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.

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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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Nature Notes

Rime Frost, Hoar Frost, Thaw: How to Fall into Narnia.

We have been held in the hug of a cold white fog for days now. Becalmed, anaesthetised at the white-blank windows. Like the uncertainty of sleet, fog is the weather of the moment. Shifty, unsure, blanketing, blurring, keeping us home. Out in it, we move as if in a dream. Friends materialize out of the mist, new birds are heard, but not seen. We climb above sudden vistas.

The sun pours through and the fog dissipates, revealing a magnificent rime frost. Rough ice needles have formed and thickened as super-cooled droplets have frozen on contact with everything, as the fog has drifted past. There is an almost instant freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw that the great tits chime along to, as the sun reaches places in patches. Ice tinkles and clinks down, so that we walk through a strange snowstorm under each tree.

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Rinsed and relieved of their burden, the conifers give off a fresh Christmas scent. The lane is pooled with white crystals and the falling ice becomes a waterfall-roar in the wood. The liquid, dripping notes from a persistent nuthatch seems to increase the flow of ice into meltwater, like the yard tap thawing into a metal pail.

There is a heavy weather alchemy on the hill. Though walkers coming down the hill tell us the southern slope is completely green and frost free, we walk through scarves and skeins of fog, wreathing and looping like a wraith.

The grass tops and scabious seedheads are frosted and rose hips and haws are outlined in ice as if by some thick, white, magic marker.

But the kaleidoscopic effect of the freezing fog’s touch on the scrub is most mesmerising; a lesson on How to Fall into Narnia. Whisked around by a hill wind, the hawthorn & gorze have whipped an egg-white fog into a meringue brittleness, creating a blurry, hypnotic and dizzying effect with the thick rime frost. It proves impossible to focus on.

But as quick as we can marvel at it, it is shed before our very eyes. The sun sparkles and warms it so that cold needles and shards tinkle and fall like opaque glass. The fog moves off like a loosed chiffon scarf down the valley.

The hill greens behind us. But by the time we get to the bottom, the fog is beginning to roll in again. Each thorn tree on the down wears half a side of white ice-blossom and a fallen petticoat of white ice-petals beneath it, uplighting the bare branches like anti-shadows. There has been an unblossoming of cold-flowers. As we look back, a single, clear, ice-glazed goblet of a hogweed head remains, half full. Mentally, we hold it up to the light and the hill and take a long drink.

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Nature Notes

Sleeting.

The snow begins to fall at daybreak and continues sporadically throughout the day. For the first two hours it comes down fast and settles thickly, then turns to sleet, then rain, then back to snow. The woods provide a brown-screen backdrop for varieties of wintry precipitation in a moving panorama: snow in small hard grains; gritty rain, seeded with ice, foggy drizzle, then snow in beautiful feathery flakes, falling like down from a burst pillow. The lanes are treacherous with ice over running water, or water over ice in unexpected patches.

Leading the horses down the lane to their field is a hazardous adventure.

There is a flurry of activity on the birdfeeders, and all the while, far-scattered and far-carrying, the carolling of mistle thrushes with their bone-cold bleak-edged singing. Song thrushes were gaining confidence too, with their warmer, short-repeated phrases – and this year, we give them new mantras to sing along to: Stay safe, stay home! Wear a mask! Wear a mask! Wash your hands, wash your hands …

Sleet and slush are not the most romantic subjects to write about. But each creates its own emotional weather with us, existing as the balance point on the see-saw between the excitement of snow and the disappointment of rain – depending on your situation, outlook and what needs to be done. Sleet can induce feelings of hope, frustration, anxiety and a certain weariness; it is a weather for this long moment in time. What will happen? School or no school? Then, when that is answered, when we will see friends? Parents? Go dancing? Sleet is an unpredictable wobble on the barometer of uncertainty. A weather roulette.

Yet it has its own character, intrigue & beauty. There is a stippled, dappled thick inch of it, salting the farmyard like fish scales.

Two degrees colder, the hill above remains white for nearly three days in its elevated position, whilst those around it remain green. A big holly tree at the snowline seems to play doorman to this other, loftier, icy world. Though intriguingly, the long barrow on the ridge remains snow free.

People have come to sledge on the frozen crust of snow and their shrieks and voices drift down.

I find quieter routes and visit a favourite spot; the ‘antlebump tumps’ of ancient meadow anthills – the living, insulated, turfed & wild-thymed ant castles on the northern slopes.  It is possible to get down the whole hillside using them as stepping stones. Sheep, hares & even short eared owls or small coveys of grey partridge use them as shelter or pillows, as we do (when they are warm with fragrant wild herbs in summer).

Today, sprinkled with remnant snow, they looked like a factory of unsold Christmas puddings. Or a village for the little folk. Or a model of the village that used to exist within the hillfort. Several even had tiny pouting, puffing fungi on top, like smoking chimneys. I love their solid, certain, endurance. Their resilience. The weather app on my phone that forecast snow an hour ago, has once again, turned to rain.

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Nature Notes

A burr, pulled from a fleece.

The iced planets of burdock looked like beautiful renditions of the spike-celled images that have haunted us all year. We squeeze past these plants at least twice daily, & carry their prickly mines around with us all winter, tenderly pulling them off one another’s clothes in brief moments of Velcro silence: pinched burr-planets of nuanced smiles, gentle rue, love, tenderness and disappointment.

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Outdoors takes us out of ourselves. Frozen oak leaves give up the ghost, like snow falling through the trees, and we try to pay more attention to the world. A squirrel’s warning wheeze can sound like a hard pressed boot in thick, defrosting mud, and a snipe, tearing itself off the frozen earth, like the creak of the park gate – or a burr pulled from a fleece. These things live alongside us too. Often unnoticed.

Still, reliably, against the odds and diminishing, the song thrush and mistle thrush begin carolling in this deepest, darkest, most quietly light-seeking part of the year. The gleam off wet holly is profoundly blinding and there are still quinces in the hedge, like winter lemons; hanging like bright Christmas baubles.

It was a shock, in this border country, where we hang on like the grit on the kitten heel of the Berkshire ‘shoe,’ to find ourselves in Tier 3, then Tier 4 within two days,  before Christmas. And then, much of the rest of the country following.

But there are deeply reflective, sobering (and joyful) walks home from Mum’s house in the village. There are scattered strings and pulses of fairy lights, like boats anchored out at sea and Jupiter and Saturn like wonky twin porch lights, low over Tier 2. The muddy track is laced with shadowed branches & puddles are glazed with moonshine. There are disappointments, but none too great. I think of others.

A barn owl quarters unseen, but calls with the rare clarity of a glassy, ululating whistle, rather than its more usual rasped screech.

It is a little spooky, crossing the sheepwash. Dark badger trails criss-cross the fields either side like ley lines. I stupidly answer a text and the phone’s light destroys a half hours’ stored night vision and I am temporarily blinded. When I stop tramping through the frosted leaves on the wood’s edge, the tramping continues a few beats. There is a ticking rustle from a big, silhouetted dead tree that hasn’t produced leaves in decades. Its bark has long gone, leaving it antler-bone white. I wonder what the sound is? I imagine: bats walking down its trunk on folded elbows; a treecreeper roost; a stop-out squirrel.  Then there is the terrible shrieking of a small animal that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. A rabbit being killed by a stoat, I think, until the sound is carried up above my head into the wood behind me. An owl? But what is the prey? My stopping is too much for the alert levels of the roosting woodpigeons and they explode with a volley of a racketing clatter. A shower of leaves fall. The shrieking has stopped. 

As I recross my tracks there is a whiff of fox that wasn’t there when I started out.

Nearing home, I pass the old threshing barn that once doubled as a draughty school room, but is now full to the rafters with hay made when we thought this would all be over by Christmas. Somehow, the church bells are ringing. The near-full moon is netted in the trees and there is a slow meteor like a yellow marble, rolled through the heavens. The plough rests the heel of its starry mouldboard on the roof of our house.

I pause before going in. If I met ghosts tonight, I would tell them of these times.

Nature Notes

Wild Light, Weather, Portals.

In the last hour of light, I walk along the high chalk ridge to a spot where I’m hoping for closer views of fallow deer.  I find I am walking between storms; the loose flint vertebrae of the whaleback rattle away from my boots. The hill’s spine soars clear of the cloudbursts that obliterate everything below and in turns, either side of me. The view is whitewashed out, then revealed again in shimmering light, as if someone is playing with the curtains. I walk deliciously between the lot, feeling hidden then highlighted; as if I’ve been invited onto the stage of a show I don’t entirely understand.

Low weather shape-shifts above me into the deep, pendulous dapple of mammatus clouds. I watch them grow heavier, like drops bulging from a yard tap, before they burst individually in washing line sheets. A short, bright rainbow forms at one corner.

A spell of calm follows and I tuck in against the trunk of a beech tree. My dog leans against me. We can both hear the belching grunts of fallow bucks far below. They are still in their rut.  

There is a slight noise to our left and, unexpectedly, a big chestnut buck comes pronking on his hooves, wild-eyed out of the woods and almost upon us. In one great move he shies and cat leaps the fence behind us, all four feet off the ground at once. He stops in the wood and turns to face us. For a reverent moment, we are held in the magnificent cradle-gaze of his antlers. The yellow glow of the hazel trees around his head seem to emanate from the pale tines of them, like lit candles on a Hanukkah Menorah.

The spell is broken by more noise to our left: another, big dark buck comes out of the wood, sees us and plunges downhill, his splayed hoofs sliding on the steep slope for purchase, his shoulder blades coming up like pistons  working to control the weight of him downhill at speed.

Back on the track I pick up pace as the world seems to darken and go molten at once. The sky swirls around the sunset of an exhilarating Turner painting and I feel caught up in it.

A wisp of snipe arrow through it after their long, sharp bills, like a shoal of unearthly fish – I expect the cloud to burst. 

Over my shoulder, the setting sun ignites the flooded track ruts into long mirrors of gold. In a trick of the light, they seem to stand upright, like gleaming wet sarsen megaliths, or a glowing absence of them: mirrors stood on end, portals back to a world I seem to have just left. Between them, reflected on the chalky mud, the first pale stars appear.

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