Under an Ashen Sky, a Bonfire.
Three consecutive evenings of badly planned fox-watching expeditions with the family were nevertheless evenings well spent. Late spring evenings are very, very seductive and hard to resist: even when I know there is not enough time and heavy rain is imminent.
On top of the hill, it was evident the coming hail storm was going to put paid to an hour sat above an earth on the down; but we’d made it this far. And, as it turned out, I was grateful of the distraction of the ominous grey panorama, stalking the valley below. For two years, a significant pile of needlessly felled hawthorn and whitebeam trees had remained on a gorzey corner of the field. Last year and this, it became the perfect nesting place for several birds. Last week, I’d watched blackbirds, a yellowhammer and two whitethroats enter the pile to feed chicks. Tonight, it was a smouldering pile of sky-coloured ash. What ignorance, what idiocy, or worse, indifference, had decided to make a bonfire out of this nursery and make a funeral pyre for those nestlings? It could not have been committed at a worse time of year.
With the sunset behind it, the threatening sky curdled like orange juice in milk, and, when it put that fire out, built up in roiling layers the colour of bruises. Where a cloudburst had occurred, we watched, awestruck, as the sky came down in giant brushstrokes, obliterating the view with ashy colours, and extinguishing those few lights that had already come on. We tried to judge wind direction and read the strange lumpiness of the uddered clouds above us – and decided we’d be fine.
The air thickened and swirled with anticipation. The blackbirds stopped their richly melodic evensong (tainted tonight, because of the bonfire, with a bitter melancholy) and began their anxious, settling down, ‘pink, pink, pink’. We should have listened.
Earlier that day, I had listened to the birds. I ‘d thought better of hanging the washing out, when I’d seen and heard the twittering spiral of house martins and swallows swooping low on rising flies. Minutes later, the heavens opened. But tonight, giddy with the hour and already too committed, we are reckless.
Out on the open down, there is nowhere to run. The hail sweeps towards us like a great winding sheet, faster than walking pace, pinging off our heads, hands and stinging our faces. But we are skittish as lambs, intoxicated by the mood of an evening that seems to match our frustration at the destruction of those bird’s nests. We run anyway, towards the beech hangar, squealing and laughing.
When we arrive home, dripping, flushed and exhilarated, the blackbirds sing in the last lemon light of the evening and the little owl pair call to each other within the oaks increasing canopy, with such a tender poignancy.