Nature Notes

Rain birds, sun blushed. Pluvialis apricaria. 

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On the highest hill we are under the rain. Exposed as we are, we can see it coming towards us, a wall of grey obliterating the landscape in its path. Later, there are spectacular rainbows.

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After sunset, I walk out onto the big arable fields on the highest hills. Hares are silhouetted on the skyline against an apricot sky. They lope, graze and pause to clean long ears, pulling one at a time through their forefeet.

It is almost dark. Redwings call as they migrate over – and then I hear the first disorientating whistle of the birds I’ve come for; plaintive, loaded, melancholic. I turn around and around but can’t pinpoint it until, with a rushing sound and a quicksilver mist, the birds sweep past.

Golden Plover. Pluvialis apricaria, which roughly translates as: rain bird, sun blushed. They may have bred in Iceland, where they are fondly seen as the sweetest harbingers of spring, like our swallows. They are said to foretell rain. Certainly, on wilder, wetter, windier nights, they form bigger flocks. Then, their whistle is such a pure, clean sound, cutting through the wind, reminiscent of oystercatchers, anxious and fearful: collectively, they are a ‘dread’ of golden plover.

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The birds come round again – or perhaps it is another flock? The almost-human and haunting whistles again, too tueuu; the birds so fast and shifting, their notes are always behind them, leaving me pirouetting for them in a darkening field.

Then more drop from the navy sky, whiffling down with a flash of pointed wings, then vanishing into the inky blue field, leaving the air full of the sound of unseen wings. I step slowly forward and there is an eerie rushing, swishing: a great snaking rope payed out at speed; an unsettling, surround-sound, an invisible monster in the dark that would frighten me to death if I didn’t know what it was. They are flying so low that I cannot see them above the night-blurred margin of the close horizon.

Ten more steps and they lift with a softer, seductive sound: a wave drawing back from shingle, a 1lb of sugar poured into a jar, the prolonged shusshh of a satin dress slowly slipping off a bed and falling to the floor. I draw level to where I think they are and pass: their nervy flights shorter, less anxious and not calling now. They and the night have claimed the hill.

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I walk the last strides off the field backwards and this time when they lift I see them briefly – flashes of sharp, upright wings like flickering sails skittering over the surface of a dark pond. A silvery shoal, low, low and gleaming like knapped flints in the starlight.

I walk home exhilarated and slightly dizzy, down off the wide, dark field, higher than anything else I can see, into the velvet dark below, feeling like I’ve been up among the very stars themselves.

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Nature Notes

Prosperous & Starveall: Old Pots & Old Gods.

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It’s been a week of climbing shining chalk tracks into china blue skies. High on the downs, the views open up to Pilot Hill and Siddown Warren, then Ladle Hill, Watership and White Hill. At Granny’s Lane, a weasel shoots across gleaming flints, as if someone pulled it across on a string; it disappears down a hole between tree roots, like a mouse stretch limo.

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Halfway up another chalk holloway, an excavator has dug a drainage hole and unearthed an old, household rubbish dump. Littered across chalk dirty as a remnant snow drift are dozens of Shippams Paste jars, potsherds, the spout of a tin teapot, the shards of a stoneware marmalade jar and the curve of a vintage teacup. Most movingly, there is half a pudding bowl, its inside marked with whisking, beating and creaming spoons – though not the softer, folding-ins of flour, crooked between a comforting arm and the curve of a waist. Given the date of the dump (Mum puts it at early 1940s) I wonder whether it was also used as a template for haircuts?

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In sight of Starveall, we walk on to Prosperous, home of 18th Century agriculturalist, Jethro Tull, who invented the seed drill and hoe credited with revolutionising arable farming. I wonder what he’d make of farming today – what starves and what prospers? The sun starts to dip and flushes the upper air with gold as we walk through the old farms of Coldharbour, Anvilles and Totterdown. Flocks of fieldfare and redwing barrel in on the chilly north wind, bolstered by blackbirds, robins and goldcrests from colder lands than ours.

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We are loud through the fallen leaves in the wood, yet a forgotten sound arrests me all the same. I hold back and listen: it comes again, now loud and clear – a guttural bark – a raven? Then the penny drops and with it a fresh shower of leaves and a gathering of senses: the freshly flayed white bark of an elder tree jumps out at me, and above the autumnal scent of leaf must and tar spot fungus comes the strong smell of churned earth, moss, crushed bracken and, crucially, ammonia. The deer are rutting here. I can hear the boar-like, belching grunt and bellow of a fallow buck, close by.

I move carefully, crouching towards it through the thick, tangled understorey until I glimpse a spotted flank and the wobble of a thick neck with its Adam’s apple enlarged by testosterone. There is the sense of a head turned to me. I can’t make out antlers, but I can see part of an elaborate headdress, like a camouflaged soldier’s helmet on Salisbury Plain. The deer has ornamented its wide rack of antlers impressively and I can see a black nose heavily fringed with moor grass and a crown of bracken. I feel I’ve been spotted by an old, old God. Herne the hunter, not the hunted.

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There is a hot flare of musky scent. I wonder what I smell like to him? I’ve not come prepared for fieldwork; I am wearing perfume, and the scent of a fried breakfast cooked in honour of my son’s seventeenth birthday clings to my hair, the smell of baking to my clothes and overall, there is the damp wool smell of my coat. The deer stamps a foot. The wood fills with golden light as the sun goes down and I sensibly back away. As I leave the wood for the open fields, the boar-like grunting starts up again. An ancient, clarion call, it is picked up by a passing raven, echoed back and taken up into the sky.

Nature Notes

Lamplight, Wessex Heights.

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Ours is a literary landscape, like much of Britain. The land has a pull on us and often, the most enduring way to express that is through words, conserving or farming it; planting woods, naming fields, woods and recording it on maps. I spoke recently at The Museum of English Rural Life with Robert McDowall, recently president of The Folklore Society, as part of a series of seminars on Land and Folk. I love The MERL deeply. It houses things I feel inextricably at home with.

We spoke about William Cobbett (1763-1835): Journalist, Politician and Farmer, his Rural Rides has never been out of print. I also read from the book I’m writing. Cobbett knew the villages & country estates here well. Were he riding around now, I like to think he’d interview me and my family. There are things he’d recognise, love & abhor. I think he would still see the aftershocks of agricultural revolution & enclosure. Cobbett was a complicated, contradictory, opinionated man. He hated the ‘game-preserves’ of grand estates and the privations caused by enclosure and land ownership which in effect had made rural labourers slaves, denying them the sustaining traditions of gleaning, commoning, gathering and working for a fair wage. He rode to see for himself the lives of the common man, woman and child, avoiding the detested turnpikes and gentrified smoothed roads. He chronicled, wrote and ‘harangued’ his way around his beloved countryside, acting as a kind of roving representative, rallier and spokesperson of a changing English countryside, often sleeping on the road even into his sixties, and giving away whatever budget he had left after meals – to those who needed it.

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After our talk, The MERL’s Curator, Ollie Douglas, showed me a new exhibit – a glass case containing the clothes worn by Newbury Bypass protestor, Jim Hindle with the book he wrote about the protests, Nine Miles. It is as if he is standing there. His clothes do not look out of place.

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Back home, I’m up on the downs: most afternoons, some evenings, a night. There are small revelations: a tiny grass snake, scooped from the road by a kestrel. A creature that has lived its short life hugging the earth, but, in its last seconds, is dangled 1,000ft above it, below the flared fan of the kestrel’s tail. In strong winds, rain blows up the escarpment like a reverse waterfall, hitting my chin first and running up the sleeves of my coat. Hundreds of jackdaws form a huge, diamond-shaped squadron in it, whilst others rise and fall as a curtained backdrop, through the updraft. The first fieldfare to arrive rise from a puddle, their bullfinch-grey bottoms and cream eyestripes reminding me of the season with a jolt, like a half-forgotten memory emerging. Another day I step up rabbit holes and soil rolls into a blue sky and hear the bellow of a fallow buck, and the clash of mighty antlers.

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I am drawn to the hill one rainy night. The wind rocks the car and I get out. No lights are visible in the valley tonight. No one is here. Yet along the old drove track a light – a mellow, flickering glow – bobs. I follow for a while, wondering what it is. Not a torch. A will- o’the-wisp? An owl light? It bobs rhythmically as if carried by a hand; a lamp swung backwards and forwards before disappearing near the dewpond. The hint of shapes. I hurry back to my car, wondering quite what I’m doing.

On National Poetry Day, I came across (via the wonderful @JanesKintbury on Twitter) a poem written by Thomas Hardy in 1896 that I did not know.

There are some heights in Wessex, shaped as if by a kindly hand
For thinking, dreaming, dying on, and at crises when I stand,
Say, on Ingpen Beacon eastward, or on Wylls-Neck westwardly,                                

I seem where I was before my birth, and after death may be.

Poems tend to find you when you are most in need of them. I knew our hill, Inkpen Beacon and its gibbet featured in Hardy’s map of Wessex, along with Kennetbridge (either Newbury or Hungerford) and I knew that Jude Fawley’s Marygreen is in fact, Fawley, home to Hardy’s grandmother and Aldbrickham is Reading with its beautiful red-brick buildings, designed by The Natural History Museum’s architect Alfred Waterhouse; one of which now houses The MERL.

But the poem resonated deeply. I felt it up there, where Hardy once felt those things on more than one occasion and wrote about them; haunted and running from the ghosts the poem explores. ‘Mind-chains do not clank when one’s next neighbour is the sky’.
We are tied in to the landscape, though we may come and go like birds.

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We are more weather pattern and environment than we know; the water in our bodies perhaps last March’s snowfall, distilled in the dewpond, vaporised into summer lightning. We are the smell of the earth after rain, the frost on the windscreen, sunshine, grass. The landscape is in us. Another poem: Norman McCaig’s A Man in Assynt speaks of a place far from here as ‘a frieze and a litany’ with the sentiments I feel:

Who owns this landscape?
Has owning anything to do with love?
For it and I have a love-affair, so nearly human
we even have quarrels.

Which takes me, full circle back to William Cobbett. I would’ve liked to have met him. It would have been a squeeze in our Dairyman’s cottage where my children share a room – but we could have housed and fed his horse. I think, even after some 180 years, he would have recognised much. I know Hardy would have done too. I wonder, if we’d met, would we have spoken?

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Nature Notes

The High Places.

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I head for the hills early, while there is still the mist in the valley below. Wheatears bounce from the lookout points of anthill to anthill. On this migratory highway, the round dome of the hill must seem like one giant anthill tump. A hopping place, a stopping place, a historic atchin tan for travellers heading south. Even now, it must look more scorched than when they passed this way in spring. Raised like pimples above thin soil and turf, the green-covered anthill cushions dried out in the heatwave, giving the sunburned down a freckled appearance. Some still are bare, but others are recovering, the mats of low growing, heat-and-exposure tolerant chalk plants coming back. I find the thickening leaves of wild thyme, bedstraws, marjoram and squinancywort returning.

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There is movement in the air above and I realise hundreds of house martins are passing silently overhead, low to the hill, spiralling over, feeding; wings and white bottoms glinting in the sunlight. They are so low, they are almost caught in my hair. I can see up through the slow moving vortex of them, turning and sparking in the light so that they are soon out high over the countryside below, taking a circuitous route inexorably south.

Otherwise, I am above the birds. I look down onto the back of hovering, hunting kestrel, its wings beating the air around an eye that stays pinned to the poster blue sky, grey rump pumping. A raven drops out of the sky, tumbling in a free fall past it, close enough to cause the kestrel to flip in evasive action before righting itself.

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I drop down into the creamy linen folds of chalk fields below. The tilth is fine and pale as apple crumble. I rub it through my fingers and it feels the same. Orange beads that are chemically dressed seeds, fall from my fingers. This field was sprayed with chemicals before the seed went in and afterwards with a ‘pre-emergent’.

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There is a freshening breeze coming up from Wiltshire and its white horses. The ravens, now above me, make soft ‘prruuuk, pruuuk’ calls. A new hedge crosses this field like a pencil line. An attempt to right agricultural wrongs. In the spray line between the drilled field and the buffer strip, heartsease has colonised. Little wild pansies: comfort for a bruised heart.

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The ‘desire path’ of generations of badgers crosses the field and I begin to remake my own, turning my ankles like a Land Girl in the furrows, aware of flints lacerating the soles of my wellies. There is the metallic taste of frost in the air as the soft, warm blue of this Indian Summer crosses the bar into Autumn.

Nature Notes

Notes on Gleaning: The Book Club and the Barley Husk.  

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It is my turn to host our village book club, my choice of title and I’m having a wobble at the thought: my house is small, disorganised, untidy; I have 6 chairs and only three wine glasses. A friend suggests meeting outside, where I am most at home, and it suits our subject, putting us in the scene.

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I seek permission from ‘The Big House’ and we are allowed the use of a grassy glade beyond the ‘park pale’. We are hugged by woods on two sides, and have a view of stubble fields rising to the big sweeping arc of the downs soaring over everything else. I take a brazier down and my son lights it, keeping it going until we arrive. I make flapjacks and a flask of mulled wine.

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We meet just before sunset to walk through the farmyard, past the long barn and the not-long-stilled combine harvester. Golden straw lines every edge and hangs festooned from low branches, even though we can taste frost on the air. Wheat, oat and barley husks whisper and skitter in little rolls over the dry ground. The sky is streaked with pink-and-orange mares’ tails. Beyond is the thin pale paring of a fingernail moon. We walk through the sheep and settle on a circle of chestnut logs. Pheasants cough up the dark in rising, massed crescendo before falling silent, and a robin sings wistfully. The first owls call.

Our book is Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley, set over a golden summer in Suffolk, 1933. There are parallels with rural discontent in the 1830’s, with now, in Britain. All is not what it seems. We go through our questions, prompting talk of other rural novels: Reservoir 13, The Horseman, Ulverton, The Go-Between, A Month in the Country, Tess of the d’Urbervilles. We discuss the themes of change, of nostalgia; of a sheltered, pastoral idyll that has never really existed, that is dangerous. We are cautious. Much of it feels very close to home, to the bone. Others join us, phone torches wavering like owl lights across the field.

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We touch upon threads, pull at them. Toast marshmallows. We conjure up place and character: Edie, Elmbourne and Edmund – a rescued landrail (or corncrake) and a ‘familiar’ in the book. I reveal our own ‘Edmund’; a 100 year old taxidermy landrail I’ve been lent and tragically, the last one shot in our village. The downs above us a few weeks ago would still have been alive with their strange, rasping crex-crex calls for a little longer, along with the lonely, haunting wails of stone curlews and nightjar – now isolated to local heathland, but once, very much a ‘shepherd’s bird’.

Wreathed in woodsmoke, lit by firelight, we women discuss how hard life was then, how few choices there were. Coming over the freshly drilled field, we had begun, again, to remake our own desire path across, and felt some indication of the hardships wrought upon a body: twisting ankles and testing cannon bones and calves. The knuckled and knapped flints make their lacerations into the soles of our boots. We tell our own stories. The soft, hushed dark lends an air of close confiding, a careful listening ear, not felt before. We discuss the power or protection of witchery, madness and coercion: nostalgia, change, longing and betrayal; seasonal ritual, dread and comfort. Home.

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Aided by the hiss of a barn owl, the rural past, its lessons and ghosts are tangible, mingling with the woodsmoke. Patterns and stories are repeated, traces remain, indelible stains, the same dust resettling. When it is time to go, I think we walk home through the dark, slightly different people, each one of our hands making its customary 180-degree turn on the time-worn gatepost, before going our separate torchlit ways home, calling out across the fields with the owls under the stars, until our voices fade.

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Nature Notes

Lamplight from the Oak’s Cavern.

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It was the glow emanating from within the Horse Field Oak that made me stop and reappraise it. A lamplight glow that kept catching my eye as I worked; the sort of glow you might expect on opening a treasure chest, hauled from the deep.

This much-loved tree stands in the small, open pasture as a focal point. Twice every day, unless wind or weather is bad, we feed the horses beneath it, in ‘mangers’ created by the bays of its great, raised roots. Sometimes, we’ll store things on the dry earthy floor of its centre – a rug, a headcollar, a jumper; a book.

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Its double-trunk and large, healthy crown of leaves gives it a deceptive youthfulness. A big buttress base (an oak wall 1.5m high) gives way to two separate trunks; each in themselves of impressive, ancient size. So, although it was always obvious that the ‘two trees’ sprung from one, there was an impression of a pair, joined at the hip.

The base is hollow. The tree stands up on its toes, like an earthstar fungus raising its middle off the floor, or as if it has legs – we sometimes call it ‘the walking tree’. The cavernous trunk is like a small cart shed, with wooden pillars, bays and open doors. The floor is dry-dusted, threshed with husks and wisped with rolled hay; the roof is vaulted, hushed and dark. Motes float in wide light shafts falling between cloisters.

The children have each had their dens inside, but now, even the youngest is too big to squeeze through the narrow opening, with its pelmet of pale, insect-drilled wood. A fox wintered in it last year and rabbits have their kits inside in summer. Part of the inside is burnt out: for a time, the hollow had been a secret bottle dump and presumably, the intensity of an afternoon sun had caused a small fire, mercifully gone out.

When I peer inside, to see what the yellow light is, a huge, sulphur shelf fungus is hanging there, like a ruffled lampshade from the 1970s. It glows in the upper-dark of the interior. Also known as chicken-of-the-woods, the fungus has more Flamenco frills than a fifties petticoat. The decayed hollow of the tree is an entirely natural process, the central heartwood being a dead support, and host to much life.

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The bark is thick and fissured as shelves of mismatched books. Nuthatches have hammered cobnuts in the gaps, like round copper pennies. Between the two trunks the buttress forms a broad back or bench with a small ferny pool a saddle would fit over. The moss either side of it is worn a threadbare velveteen from climbing, leaning and sitting on. There are shinier patches of grease and chestnut hair, where the pony has scratched his neck. The canopy soars, the trunks and branches embossed with moss and lichens and burrs sprouting twigs, like hairs from moles. Kestrels nested in it this spring, but the canopy is so vast, I could not spot exactly where.

I asked The Woodland Trust how I’d measure and age such a tree, and with their advice, borrowed a long fabric tape measure and fitted it around the tree’s girth before it divided. At 7m, The Woodland Trust’s ready reckoner made the tree somewhere in the region of 600yrs old. Along with several other local trees, it would have been part of the great Savernake Forest just down the road near Marlborough, where Henry VIII courted Jane Seymour. Britain’s only privately-owned ancient forest, it is however leased to the Forestry Commission on a 999-year basis and shut to the public just one day a year, in order to remain ‘private’. It is well known for its lion’s share of ancient, veteran trees: Big Belly Oak, King of Limbs, Cathedral and Spider Oak. The great Duke’s Vaunt once sported a door, lock and key and could shelter ‘twenty boys’. Our ‘Walking Oak’ is 400yrs younger than these greats, yet may have been around four Henry’s before the Eighth was even born.

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The horses stand beneath it now, nose to tail, swishing flies, nibbling at the ivy bark growing up it, in a scene from an Alfred Munnings painting. Their predecessor is buried fondly beneath the tree. I have rubbed several years’ worth of mistletoe berries on the lower branches, but so far, the tree is having none of that. Perhaps it has seen too much and knows the full weight of betrayals.

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It’s the first tree I check on after a storm. Before I go, I pat the horses’ necks and the tree’s ‘saddle’ with more respect than usual. It gives nothing away, but its solidity and steadiness are a comfort.

Nature Notes

The Saltmarsh and the Sea.

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It is our first time on the Sefton Coast: 22 miles of wide, white sandy beaches, dunes and a far-away sea between the Mersey and Ribble Estuaries.

At Formby Point, red squirrels flicker like cloud shadow and flow like light around pine trunks. They hardly seem there. They match the colour of the bark, flaking and lit in dappled patches, and are so close I can see ear tufts. They bury nuts put out for them, patting them down, before they are unearthed and stolen by stalking magpies.

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The soughing of the pines and the shivery frisson of silvery poplars makes the sound of the distant sea. Dramatically sand and wind-salted trees give way to dune slacks, low-lying areas of transient, flooded pools: havens for natterjack toads and colonised by creeping willow, dewberry and sea buckthorn with its orange berries. The forming dunes rise high in front of us, rolling like golden, whalebacked downs, pinned lightly by marram grass. This peaceful-looking, flat, wide-open landscape is a dynamic one, however. Constantly shifting, wind and tide-sculpted, moving its boundaries inland at a rate of 4m per year. It is one of the most rapidly changing coastlines in England.

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At Crosby there are plants new to me, a seal bobbing and the strange, moving figures of sculptor Antony Gormley’s Another Place. We wonder at the iron men as they sleepwalk into the sea: are they leaving? We can’t help but worry for those submerged by the tide, wanting to breathe for or rescue them. Huge container ships disappear to a horizon peppered with oil rigs and wind turbines that tumble perpetually across the sea like thistledown. We walk back through dunes dotted with yellow evening primrose, sea spurge and spiky sea holly, flowering in oceanic blue-greens and silvers. The names come to me after a moment – absorbed from years of thumbing through wildflower guides for more inland species – I find they have sunk in and resurfaced after all.

At the faded and freshly painted Victorian grandeur of Southport, a peregrine hunts above the carousel and the vintage amusement arcade.

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I am let loose alone onto the saltmarsh and inter-tidal mud and sandflats of Marshfields. The vast low seaplain is firmed up with Japanese rose, glasswort and sea purslane. I walk out on firm sand and mud at first, into an unknown, unfamiliar landscape, taking care, down a track where people have walked dogs and where I can see a family at the water’s edge. But the track turns into a river and I cautiously pick my way across amethyst fields of sea aster and begin to watch every step as hidden pools and rivulets are obscured by mats of samphire. The family at the edge of the land turn out to be weathered oak posts.

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There are exciting familiars: lapwing, redshank, cattle and little egrets, little ringed plover. And the wild raucous cries of gulls and the kleeping of oystercatchers. A heron creaks over. I go as far as I dare, having gone over my boots, and know I won’t make the blurred and undefinable edge of the sea. But there are birds in huge, spectacular numbers out there, shifting, cross-hatching in skeins and veils, and settling on shining sandbars, out of reach and unidentified. I am humbled by these huge flocks – and my need to improve my seabird and wader knowledge.

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I realise I am standing with my palms up and empty before me, as if I’ve just let go of something important and can’t get it back; a female version of one of Antony Gormley’s Iron Men at Crosby, in a muddied dress and disintegrating boots. I am the only upright thing as far as the eye can see, along the foreshore. For a moment I feel vulnerable and exposed. There is nowhere to hide or go, no route of escape. To the north, in the far distance, is Blackpool tower and its Ferris wheel. Southport’s long pier sits a mile or so behind me; pleasure beaches that seemed to have drifted in and docked. A curlew accompanies me, part of the way back, calling its haunting cry. At some point, I register a recent tidal flotsam of small, dead crabs, cockles, mussels, tellin and razor clam shells that doesn’t correspond with the tide timetable.

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When I get back, there is a search underway for a missing man. I wish I had news. He is very young and it is awful to imagine. My family are waiting on the sea wall with candyfloss. I feel acutely then, the difference between losing oneself and coming back and being lost entirely – to myself, or others. It seems a fine, blurred, watermarked line. The cry of the curlew draws my gaze back to the saltmarsh and the sea once more. I am sure I can see the curvature of the earth.

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Nature Notes

Fireball Harvest.

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In the relative cool of the evening, I go out for a walk to see the planets align. A few white moths flutter, bats hawk above my head and tawny owlets call their French name softly, persistently, from the wood; chouette, chouette.

At the top of Trenchfields, above Milking Parlour, the broad, blue-black downs lie like the smooth rise and fall of a horse’s back. The poll, crest and high withers of the hill fort to the east slope to the sway back of Old Gallows track, rising again to croup and quarters and falling to the dock of Rivars – all above the still, pale-gold fields of rustling barley.

I see Venus first, faithful and low on the western horizon, out to where they are harvesting in the Pewsey Vale, under actual chalk horses carved into the hills. Then, I make out the bright planets of Jupiter and Saturn. A moment later and Mars appears; the brightest thing in the sky, breathtaking and glowing like a hot coal on the shoulder of the down. It makes up for the disappointment of the lunar eclipse when we all went up the hill to watch the cloud blush a faint carmine.

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The sky is still light and a few stars are appearing. The combine comes into view in this big field, roaring up the hill, its bright lights smudged by its own dust-cloud. Then a sudden streak, a fireball, shoots across the sky from east to west and vanishes, leaving a bright afterburn. What was that?

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The combine makes a turn at the headland and I shield my eyes from it, anxious not to lose my hard won night vision in an instant. It trundles and roars up the field like an incongruous, bright, mobile fairground, tail light flashing beneath it like the fire of a stoked engine, smoking with dust, gobbling up barley with its wide header. A fallow buck is illuminated as it crosses the field. Only the huge rack of palmate antlers are visible, thickly wadded in brown velvet and beginning to shred, riding the waves of barley like an embattled galleon with torn sails.

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I can still see the fireball when I blink. It seemed to fizz. I am left with the impression of a squareish sheet, a furled ribbon of glowing magnesium lit by a Bunsen burner. A firebolt of lit foil flung by petulant gods across the sky.

I wonder, was it a piece of space junk? A particularly large, bright meteor? I think of the rectangular, angled photovoltaic ‘wings’ of satellites. The International Space Station crosses the sky then, super-bright, to disappear somewhere near Mars. At the same time, two satellites cross its path and race each other across the night sky, parallel with the emerging Milky Way. We are everywhere I think.

I wonder what the labourers in the fields would have made of this in harvests past, had they looked up to straighten their backs a moment? They must have been used to the annual Perseid meteor shower, but perhaps it would have been seen as a portent? Or had it been two months and seventy-four years earlier, what would those soldiers from 9 Para, training for the fight of their young lives in these fields have thought? Tasked with dropping ahead of the D-Day landings to destroy the formidable Merville battery, a full mock-up of the installations and obstructions were built in these quiet fields and several rehearsals, with live ammunition, were run through. The fields are still known as Trenchfields.

I see two more exceptionally bright meteors, one that leaves a trail behind it, the other like a flare that simply brightens and goes out without seeming to move.
Crickets chirp from the grass down the lane as I walk home and somewhere near the village hall, a barn owl makes its strange and unearthly call. Down the dark lane, I make my eyes wide as possible, to take in all the available light.

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Nature Notes

Hot Summer Badgers.

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Droughty landscape

Unusually for us, this is our first visit of the year to the badger sett.  Something happened here (and at the other badger setts locally); an indeterminate transgression from outside; a violation, perhaps a crime, that can’t be pinned down or proven – but that meant for a while, there were few or no badgers.

But we’ve seen encouraging signs. My ten-year-old daughter and I walk, whispering, across the open pasture, stopping to spot fox poo, and to pick up a buzzard’s pale primary feather. It’s quite a prize and my daughter whirls it between her fingers while the slight breeze that has sprung up, tugs at it, willing it airborne again.

A hare washes its whiskers on the scorched grass, pauses to watch us pass, then begins on its long ears. We approach the sett cautiously, habitually. A thick wall of nettles blocks our normal route in, their tops drooping in the drought. The alternative path puts the breeze inconveniently at our backs (and therefore straight to the badgers) as well as over an unseasonal, crackling mat of caramelised, brittle laurel leaves. A swathe of dog’s mercury in the shade of the woodland floor lies flat and initially I take it as evidence of badger activity – but then, I see all the dog’s mercury has wilted and dropped to the floor. The gasping green understory is as flat as if someone has gone over it with a roller.

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Near hills at harvest

We settle with our backs against a sycamore, crackling the dry bark flakes as we try to lean gently upon it. We are in luck. Most of this huge, ancestral badger-city-central is in a big hollow and our scent will be carried high above the animals’ heads. Sheep bleat and a young buzzard squeaks persistently for a last evening meal. Then our eyes alight on a pair of badgers already out, covers off, snoozing at an entrance, their concave, broad skulls laid on top of the other, like precariously piled dishes. My daughter and I do excited, mute, shocked faces at each other. The badgers soon stir, woken by the irritation of flies. They are only 25m away. They start to groom each other enthusiastically, suddenly awake; cubs. They ‘flea’ between each other’s shoulder blades until one tucks its nose in and tries a slow, comical, forward roll. Stuck against a root, its bottom is in the air. Its sibling fleas that. As the badger slowly collapses onto its back, the other continues to nibble in the same place – now at its soft belly – and there is a whicker, a growl and a brief fight before the shrill alarm rattle from a blackbird draws all our attention. They prick their ears towards it as we do, having also learnt the rudiments of a language of another species. When we look back, they have gone.

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We breathe out, smile, screw our noses up at each other, grin. A muntjac barks at 11 second intervals and we mouth counting them soundlessly, a slow metronome to a summer’s evening. Then my daughter nudges me. Motions left. Through tall nettles, white stripes. The tired, dusty nettles waggle. A train of badger cubs emerge cautiously and then in reckless bursts. Their white facial stripes are brightened by the chalk; it has the same effect a handler might employ, whitening the socks or tails of cattle or horses for the showring. Four pairs of tiny crescent moons for ears, ride the broad planets of their skulls down the path towards us. They are three strides away.

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My daughter whirls the white buzzard feather excitedly in her hands and I move mine to gently stay it. They reach the hard-baked, impacted chalk path our toes are on. Ideally, of course, we wouldn’t be on it; but we are already standing on the rooty toes of the sycamore tree as it is. The first badger comes right out, bear-like claws battle-ready, rattling like sabres against each other and upon the white path, smooth and hard as pavement. Its nose is smudged with chalk, the lozenge of its body follows like an invisibility cloak made of moonlight. It turns to come up towards us but spots or senses us and, without making eye contact, shoots off along the path and disappears down another hole. But the other three follow on, over the white chalk step in front of us; the last is a petite female. A fourth cub emerges behind her and then they seem to sense collectively that their path is partially obstructed, and the train bumps up against each broad backside, turns and flows back up to the first entrance. They play, unconcerned, tumbling, whickering, rolling. One half-climbing the prone tree trunk, the others below in the cave of gnarly roots, trying to climb up. Claws rake on elder and moments later the fresh green-bacon scent of exposed greenwood bursts upon us. Eventually they vanish into the gathering dusk.

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I wonder how many we did see? Were the spooked badgers rejoining their sett-mates and siblings below us, through the long, deep network of tunnels? Did we see 7, or 4? We wonder what they are eating, with earthworms being sealed well below the baked earth. There are signs in the barley and wheatfields that they have rolled to flatten the corn and eaten the milky, meagre grains and ears of this thirsty crop.

We leave the badgers to the night, just as the tawny owlets pick up where the buzzard fledgling left off; and return home, jubilant and refreshed.

 

 

Nature Notes

Bedstraws and Bee Orchids.

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I am at my desk when a familiar, fresh and lovely scent – nostalgic almost – assails me. Petrichor! The smell of rain on dry, dusty ground, from the Greek petra for stone and ichor, the golden liquid that runs through the veins of the Immortals. The last, fat raindrops from the briefest of showers splashes onto my skin like bath water. Later, the car’s farm-dusted, hot-sky blue bonnet has become dappled, and, like the tall nettles in Edward Thomas’s poem of the same name, is the only thing ‘to prove the sweetness of a shower’.

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In the stillness of the late afternoon’s stultifying heat, the kitchen tap sputters as the water runs out again. A great plume of dust curls up from the farm, as more haybales are carted in. We are all a bit jumpy. Mistaking it for a moment for smoke.

There are bee orchids on the hill and, just before sundown, I go looking for them. I triangulate a rough point along the down’s vast, heated, open expanse with the location I’ve been given: along the path then off it, towards the deep shade of the big hanging wood, 100m from the bottom. I walk carefully off the path, mindful of nests in the grassy tussocks. At intervals, meadow pipits flick out and skylarks rise up singing.

On the stressed, dry, tightly-grazed curves of these ‘bare’ chalk hills, plants have evolved to hug the thin layer of soil between springy turf skin and white chalk bone. A tall thistle or thorn tree becomes monumental; a landmark. Any rainwater that falls here is shed quickly from the dome-shaped hills, or percolates slowly through the limestone; little is retained, except in the old dewponds.

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These hills are reputed to hold 90% of the remaining chalk grassland in Berkshire. The first effects of a new grazing rota are coming right and it’s exciting. This landscape is rainforest-rare and a square metre can hold 40 species of plant. Marbled white butterflies tumble over the dry grass tops. The hill glows gold with Lady’s bedstraw; brimstone-butter plumes of sunshine that perfume the down with the smell of new mown hay.

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I sit on a fragrant ‘midsummer cushion’ of a meadow anthill, embroidered with wild thyme and the tiny mauve-white flowers of squinancywort, the ants far below. I hug my knees. The farmed countryside below is a combed, trimmed, parted, sprayed and set version of the wild, loose golden locks I sit among, the glow from it reflecting off my skin, like a buttercup held under the chin. I could make my bed here.IMG_8431

I pick a few torchlight sprays to take home. The posy in the kitchen keeps its warm, scented glow for days. I never did find the bee orchids.

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