Nature Notes

The darkness, being double the light.

Between sunrise and sunset there are precious few hours now. The dark is double theIMG_2642 available light. And in December there are other pressures so, for a while, I am indoors, or dashing about more than I would like to be. The stolen hours out become ever more intoxicating, increasingly necessary. And I love the chance to watch the sun come up. In the darkest part of the year, I play at being a lark, rather than the owl I feel I truly am.

But here is an owl out by day, just before the afternoon school run. On the big west bank of Summer Hill, it is undoubtedly winter. We walk through difficult, tussocky grasses, tangled with volunteer knee-high oaks and thorns. The owl explodes from the grass at our feet and I am at once elated that we’ve seen it IMG_2536and dismayed I didn’t spot it before. Pale as the grass with striated, cryptic feathers it rows away on long, thin, stiff oars, light and buoyant. There is a flash of a kohl-rimmed eye like the sun in eclipse: Asio flammeus. Black wingtips and half-moon wrist marks bracket the short eared owl’s body and it clears the wood and the down, heading for a stand of conifers. At our
feet, a flattened patch like the form of a hare. We notice several. Others are beaded with moisture, but this one, this one is dry of dew where the owl’s feathers soaked it up. The grass is still warm.

Another day, I search for a long eared owl I had missed, but instead, a fox bursts from IMG_2645the wood, scattering pheasants around me. His eyes are the colour of beech leaves. He weaves through papery flags of maize and bolts across the field, skittering dry flints over wet chalk, chestnut fur burning, white brush-tip bobbing and disappears over the horizon. Seconds later, like a bomb going off, a wisp of distant birds goes up like smoke.

On the day friends visit, I take them up the hill in the storm. The solid oak gibbet on its IMG_2648long barrow gives us something to aim for, but we are almost blown off our feet with frightening force. My friend leans, laughing at a crazy angle into the wind and I fling my arms around the gibbet and hold on. It is like a powerful magnet with its story that I tell, shouting above the tempest. It soars like a ship’s mast, the clouds whipping by so fast, it seems the rain can barely fall and is sent on its terrible way north. The landscape seems to move and heave, rising and falling like the sea. My friend, who has the sea-longing in her, is comforted.

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