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.

Nature Notes

A Windmill for Kites.

On the last morning of my 49th year, I woke to the cuckoo calling loudly through the open window, from Nightingales Wood. I dreamt his first woodwind notes, before I realised they were real. The year before last, he didn’t come at all – and I feared that would be it. An extinction of cuckoos. In my twenties, at my parents’ house, a nightingale would arrive in the dead of night and his song would mingle with my dreams in the days around my birthday, until I woke to find he was real. But he was an ‘endling’ bird, singing long and loud, night after night and through the day too, perfecting his song in vain. This torch singer never found a mate. I’ve never found a singer to match him.

When I drew back the curtains, there was another surprise waiting – in the cascade of the dawn chorus, a barn owl on the fence post. A little, blossom-white spook, heart-shaped face tilted to the sky, to me, to the ground; a stone-carved, fence post pencil-topper. Two years ago, my lovely father-in-law made me a barn owl box and put it up in a nearby stag-headed oak tree. It was the best birthday present then, and this year, it got even better. A pair of nesting barn owls for a fiftieth birthday? Never in my wildest wild dreams did I think I’d have that.

It is the very best time of year to have a birthday and surely, this has been the most poignantly beautiful April in living memory. The blowsiest, bluest, blossomiest spring. Perhaps, as many are saying, it’s because we are really living it, really noticing our confined, immediate surroundings? How green the new leaves! How they zing! The lavender haze of honey-scented bluebells and the bright butter-yellow of the rape fields seem profoundly intense, against the Wedgwood sky that tumbles skylark song and holly blue butterflies like soft falling jigsaw pieces. We walked for miles, up the ancient cartway from Bitham Farm to Jethro Tull’s Prosperous.

Another cuckoo. I closed my eyes and wept with joy and relief. Whitethroats scratch their jazzy, melodious, DJ-on-the-decks song with frenetic energy, within the dance hall, cumulous cloud-heights of scented, buzzing, crab apple-blossom.  Wayfaring trees lead us on, beyond where bare earth ceeds to grass, and through clouds of my own, special fly; St Mark’s Flies are named for the Saints day upon which my birthday falls, when they traditionally emerge. They didn’t disappoint, flying slowly in small clouds, their soft black bodies dangling long legs like fisherman’s flies.  

In the stillness of the afternoon, the house became a windmill for kites. They rotated low above it, after the detached lamb’s tails in the field opposite. Their bladed shadows formed large, fingered, rhythmic sails, that made me duck as I walked out the front door. 

Everything stands still.

On the big hill, the landlord of our estate cottage and his family make a tribute to the NHS with rainbow-coloured childrens’ party parachutes, the size of a chalk figure. My husband being a Paramedic, we all find it particularly poignant and climb the hill for a closer look. But, as with all white horse magic, the trick is that, the nearer you get, the further away the whole of it is.

My almost-planned village hall party will wait. For this was truly the simplest, best and most memorable birthday ever; with surprise Zoom Bingo, hosted by my dinner jacketed brother in Australia, village friends rallying round with decorations, inventive doorstep gifts (flour! yeast!) artwork from daughters and nephews, the most gorgeous homemade cake, tractors tooting as they drove past the house and a candlelit game of family Cluedo in the evening.

Our cramped, shabby, in need of a good-clean-&-tidy house has never felt more like a home. Has there ever been such a gifted spring to bring us to our senses?

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Nature Notes

The Green Fuse.

With what Dylan Thomas called ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower’, Spring advances anyway. Two swallows zip through the farmyard and are gone, to some remembered beacon further north, snipping up the air as they go. A small dust-devil whips-up behind them, as if, for all the world, they caused it. A narrow, spinning vortex of dust, grit-in-the-eye, chaff and a weathered crisp-packet, whirls up and then dissipates into a hiss, and absolute silence.

I descend the hard set-ruts into the woods. The tractor-tyre chevrons, pressed into the wet chalk paste of February have hardened to a concrete crust that might last all Summer.

The green fuse has pushed the subtle, beaded flowers of dog’s mercury out, as well as the furled flags of cuckoo pint, above their spotted leaves. Were we ever so close to it all? Have we ever paid this much attention to noticing? I like to think so, but it was likely long ago.

I love the contrasting colourways of primrose and dog violet best. That particular butter-cream, lemon-yellow with parma-violet mauve. They are delightfully vintage colours that, were I a dress designer, I’d make my Spring-print signature. It is a colourway complimented by china-blue wood forget-me-not with its yolk-yellow and white centres, and in the sudden emergence of bluebells overnight and their yellow archangel companions.

There is a lavender haze washing through the wood where there was just a hint of it the day before. In the derelict hazel coppice, the bluebell’s honey-scent mingles with stronger, heady, cherry laurel blossom that, along with western red cedar, crowds out and shades the bluebells, closes the canopy, blocks the light. Still, they persist. A light breeze weaves through the wood and there is the faint squeak of jostled bluebell stems, and the squeal of hazel poles grown too thick for coppicing.

Orange-tip butterflies tumble over garlic mustard and I am absorbed, watching a furry, ginger, bee-fly insert the long, sharp-looking (but harmless) straw of its proboscis into the creamy churns of white dead nettle flowers (that also, do not sting). I nip one of the blossoms between thumb and forefinger, and tip its flask onto my tongue, for a drop of sweet nectar. 

By the time I am home, there are four swallows twittering over the house. The clustered white stars of windflowers, or wood anemones tremble in an imperceptible breeze. I resisted picking the first one I saw, weeks ago, to tuck into my collar, to ward off Spring fever.

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Nature Notes

A Lucozade-Brightness, and the Nature at Hand.

Suddenly, our galloping lives, or even our quietly walking lives, have come up against a fence. We weave from foot to foot, like restless horses at a stable door. We feel at a loss, part-paralysed, cut off, anxious and adrift or, for many others, are working as if our lives depend on it, because other lives do. New words will enter dictionaries and aberrations will appear on graphs and charts, and in the geological, archaeological strata of the far future, there will be a permanent thin seam of now; of 2020, of our global plague year.  We won’t forget it.

In a touching memento teachers made in haste for my daughter’s cut-short, cancelled GCSE generation, a keyring is etched with the words ‘History Makers,’ and a moving celebration was put together in a solid, 12 hour stint. The students are reminded they won’t be forgotten or let down.

On Mother’s Day, before full lockdown, we make meringues and walk through the village to match them with Mum’s whipped cream. We swop half a bag of flour for sugar and keep a careful distance, dancing round each other like the primrose-coloured brimstones tumbling through blue air. We make plans to turn parts of Mum’s garden into a wildflower meadow. 

When the Lockdown comes, we reappraise everything immedietly around us, holding the everyday up to the light. Having lived a long time out here, often without transport, with three once very small children, it’s something long-practiced and appreciated. Even when I’m at work, my radius from home rarely exceeds five miles. My two eldest children, both on the cusp of summers of freedom, have their wings clipped before they’ve even been able to use them. But they are stoic, resourceful and enjoy each other’s company.

My youngest daughter rescues scarlet tiger moth caterpillars from the new vegetable beds my oldest daughter is digging; she carefully looks at one under a microscope and discovers sticky gel blobs on its tiny feet and a body rippling like a slow, pantomime horse in lemon and black. We watch the blue tits and the sparrows, we slow down, we are grateful. Our village What’s App group is full of noticing nature. It becomes a What’s This? of Wildthings. Each day, I message round a local ‘Bird of the Day’ with a song to learn among the baking, homeschooling, crafting, not-going-mad, neighbour-checking messages that bring us together now, and help alleviate the constant worry nibbling the dark edge of everything. This community, is even kinder, funnier and more generous than I knew.  

For a while, we are a house of key workers. I go in to school as support staff for as long as I can, my son is picking and packing delivery boxes at Tesco and my husband is a Paramedic. There are sobering, daily updates and conference calls at home and he is drawn into London.

We treasure our one exercise a day. It usually involves the big hill and a walk up into the feathered edge of the sky. I seem to favour evenings. The fields, dry enough at last to support a tractor, look as if someone’s been at them with a curry comb, grooming in the direction of growth, following the earth’s solid musculature and bone. The tilth, fine and pale as apple crumble, makes lines on a page from which the buzzards and kites can work, studiously worming.

At the height of the hill, a partridge must have breasted the barbed wire and stalled above the steeply-sloping wood. A handful of feathers are snagged on a barbed, barley twist of wire and the sunset-light through them is so beautiful, I could imagine its Icarus fall and tumble through the gold-infused air, before a recovery and rapid whirr of its wings, away.

The clarity and purity of the colours of the sunsets hold: they are not a one-off. They burn with a clear, Lucozade-brightness that is a humbling revelation, through unpolluted air, honeyed and bell-clear as blackbird song. After this, we must learn and act upon what our planet is showing us. Has been showing us. We can do this better – and we must.

At 8pm, weekly now, we clap and bang pots for our NHS, carers and keyworkers. In our quiet, spaced-out rural village, we wonder if we’ll hear anybody else. And when the whoops and cheers, clatters and dings come travelling across the dark fields and quiet woods, we openly cry. The first time, under Venus and the fingernail moon, then again, when the moon has swollen to a great orange, bellying up above other estate cottages and again, when it is still light. It’s the uncertainty that we’re not used to. The not knowing how all this will pan out. All those questions no one has answers too.  Yet, we have never felt so lucky and grateful to live where we do, never so grateful for community and the one, beautiful, sustaining planet we live on.

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Nature Notes

The Moon and the Goshawk.

These are strange and unsettling times for us all. I head for the high tops, to clear my head with a clearing storm. I can see it coming; great grey brush strokes drawn down with a broad sweep over the wet page of a lemon-yellow sky.

I decide to cross the unsheltered expanse of the arable field to the wood. I might just make it, but it is hard going. The surface is layered in rocking, ankle-twisting flints the colour of a storm surge. The soil has washed away from under them by a winter’s worth of persistent rain. There is no discernible earth, only knuckle-bone rubble. And nothing between me and the sky.

I stride out as best I can and the field comes alive. Fifty linnets lift, bob and twinkle in the storm-light. Woodpigeons the colour of the approaching sky, clatter up and are joined by a whir of red-legged partridge and a pheasant, coughing alarm – but the latter have come from behind. It is not me and my shingle-rattling progress, then, that is spooking them. I look up, just before the sun is eclipsed by the towering cumulous, and oh! Slicing through the air, a goshawk! It comes right over my head, perhaps twice the height of the trees we are both heading for and is gloriously, breathtakingly unmistakable, all hip heavy and graphite-barred and large. It draws its gliding wings in, picks up speed and dives over the wood.

I look about as if there might be someone to share my excitement with. But there is only me and the sky. With an approaching hiss, the curtain of rain and hail sweeps me into the wood.

It passes quickly and I watch it walk its downpour to blot out Newbury, leaving lights pricking on in its wake.  The storm leaves an extraordinary light behind it. The big cumulous clouds sail on like wet sheets, their backs gilded by the sunset.

The moon has risen into the gold-infused air above the little hidden valley. It is a magical place at the best of times. But tonight, I could imagine white harts and wild horses.

I clump back over the field, cold, wet and exhilarated. With a whoosh that sounds like another sweep of hail, a flock of golden plover come in to roost on the field, fast, low, crying, spinning me round and dropping in like broadcast seed, finding sanctuary here in all this bleakness.

In the wood, winter thrushes are gathered in large numbers, prematurely leafing the trees in silhouette. They babble and chatter like a rushing stream; a sound that seems transmitted on by the telegraph wires – and the satellite moons of the communication tower, to the moon in the sky they might navigate by.

Later the night is full of them leaving. Tomorrow, I will be planting trees at school. Green, hopeful, for the future.

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Nature Notes

Alleluias and Storms.

Turning the key in the lock before work, the notes of a bird dropped faintly through  the cloud and stopped me in my tracks, the way a much-loved song suddenly connects above the noisy hubbub of a café, when you hadn’t been aware of any music playing.

I froze, head cocked to listen. Then cupped my ears towards the sky and there it was, undeniably, gloriously, bursting through the low mist of a cloud inversion that had us in its grip: Lullula arborea, a woodlark. Right over Home Field, somewhere above the back garden. Instantly recognisable when heard in full, but rare; or at least usually restricted to our heaths and open woodland. Sweeter, more plaintive than the brassy brightness of a skylark, the descending notes can sound like stolen snatches of nightingale song, a nuthatch piping, a mistle thrush or even a robin’s descending notes, when heard in part; pearls and peels refracted through these songs, rather than borrowed. Although that afternoon, a chimney pot starling had already learnt some of its phrases;  its little, spangly, black box recorder repeating them.

The lu, alu, alu, aluias on a descending scale are such a swooning lament. A pre-Raphaelite bird, if ever I heard one. I’ve heard them singing above stubble fields in recent years; and wonder if this is a trend? They are transient, staying, camping out for a few days or a fortnight before moving on. I skip to work, delighted, a little late.

The week was bookended by big storms and high winds. Storm Ciara hurled slices of corrugated iron across the farmyard, flung thick biscuits of roof tiles, rolled tractor tyres, banged barn doors and broke a tall Scots pine in two, like a pencil snapped in anger.

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At three in the afternoon, a sustained, fifteen-minute gust splintered the fir tree in the garden with a hard crack and a soft whumpf of pine needles, that instantly darkened the kitchen window, just missing the house. The girls screamed upstairs as the scent of pine resin reached us inside the house and the telephone wires whipped wild and loose against the glass.

(A neighbouring estate cottage’s near miss.)

A loud crash was followed by another as the old oak in the field next door came down, bringing the power lines with it, in a great violent ploughing of earth with its limbs. The second crash was a big field maple falling across the road by the village hall, blocking our way out. There was a moment of whirling snow and lightning.

In the lemony, grey-wagtail light of intervening days, I heard the woodlark once more; unexpectedly. It fluttered high over my head, whilst I was making repairs to the stable yard with baler twine. Like a chunkier skylark, a little ball of fast-fluttering effort cascading song, a golden snitch or Betjeman’s heart of Thomas Hardy, that flew out of Stinsford Churchyard, rocketing over the ghosts of the elm trees like a little thumping fig. I marvelled that it was still here. Our dozen house sparrows fluffed, bickered and preened between the tangled thorns of the quince hedge beside the last lightbulb fruit, glowing and momentarily mistaken for a yellowhammer’s breast. The red, lipstick blossoms balled tightly in tense defence of what was to come.

We drove down to meet Storm Dennis at Bridport, facing him down the A303, down past the barrows, Stonehenge and the flooded fields, to help launch the new Red Sixty Seven book: a beautiful and heart-wrenching fundraising collaboration curated by the enigmatic ‘YOLO Birder’ (Kit Jewitt) and the British Trust of Ornithology. Sixty seven illustrated ‘love letters’ to our most endangered, red listed birds, it’s a thing of loss and beauty. It was good to meet four other contributors: fellow Guardian Country Diarist, Sara Hudston, writing on the Cirl Bunting; renowned author, journalist and birder, Dominic Couzens, writing on Scaup; John Lloyd who illustrated the lapwing so beautifully and Kerrie Ann Gardner, whose stunning picture of the curlew accompanies Mary Colwill’s writing. I wrote about the Woodcock, atmospherically illustrated by talented artist, James O’Neill.

(James O’Neill for Red Sixty Seven Book)

We drove home through maize-field-stained floods, buffeted by high winds and slept nervously in the dark house as the wind wailed through the gaps in the windows, hollered down the chimney and felled another ash tree close by. I dreamt fitfully about losing birds and birdsong, and wondered if I would hear the lone woodlark again.

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Nature Notes

Weather. Station.

Strange and unsettling to wait so late into Winter before the first hard frost occurs. And in this mild, wet year, it comes as a relief; beautiful and normal in abnormal times. Because, everywhere is sinking into mud: fenceposts rotting, flints rising to the surface to lacerate boot soles and dog paws. The old barn roof is sagging; its estate, green-painted drainpipes, detached. The whole thing looks set to collapse over the museum of this farm’s life: the pony trap, the long hay rack, the enamel sinks, old range stoves & tiles from renovated cottages. I want to rescue it all.

Taking my daughter to work though Hampshire hamlets and estate-owned villages, the winterbournes have risen. A horse’s trough of an old bath tub floats. The cottage and pub thatches are dark with rain, except in light, repaired, spark patches. The signpost to Wildhern and Linkenholt sits upon its ‘godcake’ of a grass triangle, as it always has, and the pollard limes, and tiled, clunch-and-flint wall does another winter.

But for the first time this year, the ground feels hard underfoot, frozen perhaps to an inch below the surface and there is treacherous and unexpected ice on the roads. A hare has made prints in it, down the centre of the road through the village. The ice on the troughs, the birdbath and dog bowl is not thick.

Over the shallow flood pond in the park of The Big House, it isn’t deep enough to take the dog’s weight for long. She skitters across it gingerly, tail up, after her yellow ‘stick’ of hosepipe, enjoying the strangeness and play of it. She races and slides, then trots out towards the middle where it cracks as she lifts each foot. She is just about quick enough to be ahead of it, but the pressure on the wide surface of the saucerful, like a natural dewpond, sends out strange noises – a kind of electronic, synthesised pinging; a deep-sea, deep space sonar. Air pockets form under the ice and wobble out to the middle, moving and shape-shifting like jellyfish. They congregate in the middle, jostling up against each other like empty speech bubbles; like something waiting to be said, an exhalation from the earth.

On top of the hill, the view is as far reaching as it gets, until the landscape becomes geological layers of blue. I can see as far as Coombe Hill in The Chilterns. Frost thick as snow accumulates on our boots. A flock of fieldfare are backlit gloriously as they fly from hawthorn to hawthorn, checking again for missed berries. A mistle thrush sings loudly, a field away. It is a song both achingly bleak & full of the tang of a cold metal gate – yet suffused with determined, celandine warmth.

We come down through the stunted oaks where the first snowdrops have pushed through. In the lea of the wood, their hardened tips find little resistance, their pearls dangling like earrings, brightening the mud.  

Later, after topping up the feeders, I watch the birds come in. The badger-striped head of a coal tit aligns with the striped, mouse-dun of a long-tailed tit & a goldfinch’s chequerboard neatness, conspiring to make me smile. The steam from a mug of tea curls upwards and is matched by the breath purling from a dunnock on the fencepost. I can’t hear him singing, but he is. The nuthatch comes in like an apricot bullet in a navy serge cape; the fierce black eye stripe aligning with his bill to elongate the dagger of it, giving him a serious, military air. There are fewer chaffinches. And no greenfinches this year. 

At 4.30 in the afternoon, the disc of ice I removed from the birdbath in the morning is still intact; it’s knobbly flint ‘stepping stone’ is set in the centre, like the boss on a shield. I hold it up to the stars, like a satellite dish. The defrosted grass crisps up again.

The thrush sings on. Venus & the half-moon hang above the barn, the down & the farm weather station. The instrumental alchemy of weather, time, land, space and use. A poem for the earth we stand alone on.

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