What my Northamptonshire Nan would have called ‘knicker soakers.’
I walk towards the approaching thunderstorm at first; it is on the other side of the hill and this side is yet dry. A bank of heavy grey cloud deepens and white cloud moves fast in front of it, like smoke curling from a wildfire. The distant flicker of lightning comes closer, and thunder begins to close the gap, until a big fireball of light rolls like a bowling ball from the Gods along the ridgeway. There is an almighty bang.
As I turn to go, I just have time to register the big, black fallow buck, that has come into the field just 100 yards away. He seems to have materialised with the lightning, and stands looking at me. He is in his prime; his antlers, a magnificent thorny crown, as wide as if I held both my arms up to the sky. They seem to describe the lightning. He trots casually on, over the brow of the headland, and I quicken my steps home to a jog, keeping to the hedgeline. My thoughts are muddled with the awe of his sudden appearance, and the urgency to get home. I am thinking too, of the parish memorial in the churchyard, to two estate workers, Joseph Buxey, 64 and George Palmer, 32, killed by lightning under a tree near this very spot in 1837. As I reach the garden gate, a great five-pronged charge of lightning hits the hill with a reverberating crack, and the rain comes down in sheets.
Later, an hour after it has stopped, water sluices and twists down either side of the narrow lane, like twin skeins of pale grey embroidery silk – its power has already taken the edges of the tarmac down to a cross section of ‘how a road is built.’ In places, you can see the bone white gleam of chalk.
Dusk takes us by surprise.
I wander down to check the horses and the moon meets me at the gate, its reflection lighting the wet road. The horses are gently steaming, creating their own mini weather system above the downland slope of their backs. Robins and wrens are ticking the night in, like cards pegged to bicycle spokes. My iphone camera refuses the moon.
Later still, I am called out of my writing hut by the bellows-heave groan of the black fallow buck. It is a primeval sound, hollow and indescribable – not a roar or a belch or grunt, but all and nothing of those things. A sound from the belly, a tongue in the ‘o’ of his open mouth, close and low off the hill tonight, half a mile from his usual rutting ground. I wonder what brought him here. I cannot believe another, finer buck has driven him away. He seemed mythical.
I still hear him as I go to bed, leaving the window open. The rain comes heavily again and the comfort of listening to it is thrilled and unsettled by that bugle call to the wild hunt from an Old God, and the drip, drip of water coming though, somewhere in the house.
Though the unprecedented heat has eased, the frightening intensity of it remains. Coldharbour Farm and its grain silos shimmered like a mirage in the fan-oven heat. Much of the harvest there was done before the schools broke up, and woodpigeons panted on the sticky tarmac, where even the water leaks had dried up. As the temperature – according to my garden gate thermometer – rose to 39C, the road surface from Hungerford to Kintbury melted to an oily slush, the car tyres making a slicking puddling sound, as if the tide was coming in to close a causeway. The barley fields rippled like white gold shot silk; as gold as I’ve ever seen them.
Birds in the garden were more confiding, desperate for water and food in the drought. The hard, green, unripe apples made do for the inaccessibility of worms far below the baked earth.
It was difficult to sleep at night – and not just because of the heat. The brittle grass and barley crackled against the gate and the partly-felled woods had so little green in them, they smelt like kindling. The horses whinnied. Leaning out of the window, I saw a single broadsword of lightning plunge silently over the hill. I checked the weather app on my phone, but instead saw something I’d not seen before: smoke. As a ‘weather’? We’ve had field, farm and straw fires here before (and for ages past). I thought of the news. The combine was working in a distant field, and on Twitter, fires were reported on Salisbury Plain.
Ever a fireman’s daughter, I slept fitfully and woke in the night to a rising wind, banging doors through the house and lifting the curtains into rearing horses over our bed. I glimpsed strange lights over the wood, but couldn’t be sure – Chinese lanterns? Flares or embers? A late barbecue on the hill? My imagination?
The following day a combine sparked a flint-fire just a few fields away – it was not the only one – an added, heightened risk this year. The smell of burning fields took me back to my childhood and early twenties and in my head, the loop of a much-loved song by Kate Bush; the lyrics ‘The smell of burning fields, will now mean you and here … they’re setting fire to the cornfields, as you’re taking me home’ were haunted and intensified by the keening female voices of The Trio Bulgarka and uileannn pipes. From the back garden, the big hill, tawny-gold in the copper light, gave off a big energy, and I walked out to meet it. There was music from somewhere, vans on the hill, voices drifting so that full sentences could be heard, sheep bleats that sounded like people calling – and people calling. A drone then; a helicopter, a missing young man.
The setting sun’s rays illuminated the still-smoking fields as if through stained glass. An elegiac quality. I thought of the young man, his family, the vulnerability and peril of young adulthood. And hoped.
Below the hill, all is nearly safely gathered in. Harvested lines and fields spread like a technical drawing in sepia light; a tawny geometry that this year included borders of ‘cultivated’ stubble, as precautionary fire breaks. Our Home Field was the last to be done. The village pond dried up and the moorhens came into the garden.
It is difficult not to think we’ve run out of time to halt the climate and wildlife crisis. Hard, in the early hours, not to think of that tide inexorably rising. Not to be frustrated and angry with those that have more power and agency to effect change quickly and emphatically – and do not.
Some of my earliest memories are of my firefighter Dad, returning from long shifts in that hot summer of 1976, dousing wildfires in the New Forest. Of strikes. How the smell of smoke was strangely comforting. How safe he made me feel.
I went recently to see Camp Albion at the Watermill Theatre in my hometown. It’s a play about the Newbury Bypass road protests of the ‘90s, that bitterly divided our town. It’s beautifully written, researched & realised by Danielle Pearson and directed equally well by Georgie Staight. The imagined story is movingly told with grace and humour, and the actors utterly convincing. Hannah Brown, Kate Russell-Smith and Joe Swift played Cassie, Foxglove Sue and Dylan so well, I will keep those characters close to my heart. You see, they were all a bit me, or people I knew. Like several in the audience I suspect, I recognised so much, because I was one of the protestors – and one of the ‘locals’.
I’ve written about that time and what it spurred me on to do, several times over the years – most thoroughly in my book, On Gallows Down. And, as I write this in a record-smashing heatwave, when we’re losing wildlife in an ever-accelerating blur, it feels as urgent now – more so, or course – than it did 26 years ago. And it really was urgent then. On one level (though it’s surprising how quickly this becomes a ‘normal’ state) I’ve lived in a bubble of panic, frustration and anger since. Though, it has to be said, I am also a naturally, cheerfully optimistic ‘Pollyanna.’ I hate confrontation and tend towards co-operation, appeal, humour and compromise. I irritate myself sometimes; but it’s a survival tool, too.
Mostly, I’ve lived with the wounded sense of not having done enough – for nature, for the planet, for the burgeoning sense of an unequal world. I was galvanised – radicalised even; but what did I do with all that? And yet, in that tiny, deeply familiar theatre, I saw, was vindicated and understood. Something good and cathartic happened. My Mum, daughters and husband (who I met during the latter part of the protests, bringing him along on a very unusual and, as it happens, chaotic, early date) saw too.
What really came across was the human story from different sides: the nuances of contradiction and compromise, anger and hilarity, peace and violence, humility, belief, and the tragedies and heroics of the situation we found ourselves in. The hardship, agency and grief.
I walked into Rack Marsh afterwards, outside the theatre (that was right next to the route of the Bypass) and stood, the meadowsweet as high as my head, remembering how we’d fought for that very place with everything we had. With wile, guile and understanding, with passion, fury and energy; with respect and knowledge from our ‘ancestors’ such as the Greenham Women – and from each other.
I went home after the performance, and with some encouragement, dug out my old folder of yellowed clippings, leaflets and letters. With something of a shock, I saw that I had done a lot. I’d pushed myself as far as I could go. I discovered an archive of buried memories. The local Newbury Weekly News paper was an enormous broadsheet, for starters, but here were hand drawn posters, rallies & trespasses, impromptu gigs, peaceful, direct action, ‘Cruise’ watch and telephone tree alert systems, adapted from our Greenham Women. There were typed instructions ‘For Nic, just in case,’ and minutes of meetings where ‘alternative’ names were used and the first ten minutes included a ‘check-the-room-for-bugs and surveillance’ drill. There were months of national newspaper coverage cuttings that I’d witnessed. Been at. Done.
I was directionless for a long time after. A little lost. The ground beneath me had quite literally gone.
To see it all as a set on a stage, in that place, shifted something. I reached back through time to a young woman in her twenties to say, ‘you did okay. You’ll be okay. But you’ll need to dust yourself off, because there is so much more to be done.’
A week has been bookended by Festivals. The first being the inaugural Farming, Food and Literature Festival at FarmED, a not for profit community interest farm, food and education centre in the Cotswold hills, with far-reaching views over the Evenlode valley and the Wychwoods. The festival partners were Chelsea Green Publishing – and several of their authors (including me) were invited to speak in the Library or the Conference Barn. There were farm walks and workshops, panel discussions, interviews and talks, around the varied but intrinsically linked topics of agroforestry, sustainable food production, regenerative farming, land justice, inclusivity and diversity, and wildlife and agroecology. Lunch, pastries and cake (mostly from farm and locally grown produce) at FarmEAT were to die for – and the festival was sold out.
I began the day on a panel, with Chris Smaje (A Small Farm Future) Ben Raskin (The Woodchip Handbook) and Vicki Hird (Rebugging the Planet). Chaired perceptively by Nina Pullman, journalist and editor of Riverford’s (brilliantly named) magazine Wicked Leeks, we were asked to imagine our ideal future. I began with a childhood dream – memories of my much-loved ‘bedroom carpet farm’ of Britains models. But this served to illustrate what, even then, was missing from a nostalgic landscape that probably only really existed in my pony books: primarily, people and wildlife.
The talks that progressed throughout the day were thought-provoking, exciting and challenging – with speakers and organisers self-aware of shortcomings, scope, access and scale; of what needs to change in this world of farming, people and wildlife, so that everyone is included. Discussion was lively, engaged and galvanising and the farm walks, revelatory.
Ian Wilkinson, founder and director, showed us herbal leys and green manure ‘cover crops’, full of clovers, vetches, trefoils and ‘anthelmintic’ sainfoin (a natural wormer) that fix nitrogen, build better soil, improve water catchment, capture carbon and enhance nutrient cycling. The increase in biodiversity was there for all to see, with a spadeful of healthy, ‘clean’ earthy smelling, wriggling soil, and insects and birds all around. FarmED opened just last year. It’s ambitious, connective and quietly revolutionary, a ‘farm as an ecosystem’.
The second festival was ‘Wood Fest’, a family friendly event of music, workshops and nature that runs on 100% renewable energy across 3 days, at Braziers Park in Oxfordshire. We watched bands in the ‘Treebadour Tent’ and sparked ideas and action for nature in ‘Hedgehog’ Hugh Warwick’s Kindling tent. It was always going to be hard, following the brilliant and controversial George Monbiot, but I had a nice crowd and was able to share the stage with both Hugh and his brilliant ‘Trojan Hedgehog’ ideas for positive environmental change, and Helen Beynon, author of Twyford Rising – a book about the first big, modern environmental protests, and a much-admired influential environmentalist of mine.
Both events were incredibly uplifting and hopeful, against the constant, increasing background roar of the biodiversity and climate crisis, when too few people are engaging or acting on the science.
Mid-week, at around 9.45, I looked up from my writing hut keyboard in search of the right phrase – and through the little bow window caught a big, fiery, blue-green ball plummeting across the sky. It moved relatively slowly and I realised, as it came through the low clouds and began to break up into fizzing pieces, that it was a fireball – a meteor that has come through the earth’s atmosphere to land probably in Wales. A misty veil of a tail followed it and hung there for a few, afterburn seconds. It was breathtaking, awe-inspiring, and sobering. It reminded me of both the beauty and fragility of the earth – and the film, Don’t Look Up. We have it in our power to change the trajectory we’re on. We could do it now.
The chimney pot starling is making a fool of me. I keep hearing swallow song – that twittering-buzz that sounds like a whole flock in one creature. I dash out several times, but see nothing. When the song comes from the hedge by the open door of my hut, I realise. A virtuoso starling, a perfect mimic, had ‘recorded’ and was playing back the song on a loop. A reel that incorporated blackbird song, thrush and greenfinch among the reel-to-reel, static, ‘dial-up’ clicks and whirrs of starling ‘song’. I’ve listened to this bird (or generations of him) since my eldest daughter was born and we moved here. She was just seven days old.
I’ve written down what the starling has copied, committed to memory and played back, every spring since. It’s a record of what we’ve gained and lost. This year, Canada goose and heron have been added, but Lapwing has been reduced down to just two peewit notes, the memory of it fading. The birds themselves gone from the village finally about six years ago.
We take the train to Falmouth for a couple of days, on a university recce for my daughter, now nearly 18. It’s exciting to travel so far west and see the landscape unfold from the carriage windows, as Eric Ravilious did, when he painted its downland and chalk horses.
Pewsey and Westbury slide by and the cream chalk fields give way to flat Somerset Levels and the beetroot-red fields of Devon sandstone. We pass a field of pink sheep, folded onto a rosy field of root veg, that have taken up the colour. The fields, tractors and trains we change onto get smaller.
The woods have a greening fuzz and are filled with primroses. There are combes, streams and mudflats and cows coming in for milking. There are embankment rabbits, lone people in fields, galloping horses and rows of coloured houses like geological strata. We sail along the sea’s edge as if we were a ship. The names become a poem, metered by the train’s rhythm: Saltash, Liskeard, Lostwithiel and Par. We change at Truro for Perranwell, Penryn, Penmere.
The town is full of life and community; the university, wonderful, hidden in a Riviera garden of ferns. Every garden, wall and verge is a riot of wildflowers: I botanize out loud. ‘Ivy-leaved toadflax!’ ‘Navelwort!’ Oh look! ‘Three-cornered leek!’ The girls don’t bat an eyelid.
We find the beach and though it is chilly, the girls step in. I am distracted by the seawrack flotsom on the tideline. Small birds are fossicking under the seaweed for sandhoppers. I think of turnstones, but quickly realise they are not: they are very confiding and in their busyness, allow me very close: I am astonished and delighted to find they are pied wagtails. Only last week I had written about their more colourful lemon-bellied cousins, the grey (or water) wagtail in The Guardian. I smile and feel a tug at my heart, some kind of butterfly-fluttering in my stomach: these are the ‘gypsy birds,’ pied as they are, and, as my Romany Grandad would say, the sign of a good stopping place, a home.
I watch my eldest daughter taking in the view that will become her first home away from home. I keep the sighting to myself a moment – and then tell her. We bend for some stones to throw into the sea and say together ‘Oke Romano chiriklo, dikasa e Kalen!’ (See a gypsy bird, soon see a gypsy).
We travel home, not looking back, because we have seen The Future. Out in the gently darkening fields, there are lights like lighthouses, blinking on dry land. Blue shadowed church towers, farm barns.
The following morning, chimney pot starling is reporting in his sequinned gown of oiled, preened feathers. And at last, the swallow’s song comes from one overflying – as well as his throat.
The red horse chestnut, toppled in the last February storm beside the white cottage, is budding and putting out leaves. It keeled over from its roots, snapping most of them, but possibly leaving some in the ground. The root plate is large and the lifted, conical plug, a geological core of layered chalk, flint and orange clay. A pool has formed in the crater. We check the upended roots for treasure. The tree is perhaps 250 years old. Who knows what may have been buried next to it, when it was planted? We find fragments of willow pattern; an old, curlicued fork.
It was planted as an ornamental tree, with another (still standing) in this triangle of remnant parkland. The horse chestnut, a quintessentially ‘English’ tree, with its polished mahogany conker fruits, actually comes from the Balkan Peninsula and was introduced in the late 16th Century. This red variety produces wonderful pink candelabra-blooms, and my growing-up children still know it as the ‘strawberry ice cream tree.’ But unlike the spiky green mine-cases of the more usual white-flowered horse chestnut, or the fiercely hedgehog-spined fruits of the sweet chestnut, this tree’s fruits are strange, dull, olive-green and smooth, plum-sized or pear-shaped.
The tree fell across the footpath, and the thick mass of twigs in its upper crown were quickly chainsawed off, to leave a stacked, neat, airy forest of stationery: white pencil ends along the path. But we are stunned to find that on the formerly lower branches, the fat, sticky, caramel buds that continued to form, have cracked open, and pale, green, rumpled leaves are emerging.
The sap is still rising through this downed tree. Life still coursing through it. The leaves are wrinkled and damp as unfurling butterfly wings, and between them, the cracked, brown beetle-carapace of the bud cases, tacky enough still to stick to an inquisitive finger, are peeling away to reveal what mightyet become the towering flowers; the tiny, mint-green, pyramid-shaped broccoli heads that might become conkers.
Through the trees, the fields are greening up; the sickly yellow sprayed-off stubble has all but gone, but the dramatic memory of how it looked on freshly-drilled cream fields, under a light covering of snow on the last day of March, remains. Blackcaps sing their scratchy, melodic jazz through other trees’ branches.
That this tree effectively died in that storm back in February, but still has enough of a season’s stored response to water, light and warmth, coursing through its cambium, to burst forth into perhaps its last spring like this, fills me with a mix of wonder, triumph – and sorrow. I lay a hand on its smooth, horizontal trunk. Pat it like an old workhorse and all the time, line by remembered line, the poem, The Trees by Philip Larkin comes disordered into my head, rearranges itself, and seems more poignant than ever. The neighbouring wood is due to be felled, fully legally and licensed, just as everything is coming into vibrant life and the birds are nesting. Sometimes, it’s a weight I feel I cannot bear. Not again.
I have always been more than a little haunted by a presence from the rural past; although haunted is perhaps not quite the right word. More a desire to understand where we might come from, where or how we might have gone wrong, and how that might inform where we should go. An explanation and a guide, perhaps. A bassline, a reassurance, a challenge, conscience or certainty, where there is none.
This feeling is there, too, in the presence of absence: an absence of voices, people, events, species – that were so alive once – or perhaps, should have been there and were not. For me, it feels like a kind of reading. A warning; and, somehow, an urgent need for ‘them’ or the landscape itself, to be heard. For your own memories to be reconfigured with distance and hindsight. And also crucially, it is the desire to have some kind of reckoning. A correction, a conversation, a riposte, a protest (sometimes forgiveness, sometimes not) where often, none can be had.
Art is a way of addressing, inviting, or examining this. A daring to look at shadows.
I was delighted to make an exhibition at St Barbe’s Gallery in the New Forest last month, just before it ended. Unsettling Landscapes: The Art of the Eerie, was co-curated by award-winning author (and conjuror, with artist Jackie Morris, of The Lost Words and The Lost Spells) Robert Macfarlane, alongside Exhibitions Curators Steve Marshall and Gill Clarke. I was compelled to go and brought my youngest daughter Rosie, with me. She is 14 and fascinated by art.
The exhibition explored eerie representations of rural landscapes after the First World War to the present. Robert Macfarlane describes the eerie as ‘that form of fear which is felt first as unease then as dread, and it tends to be incited by glimpses and tremors rather than outright attack.’ Different from horror or the ‘gothic’, there is something melancholy and persuasive about it. It draws us in to its story yet simultaneously displaces us. Exploring themes of alienation, agency, ownership and environmental disaster, it was grouped into four overlapping themes, Ancient Landscapes, Unquiet Nature, Absence/ Presence and Atmospheric Effect. Macfarlane notes that eerie art has often flourished at times of crisis, and there was much to identify with here.
The best art exhibitions are those that make connections; popping ideas, instigating slow-flooding realisations and snapping synapses into life. These entwined, wrapped around, barred, lit and vanished, as tantalisingly as the vines and smoke of ‘bedwine’ (or travellers joy) threading up the A34 and back.
Dark, depthless pools, holloways, blasted oaks and gleams of light foregrounded with shadows; figures hinted at and landscapes empty of wildlife or people and abandoned works featured. Tristram Hillier’s 1980 ‘Glastonbury Fen,’ of willows pollarded into raised fists beside an abandoned shovel and coat left on a sinuous path; standing stones, hanging woods and vistas blocked by briars like barbed wire, conspired to make you feel uneasy, uncomfortable, perhaps, whilst at the same time, beckoning you in. Francis Mosley’s illustrations to M R James’ ghost stories sat alongside George Shaw’s paintings of rural or ‘edgeland’ fly-tipped electricity substations, reminiscent of those terrifying public information films of the seventies, in ‘The Danger of Death’; or empty housing estates, painted in Humbrol modelling paint, where, during the Cold War (and now) it seems ‘the end of the world was coming in a matter-of-fact kind of way, like the ice-cream man,’ as we sat in our bedrooms, painting Airfix models, and shepherding our Britains toy farm animals across carpets.
Ingrid Pollard’s beautiful and moving ‘Pastoral Interludes’ from 1988 depict lonely black figures searching for shells in a river or pausing on a hike, uneasily fenced out of a landscape. Her photographs are tinted and hand-coloured like vintage postcards, haunting us all and making a link between the hidden histories of colonial brutality and slavery that helped shape the English countryside, with its country estates and bucolic villages, where ‘black people are only imagined in urban settings and a visit to the countryside is always accompanied by a feeling of unease or dread.’
My daughter, husband and I break for cake in the café, before going back in to see the exhibition one last time. We fizz with thoughts and ideas, each enlightening the other with different perspectives. Each enlightened.
Living where we do, in a tenanted cottage on a country estate bordering three counties, below an Iron Age hill fort, we know the reassuring world of the pastoral idyll doesn’t always exist. But today, we’ve also seen it from other’s viewpoints.
The landscape has much to tell us. Elizabeth Magill explains in her artist’s testament: it incorporates ‘our histories, our fears, our joys. I hint at beauty as a conveyor of hope but also to heighten what I perceive as an imminent and prevailing sense of loss.’ I identify with that. Among the foreboding, foreshadowing, barred ways, deeply troubled past, supressed wilderness and control, is also possibility, beauty and the opportunity to see through the viewfinder of others.
We were devastated to find the exhibition catalogues sold out – but consoled ourselves with the notion that perhaps, this was part of the deal. The landscape’s past and present meaning, somehow remaining just a little out of reach; perhaps, we just hadn’t earned it yet.
The photographs here are my own. Most of them taken before the exhibition; some after. Some, uncannily resembling some of the artworks themselves.
Postscript: My daughters and I are extremely grateful to Robert Macfarlane for sending us a spare copy of the catalogue. It’s an exhibition that will loom large in our memories, give pause and influence our own ideas and creative endeavours to come.
A wild unfurling of snow before Christmas jolts me back years. It provokes memories of working outdoors with horses & cows, in the 80s & 90s. Outdoor clothing wasn’t what it is now, and there were daily battles with chilblains on fingers, toes and thighs.
But I’ve such a hankering for it anyway. Trotting uphill into driving snow, riding one horse and leading another, flakes flying like so many wet stars into your face, mouth and eyes, human and horse heads bowed. And all those snowy mornings, bringing the riding school ponies in, their coats springing out straight from their bodies, trapping an inch–thick layer of air, warmed against skin. And being close to an animal, sharing the warmth: a wet, woollen-gloved hand pushed between a shoulder and a rug, or under a thick mane, sweetly huffed hay-and-apple breath on your cheek. I remember all the necessary tricks, too. A thermos of hot water tipped over the bolts to unfreeze them, and tinfoil wrapped around socked feet to try and keep the heat in.
In the field, the horses are warm, despite white-frosted whiskers. The little whorled stars of hair on their top lips, mumbling snow for the grass underneath.
One of the thatched estate cottages looks pretty as a Christmas card, the farmer long gone out to break ice much earlier than me. I track a fox, three types of deer, rabbit and hare up the Gallows Down before the snow goes. The old long barrow like a ship stilled on the top of its big swell; the gibbet, a mast without sails.
Below, I find more evidence of the mini tornado that came through a couple of weeks ago. An iconic oak at The Manor Farm has been uprooted. Next to a dying ash tree, still standing, it seems particularly cruel. Many other trees were damaged, with substantial boughs ripped off and tops snapped. This tree and its great, gnarly roots have sheltered generations of lambs, as well as a long gone, ancient, tiny farmworkers’ cottage.
Birds flit through its downed crown. And I think, when this tree was a sapling, how many birds there were. The ‘Red List’ of Britain’s most endangered birds increased last week to 70 species, with swift, house martin and greenfinch added. Greenfinch! That stalwart of garden birds, 62% down since 1993 and swifts and house martins, that live among us on our buildings, more than halved.
Our wildlife is in freefall.
Just before the snow melts, a fox leaves its earth, a chestnut streak, like a fallen beech leaf, the white tip on its tail brighter than the snowfield.
The following evening, my youngest daughter and I go out as the sun sets, into the dusky, blackbird ‘pinking hour’, with the birds calling their night-settling chink, pink, pink alarm and the sky flooded slate and apricot.
We lean over the farm gate and watch as a barn owl, like a large white moth, floats over the grassy headland. It settles in a hedgerow tree for a moment, and then comes rowing up the hedge towards us. And keeps coming, the flat saucer of its face searching the grass, broad, rounded wings propelling it on. A few feet away, it turns; so I seize my chance and ‘squeak’ it, making the sound of a prey animal. I get its attention immediately, and it comes right to us, hovering just above our heads. My daughter gasps. We can see every detail: that grey-flecked, heart-shaped satellite-dish face, the thick, feather-furred legs, rounded, angel wings. We are spellbound. Delighted. Then, for good measure, the owl makes a small circuit, and hovers over us again. We are held in that dark, dewpond-eyed gaze, like a pair of bank voles. Satisfied we are nothing to eat, it sculls away up the dark lane, above a bank of mist forming, as if it were oaring along a stream. It passes us 3 more times on the way home, flying alongside at hedge-height, quartering a field; and last, screeching as it flies on. It felt like being taken for a walk by an owl. Our most memorable moments have been spent in nature. When the losses bite, we’ll hold onto that one.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.