back, because we have seen The Future. Out in the gently darkening fields, there are lights like lighthouses, blinking on dry land. Blue shadowed church towers, farm barns.

The following morning, chimney pot starling is reporting in his sequinned gown of oiled, preened feathers. And at last, the swallow’s song comes from one overflying – as well as his throat.  

Nature Notes

The Red Chestnut.

The red horse chestnut, toppled in the last February storm beside the white cottage, is budding and putting out leaves. It keeled over from its roots, snapping most of them, but possibly leaving some in the ground. The root plate is large and the lifted, conical plug, a geological core of layered chalk, flint and orange clay. A pool has formed in the crater. We check the upended roots for treasure. The tree is perhaps 250 years old. Who knows what may have been buried next to it, when it was planted? We find fragments of willow pattern; an old, curlicued fork.

It was planted as an ornamental tree, with another (still standing) in this triangle of remnant parkland. The horse chestnut, a quintessentially ‘English’ tree, with its polished mahogany conker fruits, actually comes from the Balkan Peninsula and was introduced in the late 16th Century. This red variety produces wonderful pink candelabra-blooms, and my growing-up children still know it as the ‘strawberry ice cream tree.’ But unlike the spiky green mine-cases of the more usual white-flowered horse chestnut, or the fiercely hedgehog-spined fruits of the sweet chestnut, this tree’s fruits are strange, dull, olive-green and smooth, plum-sized or pear-shaped. 

The tree fell across the footpath, and the thick mass of twigs in its upper crown were quickly chainsawed off, to leave a stacked, neat, airy forest of stationery: white pencil ends along the path. But we are stunned to find that on the formerly lower branches, the fat, sticky, caramel buds that continued to form, have cracked open, and pale, green, rumpled leaves are emerging.

The sap is still rising through this downed tree. Life still coursing through it. The leaves are wrinkled and damp as unfurling butterfly wings, and between them, the cracked, brown beetle-carapace of the bud cases, tacky enough still to stick to an inquisitive finger, are peeling away to reveal what might yet become the towering flowers; the tiny, mint-green, pyramid-shaped broccoli heads that might become conkers.

Through the trees, the fields are greening up; the sickly yellow sprayed-off stubble has all but gone, but the dramatic memory of how it looked on freshly-drilled cream fields, under a light covering of snow on the last day of March, remains. Blackcaps sing their scratchy, melodic jazz through other trees’ branches.

That this tree effectively died in that storm back in February, but still has enough of a season’s stored response to water, light and warmth, coursing through its cambium, to burst forth into perhaps its last spring like this, fills me with a mix of wonder, triumph – and sorrow.  I lay a hand on its smooth, horizontal trunk. Pat it like an old workhorse and all the time, line by remembered line, the poem, The Trees by Philip Larkin comes disordered into my head, rearranges itself, and seems more poignant than ever. The neighbouring wood is due to be felled, fully legally and licensed, just as everything is coming into vibrant life and the birds are nesting. Sometimes, it’s a weight I feel I cannot bear. Not again.

‘The trees are coming into leaf

Like something almost being said;

The recent buds relax and spread,

Their greenness is a kind of grief …

Last year is dead, they seem to say,

Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.’

Nature Notes

Daring to Look at Shadows: The Art of the Eerie.

I have always been more than a little haunted by a presence from the rural past; although haunted is perhaps not quite the right word. More a desire to understand where we might come from, where or how we might have gone wrong, and how that might inform where we should go. An explanation and a guide, perhaps.  A bassline, a reassurance, a challenge, conscience or certainty, where there is none.

This feeling is there, too, in the presence of absence: an absence of voices, people, events, species – that were so alive once – or perhaps, should have been there and were not. For me, it feels like a kind of reading. A warning; and, somehow, an urgent need for ‘them’ or the landscape itself, to be heard. For your own memories to be reconfigured with distance and hindsight. And also crucially, it is the desire to have some kind of reckoning. A correction, a conversation, a riposte, a protest (sometimes forgiveness, sometimes not) where often, none can be had.

Art is a way of addressing, inviting, or examining this. A daring to look at shadows.

I was delighted to make an exhibition at St Barbe’s Gallery in the New Forest last month, just before it ended.  Unsettling Landscapes: The Art of the Eerie, was co-curated by award-winning author (and conjuror, with artist Jackie Morris, of The Lost Words and The Lost Spells) Robert Macfarlane, alongside Exhibitions Curators Steve Marshall and Gill Clarke.  I was compelled to go and brought my youngest daughter Rosie, with me. She is 14 and fascinated by art.

The exhibition explored eerie representations of rural landscapes after the First World War to the present. Robert Macfarlane describes the eerie as ‘that form of fear which is felt first as unease then as dread, and it tends to be incited by glimpses and tremors rather than outright attack.’ Different from horror or the ‘gothic’, there is something melancholy and persuasive about it. It draws us in to its story yet simultaneously displaces us.  Exploring themes of alienation, agency, ownership and environmental disaster, it was grouped into four overlapping themes, Ancient Landscapes, Unquiet Nature, Absence/ Presence and Atmospheric Effect. Macfarlane notes that eerie art has often flourished at times of crisis, and there was much to identify with here.

The best art exhibitions are those that make connections; popping ideas, instigating slow-flooding realisations and snapping synapses into life. These entwined, wrapped around, barred, lit and vanished, as tantalisingly as the vines and smoke  of ‘bedwine’ (or travellers joy) threading up the A34 and back.   

Dark, depthless pools, holloways, blasted oaks and gleams of light foregrounded with shadows; figures hinted at and landscapes empty of wildlife or people and abandoned works featured. Tristram Hillier’s 1980 ‘Glastonbury Fen,’ of willows pollarded into raised fists beside an abandoned shovel and coat left on a sinuous path; standing stones, hanging woods and vistas blocked by briars like barbed wire, conspired to make you feel uneasy, uncomfortable, perhaps, whilst at the same time, beckoning you in. Francis Mosley’s illustrations to M R James’ ghost stories sat alongside George Shaw’s paintings of rural or ‘edgeland’ fly-tipped electricity substations, reminiscent of those terrifying public information films of the seventies, in ‘The Danger of Death’; or empty housing estates, painted in Humbrol modelling paint, where, during the Cold War (and now) it seems ‘the end of the world was coming in a matter-of-fact kind of way, like the ice-cream man,’ as we sat in our bedrooms, painting Airfix models, and shepherding our Britains toy farm animals across carpets.

Ingrid Pollard’s beautiful and moving ‘Pastoral Interludes’ from 1988 depict lonely black figures searching for shells in a river or pausing on a hike, uneasily fenced out of a landscape. Her photographs are tinted and hand-coloured like vintage postcards, haunting us all and making a link between the hidden histories of colonial brutality and slavery that helped shape the English countryside, with its country estates and bucolic villages, where ‘black people are only imagined in urban settings and a visit to the countryside is always accompanied by a feeling of unease or dread.’

My daughter, husband and I break for cake in the café, before going back in to see the exhibition one last time. We fizz with thoughts and ideas, each enlightening the other with different perspectives. Each enlightened.

Living where we do, in a tenanted cottage on a country estate bordering three counties, below an Iron Age hill fort, we know the reassuring world of the pastoral idyll doesn’t always exist. But today, we’ve also seen it from other’s viewpoints.

The landscape has much to tell us. Elizabeth Magill explains in her artist’s testament: it incorporates ‘our histories, our fears, our joys. I hint at beauty as a conveyor of hope but also to heighten what I perceive as an imminent and prevailing sense of loss.’ I identify with that. Among the foreboding, foreshadowing, barred ways, deeply troubled past, supressed wilderness and control, is also possibility, beauty and the opportunity to see through the viewfinder of others.  

We were devastated to find the exhibition catalogues sold out – but consoled ourselves with the notion that perhaps, this was part of the deal. The landscape’s past and present meaning, somehow remaining just a little out of reach; perhaps, we just hadn’t earned it yet.

The photographs here are my own. Most of them taken before the exhibition; some after. Some, uncannily resembling some of the artworks themselves.

Postscript: My daughters and I are extremely grateful to Robert Macfarlane for sending us a spare copy of the catalogue. It’s an exhibition that will loom large in our memories, give pause and influence our own ideas and creative endeavours to come.

Nature Notes

A Wild Unfurling.

A wild unfurling of snow before Christmas jolts me back years. It provokes memories of working outdoors with horses & cows, in the 80s & 90s. Outdoor clothing wasn’t what it is now, and there were daily battles with chilblains on fingers, toes and thighs.

But I’ve such a hankering for it anyway.  Trotting uphill into driving snow, riding one horse and leading another, flakes flying like so many wet stars into your face, mouth and eyes, human and horse heads bowed. And all those snowy mornings, bringing the riding school ponies in, their coats springing out straight from their bodies, trapping an inch–thick layer of air, warmed against skin. And being close to an animal, sharing the warmth: a wet, woollen-gloved hand pushed between a shoulder and a rug, or under a thick mane, sweetly huffed hay-and-apple breath on your cheek. I remember all the necessary tricks, too. A thermos of hot water tipped over the bolts to unfreeze them, and tinfoil wrapped around socked feet to try and keep the heat in.

In the field, the horses are warm, despite white-frosted whiskers. The little whorled stars of hair on their top lips, mumbling snow for the grass underneath.

One of the thatched estate cottages looks pretty as a Christmas card, the farmer long gone out to break ice much earlier than me. I track a fox, three types of deer, rabbit and hare up the Gallows Down before the snow goes. The old long barrow like a ship stilled on the top of its big swell; the gibbet, a mast without sails.

Below, I find more evidence of the mini tornado that came through a couple of weeks ago. An iconic oak at The Manor Farm has been uprooted. Next to a dying ash tree, still standing, it seems particularly cruel.  Many other trees were damaged, with substantial boughs ripped off and tops snapped. This tree and its great, gnarly roots have sheltered generations of lambs, as well as a long gone, ancient, tiny farmworkers’ cottage.

Birds flit through its downed crown. And I think, when this tree was a sapling, how many birds there were. The ‘Red List’ of Britain’s most endangered birds increased last week to 70 species, with swift, house martin and greenfinch added. Greenfinch! That stalwart of garden birds, 62% down since 1993 and swifts and house martins, that live among us on our buildings, more than halved.

Our wildlife is in freefall.

Just before the snow melts, a fox leaves its earth, a chestnut streak, like a fallen beech leaf, the white tip on its tail brighter than the snowfield.

The following evening, my youngest daughter and I go out as the sun sets, into the dusky, blackbird ‘pinking hour’, with the birds calling their night-settling chink, pink, pink alarm and the sky flooded slate and apricot.

We lean over the farm gate and watch as a barn owl, like a large white moth, floats over the grassy headland. It settles in a hedgerow tree for a moment, and then comes rowing up the hedge towards us. And keeps coming, the flat saucer of its face searching the grass, broad, rounded wings propelling it on. A few feet away, it turns; so I seize my chance and ‘squeak’ it, making the sound of a prey animal. I get its attention immediately, and it comes right to us, hovering just above our heads. My daughter gasps. We can see every detail: that grey-flecked, heart-shaped satellite-dish face, the thick, feather-furred legs, rounded, angel wings. We are spellbound. Delighted. Then, for good measure, the owl makes a small circuit, and hovers over us again. We are held in that dark, dewpond-eyed gaze, like a pair of bank voles. Satisfied we are nothing to eat, it sculls away up the dark lane, above a bank of mist forming, as if it were oaring along a stream. It passes us 3 more times on the way home, flying alongside at hedge-height, quartering a field; and last, screeching as it flies on. It felt like being taken for a walk by an owl. Our most memorable moments have been spent in nature. When the losses bite, we’ll hold onto that one.

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Nature Notes

Me, The Gallows Down and Gilbert White.

18 years ago, I won BBC Wildlife Magazine’s Nature Writing Award, for a piece on bringing up my young son, ‘with nature’, and the hope that came from the ‘giving back’ of Greenham Common to both people and wildlife. I’d known Greenham Common before it was enclosed, before the missiles came, and before the Peace Women came – and stayed for 19 years. Their tenacity, humour and strength inspired me to make my own protests against the loss of nature (on Newbury Bypass particularly) and I’ve not stopped since. This month, my book, On Gallows Down, is published, and the first review of it appears in that very same magazine.  The book took 8 years to write, in the gaps between everything else. I was always in this for the long haul. And much of what’s in the book has been inspired by this column that I’ve kept, for 17 years, too.

It seems a pertinent time: 40 years since the Peace Women made their historical march to Greenham, and stayed; 25 years since the Bypass Protests began, and 21 years since I set foot on the open Common again, after (joyfully, against the odds) it was returned.

Writing a column like this, for such a long time, is a deep privilege. Detailed, local observations can be writ large against what is happening in the wider world – as with any ‘local’ story: it’s a homing in on the details and chronicling them; a bearing witness. Core drilling.

The weekend before the book launch and tour, we get away, and I find myself in an orchard of ancient mulberry trees, half a century old, in a hotel garden in Evesham.

There are robins singing softly, and church bells; and a red mulberry leaf turns in the breeze, suspended by a golden cobweb thread. I try to take stock, think all the things, & let the season turn, the pendulum swing.

We wander (unhurried for once) around an enormous medieval tithe barn built of blue lias limestone, and dressed in Cotswold marl, probably in 1250. Its roof soars: a complicated forest of oak rafters, an upturned, dry ark.

Light streams through slit windows and square ‘putholes’, that bore scaffolding beams to build it. It is cathedral like and breathtaking. Protective ‘witch marks’ are carved into a lintel. I think about this little unfamiliar parish, and all the harvests, hardships and hurrahs this barn has known. All that dust still stirring, not settling, in shifting beams of light.

Turning for home, the car headlights sweep the chalk and straw bends into the softest laser beams. The amber moon waits above the gate like a boiled sweet. And where the old, tarred & black-raftered Berkshire barn once stood; inexplicably, its outline.

And then, on a golden, October afternoon, I’m waiting on a window seat, in the Great Parlour of Gilbert White’s house, in a stream of light. I’m about to give a talk on my newly published book, and am feeling more than a little awed. I make pilgrimages here. The Reverend Gilbert White was a pioneering naturalist, the ‘Father of Ecology:’ his book, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne was published in 1789 and has not been out of print, since.

Charles Darwin was a fan. David Attenborough and Chris Packham are. And here I am.

I wonder at the connection between us, between all lovers of nature. Gilbert White made close, local, detailed observations and understood the importance of connectivity and the perpetual significance of things bigger than he was. He enjoyed the idea of exploration but was afflicted by debilitating travel sickness. And he was a community man, invested in his parish; so he travelled without going anywhere much. He did this through correspondence, conversation and debates, held in this very room. He was a man ahead of his time. He gardened, farmed and didn’t separate nature from anything he did. He studied it much as we do now: not by hunting, killing and collecting specimens, but by observing things in their natural habitat. In this way, he connected to the rest of the world.

During lockdowns, the museum began a hashtag, #BeMoreGilbert, making the link between his local records and what we noticed on our own small patches and repeated perambulations.

It struck me, in the light of that perfect, too-warm October afternoon, motes of a naturalists, tithe barn dust spinning in columns like gnats, that, in many ways, he and I are doing similar things (if I dare make the comparison). But there is a hugely significant difference. He was recording and noting abundance and decoding mysteries; whilst I am recording and noting loss, and trying to get others to act upon what we undeniably know.

Gilbert White advanced the science of Natural History and engaged others, leaving an enormous legacy – while I am desperately chronicling the decline of nature against our increasing recognition of a dependence upon it, as well as our inability as a species to address what it means to us and our survival. His writings are a legacy; a revelment and revelation in the wonder and connectivity of life on earth. I don’t want mine to be an elegy: a eulogy for a dying planet. I want it to drum up resistance to that loss; to inspire a love and hope for it that might allow us to marvel in the sort of discoveries he made: that owls hoot in B flat, for example. Because, down the long, golden room, Gilbert and I are at opposite ends of a long decline.

Nature Notes

A Society of Sparrows and Harvest, or, The Smell of Burning Fields …

We are once again at peak sparrow. When the combine harvester begins its wide turn into Home Field, their reporting of the event almost drowns out its roar.

We hear the great machine’s billion-bee buzz, accompanied by its flotilla of header and two grain carts, from the garden. The house sparrows immediately respond, instigating a ‘hedge gather’. Part of their daily routine, it involves all sparrows to the garden hedge, outside my writing hut door. Once they are all in (no sparrow is ever excluded) an excited, loud chatter begins, with all birds talking over each other at once. I imagine they are considering the unsettling; the gleaning of the fallen, golden, swollen grains to come. Just as suddenly, a moment of absolute silence occurs in their chatter, before a flurry as they whir off, collective wings loud as the horse’s snort from the paddock.    

The sparrows are so much part of house and home; and we love them. We begin and end each day with them. And they are a characterful, family-minded community, if given to bickering and sometimes, violence. It is important not to put our values onto theirs – we’d be on the phone to the police or social services regularly, otherwise.

A sparrow’s life is a domestic, close one and its daily routines predictable and extremely local, if sometimes unfathomable. They are so site faithful, whole colonies can just disappear, if their habitat is removed. Aside from the boxes we’ve put up for them, the house is covered in a thick trellis home of jasmine and other climbers.

Image

We wake with their bright, sunlit cheeping from under the eaves, and go to bed with their soft chitterings under the windowsill. In between, we enjoy and puzzle at their bickerings and gatherings, their parliaments, circuses and meetings; the arguments and pile-ons. Sometimes, they’ll peer in through the windows, fly around a bedroom, or fall down the helter-skelter of the chimney and tap on the woodburner glass to be let out. In August, they decamp daily to the cornfields, like hop-pickers and by September, they’re back to the very local.

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We often have to rescue them. An almost fledged chick was cruelly pulled from its nest by an impatient cock bird (infanticide from either male or female birds happens occasionally). Our latest rescue success was a feisty hen bird that went for an unplanned swim in a bucket brim full of rain water. Our daughter noticed the gathering of loudly vocalising, hopping sparrows around the bucket and went to investigate; scooping the sodden bird out. It was near death. But, put in a shoebox next to the towel rail to warm and dry, she revived enough to peck my daughter hard and fly off, squealing outrage.

We watch the harvest from the garden gate, with the sparrows. They divide into small patrols that fly out to the remaining standing corn and sit, picking urgently at the wheat ears, until the header of the machine comes too close and fells the lot, gobbling it up greedily. They regroup in the garden quince hedge, and fly out to the next stand, before it too, falls.

Buzzards and kites soon gather to fall in behind the combine, gleaning for a different harvest, and I watch the field corners and furrow ends carefully for other unhoused animals. A fox runs out near the end garden of the cottages – a brief, low streak of orange – and this year’s roe deer twins get up on their long jointed limbs and head for the pasture next door. Rabbit scuts bob to the hedgerow.

Being one of smallest fields on the farm, the two-man team are done & on to the next field, very efficiently. Now the sparrows frantically glean their loss, filling up with the grains that former cottagers here would have had themselves, ‘leazing’ – all women and children to the fields, picking up each left-behind grain or fallen ear and storing it in an apron, tipping it into jars and pots to take to the miller for flour for bread, or a special cake.

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A thoroughly modern harvest celebration …
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This year, for the first time we can remember in this field, no straw is being made. Instead, it is chopped into chaff and blown out the back of the combine to lie on the field in a soft, gold carpet. There are no straw windrows to steeplechase over this year – although we find them, just two fields over. Great, golden, shining thick plaits of it, in rows down the bigger fields.

We climb the hill to look down upon it all. The dust rising behind the machines like smoke. And suddenly, it is September, and the chalk crop dust rising in thick grey plumes is so reminiscent of them firing the stubble (like they used to annually, until it was banned in 1993) I can smell burning fields. Storm clouds & the ‘bird’s nest’ blooms of wild carrot meet in the distance on the high chalk ridge. A dry, pelagic swell & heave that has never forgotten the sea it was – or, it seems, any of its stories. It retains them like heat; exudes them somedays, when putting your hand on the earth is like laying a hand on a warm body. From here, we can see far distant planes stacking uncomfortably at Heathrow, and look down onto the last field burnt in Berkshire.

Grain store on staddlestones (to protect floor and contents from rot, rats and mice) at Little Hidden Farm, locally.

Nature Notes

The Walker of Walker’s Hill.

On a Wedgewood-blue day, with the wonderfully floriferous Pewsey Downs still getting going after such a late, cold, spring, we began a long walk with a picnic against the warm, honey-coloured sarsens at the foot of Knap Hill and the Workaway Drove.

High above the froth of hawthorn blossom and cow parsley, we idly watched the distant wasp of a Chinook helicopter drop lower and lower until it came right overhead, at airshow height. We flattened ourselves on our backs in the buttercups and squealed as the beat of the double rotorblades thumped into our chests and the ground beneath us. No picnic in Wiltshire is complete without such an event.

We headed up Walker’s Hill, and a narrow chalk ribbon to the sky at the summit, over the dramatically poised Neolithic long barrow of Adam’s Grave.

The view was a far-reaching, 360degree panorama of farm and downland, pocked and bumped with barrows. This intersection of The Ridgeway and Wansdyke trackways, was the site of two Anglo Saxon battles. Traffic noise drifted above the wind and skylarks, from the Herepath, or ‘War Road’ below, where the old name is still recorded at Harepath Farm.

There were few people about, but we nodded and smiled at a walker, coming down the chalk path with a dark, canvas pack on his back and leather looking chaps or wraps on his legs. His eyes crinkled in reply. We walked The Hollow into Alton Barnes to Honeystreet, before returning to the ridge through all the silky, waist high barley.

The wind hunted through it, moving it into a vast, rippling, emerald sea below the hooves of the Alton Barnes White Horse, giving the chalk-scoured animal movement. The horse was made on the instruction of Farmer Pile in 1812, who paid an advance sum of £20 to John Thorne, or ‘Jack the Painter’ who offered a drawing, sub-contracted the cutting and disappeared with the money.

Milk Hill, Wiltshire’s highest point, stretched above and we found ‘bunches of keys’ of two kinds: the metallic, key-rattle of corn buntings (heads thrown back, lower bills unhinged) & the golden keys of cowslips.

The climb didn’t matter much, as I couldn’t take my eyes off the close-embroidered, mat-forming, tump-hugging glory of the early summer wildflowers: cottony kidney vetch, sky-blue chalk milkwort, yellow rock rose, salad burnet and sainfoin – all attended by so many glittering winged insects, including dozens of iridescent verdigris-green ‘scarce forester’ moths & a similar number of tiny, fast-tumbling Duke of Burgundy butterflies, in their chocolate-orange chequerboard finery.

The walker appeared ahead of us on occasion; closing and lengthening the distance between us almost supernaturally. At one point, looking back, I thought I’d seen him behind. He had looked, from his weathered state and heavy pack to have been long-walking.

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I thought of Edward Thomas’s poem of the half-mythical ‘Lob’ that begins ‘At Hawthorn time in Wiltshire travelling,’ and it’s influence too on Melissa Harrison’s novel, At Hawthorn Time. There is always the spirit of ‘a long walker’ in any part of the country. Wherever I have lived I have known one. A ‘crow man’ or a scholar gypsy. Perhaps this was ‘old Adam Walker’, the walker of Walker’s Hill. I would loved to have gone ahead to try and catch him up, or indeed,  waited for him to catch up – to talk and walk with him for a while; but a little part of me thought that might just not be possible somehow.

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Nature Notes

The Barn Owl and the Kestrel.

One weekend morning, my phone rang, waking me at 7am. It was my husband, calling from our field-edge car park, on his way out and for a moment, I was bleary and afraid: something must’ve happened.  “Look out the window!” he urged, and when I did, the barn owl floated past the garden gate. It flew directly towards him, rowing through the early morning light, banking over his head. He left, and for the next forty minutes, I watched the barn owl hunting. 

It landed on the fence post, turning its devastating, heart-shaped, satellite-dish face to the vole runs (I love you, but you must die!) and dropped in a pounce. It lifted to fly, talons empty, white gold against the dark conifers, between the barn roof, the stable, the oak tree. It quartered the field and glanced by the grazing horses, whose heads came up like springs under pressure. I hadn’t seen or heard the white owl in a while and worried something had happened to it.  Had it got a mate? It is so precious – there are so many things that could assail it, all beyond my power to prevent. I daren’t take my eyes off it to make a cup of tea, or even reach for the warmth of my dressing gown. Listening to the radio, watching the owl, I thought about loss, about this past eighteen months, and all that I’m grateful for.

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As the sun came up over the wood, it illuminated the owl with a soft white fire. It dropped again from the gatepost, head down, angel wings aloft, and flew out of sight with what was likely a vole. I blinked and tried to hold the image on the back of my eyelids.

Later, I passed beneath the owl box and pictured the bird sleeping within, like a pale, pilaster god, and felt a squeeze of joy. I thought once more, of where everyone was; triangulating my world of concern, love, responsibility: my son at Uni, one daughter out riding horses, the other skateboarding, Mum gardening at home … all spreading away from me, all just out of reach of my protection.

For a week, then, there was no activity at the owl box. I felt a crushing sense of disappointment and worry. A great swathe of the field behind the house had been sprayed off with herbicide, the intention to replant it with flowering plants, as a valuable nectar strip for insects, that grants are given out for. Only, two months later it remains an unplanted sickly yellow, all surface and below-surface life extinguished, all the voles gone, with nothing to replace it. Other work on the farm is more pressing. The barn owl no longer hunts the barren neon strip and the daily sight of the field is hard to live with. Whether its spraying off was the trigger, the lone bird left, presumably to move in with a mate elsewhere, because, to my great relief, I still see and hear it about.

Within a fortnight of the owl box becoming vacant, it became a kestrel nestbox – and a source of drama.

The male’s kee kee kee calls to his mate in courtship food passes become a regular soundtrack, the birds’ tails spread with light, fanned like little fires springing from the oak tree; a row of black coals at their tail-tips, white-hot ash between. Things were looking up.

One mid-week day, the rapid calls came from both birds at once, shouting over one another. All the tender-seeming softness gone to a hard-edged urgency that made me look out – to see a little russet flame chasing a magpie, another wheeling round a pair of jackdaws.

For a day, I heard nothing more.

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I presumed corvids had found the eggs to feed their own young, scattering the falcons. The following afternoon, my husband found one of the pair, bedraggled and grounded in the stable yard. He covered it in a tea towel, scooped it up and put it in the stable, where it settled uneasily on the bank of forked-up wood shavings. We took it water, and the only thing we could find – a handful of mealworms.

It seemed unharmed, though reluctant or unable to fly. It had lost a few tail and long flight feathers. I peered quietly round the stable door frame, and could see that it was alert. I tried to take in every detail: its exquisite, fierce yellow bill, the slate darts beneath eyes fringed with circlets of gold; an eclipse of two bright suns. Eyes able to hold a hovering bird pinned to the sky, while its body quivered and beat around it.

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The kestrel was still there at dusk, though the mealworms weren’t. Before getting into bed later, I noticed a light blinking through the trees: had I left the stable light on? I tried to read, absorbed in the wonderful Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell; of Agnes (Anne) Shakespeare, her kestrel and her losses, and I couldn’t stop thinking of the little falcon hunched under a glaring light. Moments later, after a sighed,  ‘I’ll go’, ‘no, I’ll go’ exchange, me and my husband both traipsed across the windy, starlit field, the lining of our heavy, outdoor coats a strange sensation over bare skin in nightclothes.

The light was out, a blowing branch thickened with blossom having triggered a nearby security light in the farm.  A sweep of the lamp round the red-brick and peeling cream paint of the stable walls showed it to be empty. Oddly, there was a toad in place of the kestrel. Whatever it meant, I thought of the toad we’d stepped over, on the church path on our wedding day, years ago. That puffed itself up at our approach (a good sign) and the toad I’d just read about, that Agnes Shakespeare scorned as a remedy for a son dying of the plague, desperately trusting her herbs instead. I wondered what she would have made of this bizarre midnight magic trick; this alchemy, these poisoned fields.

I made a wish anyway and a pledge, for luck: that the kestrels would try again and that we shouldn’t live by fear. It has its place in the evolution of things. It keeps us on our toes. But as a pact of fragility and wonder, hope, and action.

Nature Notes

Wild Crocuses and Stubble Turnips.

Blue skies flick a switch for spring. Bats and brimstone butterflies break hibernation, midges rise and fall in columns, blackbirds grow territorial and sparrows toy with (and squabble over) nesting material.

The mud crusts and dries in ridges and tiny, young nettle and goosegrass leaves make a green flush under the flattened, whitened sticks of last years dried and hollow stems, among the melting last of the snowdrops.

How quickly we turn our faces to spring. Winter has its own pleasures, consolations, comforts and wonders, but it’s been a mighty long one and may not be over yet. 

The sheep have been turned onto the stubble turnips and fodder radish. With the green tops eaten off, the part-munched root vegetables look like deflated footballs on a muddy pitch. The scent of lanolin from wool and heated bodies, rises, and mingles with the green smell of dung.

The broad arc of the downs are still pale, but in the strong sunlight, every soil roll, combe, flint trap, sheep path, badger track and anthill is picked out in dramatically shaded detail. This is when the hill seems to have rolled itself closer; moving and retreating like the old sea it once was.

Singing blackbirds are now uncountable among the song and mistle thrushes, stationed further apart, and kites whinny, building their nests. Late afternoons, a female tawny owl begins a soft, warbling to her mate; sometimes calling in the day, I wonder if she is already sitting on eggs?

The crocuses are up in the seven-acre sloping village meadow. This small nature reserve, bisected by the spring-fed Ingle Brook, is protected for its unimproved old pasture and related flora – and not for the mystery of its Mediterranean crocuses. But they are the real draw at this time of year.

The colour pops from more than 400,000 mauve-and-yellow blooms in the greeny-grey, still sleepy sward. Britain’s largest wild display of spring crocuses even gets a mention in Richard Mabey’s seminal Flora Britannica (1996).

The corms are a puzzle and delight. But, given local historical association, and according to local lore, it seems more likely they were brought home by returning 12th-Century Crusaders of the Knights Templar (as saffron) than being 200yr old garden escapees from what was then a poor, remote and rural settlement on the brink of rioting under the name of Captain Swing. Far, perhaps, from the idea of the Mediterranean.    

Purple crocuses also spread across the lawn of The Big House; of our Landlady. The house was built around 1730, although it is not known how long the crocuses have been there – whether they are a modern (ish) or far older nod to the ‘Crusader’ field in the village.

The crocuses bring former residents back and it is a good time to clarify old stories and learn new ones, the social distances of years, and the lane – or a span of starry crocuses – between us. These visits always, without question, culminate in a trip up and over the big hill, which binds us all to this place.

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Nature Notes

Freeze-Thaw

In their deeply frozen state, the hill, fields and woods are a blanched, pale, brownish beige. Just before sunset, I spring two woodcock up from beside me. They rock away like dumpy wooden arks, their long, compass needle bills never wavering from the earth they quickly return to. Above me, the peregrine falcon flies a serpentine around the hillfort, before making a straight line for the square, white, BT tower in town, 9 miles away. He probably makes it five. Uplit by the sun, I can see every brilliant detail.

Hard grains of snow have accumulated in hoofprints, bootprints, deerslots and the shallow depressions of leaves. Blown snow collects and illuminates the paths home and away from the badger sett. Its shape, & pad-worn tracks across its own ramparts, echo that of the hill fort above. It’s fringed with the only carpet of snow we get this time: thousands of tiny, pearly, snowdrop streetlamps. They, the snow and the excavated chalk glow with a grainy, midnight, badger-stripe light.

The yard taps are frozen and the working week is spent between carting buckets of water. The ground, so deeply hoof-pock-marked, is difficult (though a respite from the mud) and gates freeze shut, or open. Ice shelves thick as paving slabs are hammered, removed and stacked beside the trough like books; but by the following day, they have grown to breeze block glaciers, then Titanic icebergs.

The buckets in the stables freeze overnight. One evening, I count the little, blurry leafmeal shadows of 16 wrens (tiny birds with the biggest, most defiant voices) going to roost under the wheel arch of a tractor. Huddle up, troglodytes, I think. We need that life-affirming defiance. Each morning, a small flock of birds fly out of each stable: more wrens, robins, pied wagtails.

My daughter breaks the ice gently on her small garden pond, and sees the princely hands and feet of frogs, walking upside down on this new glass ceiling, wanting more air. She makes daily swim holes for them.

I remind her of the wildlife encounters she has had, that, in her younger years, has forgotten. ‘Whether you remember or not’, I tell her, ‘they’re part of who you are’. But I love the privilege of remembering and recounting for her. I’m overcome a little then (a frequent occurrence these days) about all the things young people are missing. The parties, the escapades and shared stories with friends that you repeat then, all your life: a son studying away for a creative industry, utterly stalled.

Back to the buckets again and we slip and slide over the uncertainty of water over ice, ice over water. My oldest daughter catches up with us as we turn into Home Field. Her bike slipped from under her on her way to the stables where she has a weekend job. We sympathise with a saddlebag bruise; thankfully, it is nothing more.

We bend to pick some garden snowdrops for a friend beset by Covid. Coming up at  the same time, we see the barn owl, like a lightly toasted slice of bread, frisbeed over the snow on the field edge.

The thaw comes very slowly: an uneasing of cramped limbs, tensed against the cold. I am doorstepped immediately with a full chaffinch song – before I’ve even heard so much as a prelude: no limbering up, just straight in there like a wild swimmer through freezing water. The first rushing I hear is not meltwater, but the song from a congregation of redwings and fieldfare in the treetops, chattering about moving on and where to wayfare next. Violas in their garden pots stand up again, unbowed.

The yard taps and troughs unfreeze, just as the mains pipe bursts, and the house taps cough, splutter and stop. But we go into practised action. Checking on neighbours, sharing water from those that have it. Shrug it off in our new, stronger community.  

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