Nature Notes

Freeze-Thaw

In their deeply frozen state, the hill, fields and woods are a blanched, pale, brownish beige. Just before sunset, I spring two woodcock up from beside me. They rock away like dumpy wooden arks, their long, compass needle bills never wavering from the earth they quickly return to. Above me, the peregrine falcon flies a serpentine around the hillfort, before making a straight line for the square, white, BT tower in town, 9 miles away. He probably makes it five. Uplit by the sun, I can see every brilliant detail.

Hard grains of snow have accumulated in hoofprints, bootprints, deerslots and the shallow depressions of leaves. Blown snow collects and illuminates the paths home and away from the badger sett. Its shape, & pad-worn tracks across its own ramparts, echo that of the hill fort above. It’s fringed with the only carpet of snow we get this time: thousands of tiny, pearly, snowdrop streetlamps. They, the snow and the excavated chalk glow with a grainy, midnight, badger-stripe light.

The yard taps are frozen and the working week is spent between carting buckets of water. The ground, so deeply hoof-pock-marked, is difficult (though a respite from the mud) and gates freeze shut, or open. Ice shelves thick as paving slabs are hammered, removed and stacked beside the trough like books; but by the following day, they have grown to breeze block glaciers, then Titanic icebergs.

The buckets in the stables freeze overnight. One evening, I count the little, blurry leafmeal shadows of 16 wrens (tiny birds with the biggest, most defiant voices) going to roost under the wheel arch of a tractor. Huddle up, troglodytes, I think. We need that life-affirming defiance. Each morning, a small flock of birds fly out of each stable: more wrens, robins, pied wagtails.

My daughter breaks the ice gently on her small garden pond, and sees the princely hands and feet of frogs, walking upside down on this new glass ceiling, wanting more air. She makes daily swim holes for them.

I remind her of the wildlife encounters she has had, that, in her younger years, has forgotten. ‘Whether you remember or not’, I tell her, ‘they’re part of who you are’. But I love the privilege of remembering and recounting for her. I’m overcome a little then (a frequent occurrence these days) about all the things young people are missing. The parties, the escapades and shared stories with friends that you repeat then, all your life: a son studying away for a creative industry, utterly stalled.

Back to the buckets again and we slip and slide over the uncertainty of water over ice, ice over water. My oldest daughter catches up with us as we turn into Home Field. Her bike slipped from under her on her way to the stables where she has a weekend job. We sympathise with a saddlebag bruise; thankfully, it is nothing more.

We bend to pick some garden snowdrops for a friend beset by Covid. Coming up at  the same time, we see the barn owl, like a lightly toasted slice of bread, frisbeed over the snow on the field edge.

The thaw comes very slowly: an uneasing of cramped limbs, tensed against the cold. I am doorstepped immediately with a full chaffinch song – before I’ve even heard so much as a prelude: no limbering up, just straight in there like a wild swimmer through freezing water. The first rushing I hear is not meltwater, but the song from a congregation of redwings and fieldfare in the treetops, chattering about moving on and where to wayfare next. Violas in their garden pots stand up again, unbowed.

The yard taps and troughs unfreeze, just as the mains pipe bursts, and the house taps cough, splutter and stop. But we go into practised action. Checking on neighbours, sharing water from those that have it. Shrug it off in our new, stronger community.  

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6 thoughts on “Nature Notes

  1. Wow Nic this was amazing – had several tears – beautifully written and capturing so much of the emotions we are all having currently.

    Bravo and thank you for such a beautiful bit of writing –don’t know how you do it!

    xx

  2. A wonderful glimpse of life high up on the downs, far away from the pestilence – it’s so good to know lots of wildlife is surviving the challenges of winter, and will cherish the memory of the wrens bedding down under the wheel arch! I’m always astonished by the wide variety of birds you see in your area – I’m sure you hate lists but it would be so interesting to know what’s up there.

  3. A stunning piece of writing. Thank you. It’s wonderful that you’re reminding your daughter of her earlier wildlife encounters. Recently I’ve been trying to recall mine from my childhood, with the help of my older sister.

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