Winter Song in a Minor Key
Walking into the south wind in this mildest of New Years is like walking through a warm bath. I am in my shirt sleeves. A mistle thrush is singing from the very top of a larch; its plaintive, melancholy song delivered, my son tells me, in a minor key – which gives it that emotional quality I love: similarly, the robin’s, sung through a closed beak.
The sunrise flared briefly, gloriously, under the lid of low grey cloud, until it rose above it and was lost again for the day. For a while, complex layers of grey cloud move at different rates, presaging another rising wind and the sky is marbled and beautiful, the near-white sun’s metallic gleam, light on dull tin.
In the first hour we see and hear so much: a wisp of snipe, a ‘dread’ of golden plover making shapes in the sky like a murmuration of starlings. A roe doe leaps from the gorze in front and in three accelerating strides, with a clicking of hooves over flints, clears the high wire fence in a soaring arc, basculing like a showjumper. Nearby, unseen but calling, a covey of grey partridge sweetly and distinctively rasp their Latin name Perdix perdix.
That evening, pipistrelle bats went down the hedge as if it were an evening in May. We thought of putting lighter rugs on the horses or taking them off by day. But the pony will roll first in the mud and then in the straw, to thatch himself like a cottage. The mud sucks at our wellies without respite. One frost, that is all. On top of the mud, tiny holly flowers have fallen like the snowflake sprinkles I scattered on the yule log at Christmas to look like snow.
Despite the warmth, we light fires and keep the heating off. When I go out for more logs, a wren makes a brief, bee-like flight on short barred wings to sit in the ivy and tick me off, loudly. It whirs its wings to a clockwork blur, tail cocked and posturing.
The wren is a bird of indomitable spirit, with a song and attitude to punch well above its feather weight. Our almost-tiniest bird, our little winter king, creeps mouse-like, then boldly ignores our presence, as well as the winter, with cheerful defiance. Carol Ann Duffy’s new poem The Wren Boys celebrates a bird ‘more than itself – ten requisite grams of the world’s weight’.
The mistle thrush sings its last phrase and stops. We are missing winter. On the shortest day, the temperature matched the longest. In our 12th New Year in this house, we reminisce snowfall that’s cut us off, and sledging, down the hill towards the Big House. The year’s beginning feels a little like the end of days.