Nature Notes

Wild Crocuses and Stubble Turnips.

Blue skies flick a switch for spring. Bats and brimstone butterflies break hibernation, midges rise and fall in columns, blackbirds grow territorial and sparrows toy with (and squabble over) nesting material.

The mud crusts and dries in ridges and tiny, young nettle and goosegrass leaves make a green flush under the flattened, whitened sticks of last years dried and hollow stems, among the melting last of the snowdrops.

How quickly we turn our faces to spring. Winter has its own pleasures, consolations, comforts and wonders, but it’s been a mighty long one and may not be over yet. 

The sheep have been turned onto the stubble turnips and fodder radish. With the green tops eaten off, the part-munched root vegetables look like deflated footballs on a muddy pitch. The scent of lanolin from wool and heated bodies, rises, and mingles with the green smell of dung.

The broad arc of the downs are still pale, but in the strong sunlight, every soil roll, combe, flint trap, sheep path, badger track and anthill is picked out in dramatically shaded detail. This is when the hill seems to have rolled itself closer; moving and retreating like the old sea it once was.

Singing blackbirds are now uncountable among the song and mistle thrushes, stationed further apart, and kites whinny, building their nests. Late afternoons, a female tawny owl begins a soft, warbling to her mate; sometimes calling in the day, I wonder if she is already sitting on eggs?

The crocuses are up in the seven-acre sloping village meadow. This small nature reserve, bisected by the spring-fed Ingle Brook, is protected for its unimproved old pasture and related flora – and not for the mystery of its Mediterranean crocuses. But they are the real draw at this time of year.

The colour pops from more than 400,000 mauve-and-yellow blooms in the greeny-grey, still sleepy sward. Britain’s largest wild display of spring crocuses even gets a mention in Richard Mabey’s seminal Flora Britannica (1996).

The corms are a puzzle and delight. But, given local historical association, and according to local lore, it seems more likely they were brought home by returning 12th-Century Crusaders of the Knights Templar (as saffron) than being 200yr old garden escapees from what was then a poor, remote and rural settlement on the brink of rioting under the name of Captain Swing. Far, perhaps, from the idea of the Mediterranean.    

Purple crocuses also spread across the lawn of The Big House; of our Landlady. The house was built around 1730, although it is not known how long the crocuses have been there – whether they are a modern (ish) or far older nod to the ‘Crusader’ field in the village.

The crocuses bring former residents back and it is a good time to clarify old stories and learn new ones, the social distances of years, and the lane – or a span of starry crocuses – between us. These visits always, without question, culminate in a trip up and over the big hill, which binds us all to this place.

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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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Nature Notes

Rime Frost, Hoar Frost, Thaw: How to Fall into Narnia.

We have been held in the hug of a cold white fog for days now. Becalmed, anaesthetised at the white-blank windows. Like the uncertainty of sleet, fog is the weather of the moment. Shifty, unsure, blanketing, blurring, keeping us home. Out in it, we move as if in a dream. Friends materialize out of the mist, new birds are heard, but not seen. We climb above sudden vistas.

The sun pours through and the fog dissipates, revealing a magnificent rime frost. Rough ice needles have formed and thickened as super-cooled droplets have frozen on contact with everything, as the fog has drifted past. There is an almost instant freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw that the great tits chime along to, as the sun reaches places in patches. Ice tinkles and clinks down, so that we walk through a strange snowstorm under each tree.

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Rinsed and relieved of their burden, the conifers give off a fresh Christmas scent. The lane is pooled with white crystals and the falling ice becomes a waterfall-roar in the wood. The liquid, dripping notes from a persistent nuthatch seems to increase the flow of ice into meltwater, like the yard tap thawing into a metal pail.

There is a heavy weather alchemy on the hill. Though walkers coming down the hill tell us the southern slope is completely green and frost free, we walk through scarves and skeins of fog, wreathing and looping like a wraith.

The grass tops and scabious seedheads are frosted and rose hips and haws are outlined in ice as if by some thick, white, magic marker.

But the kaleidoscopic effect of the freezing fog’s touch on the scrub is most mesmerising; a lesson on How to Fall into Narnia. Whisked around by a hill wind, the hawthorn & gorze have whipped an egg-white fog into a meringue brittleness, creating a blurry, hypnotic and dizzying effect with the thick rime frost. It proves impossible to focus on.

But as quick as we can marvel at it, it is shed before our very eyes. The sun sparkles and warms it so that cold needles and shards tinkle and fall like opaque glass. The fog moves off like a loosed chiffon scarf down the valley.

The hill greens behind us. But by the time we get to the bottom, the fog is beginning to roll in again. Each thorn tree on the down wears half a side of white ice-blossom and a fallen petticoat of white ice-petals beneath it, uplighting the bare branches like anti-shadows. There has been an unblossoming of cold-flowers. As we look back, a single, clear, ice-glazed goblet of a hogweed head remains, half full. Mentally, we hold it up to the light and the hill and take a long drink.

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Nature Notes

Sleeting.

The snow begins to fall at daybreak and continues sporadically throughout the day. For the first two hours it comes down fast and settles thickly, then turns to sleet, then rain, then back to snow. The woods provide a brown-screen backdrop for varieties of wintry precipitation in a moving panorama: snow in small hard grains; gritty rain, seeded with ice, foggy drizzle, then snow in beautiful feathery flakes, falling like down from a burst pillow. The lanes are treacherous with ice over running water, or water over ice in unexpected patches.

Leading the horses down the lane to their field is a hazardous adventure.

There is a flurry of activity on the birdfeeders, and all the while, far-scattered and far-carrying, the carolling of mistle thrushes with their bone-cold bleak-edged singing. Song thrushes were gaining confidence too, with their warmer, short-repeated phrases – and this year, we give them new mantras to sing along to: Stay safe, stay home! Wear a mask! Wear a mask! Wash your hands, wash your hands …

Sleet and slush are not the most romantic subjects to write about. But each creates its own emotional weather with us, existing as the balance point on the see-saw between the excitement of snow and the disappointment of rain – depending on your situation, outlook and what needs to be done. Sleet can induce feelings of hope, frustration, anxiety and a certain weariness; it is a weather for this long moment in time. What will happen? School or no school? Then, when that is answered, when we will see friends? Parents? Go dancing? Sleet is an unpredictable wobble on the barometer of uncertainty. A weather roulette.

Yet it has its own character, intrigue & beauty. There is a stippled, dappled thick inch of it, salting the farmyard like fish scales.

Two degrees colder, the hill above remains white for nearly three days in its elevated position, whilst those around it remain green. A big holly tree at the snowline seems to play doorman to this other, loftier, icy world. Though intriguingly, the long barrow on the ridge remains snow free.

People have come to sledge on the frozen crust of snow and their shrieks and voices drift down.

I find quieter routes and visit a favourite spot; the ‘antlebump tumps’ of ancient meadow anthills – the living, insulated, turfed & wild-thymed ant castles on the northern slopes.  It is possible to get down the whole hillside using them as stepping stones. Sheep, hares & even short eared owls or small coveys of grey partridge use them as shelter or pillows, as we do (when they are warm with fragrant wild herbs in summer).

Today, sprinkled with remnant snow, they looked like a factory of unsold Christmas puddings. Or a village for the little folk. Or a model of the village that used to exist within the hillfort. Several even had tiny pouting, puffing fungi on top, like smoking chimneys. I love their solid, certain, endurance. Their resilience. The weather app on my phone that forecast snow an hour ago, has once again, turned to rain.

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Nature Notes

A burr, pulled from a fleece.

The iced planets of burdock looked like beautiful renditions of the spike-celled images that have haunted us all year. We squeeze past these plants at least twice daily, & carry their prickly mines around with us all winter, tenderly pulling them off one another’s clothes in brief moments of Velcro silence: pinched burr-planets of nuanced smiles, gentle rue, love, tenderness and disappointment.

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Outdoors takes us out of ourselves. Frozen oak leaves give up the ghost, like snow falling through the trees, and we try to pay more attention to the world. A squirrel’s warning wheeze can sound like a hard pressed boot in thick, defrosting mud, and a snipe, tearing itself off the frozen earth, like the creak of the park gate – or a burr pulled from a fleece. These things live alongside us too. Often unnoticed.

Still, reliably, against the odds and diminishing, the song thrush and mistle thrush begin carolling in this deepest, darkest, most quietly light-seeking part of the year. The gleam off wet holly is profoundly blinding and there are still quinces in the hedge, like winter lemons; hanging like bright Christmas baubles.

It was a shock, in this border country, where we hang on like the grit on the kitten heel of the Berkshire ‘shoe,’ to find ourselves in Tier 3, then Tier 4 within two days,  before Christmas. And then, much of the rest of the country following.

But there are deeply reflective, sobering (and joyful) walks home from Mum’s house in the village. There are scattered strings and pulses of fairy lights, like boats anchored out at sea and Jupiter and Saturn like wonky twin porch lights, low over Tier 2. The muddy track is laced with shadowed branches & puddles are glazed with moonshine. There are disappointments, but none too great. I think of others.

A barn owl quarters unseen, but calls with the rare clarity of a glassy, ululating whistle, rather than its more usual rasped screech.

It is a little spooky, crossing the sheepwash. Dark badger trails criss-cross the fields either side like ley lines. I stupidly answer a text and the phone’s light destroys a half hours’ stored night vision and I am temporarily blinded. When I stop tramping through the frosted leaves on the wood’s edge, the tramping continues a few beats. There is a ticking rustle from a big, silhouetted dead tree that hasn’t produced leaves in decades. Its bark has long gone, leaving it antler-bone white. I wonder what the sound is? I imagine: bats walking down its trunk on folded elbows; a treecreeper roost; a stop-out squirrel.  Then there is the terrible shrieking of a small animal that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. A rabbit being killed by a stoat, I think, until the sound is carried up above my head into the wood behind me. An owl? But what is the prey? My stopping is too much for the alert levels of the roosting woodpigeons and they explode with a volley of a racketing clatter. A shower of leaves fall. The shrieking has stopped. 

As I recross my tracks there is a whiff of fox that wasn’t there when I started out.

Nearing home, I pass the old threshing barn that once doubled as a draughty school room, but is now full to the rafters with hay made when we thought this would all be over by Christmas. Somehow, the church bells are ringing. The near-full moon is netted in the trees and there is a slow meteor like a yellow marble, rolled through the heavens. The plough rests the heel of its starry mouldboard on the roof of our house.

I pause before going in. If I met ghosts tonight, I would tell them of these times.

Nature Notes

Wild Light, Weather, Portals.

In the last hour of light, I walk along the high chalk ridge to a spot where I’m hoping for closer views of fallow deer.  I find I am walking between storms; the loose flint vertebrae of the whaleback rattle away from my boots. The hill’s spine soars clear of the cloudbursts that obliterate everything below and in turns, either side of me. The view is whitewashed out, then revealed again in shimmering light, as if someone is playing with the curtains. I walk deliciously between the lot, feeling hidden then highlighted; as if I’ve been invited onto the stage of a show I don’t entirely understand.

Low weather shape-shifts above me into the deep, pendulous dapple of mammatus clouds. I watch them grow heavier, like drops bulging from a yard tap, before they burst individually in washing line sheets. A short, bright rainbow forms at one corner.

A spell of calm follows and I tuck in against the trunk of a beech tree. My dog leans against me. We can both hear the belching grunts of fallow bucks far below. They are still in their rut.  

There is a slight noise to our left and, unexpectedly, a big chestnut buck comes pronking on his hooves, wild-eyed out of the woods and almost upon us. In one great move he shies and cat leaps the fence behind us, all four feet off the ground at once. He stops in the wood and turns to face us. For a reverent moment, we are held in the magnificent cradle-gaze of his antlers. The yellow glow of the hazel trees around his head seem to emanate from the pale tines of them, like lit candles on a Hanukkah Menorah.

The spell is broken by more noise to our left: another, big dark buck comes out of the wood, sees us and plunges downhill, his splayed hoofs sliding on the steep slope for purchase, his shoulder blades coming up like pistons  working to control the weight of him downhill at speed.

Back on the track I pick up pace as the world seems to darken and go molten at once. The sky swirls around the sunset of an exhilarating Turner painting and I feel caught up in it.

A wisp of snipe arrow through it after their long, sharp bills, like a shoal of unearthly fish – I expect the cloud to burst. 

Over my shoulder, the setting sun ignites the flooded track ruts into long mirrors of gold. In a trick of the light, they seem to stand upright, like gleaming wet sarsen megaliths, or a glowing absence of them: mirrors stood on end, portals back to a world I seem to have just left. Between them, reflected on the chalky mud, the first pale stars appear.

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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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