Nature Notes

The Light, & the Dying of the Ash Trees.

A poignant, devastating light is falling on the ash trees, illuminating their grey skeletons. The sheer scale of the loss of them, has become obvious and widespread this year.  There are ghosts in the woods.

Chalara ash dieback was officially identified in the UK in 2012. The fungal spores that cause it probably blew in across the channel, although its advance was accelerated by imported, infected nursery stock. The fungus co-exists with its host species of ash tree in East Asia, where the trees have long since evolved to cope.

Ash is our third most abundant tree and most common hedgerow tree. Whole woods will be lost, and the landscape changed forever. The economic cost alone is forecast at £15bn. Our history, culture and human progress is lashed to the ash trees. On an open fire it is the most reliable wood to burn for steady, sustaining warmth; especially if it has the natural firelighters of ‘cramp balls’ or King Alfred’s cake fungus attached. But it is a tree that we will all, most likely, have held in our hands at some point. Strong, flexible and shock-resistant, before steel, it was used to make boats, wheels and ploughs, and all manner of hand held tools, sports equipment and implements – it still is.

High on the downs, where the view stretches full counties, it is suddenly easy to pinpoint swathes of dying trees, like grey smoke drifting from bonfires. Their canopies were noticeably light this year and the black-spotted, curled leaves have fallen early, leaving the trees mid-winter bare. Some still clutch bunches of brown seed keys.

The grey, deeply fissured bark of one great tree, hundreds of years old, bears dark cankers and lesions along its limbs. A squirrel corkscrews up its trunk, like honeysuckle up a blackthorn stick, its tail glitching in a reverse question mark. The shape of the ash is like no other. It falls into a graceful chandelier, the branches and twigs curving upwards in a lilt at their tips. This one still has a few leaves. A breeze riffles lightly along a diseased bough, with the playful lightness of a hand up a sleeve. And right then, the end of the bough falls in front of me, brittle, almost hollow.

Trees start shedding limbs at 50% leaf loss.

Beside it, saplings have sprung up, but their ends appear scorched; browning, curling and dying. On the steep slope, the entire hanging wood is ash. I try to imagine it without them, and can’t.

We stand to lose so much more than the trees.  Ash is a keystone tree. Emily Beardon writes in The Biologist, that 950 species rely on ash trees.

This national, natural disaster is creeping up on us and the thought almost prostrates me with grief. I love the lamp black buds like tiny deer’s feet on the smooth grey twigs; I love the zingy green and copper fireworks of the flowers in spring, the airy, open trellis of the branches, the dappling of the little fish leaves. The filtering light of them.

But in nature, and in our human ingenuity and will, there is always hope. We can expect to lose around 80% of our ash trees, but not all. Much research is being done to find, map and breed from disease resistant trees. Our World Tree, our Tree of Life is dying. But still yet, there is hope of new shoots.

Nature Notes

Fallow Bucks, Chalk Scree.

I haven’t been able to put my fieldcraft into action much in recent weeks. But I’m making up for it now. I’m off to the gap on the downs that lies between two blocks of woodland – where there are fallow deer.

The high slope falls away steeply with far-reaching views of autumnal farmland. At what must be an almost 45 degree angle in places, the hill is treacherous to walk down. Close to the fence, it’s a skid over chalk scree nuggets that roll underfoot like acorns. On the open down, thick, fragrant grassland helps both the staying up, and the falling.

On one side the wood is mostly derelict coppice, with the hazel trees yellowing into fans. I can imagine the coppicers both dreading and relishing the challenge of this wood. How the lactic acid in their calf muscles must have burned, how they’d have laughed at each others’ falls, and how injuries from a slip with a billhook or saw in hand would have almost been inevitable.

At intervals, there are tracks where the deer move from one wood to the next, and leap the waist-high fence. The splayed double brackets of their hooves, and the imprint of their fetlock spurs, or ‘ergots’ are some three metres from the fence and proof of the height they’ve jumped, and the weight of the animals. I imagine them like steeplechasers.

Horseshoes of earth on the down have been excavated from grassy anthill tumps by partridges and pheasants, to get at the ants and dust bathe. Some of these have been pawed at and enlarged by the bucks. There are droppings, or ‘crotties’ and not only hoofprints: there are knee prints where the animal has knelt, and dents and slices where it has thrashed in testosterone surges at the turf and grass with its antlers.

At the foot of the wood, the light filters through a wild cathedral of tall beeches where the bucks’ rutting stands are. Their fading lemon-green leaves are like a brief whiff of spring, before the caramel fire of them is revealed. A strong smell of ammonia reaches me, where the bucks have made their rutting wallows and rolled.

Then a small herd breaks cover from some hawthorn behind me. They cross the gap at a canter, long legs like thoroughbreds, hocks working hard in the long, tussocky grass. A dark chocolate buck leads a harem of three, chestnut-spotted does. He carries his head high, on a level plane with his spine, to manage the heavy, thorny crown of palmate antlers lying along his back. The four duck beneath the laddered platform of a shooting high seat, and jump the fence into the opposite wood. I wonder how the buck does it with his head held so high, but the last I see of them is a dark, upside-down horseshoe on each white rump, kicking up and over the fence like one clean set of heels.  

Time is up for me today, but as I climb to leave, in the woods that are below me again, there is the gutteral, repeated, belchy sound of a buck and then, unmistakably, in the still air, the clash of antlers, like wood knocking on wood.   

Nature Notes

The University of Craneflies.

The fast, busy pace of life seems to have returned, when I was determined not to let it. I wanted to keep some of the lockdown simplicity; the time to notice and not let time run on so quickly, like grain through my fingers. Yet, before we know it, we are packing the car full of my son’s things for University – relieved we can get him there at all.

It is an idyllic place to study – and the excitement of all those bright, young, hopeful souls, finally released (albeit, only a little) into their future is palpable. There is a lake with resident kingfishers and traveling otters, a walled garden and, although my son shakes his head wryly, as we bump over an all-too-familiar cattle grid and are held up by the shepherd moving his sheep (as we were when we left home) I know he’ll love it. And a city full of urban edginess, culture, diversity and opportunity is only a short bus ride away. 

Back home, I find connections that link us. The winter gulls that fly home to roost each night, lifting the sunset from the west country on their wings, follow The Wansdyke. An ancient path and boundary that sits under our home hill – and his new one. If he needed to, he’d have no trouble walking it home.  The last, late wasps riot inside an apple left on the tree. It buzzes softly with the bass of his guitar and amp, that no longer reveberates through the house.

But the insects of the moment are craneflies, their summer’s-end appearance, gold-lit by the post-harvest sun, as predictable as that of house spiders.

They are strangely beautiful, with something of the sad carnival elephant in their ponderous framework. They feel their way uncertainly, abseiling walls as if they are trying to push off into the wider airspace without succeeding, sailing their six, difficult, tentpole legs on inadequate, gauzy wings.

I have so much writing to do and they come to the light of the laptop, late at night, reaching out like weak swimmers for its flat, blue, swimming-pool screen. And they buzz and knock against the lampshade when I am making notes. When they brush my cheek in the darkened bedroom (light as a child’s breath on your face before waking) they are not unwelcome.

In the morning, the brevity of their lives is evident, wrapped in the inverted tents of spider webs, like blown over, collapsed marquees. Their basket of legs are folded in neatly, like a prayer to a job done, like the filament of a lightbulb at the centre of the gauzy cradles. Discarded wings and legs lie on the window ledge like sentences edited out. Some kind of cutting room floor.

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He texts to ask about cooking pasta, recommends some new bands, tells me about new mates, ends with the spotting of a barn owl and the words, ‘it’s cranefly season, Mum!’ He notices.

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Nature Notes

There is a Little of Spring in Autumn.

On the last day of the strangest school holidays ever, the oats are being brought in from Home Field. Across the lane, fields of late-grown seed hay are being tedded; turned, woofed, floofed and dried before being teddered again into windrows and baled. The warm, biscuity scent from the thick, strewn mattress of grass mingles with the smell of ivy flowers. It’s at once fresh & nostalgic, like spring in autumn.

I’ve been reading about a woman who farmed these fields in the 1940s and took the almost derelict Manor Farm from horse to tractor power. It was necessary, gruelling work, with little manpower, no running water, sanitation or electricity – but plenty of support and camaraderie. The effort it took getting the reaper binder to work or the threshing machine and its eight human attendants to the fields is humbling.

I am beguiled & haunted by past, indomitable, local women farmers at the moment. In the historical section of my local paper, was a latterday Bathsheba Everdene; a lone woman selling her harvest in The Corn Exchange, in 1920, resplendent & remarked upon, not for her corn, but her smock & her billycock hat. And then there is Honor Atkins of Enborne, Miss Mason and Miss de Beaumont of Shalbourne and Miss Boston & Miss Hargreaves of Starlight Farm, Lambourn (immortalised in Rachel Malik’s brilliant book.)

A young buzzard quarters the field, mewing and picked on by jackdaws until it learns, with feints, foils and baffles, to shake them off. There is a flattened straw, shellac gleam from the underside of its wings, a flash of mother-of-pearl.

A feather from its parent lies along some sort of dividing line between the wilder land & the farmed. The buzzard that moulted this feather makes no such distinction. Owns none of it, belongs to it all. She raised her fledglings through lockdown in the usual nest, near the eye-gap in the canopy of Nightingales Wood.

From there, a reverb, an echo of March: a little over-the-shoulder reprise of spring amongst the autumn clatter of farm machinery and acorns falling through branches. There is always the last breath of spring in autumn somehow. A willow warbler subsong drops in to my consciousness, as if I’d forgotten its daily musicality already; all the notes, softer and in mild, self-conscious disarray: an after-party lilt, the punchline of the last joke told, repeated to itself, a little tired now, heading inexorably home through the country, south. 

And then in the strange, grey, heavy weather, I hear the sudden clarity of the village church bells; only ever heard faintly here, but unmistakeable, they grow loud and pass in a pocket of air, travelling as if in a bubble blown from a bubble wand. As if an ice cream van has gone by. What strange alchemy is this?

Later, a warm whisk of a wind blows chaff dust through the open door of my hut. I am wearing a crown of craneflies that are reading my face and laptop screen like braille, with their tentpole legs & long, sad, horse faces. It should be Harvest Festival time. Newbury Agricultural Show time. All is out of kilter.

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Nature Notes

The Barley Bird and the Comet.

Out on the Marlborough Downs, there was a song I’d strained to hear at home. It remained a possibility there, a trace echo in the white noise of grasshoppers or the tinnitus of distant meadow pipits; but here, this funny little key farmland bird was real and singing, and stole my heart.

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The song of the corn bunting is subtle. Described as the jangling of keys, it sounds more like very small change jingled in a pocket, or perhaps the distant tinkling of an arcade machine quietly dispensing a small win. It is a dumpy bunting; streaky brown, with a fluttering flight often made with its legs dangling. It looks too heavy to do so, but this ‘little fat bird of the barley’ is perched on an ear of wheat.

In a hawthorn along The Ridgeway, I spot one singing. Farmers have worked brilliantly together here to include habitat for wildlife. In this one tree a yellowhammer pauses with a beak full of moth, three goldfinches alight and a pair of tree sparrows sit together. To my delight, the corn bunting throws back its head, seems to unhinge the lower mandible of its chunky, triangular bill and spills out a silver coinage of song.

Their song accompanies us all the way from Hackpen White Horse (that looks more like a trotting fox) to the Iron Age Hill Fort of Barbary Castle.

This is the land of the horse and in the middle of the gallops below they are preparing for a two-day event. Hoofprints cut chalk half-moons into the springy, shallow turf entrance to the hill fort and the giant caterpillars of beech hangars bristle like point to point fences. Great waves of chalk swell like a pelagic ocean stilled in time, permanently poised to break over the view.

The bottoms of the deep, dry, double ditches of the ramparts are starry with flowers. A map of the Milky Way embroidered in thyme, scabious, knapweed, golden Lady’s bedstraw, harebells and viper’s bugloss.

Lime-green wild parsnip towers above the perfect domed umbels of wild carrot. The loveliest of the umbellifers, the stems and bowls of those yet to open form stiff-lace wineglasses filled with a starry blush fizz.

Later, below the Hill Fort at home, we walk out in dressing gowns and wellies to spot the comet, Neowise; the path through the silvery oats, a dark crack in the earth.

The comet looks paused in action above us, the bright core of it smudged with the flourish of a thumb. It is a comet you might have drawn, aged twelve. We binocularize it, and the pale cloud of the Milky Way into uncountable stars and I think about the floriferous bottom of the hill fort’s double ditches. We spot an iridium flare, satellites, a faint shooting star and return to find, now our eyes are night-adjusted, that we could see the comet from the garden – or even, the landing window. It is pouring itself like a firework down the chimney pot, its great white mare’s tail fanned out behind.

Just visible, under our feet on the garden path, my daughter has made beautiful doodles from chalk she has gleaned, crushed and coloured from the spoil of the badger sett. I think of the marks we make, to record that we were here – from white chalk horses, to chalked animals to the marks on a page recording birdsong. At this moment, we feel very small, yet more in this place than we’ve ever felt before: coin-notes dropped from the corn buntings’ song perhaps. Or, as Seamus Heaney would have it, “I was there. Me in place and the place in me’.

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Nature Notes

An Old Man of the Woods, and a Hare at Foot.

Over the ridgeline of the barn roof, there is a confetti-cannon burst of house martins, that twinkle against a stormy, swallow-back, woodpigeon sky before dispersing like the Red Arrows. My neighbour’s birds have fledged.

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The horses have a new field to graze, and as we let them go, eyes popping with incredulity at the grass, a family of greenfinches fledge from the hedge above the big dipper of the old mare’s back. The chicks call loudly to their parents and one lands on the rolling combe of the horse’s spine, just below her withers. Down, barn roof, hedge and horse’s back align like layers of a painted landscape in a viewfinder. The baby greenfinch seems incongruously large; its smart, new, bright yellow wing flashes fluttering. Disease has hit greenfinches hard in recent years, but they seem to have made a small, hopeful comeback and this spring has been full of their nasal, unmusical but welcome schhhneeeews.

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The horses wander into the meadow grass and I spot beneath it, a sward of bedstraws and vetches, yellow rattle, self-heal and centaury. I know I’m going to enjoy this as much as they are. 

Centaury

Later, heavy weather and a porridgey sky lend a strange atmosphere to my walk past old and silent farmsteads and fields blushed with poppies.

The scent from wild privet infuses the air with a dense perfume and bramble and dewberry briars ladder and wet my bare legs.  I have been reading and writing about the rural past, and counting hedgerow species to work out the ages of hedges (using Hooper’s method of 1970).

Dewberry

I am lost in thoughts when I come across something strange on the path ahead. The dog stops, hackles up, one paw raised and head lowered. Growls. Whatever it is, it doesn’t do anything. She skips round it nervously and carries on, tail up and waving like a flag. The ‘thing’ seems to be covered in feathers, is cryptically marked and squats like an ill hen pheasant, fluffed up. Or a headless tawny owl.  I am slightly spooked and touch it gently with a finger. It wobbles on a pale foot like a fairground gonk from the 1970s. It is a toadstool: large, ‘feathered’ and unlike anything I’ve seen.  A recourse to twitter reveals it to be ‘old man of the woods’ fungi. It is aptly named.

Old Man of the Woods Fungi. Perhaps …

Out on the open and usually unpeopled downs, I keep below the ridgeline. It’s busy with people and thumping bass from cars with their headlights on full beam as the sun sets. The poppy fields lie like picnic blankets below and I think about the news, and the newts beginning to stir in Kintbury’s ponds down there; all counted in a precious meadow, saved from development. I drop lower to find the old quiet. There is a new moon above a semaphore of hawthorn.  

A hare comes towards me out of nowhere, slowing hesitantly as if the big cogs of her clockwork haunches are powering down. She stops right on my boot, flattens her long ears and I can see my shape reflected in her nearside, kohl rimmed, amber eye. I look up to stay the dog with my hand, but when I look back down, the hare has gone. I never felt the weight of her lift.

Nature Notes

Vessel of Song.

Spring walks into summer and, confined to our very small radiuses, it feels like we are walking with it; noticing some advancement or small incremental change each day. We delve and settle deeper. On the longest day, the song thrush that has been singing as long as the daylight lasts, every day since the days began lengthening from the Winter Solstice, right through to the Summer one, has barely stopped. He has been putting in longer and longer hours, with rarely a pause, with his sweet, rich, loud and carrying voice. Since March, I feel I have heard every note uttered. Today, he has sung from 4.30 until 10.23, just 6 too-dark minutes shy of 18hrs.

There is a baby thrush outside my writing hut. It has some of its adult bouncing confidence as it hops across the grass, but is a little slow to scurry under the hedge when a door bangs, or the shadow of a buzzard passes over. It still has a bright yellow gape, some tufty head feathers and a short stubby tail. But its golden spotted breast is all thrush, and when it pauses, head cocked to one side at something I have not seen, I am filled with such a tender feeling for this little, feathered, syrup jar of sustained and liquid song. A vase full of mid-winter carolling, that will begin on our shortest day and carry through and beyond our longest.

I get a call from a neighbour. Thousands of tiny frogs are on migration, set off by the rain. ‘They’re no bigger than a blue bottle and are going like soldiers across the road’ he says. We go to see, and it is exactly so. The wet tarmac that divides the big lake from a wood of wet logs, leaves and sanctuary is seething with tiny frogs, no bigger than my little fingernail.

The migration continues into the following day when there is a thunderstorm. House martins and swallows swoop low before it, hawking insects rising before the rain. They are joined by a sudden emergence of exotic-looking scarlet and garden tiger moths, their cream spotted wings flared to reveal flamenco underwings against the slate sky.

Down the grassy tracks, there are orchids, wild privet blossom, singing blackbirds and sparrows dust-bathing in family groups. Another song thrush. I think of Thomas Hardy’s birds singing ‘as if all time were theirs’ and when they were nothing, a few months ago, but ‘particles of grain, and earth, and air, and rain’.

On the vergeside, teasels spike the air, carding the wool of the clouds with promises of chinking goldfinch currency, late summer. I rattle that thought around like loose change jangling in my pocket. 

Nature Notes

Proceed, With Caution.

I’ve never seen such a volume and variety of fledgling birds coming to the bird feeders. It’s a joyous and engaging daily drama – and an expensive one.

There could be many reasons for their being so many, if, indeed there are; we are spending much more time watching and feeding them; it’s been an exceptionally warm spring (though of course, this may have worked to their detriment too) and our birds are relying more on gardens, as their natural food (‘weed’ seeds and insects) diminishes. 

It’s a growing responsibility.  A wire on the peanut feeder came loose and couldn’t be repaired: birds could pull whole nuts out and might feed them to chicks (potentially choking them). So I got out an old ‘cage-style’ peanut feeder – but then the great spotted woodpecker arrived with two freshly red-capped chicks – and couldn’t get to them. I ordered a new one. In the meantime, seven tiny, lemon yellow  blue tits took up a permanent position on the inside of the peanut cage. We watched it slowly rotate like a toddler’s roundabout. The parents stopped feeding them, just at the point when my supplies threatened to run out.

I was concerned, too, that the blue tits hadn’t much sense of fear; especially when I had to nudge one off with a finger, in order to refill it.

They were joined by greenfinch, great tit and sparrow chicks, two very sweet coal tit chicks, a nuthatch fledgling (its dagger bill finally prompting a sense of danger from the blue tit sibling band). Queues formed in the roses that frame the window: wren, blackbird and song thrush chicks, and there was an eight-starling party in the birdbath.

I caught the moment another blue tit family fledged from a vertical ‘letterbox’ slot in a hazel tree along the lane, as they had done last year. At first, the chicks, jammed in one on top of the other, made me think of our rather cramped, lockdown home: and then, as they tumbled out, I felt an unexpected wave of emotion and concern. One bold chick flew down to the road and I had to flag down a tractor, Railway Children style, and help it to safety; others tumbled out and clung on to the ivy, trying to climb back in to the safety of the nest, which, moments ago, must have felt like a prison.

They seemed so vulnerable then.

Our eldest daughter has just turned 16. We moved here two days after she was born, trundling our things a handful of miles along the downs. I remember feeling disorientated and afraid of going out, with the shock of it. That feeling has returned a little. My son is off out in his car again, travelling further distances when, for the last twelve weeks, he’s been home, ‘safe’ under the same roof.

I thought we’d lost the blue tit tree in February’s long ago storms. And I feel hyper aware of all the wildlife homes lost with every indifferent strim, unconsidered hedge trim, or wholesale mowing or spraying; it makes me unsure of the ground I’m stood on.  

And it’s a familiar sense of insecurity that floods me with anxiety at times. Of not owning anything much; least of all a home. There are sharp reminders every now and then, lest you get complacent, that you are not in control.

We must all begin to go, of course, back out into the world. To proceed with caution and a new gratitude.   

Nature Notes.

A Tender Key of Place.

We walk into the drying, sheep-scented wind and down the sheltered hollow lane. Light puddles on the dust and passing tractors mill the chalky mud-crust into a gritty flour. A pink, white and blue tangle of campion, stitchwort, bugle and speedwell thicken banks more than twice my height – something any gardener at Chelsea would be proud of. But I can’t help thinking that a mower will come to fell it all, oblivious. And it being full of fledgling birds from the trees above.

The colours, sounds and scents make for strong, sensory mnemonics: childhood’s sunlit lanes, allotments, jam jar fishes, tadpoles in the tiny paddling pools of cattle hoof marks by the river’s edge. A patch of ramsons takes me back just a few springs, when I watched a badger roll in the thick flowers, then scrumple up bundles in its forepaws, to hump backwards, pressed to its belly, all the way back to its sett for flea repellent bedding. The smell of wild garlic has become that memory.

Out in the wind, the lambs are bedded down in the dusty, raised stalls between the root-toes of a big oak, or are lying sheltered, on the woolly leaward side of their warm mothers. We turn up the hill, my husband walking backwards, recklessly eating a sherbet dibdab. The wind polishes the newly toughened and lacquered beech leaves to a racing green gloss, bows the bridal remnants of cow parsley and lowers nettle spears like weapons at my bare shins.

A deep-wine, blackcurrent-cordial light filters through the leaves of a copper beech, turning my dress and walking boots sepia. Beechnut mast hangs like grapes; or fat, prickly bullace-plums. I wonder at the colour of the plush, velvet lining inside, cushioning the three-corned nuts within.

 Walking horizontally along the broad, steep stretch of the open down, my right boot catches on my heel, so I pull them both off and walk barefoot, wary of thistles,  relishing the softness of the wild herbs and catching spent cowslip keys between my toes. We come across a hare’s empty form in the grass and spot its shape hurtling uphill like a cloud shadow. I put my foot into the impression it has left in the grass. It’s too big for a perfect fit, but it’s still warm. 

The following morning the jackdaws fledge their chimney pot nest. I wake with them at five and am out the house by 5.30. Woodpigeons call in a continuous round of many voices from the wood and I listen hard, thinking I can pick out a turtle dove’s turr, turr purring from their massed choir. But I can’t be sure. It is a bird I so want to hear, I think my senses are too primed.

The barn owl is sat on the edge of its nesthole, biscuit backed, the sunrise warming its white-blossom breast to an apricot apron. His night of hunting done, he watches me from his wide plate of a face, spreckled in dandelion clock seed around its rim. He seems mythic. I glance down briefly and he is gone; into the lacy garden next door, and up over the washing line.

I walk out into the blinding brightness of things, aware of such a tender key to this place.

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Nature Notes.

A Change, Felt.

The emotional rollercoaster we are all riding, has its calm spots. There is much about ‘the new normal’ I am at ease with: home, family, staying local. So much so, I wonder if I haven’t got off the rollercoaster entirely somedays and found a quiet field somewhere, behind a gate and through a wood. I am in a fortunate position, and self-isolation comes naturally to me. But of course, there are many things, people and places that I miss very much and this situation, fringed and feathered with real anxiety and fear, is neither normal nor sustainable. But then neither is what went before. That has been thrown into sharp relief.

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Dropping off a prescription to Mum, my hand on the gate latch, something like a dark jewel glinted in the cherry hedge; at eye level, close enough for her to feel my breath on her back, a hen blackbird’s eye caught mine. Sat tight to her beautifully made mud-cup nest, like the lid on a pot, I recognised something of her anxiety. Stay put. Sit tight. Stay home, don’t move. I snuck a sideways glance at the details of her nest; a half-inch thick deep bowl, lined with woodpigeon feathers. Then averted my gaze and moved through the gate. If you act like a predator, you will be perceived as one. She did not move.

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On the way home, we stop to chat to friends, falling naturally into a socially distanced quadrant, as if we are about to begin a country dance. While we are talking, I hear a wave of alarm from the birds around us – the piping shrill of a blackbird, the alarm of swallows, and feel a slight disturbance, half-imagined, of the air. The frisson of a sparrowhawk passing through. 

Similarly, the weather changes like that, with a surprise, as surely if someone reached out to pat my arm with cold fingers. Though I know it is coming, the first hint I get is when a finger of wind touches my forearm, alerting me to a hole in the newly leafy hedge. On investigation, I discover a small thoroughfare for muntjac deer, fox and badger. And just like that, the new green blades of corn, just high enough to show wind direction, tremble begin their running-pelt wave towards the south west. 

The cow parsley is lacing the frothy edge of hawthorn in blossom, and down a newly tarmacked piece of lane, the chalky prints of a badger’s evening activities are recorded. 

I feel like I’ve shed a layer of skin; everything is so sensitive, so connected, so urgent and enduring; comforting and vulnerable. As we begin to make our first, tentative, anxious steps out of this, we must find ways to live lighter and better, Kinder, more generously, more aware of all our neighbours, of inequalities, wild or human. I do not traditionally like change, but, as I read in I Am An Island by Tamsin Calidas recently (a book for our times) tradition can be ‘a wearisome, coercive thing.’ The planet is our next disaster. In fact, it’s a current, ongoing disaster that we ignore at our peril. We must make a new contract with nature, and there will be a cost.  But we have shown we can change, adjust, accommodate and reach out, and we can put all we have learnt and been through to good use, beyond the controlling of this virus. 

Something wakes me in the night and I lean out of the window. Under a moon so bright in a night so clear, woodpigeons are calling a soothing lullaby. I wish I could show you how deep the moonshadow is, of the wood below the down. It is profoundly dark; a mirror image pool of spread ink. An upside-down cumulous of black cloud. So dark, if I went out, I might be inclined to walk on the diamond-bright field of flints and moon-rubble chalk, and circumscribe its unfathomable depth.