Nature Notes

Rain. Battles. White Violets.

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And so it rains. Mud becomes part of the fabric of living, washing off the fields with little to stop it and slewing into everything else. Hail the size of garden peas hammers down so hard one night, the spider in the corner of my writing hut roof trembles. Adrift from the house like a boat at sea, I am informed that the hail came down the chimney and through the air vents, filled a whole cupboard – and had to be swept up.

It doesn’t melt. It remains, along with the loose vertebrae of dirty drifts, in furrows, ridges, hollows and pots, like an explosion of beanbag polystyrene. It snuggles into the earth, stealing spring’s warmth.

For days, the green woodpecker has been calling incessantly from the wood, laughing hysterically, close to tears. Prospecting nest holes, it flies between trees like a paper plane: an origami flight, folded in green and red paper. His old name? Rainbird.
An owl calls at noon and is answered by two more. Cloud obscures the hill that today, looks like the mountain it was once considered to be. It looms. When I am up there, the clouds are round my ankles.

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My mind keeps returning to environmental pressures that won’t leave me alone. That haunt, nag and provoke me. That are always on the periphery. The flawed badger cull is on its way here. Flower-rich verges of orchids have been destroyed to put cabling in over the hill (before being stopped)**. A hedge has been grubbed up where I know there were hedgehogs and felling has started, unannounced, in the wood the village’s children (including my own) have grown up playing in. It transpires that its timber has been bought by a forestry company, 60 miles away. I put on my best Lois Lane (Breakfast at Tiffany’s trenchcoat, lipstick and wellies) and clump down the road to talk to them. I come away with names, having not given mine, my notebook full of anger – and am called back with a not-uncommon warning: ‘And Miss? You take care now, won’t you?’ There is a history of unrecorded dormice and adders in this wood. And a billion memories. I feel hunted, haunted. And pretty ineffectual.

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I go for a walk in the opposite direction, away from the chainsaws that jangle my nerves. Rainwater pours in a river out of the sheep field. I haul a lamb out of a water-filled hollow. Another newborn lamb stands hump-backed, head down, its umbilical cord tethering it to the wet, cold earth, like a cowboy’s tired, thin, ground-tied horse.

I shlock through wet, sucking fields to watch hares. On the ridge of the arable I catch two boxing, a third squatting, hunkered down like a small grey-wether; a dun-coloured sarsen stone. The match seems short and ill-tempered, rather than exuberant. They do not leap, just scratch violently at each other on their hindlegs, clumps of wet fur flying out with sprays of water. As I pass the wood I see three more out the corner of my eye, sheltering in the wings. I am careful not to turn my head to alert them they’ve been spotted. The furthest stretches like a cat. The other two are butted up against the trunks of trees, parked up in the bays between roots, leathery ears flat along backs. They think I haven’t seen them and freeze. I can’t help but smile.

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Then, the splashed white droppings of a roosting bird upon the dog’s mercury – turn out to be the first white violets. I rally a little more. There are skylarks singing through the rain, high out of sight. And the rain that rattles on the corrugated roof of the long barn, also falls on the bluebell leaves, thickening in the wood. Soon, there will be swallows.

**I am pleased to say that after meeting with contractors, this will be put right. On understanding the situation, they could not have been more apologetic and helpful.   

 

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Nature Notes

The Blackthorn Winter & the Hawfinch.

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We are in the midst of a blackthorn winter. The sloe blossom on the low trees and hedges (that have not been flailed) is a frothy surf upon the damson-coloured thorns that pre-empts its leaves and often presages the lion’s roar and bite of March.

I have been haunting churchyards all winter as a reliable source of yew trees and possibly, therefore, hawfinches – as well as ash groves, beech hangars or stands of cherry trees. These large, rare finches are partial to beechmast, ash keys, and the seeds of hornbeam and elm, as well as hips, haws and berries.

Our tiny resident population of hawfinches (500-1,000 birds) is annually swelled by a few hundred from Eastern Europe. Though this year, their numbers have been unprecedented. Wild berry crops have been poor in their home countries and thousands have ‘irrupted’, dispersing westwards to find food. Fortunately, it seems that we have had a good year for fruits and tree seeds.

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Hawfinches have a near-mythical status and on top of that, are among the hardest birds to spot. Hence, my standing in my best coat and heeled boots (instead of wellies) with my binoculars bumping up against my handbag and a shopping list in my pocket, in the middle of a freezing blizzard in town. I’d had a tip-off. Of course! Historic, romantic Shaw House was best viewed from its yew-lined avenues. But as I wandered those without seeing any, I put my head down into the blizzard and drifted towards the church, subconsciously. And there they were. In the tops of the lime trees opposite, a dozen large, cobby hawfinches. Their warm, apricot-autumnal colours – jay, chaffinch or waxwing colours – blanched pale by the monochrome light of winter. A flock of seven goldfinches flew in for convenient comparison and were dwarfed by the bulky birds.

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Twice the size of a greenfinch, and with a much fiercer expression, their magnificent steel-grey conical bill concealed the four hard bosses within, used to distribute the colossal force needed to crush cherry, plum, bullace and damson stones for the kernels within. The massive musculature that supports this action gives them parrot cheeks and a bullish, top and front heavy appearance. The pressure of their bite is legendary; the force exerted 1,000 times greater than the bird’s weight: the human equivalent? Being able to crush 60 tonnes with your jaw. It is enough to crack bird ringer’s knuckles. The hawfinches call sweetly, their song barely that: nothing more than the sound of an icicle plinking into a crystal glass in a snow cave, it is so pure and simple.

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I wondered how many times had they been here in the past? Hawfinches have never been numerous and may have only bred in England from the 1800’s. It’s an unusual way to concertina the years of a grand house built in 1581, that has seen royalty and wealthy families, a Civil War battle literally on its doorstep, with men and horses buried where they fell in the grounds, musket ball holes still visible in its walls and allegedly one inside that narrowly missed Charles 1 as he was dressing. Visitations from these wintery finches would have gone largely unnoticed during Victorian protests over Rights of Way or by billeted soldiers in WWII or teachers and students when it was a state Secondary School. My daughter might have noticed them when she slept the night in its rooms with her Cub pack.

It doesn’t seem so incongruous then, to spot them in the teeth of March’s latest leonine blast, beside the A34, the speculating rooks and the River Lambourn as it flows into town, past all that history, past all those winters. There is currently more brightness in the thawdrops hanging from the blackthorn, than in the whole sky.

 

 

Nature Notes

Blown Snow.

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In the hours and days before the snow, we barrow water round to the horses as tap, trough and water buckets freeze. The temperature falls to -9 at night.

A prelude of snow falls hard and fast, turning the tarmac white in the time it takes to open Mum’s gate.

We go out in the Land Rover to feed the wild birds, piling it onto snow rather than spinning it out, where it would get lost. Flocks of linnets, yellowhammers and chaffinches descend. Displaced lapwings fly over. Ravens sit low in a tree, their enormous, buzzard-size presence magnified by the snow. They drop onto a rabbit carcass; although, when we pass it and they lift, I spot tiny cloven hooves, no bigger than my thumb: a small muntjac fawn, just weeks old. I wonder if the cold killed it.

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Blowing snow is new. The open fields are just skimmed with small hard grains and snow devils spiral up to blow away into Wiltshire. We sledge into it, all five of us crammed into a decommissioned orange rescue stretcher.

Around the badger sett, snow reveals which entrances are in use and which shared by a fox. Overnight, a polecat has bounded between my own footprints: a personal, invisible snow daemon. Here is a map of unseen accompaniment. Where a hare has sprinted away, I measure three of my strides to its one. My son Billy laughs that he and I share the same ratio: at 16, he is the hare.

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After a day and a night of driving snow, the drifts are spectacular, the lanes impassable. The beast has rudely pushed snow through inadequate, flailed hedges and made strange shapes; lips, tongues, strudles, folds, drapes, pleats and ruffles. As if a giant’s linen cupboard has been tipped out.

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At the foot of the down the drifts rear and plunge like surf from a glacier, forcing a kind of pristine, glacial junkyard ahead of it. Wind-carved shapes are knife-edged and animated; here is the prow of an icy cruise liner, the cockpit of a boat plane, the snowboard of The Polar Express, the remains of Franklin’s lost expedition. A flotsam and warning from the sinking Arctic.

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On the down, we walk above a vanished road stippled with fenceposts. Snow has filled in the hillfort’s deep, deep ditches. The anthills have become a sunk, bare-headed army of wild-haired Celts, lined up to face down the Siberian wind. We hide our faces with our hands, scarves no match for the sting of it.

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On the ridgeway track, walking is hard. One moment we are on new sparkling hills above the hedges, the next, sunk to our waists. Some of the drifts are above head height. The children and dog roll and commando crawl over the tops.

A song thrush sits on a drift as if oblivious to the blast. Its spotted breast and chestnut feathers, the small embers of a fire nearly gone out. It is fluffed and motionless. My husband scoops it up lightly and pockets it. Perhaps we can warm, then feed and water it at home.

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By the time we make the high, turf earthworks, its tiny heart has stopped. I thumb its breastbone and find it sharp and exposed as wind-carved drifts. It is all feather. I place it on the bank of the ramparts and hope it died warm and unafraid of us, or this furious winter rage. Renowned be thy grave, I think.

When we get home, our knee-deep footprints have been filled in and smoothed over as if with a palette knife. There are redwings in the garden.

A week later, post-thaw and there are still Holstein patches of snow – lines demarking footpaths or underscoring hedgerows as if someone tried to highlight a landscape without thought to where the light was coming from. Mini ice floes rinse noisily down the lane.

A raven flies over, calling like a school ruler twanged on a desktop. On the hillfort, the spinal column, knuckles and cartilage of drifts remain, like scattered snow bones among the wings of thrushes. The yellow of a lone flowering gorse bush, the inside of a singing bird’s open bill.

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Nature Notes

Before the Snow.

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Winter-spring holds fast at each end and see-saws. One morning, rain strikes the cold plough at 45 degrees, whilst hail big as garden peas comes down straight as a plumb line: conjoined snowflakes fly up and down through it all. A demonstration of the weight of precipitation. The ditches are overflowing and the village pond, is a saucer brimful. Yet, when the sun comes out, it beams off the holly’s glossy waxed leaves, teases the hazel catkins into loosened, lengthened ringlets and relaxes the blackbird’s hunched, puffiness into an outpouring of rich, honeyed song.

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Frozen ground offers a reprieve from the mud, but freezes up tap, trough and water buckets. We barrow containers filled from the bathroom across the rutted field. A dalliance of snowdrops is wonderful as snowfall against a grey morning, their hardened tips piercing a way to sun and early bees. Some are remnant cottage gardens of homes long since tumbled down. A snipe jinks up with the sound of tearing fabric; as if it were frozen to the earth. In the place where it was, I expect to find feathers, stuck to the soil; instead, the ground is holed by the rhythmic sewing-machine needle of its long bill, the thread ripped out & gone with it on sharp, zip-zag wings.

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I am out on the hill just after dawn. Below, the valley is mist-netted: wreathed in soft, white taffeta. Out in the Land Rover, the untreated stubble is as green with weeds as it is faded gold with short straws. In stark comparison to those empty sprayed fields we cross, skylarks and meadow pipits spring up at our approach and there is the whistle of golden plover. Hares, their haunches coiled like big gear cogs above their low front ends, chase in cautious bursts, raising and lowering their long, sundae spoon ears like crests  in a presentiment of boxing matches. The sun comes up and lights on a pussy willow coming into bud. We are flooded with a warmth that is seen, rather than felt. The rising sun picks out the rose breasts of linnets in the gorse as if it had painted them. They blossom the gorse.

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There is no wind by evening. The smoke from our neighbour’s chimney inverts strangely: puthering out, then curling back in on itself, like a bridled swan, to pour like surf off the roof and diffuse through the fence. From there, it sends out low, person-sized puffs of smokiness to walk across the field (in the manner of smoke rings). I wait for a gap between them to go and feed the horses. Coming back, the strange procession is still traversing the field. In navy, bosky light, they have become a crowd of grey ladies: some with bent heads, others with trailing skirts or loose hair. The hair prickles on the back of my neck. I take care to trace the ghostly women back to their source, several times.

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There is a strange atmosphere that reminds my daughter of the days before the red sun of Storm Ophelia. We watch the sky and the birds for clues.  I am grateful for the snowdrops lighting the path home through the woods. The little owl calls persistently for a new mate. Hers died last year. I can make six measured steps between each call, willing her a new mate with each footfall.

Nature Notes

Mercurial, argent: winter chalkstream.

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Below the high chalk of the North Wessex Downs, rainwater that has percolated through the porous substrate, flows at a near-constant 10C into benign, gin-clear chalkstreams.

For otters in winter, this is a good thing. And there is potentially a better chance of spotting these elusive, mercurial creatures now: with their super-fast metabolism and evolutionary niche of heat-sapping, riverine living, they must spend much of their time hunting.

I have come down to the river having abandoned a search for hawfinches, somewhat perversely swopping one, hard-to-spot creature for an even harder one. Possibly. But perhaps not this year, when it seems hawfinches are everywhere I am not. I have been haunting churchyard yews, beech hangars and wild cherry holloways, but each time, something has called me away, or the weather has been wrong, the light, lost. I have a creeping, vague feeling I haven’t earned them yet.

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Otters are regularly (and irregularly) seen on the Rivers Kennet and Dun that flow through Hungerford. Much of the river is private, but Freeman’s Marsh is just that: a quiet, oozy gem, a free marsh. I should know better than to go out with the aim of seeing a particular creature, because this is when you’re least likely to see them and are in danger of being blinkered to other wonders.

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In an hour I glimpse a water vole buoyantly ferrying a width before vanishing and siskins, redpolls and goldfinches in the alder carr: a jewel-box lattice work of birds. Three times, the small, sodium-orange and teal comet of a kingfisher burns past.
Not so long ago I dreamt every night about otters and thought I saw them in unlikely places. Writing a natural history of them for the RSPB, I felt, for months, as if I had an otter curled up wetly in my brain like a strange hat, leaking river water out over my eyelashes.

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The last otter I saw crunched crayfish on the parapet of the road bridge into town at dusk. It disappeared, pouring itself into water and becoming it, before resurfacing under the feathery skirts of a sleep-floating moorhen. Like a practical joke.

The low sun gilds the marsh and lights the river. A grey wagtail bobs on a raft of water crowfoot, its yellow belly a blob of butter reflected in a river, argent and syrupy.
Then the world turns abruptly graphite; pencil drawn. There is the unexpected hiss as a brief snow shower passes. Its sound is startling, as if someone (or something) has swept by in a long coat. A high piping whistle pierces the babble and hiss. I peer hard at the water: the grainy shape of a flat, broad head floats, followed by the bump of a long rump and the hump of a thick tail, Loch Nessie style. Everything whispers otter, but does not shout it. A ripple twists and firms into fur, that melts into water and is sunk, gone downstream on a long-held breath.

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Photo: Ann-Marie Haggar

This article is a version of one that appeared in the Saturday Daily Telegraph, 20th January.

 

Nature Notes

Song Thrush, Firebox.

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Away from everything, there is a profound quiet in these short, grey-white days that feels reflective and inward. The sun levers open the lid of a tin-coloured sky at dawn and dusk, to peer up at the underbelly of grey cloud before closing its eye.

A fox has been using the field shelter to lie up in. When I go out in the morning with the hay, I swing the lamp in the hope of seeing him – but just his strong scent lingers. I find chewed pheasant wings and a breastbone licked clean on the muck heap two evenings running. One of my Nan’s famous retorts comes back with a smile: ‘a fox can’t smell its own stink!’ This must be the warmest place to lie, if a smelly one. He passes the farmyard at a trot, barking three times as he goes, causing a covey of red-legged partridge to explode into flight as he passes and I hear, quite clearly, the harsh keer-rick of our native grey partridge among them. I drop my pitchfork with a clatter in my excitement to see them and they whirr away in an arc, over the barn roof and back to the wood’s edge. The fox continues on, calling every hundred metres or so for a vixen. I can map his progress through the almost-dark – round the corner of the wood, across the park and onto the stubble. Pheasants cough up their indignation as he goes, and late-settling blackbirds pink, pink their alarm and fury.

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The fire sulks in the woodburner and will not go. It has unreasonable nights like this without explanation. The wood is dry, seasoned ash we have cut ourselves and is covered in black ‘cramp balls’ or King Alfred’s cakes – a fungi that is a natural firelighter. All is quiet, velvet, atmospheric dark density in the firebox. It demands reverence and has the rustle of folds of jackdaw wings about it; a sooty, withholding, a coveting of unexpended energy. Each time I approach with a lit match, it huffs it out. The newspaper faggots will not light. There isn’t much wind, but it went last night on one match in seemingly identical weather. I open the front door to provide a draw: nothing. I wonder if there is a ghost in the chimney. Hours later the wind bellows a call down the stove pipe and it explodes into life as we go to bed.

In the morning a song thrush is singing repeated half-phrases, sentence by sentence as if learning his lines – loudly, exotically from the oak top. Its spotted cream breast visibly trembles with effort, bill thrown wide, a purl of condensation rising like a question mark on the air. Cyclists stop in the lane to marvel: what could that loud, loud bird be? It vibrates the ear drums. It samples a car alarm; some notes of a green woodpecker’s laugh.

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I feel a direct link with all those souls down the centuries that have lived and passed through this place, and all places in England, who have heard this astonishing proclamation from a tiny, bird voicebox on the greyest, shortest days and felt such joy, such relief, such reassurance and confirmation that life will begin again.

The robins take up the mantle and shift their soft, melancholy minor-key song up a notch, to sing the same song, but louder, in a jollier major-key.

And suddenly, singing the snowdrops and the winter aconites up and out, we have ourselves a dawn chorus.

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Nature Notes

An Epiphany.

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The night after Twelfth Night, we take down the tree and all the decorations. We do so with as much ceremony, nostalgia and silliness, as when it went up. There is a kind of ritual that the family have learnt, seized upon and added too – and there is an underlying reverence for Midwinter. A folk memory of bringing the green in and gentle lights in the dark.

I wrap the tree decorations with care: ones the children made when they were smaller, Nan’s last remaining antique glass bauble, a much-loved dog, ornaments brought home from Canada, long ago (a goose, a loon, a tiny beaver in a walnut shell). There is an Australian fairy wren, coloured glass birds and foxes, hedgehogs, deer and each year, the newest one Mum has given me. Each is imbued with significance, sentiment, memories of Christmases past – and wishes for future ones

These shortened days of muted, pearly, mistletoe-light are full of simpler, starker beauty. Magic, where you look for it. Misted, amber droplets hang from thorns of bramble arches like fairy lights; a wet yew stump gleams a rich, sinuous mahogany. In high winds, a flock of linnets returns across the white sky like a handful of salt grains thrown into a head wind.

Winter storms have brought big trees down: an ash, snapped like a pencil in frustration, a sweet chestnut split along its barley-twist seams and towering wild cherries: damson-coloured ribbons and curls of frilled bark hanging like torn rags. On the hill, the old dewpond is frozen and dappled with the morning’s brief snowfall. Lichens and moss brighten the woods with unexpected colour. On the lane, a field maple branch, encased entirely in lichen, had smashed onto the lane. The brittle, twiggy bones denuded of bark and cuffs of encrusted lichen had been moved to the side, leaving a pile of shocked, powdered Verdigris in the road, as if it had shattered off an elaborate candelabra.

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Some of the pine boughs, holly and ivy brought into the house three weeks ago go on the fire, sending sparks up the chimney, into the night. I take down the mistletoe with an old reverence, and hang it outside in the apple tree. I smear some of the berries, wedging sticky pearls into nooks.

Days later and I’m still missing the Christmas tree smell and those evenings where we give ourselves permission for the fire, the tree, family, a book to be everything; and enough.

My youngest daughter wakes from a bad dream. To dispel it, we fling open the windows. The night is starlit. We lean out the window to look up at Orion, hands up for a slow, nightly cartwheel over the slope of the downs. A fox barks three times, ow-ow-ow, at familiar constellations and she is comforted. Even in January’s bareness, there is still fire, love, comfort and wonder, lighting the dark. Of course there is.

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Nature Notes

A Raven in Snow.

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Our house is an island in the mud. Our plank drawbridge to the lane falls short.

And then, at last, it snows.

We wake to a white and would-be silent world, were it not for the wind ghosting eerily through the house in its unsettling northiness. We rush out to feed the animals.

A cock pheasant takes off, coughing up its alarm and flies straight into the barn roof, mistaking its snowy slope for the white sky (as I have mistaken its evening silhouette for the down, before). The pheasant hops onto the apex, shakes itself of embarrassment and snow and flies on, leaving an imprint of angel wings.

We walk down the foamy hedgerow, pushing a surf of small, twittering birds ahead of us: linnet, chaffinch, yellowhammer and goldfinch. The wind has blown snow through bitter holes left in the hedge by a savage hedgecutter and there are drifts. White-rumped bullfinches flit in warm cherry-damson and navy pairs and a flock of fieldfare and redwing come alive in the snow, in slate-grey, chestnut, black and white relief, the latter with the radiated hug of dying embers under their wings, as if they are carrying coals or, as if a thermal imaging camera is revealing the heat from a small, hot, beating heart, flooding against a snowy breast of feathers.

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What occurred in the wild, cold early hours is printed across these snowy white pages. The entrances to rat holes are thawed and those that are occupied, steam gently. Vole holes pock the banks. Fox tracks lie as neat, parallel seams, until they wobble, interweave and meet with a scuffle of snow in a foxy love-match. The snow has part-thawed and refrozen under sleety rain and we sledge down the Park pale, bailing out before hitting the barely frozen pool of melt water.

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And then we make the hill. The great curves, ditches and edges of the hillfort are smoothed and dramatized with deep snow and blue light. The snow creaks underfoot. The vale of uninterrupted meadow anthills bobble the landscape and, where the hoarfrost tops them, it furs the surface like a stole: the crystals like Yeti fur, like the pelt of an arctic fox. The snowfield glitters and we hold our breath with the spell of it.

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The north wind has blown Gallows Down to green, but on the leeward side are great shelves of snow. The track is churned white. Just a thin layer of turf and soil separate the whiteness of snow from the whiteness of an old-ocean’s depth of chalk beneath.

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From a tree below at Flying Leap, a raven apprehends us with loud, astonishing, un–birdlike calls. The wood stops to listen. There are guttural clucks and growls, a repeated ‘cloop, cloop, cloop’ like stones dropping down a well and a frog like ‘quark, quark’. Is he calling out co-ordinates, summoning a court, or delivering the weather report? He finishes on a metallic note; a hammer ringing off some ghostly forge. He bounces down the trees’ scales, showering snow, wings folded behind his back, head down, pacing a branch like a thoughtful speaker, broadcasting the news.

A squally wind whisks the trees into a short blizzard and the bird ends its oration chiming with the bells of St Michaels and All Angels in the village below.

In the gathering dusk, and wanting the light and warmth of the woodburner, we give in to the hill and slide down on our bottoms, graceless and giggling.

 

Nature Notes

Wild Writing.

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Three lovely women join me for a Wild Writing Workshop at BBOWT’s Thatcham Nature Discovery Centre. We discuss ‘the new nature writing’, its ancient roots and tradition; its resurgence and the reasons (and need) for it. And we try to define something that, in its wild essence, defies catagorisation. But we come up with some characteristics.

Nature writing is about connection and celebration and it’s about loss (personal and environmental) and that is nothing new. It’s about close observation, personal discovery and experience, wonder, awe and mystery. It has an open-minded attitude to what ‘wildness’ and ‘nature’ is and is literary, lyrical, intense and humble. It breaks open old ground, anew.

We work on making sensory connections with memory with the title ‘On Remembrance Day, I remember.’ We listen for redwings, search for parties of long-tailed tits, spooling out like bunting through the alder trees and identify the whoosh of a raven’s wings as it flies overhead, before we see it. We talk of ‘emotional weather’.

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Sunday, I seize a stolen hour at sunset with my middle daughter. Squeezing the last juice from the day, we ride out of the farmyard. Twenty minutes later, we are cantering down a tunnel of light: the beech wood is at the stillpoint when its lacquered, toffee-penny leaves are as much on the trees as they are lying thickly on the earth. The wide holloway is illuminated by the low sun and the leaves glow from underneath, around and over us. Our chestnut horses are incandescent, their hooves drumming up a muffled, military beat.

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It is cold, but I can feel the warmth rising from the horse into my own body. I know at that moment, I could ask anything of her. I imagine a battlefield between her pricked, willing ears, haloed by the sunset, and think of those war horses – and the men that had to ride them in.

A woodcock jinks down the lane ahead of us. The sun goes and we trot home in the near-dark, her shoes sparking off the metalled lane.

And in the moment, when I feel utterly free, I realise that writing is an act of freedom in itself: an act of wildness. And what I remember then are two quotes. The first from the old canon of nature writing (Richard Jefferies, 1883) and the second perhaps from the new (Seamus Heaney, 2010):

‘It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine.’

Then:

‘I had my existence. I was there. Me in place and the place in me.’

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Nature Notes

Earthstars and Peacocks.

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The belt of trees between the down and the arable field is protected from both the hedgecutter and spray drift by a wide, conservation strip. The grass is long and pale, full of spiders, beetles, bugs, moths, butterfly eggs, mice and voles and – as I walk its length – about a dozen brown hares, their fur soaked with dew. The belt is a thin wood – or a wide hedgerow, whichever way you look at it – and full of fruit. There are sloes, hips and haws, the dripping rubies of guelder rose, dogberries like small blackcurrants, wild privet berries and crab apples. Black buckthorn berries cluster like tiny bunches of grapes along the branches. A field maple is thickly encrusted with lichen the exact same butter-sunshine colour its leaves have turned. Only a closer inspection reveals that both are giving it this vivid colour.

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In the scrub on the down, gorse, wild privet and box create warm, waterproof hollows and dens for all sorts of wildlife. A muntjac bombs away, a fox burns away, looking back at me between narrow shoulder blades. Its brush, a little thin at the base, seems to linger while the animal has already gone – the white tip following on like a cigarette in the dark as the fiery chestnut stole is snatched away like a jealous afterthought, as if I were after it. A peacock emerges then, from the cover of this wild, remote place. I am not as surprised as I might be. A small population survives here after being dumped, years ago.

It walks in self-conscious grace, with a slightly embarrassed air in these wild surroundings, its magnificent, though slightly battered tail trailing behind like a rich, torn, paisley gown slung over a shoulder. I feel I’ve interrupted the morning after last night’s ball.

Further along, I slip on the leaf-covered roots of a beech on the steep wooded down and land on my hands and knees. My thighs and wrists ring from the latent sting of old nettles. For a moment, I crawl because it is easier and, looking down, come face to face with seven earthstars.

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A rareish find, these fungi look like cups and saucers. The first layer opens and peels back like a wooden flower revealing a central globe. The pouting sphere puffs a smoke of dry, powdery spores when flicked: dead stars, burnt-out comets, still smoking from the fall. Yet some of the outer ‘petals’ have curled back in their second stage, raising the earthstar up on its own platform, in a gymnastic ‘bridge’ above the leaf litter. Very much alive, they look crab-like, as if they’d been sidling up the hill, and only froze when I found them.

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When the night comes, it is clear and cold at last. More redwing, fieldfare, golden plover and woodcock come in from the north, calling down and reorienting my compass. Even past Bonfire Night, there are peacock-bright fireworks, rockets and comets on the hill and laughter. And just along from the car park, into the true darkness, all manner of wilder wonders and mysteries.