Nature Notes

Fond Hornlight, Wild Hoarlight.

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When the mercury dipped, the frost stayed for days along the field edge under the wood; hoary fingers making a frost shadow, where the sun didn’t penetrate. Sunrise and sunset bookend the shortening days in aurora colours of yellow, orange, blue, green.

In the morning, birds sit on the highest branches that can bear their featherweight, fluffed and warming the minute the sun breaks the horizon. Kestrels’ thrush-speckled breasts uplit in tawny-rosy tints; wrens, robins and dunnocks singing in defiance of the cold night, little puffs of breath purling onto air like curlicues condensing off a morning cup of tea.

In a bank of ratholes, below leafless elders, the occupied holes steamed.

Elsewhere, the romantic, rambling, damson-coloured vines of ‘bedwine’ or Old Man’s Beard is the ‘flower’ of the moment. Wreathing through woods and hedges, I mistake its fluffy seedheads as woodsmoke; close to, the individual misted globes hold twinkling, jewelled drops, like little Victorian gaslamps lit early on a winters evening. Woodbine or wild clematis has many names, but for these few weeks, when we bring it into the house, it is Father Christmas.

Lunchtime, I sit with a book, orientated to the sun and the downs. The sycamore leaves at my feet relax and unfurl from their frosty grip with a ticking and crackling, in the sun’s brief warmth. In the next hour, the sun will dip and the leaves will curl back up in frost that has barely left them.

These evenings, there is not much time, the days at their shortest. I go out, anyway. A little owl yelps from Oldlands Wood. The down is a long, black paper cut-out against a blue and orange sky. To my north, the ancient barn roof echoes the shape of the down and I am reminded of Edward Thomas’s poem The Barn and the Down. Each could be mistaken for the other, ‘until the gable’s precipice proved it impossible’ and were it not for the weathervane on the end of the barn and the gibbet at the end of the down, storing all the black dark within, ‘full to the ridge’.

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Above the barn-down, a fingernail moon hangs like the curved bevelled edge of a clockface, venus swinging below. More biblical and more pagan, come lines beloved from Hopkins’s Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves. ‘Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height’.

A profoundly beautiful mist forms in the combe and there is the frosty courtship call of a fox. Stars are held in the bare-fingered branches of the dying oak and the first of the Geminid meteors fall in slow-dives, in bauble colours. I feel then I do not want for much. Only for things to stay the way they are. This is my realm of magic. The seasons’ change are enough, in all their dappled variousness.

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