Nature Notes

Wild Writing.

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Three lovely women join me for a Wild Writing Workshop at BBOWT’s Thatcham Nature Discovery Centre. We discuss ‘the new nature writing’, its ancient roots and tradition; its resurgence and the reasons (and need) for it. And we try to define something that, in its wild essence, defies catagorisation. But we come up with some characteristics.

Nature writing is about connection and celebration and it’s about loss (personal and environmental) and that is nothing new. It’s about close observation, personal discovery and experience, wonder, awe and mystery. It has an open-minded attitude to what ‘wildness’ and ‘nature’ is and is literary, lyrical, intense and humble. It breaks open old ground, anew.

We work on making sensory connections with memory with the title ‘On Remembrance Day, I remember.’ We listen for redwings, search for parties of long-tailed tits, spooling out like bunting through the alder trees and identify the whoosh of a raven’s wings as it flies overhead, before we see it. We talk of ‘emotional weather’.

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Sunday, I seize a stolen hour at sunset with my middle daughter. Squeezing the last juice from the day, we ride out of the farmyard. Twenty minutes later, we are cantering down a tunnel of light: the beech wood is at the stillpoint when its lacquered, toffee-penny leaves are as much on the trees as they are lying thickly on the earth. The wide holloway is illuminated by the low sun and the leaves glow from underneath, around and over us. Our chestnut horses are incandescent, their hooves drumming up a muffled, military beat.

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It is cold, but I can feel the warmth rising from the horse into my own body. I know at that moment, I could ask anything of her. I imagine a battlefield between her pricked, willing ears, haloed by the sunset, and think of those war horses – and the men that had to ride them in.

A woodcock jinks down the lane ahead of us. The sun goes and we trot home in the near-dark, her shoes sparking off the metalled lane.

And in the moment, when I feel utterly free, I realise that writing is an act of freedom in itself: an act of wildness. And what I remember then are two quotes. The first from the old canon of nature writing (Richard Jefferies, 1883) and the second perhaps from the new (Seamus Heaney, 2010):

‘It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine.’

Then:

‘I had my existence. I was there. Me in place and the place in me.’

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Nature Notes

Earthstars and Peacocks.

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The belt of trees between the down and the arable field is protected from both the hedgecutter and spray drift by a wide, conservation strip. The grass is long and pale, full of spiders, beetles, bugs, moths, butterfly eggs, mice and voles and – as I walk its length – about a dozen brown hares, their fur soaked with dew. The belt is a thin wood – or a wide hedgerow, whichever way you look at it – and full of fruit. There are sloes, hips and haws, the dripping rubies of guelder rose, dogberries like small blackcurrants, wild privet berries and crab apples. Black buckthorn berries cluster like tiny bunches of grapes along the branches. A field maple is thickly encrusted with lichen the exact same butter-sunshine colour its leaves have turned. Only a closer inspection reveals that both are giving it this vivid colour.

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In the scrub on the down, gorse, wild privet and box create warm, waterproof hollows and dens for all sorts of wildlife. A muntjac bombs away, a fox burns away, looking back at me between narrow shoulder blades. Its brush, a little thin at the base, seems to linger while the animal has already gone – the white tip following on like a cigarette in the dark as the fiery chestnut stole is snatched away like a jealous afterthought, as if I were after it. A peacock emerges then, from the cover of this wild, remote place. I am not as surprised as I might be. A small population survives here after being dumped, years ago.

It walks in self-conscious grace, with a slightly embarrassed air in these wild surroundings, its magnificent, though slightly battered tail trailing behind like a rich, torn, paisley gown slung over a shoulder. I feel I’ve interrupted the morning after last night’s ball.

Further along, I slip on the leaf-covered roots of a beech on the steep wooded down and land on my hands and knees. My thighs and wrists ring from the latent sting of old nettles. For a moment, I crawl because it is easier and, looking down, come face to face with seven earthstars.

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A rareish find, these fungi look like cups and saucers. The first layer opens and peels back like a wooden flower revealing a central globe. The pouting sphere puffs a smoke of dry, powdery spores when flicked: dead stars, burnt-out comets, still smoking from the fall. Yet some of the outer ‘petals’ have curled back in their second stage, raising the earthstar up on its own platform, in a gymnastic ‘bridge’ above the leaf litter. Very much alive, they look crab-like, as if they’d been sidling up the hill, and only froze when I found them.

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When the night comes, it is clear and cold at last. More redwing, fieldfare, golden plover and woodcock come in from the north, calling down and reorienting my compass. Even past Bonfire Night, there are peacock-bright fireworks, rockets and comets on the hill and laughter. And just along from the car park, into the true darkness, all manner of wilder wonders and mysteries.

Nature Notes

Red Ophelia, Part II.

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The days prior had been a kind of portent. Something in the wind. The weather got stranger, the clouds took on an unusual quality. The sepia air darkened. There were ‘rain gods’ walking the downs – those great, broad brushstrokes of cloudbursts that finger down from the sky, obliterating their portion of the view. Great summer-fat raindrops fell where there were no clouds above – and no summer; only a sort of uneasy, autumnal ochre haze – a ‘foxes wedding’.

At work, at school, a text from Mum: ‘Is it me? What’s happened to the sun?’ She’d been puzzling over a reflection from an industrial light in the canal – only it turned out to be the sun. The lights came on – and I went outside.

The atmosphere was weird and eclipse-like; except nobody had forecast this. The sun was an intense orangey-red ball, mostly too bright to look at, or marbled by cloud. It got darker still. People came out of school and their houses. The world looked like a sepia photograph – only one we were all living in. People rubbed their eyes, blinked at the strange miasma. Red kites went to roost and the rookery fell silent.

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Imaginations went wild in the secondary school: there was talk of a ‘blood moon’ a zombie apocalypse, the end of the world. It was exciting, fun – with a real frisson of fear and wonder. Before long, the wild imaginations were overtaken (and complimented by) the scientists, the seekers of facts, of truths, curiosity and explanations. This midday sunset, this dark-as-dusk day was caused by Storm Ophelia, whirling up Saharan sand, ash and wildfire debris from Spain, from Portugal, and scattering shortwave blue-violet light, leaving us peering murkily through a longwave filter of red and orange.

As the afternoon wore on, we didn’t get used to it. The strange gleam reflected off cars like the sodium lamps we don’t have, out here in the sticks. It felt hot on our cheeks, on the napes of our necks, over our shoulders – making us turn round to marvel at it again. The familiar, golden yellow shafts of light falling on furniture thorough windows, gone noon, were a hot, fiery colour; were all wrong. And, there was a smell, wasn’t there? Of sulphur? Or eggs? Or bonfires?

What was astonishing – and life-affirming – about the day the sun turned red, and the sky yellow, was how it affected us all. How we talked about it, feared it, wondered about it. It brought us together in curiosity and awe: we are more animal than we know, more connected and excited about nature and the wild world than we realise. And there is hope in that, like a shaft of light coming down between storm clouds.

Nature Notes

Presentiment of a Red Sun. Part I.

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The wood is under a sepia spell. Everything tinged, foxed and coloured like an old map of itself. Mid-October, yet warm enough for July. The late harvest moon was spectacular when it rose, coloured like a honeysuckle bloom off the horizon. The atmosphere in the wood is strange. Misty, steamy even. It is as if the brown dust of fungal spores, puffed from the pout of an earthstar, has permeated the air and tinted the light.

The deer paths are a narrow, thick impasto of cloven hoofprints: pairs of empty brackets in a sentence. In places, the ground has been pawed and churned into perfect beds for jays to place acorns in – and lose them. Between the stalls created by the branches of a fallen oak, there are flattened patches where the fallow deer have lain heavily, as if tethered in a row for milking. Here, the smell of ammonia is strong enough to prick the eyes, and mingles with fox musk and fungal spores.

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Above me on the steep slope and without warning (though I should have been more vigilant) a tree lurches up from the earth in rocking horse motion; branched, stag-headed like an old oak, holding its crown of thorny antlers high as a raised candelabra, wide apart enough to hold a piece of sky. The branches are festooned with pricked leaves and draped with grasses dried into pale tresses of hay. Pushing this impressive headdress skywards, the body of the animal rises, thick as the brown trunk of a tree, and pounds away powerfully on strong, sapling legs. The spirit of Herne the Hunter is alive and well. A fallow doe follows, coming up like a bolt from the earth, too; sun-dappled, though it is overcast and ochre-coloured, her mouth downturned, part-open, her great leaf ears swivelling, gathering all the prey-sound behind her.

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I slip on rolling acorns, but even then take care not to grab elder (it won’t hold) impale my hand on hawthorn or worse, risk a septic wound from blackthorn. A squirrel intent on insulating its drey berates my clumsiness, wheezing like a wet squeaky toy and punctuating its irritation with flicks of its question mark tail.

Feeding the horses at sunset, the sky appears aurora cold, blue and lemon. Yet it was hot when working. From the north, the sound, then sight of 13 redwings arriving over the barn roof. I turn, catching the wheelbarrow handle in my skirt pocket and send the lot, hay, apples and pasture mix spilling into my wellies and onto the yard.

Later, the faint, chalked star-belt of the milky-way looks like an animal track. I can still hear redwings coming in. A friend texts to say he heard the first fallow buck bellowing in the big wood hangar.

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A Writing Workshop, coming soon!

I’ll be exploring the sensory mnemonic and meaning of autumn in a Wild Writing Workshop for adults at the Nature Discovery Centre, Thatcham, for BBOWT. Saturday 11th November, 10am-4pm. More: bbowt.org.uk/events All welcome!

Nature Notes

The Wild Other.

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‘Between the laundry and fetching the kids from school,

that’s how birds enter my life’.

This quote from writer and poet Kathleen Jamie, orbits my more reflective, mindful moments. Especially when I find myself in, when I’d perhaps rather be out. It’s a wry reminder and a comfort that actually, this is how nature and the ‘wild other’ is in my life; on an ordinary, everyday basis and in myriad forms.

And so it goes: the week sometimes is a little series of vignettes – of conversations, or articles read, of observations, passionate protests or poems on Twitter – or a delightful doorstep conversation with the birder who delivered my shopping, and talked about Poole Harbour’s Ospreys. My phone pings with sightings from the hill: a peregrine hunting red-legged partridge or the arrival of short eared owls. Going down to do the horses, a sweet chestnut leaf comes bounding over the stubble like a stoat, mesmerising me for a moment; a wren whirs through the mouldboards of the red and green plough. There are scarlet hips against fresh-turned earth (and its evocative scent) where, just half a year since, there was a confetti waterfall of marshmallow-coloured dog roses. The piebald gulls are back.

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Late for work, I duck back under the apple tree for something forgotten and am waylaid by the amplified buzz of a queen hornet in the auditorium of a hollowed orange pippin.

On another morning walking the dog, a hare lollops right by, the big cog of its hindquarters barely engaged, so slow and close I can see its dew-soaked paws; its eye like a new pound coin.

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On a busy Sunday, an adder coiled in the workshop gives Will the farmer a shock. I break from what I’m doing for a glimpse and love the stories of our remnant population when it was stronger (and Will was tasked to hunt them with a forked stick and a sack) and I wish for that population back (but not the hunting) and tales of sloughed snakeskin under the Rayburn.

At night, a roe doe is illuminated like a garden centre statue in the headlamps of a wet October evening.

I make a cake for my entomologist daughter’s tenth birthday in the (taxonomically accurate) shape and colours of a scarlet tiger moth. It wouldn’t win Bake Off, but she recognises it and we are both delighted.

This is how the wild life enters my own: in all ways, all of the time. It is a presence and an awareness I cannot switch off, anymore than I could stop breathing, or seeing, or knowing, or feeling. It is inked in. I carry it with me like grass seeds on the soles of my boots, or when I arrive at work, with the morning’s found owl feather still in my hair.

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Nature Notes

A Common Playground.

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I did a lot of my growing up on Greenham Common. A place William Cobbett (farmer, journalist, champion of the rural poor) described in 1830 as ‘a villainous tract of rascally heath’; and Victor Bonham-Carter (farmer, author, publisher) as ‘a mighty wilderness … threaded by a single dust road’, seventy years later. Greenham was my wild playground. I knew it before the fences went up. I saw the nuclear bunkers being built and was there when 96 cruise missiles (+ 4 ‘spares’) were flown in by supersized Galaxy Starlifter planes. The haunting wail of the siren ‘test’ was part of school life – as was the pointlessness of the 4-minute warning, where we lived. School holidays were spent on horseback (often without a saddle) racing American soldiers in jeeps around the perimeter fence. There were guns. And all the while, the edifying force, gentleness and persistence of the Peace Women.

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Re-enactment of Peace Camp, Greenham War & Peace, 2017

Our wild places are also people places and it is hard to think that certain spots do not absorb human history, strong passions and lives and exhale it. A spirit of place, perhaps? Greenham Common exudes this in a shimmering haze, through every pore and each pop of a gorze pod. Every woodlark rising will be singing a song listened and attended to by people connected to extraordinary moments in time, in this place. A woodlark’s allelu-lu-luia becomes a hymn for this common ground, an individual weight of meaning we might all recognise and claim.

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Re-enactment, Greenham War & Peace 2017

Last weekend, in celebration of the Common being returned to its wildlife and people twenty years ago, a stirring community theatrical event was staged on the remaining runway of this former RAF and USAAF Airbase. Involving music, drama, dance, mass choirs, live painting, banner processions and re-enactors, it was a fitting, moving and emotional tribute to our Common – and what it meant for the eyes of the world to be turned upon it. The central character ‘Peggy’s’ narrative was my story too: and poet Steve Wallis’ muse in last year’s telling of Greenham’s story. For me, too, ‘Peggy’ is also the spirit of this paper’s first female journalist, aptly named Peggy Cruse. Peggy lived in my downland village and would have witnessed its closing off to the public when secret, earnest practices for D-Day took place up the big hill, shortly before Eisenhower delivered his famous speech, from Greenham below. Peggy was all of us. Greenham Common, its sunset-gravels, alder gulleys, heath & view of the downs, part of my narrative landscape. And Peggy’s story was shot through with birds and birdsong, too. This is where I come in spring to hear nightingales – and in summer, nightjars. A bird that, for me, pulsed out sultry lullabies on warm, crackling, heathland evenings and once upon a time, made the sound of a Geiger counter.

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Nature Notes

Dust Devil, Raven Devil.

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A green woodpecker rolls and dips through the lower air like a paper plane folded from a page of colour supplement. His ‘yaffle’ laugh is slowed-down and languorous. He seem to wear spring’s colours in that season – all lime, lemon and sunlight-through-beech-leaves, but now, those same colours are of the coming autumn: the yellow fade of spent ash-leaves, a flash of scarlet, shades of milk chocolate.

Young buzzards are mewing constantly and adults are appearing alternately gap-winged in their moult. It is a good time to hunt for feathers. In flight, buzzards’ gleaming undersides are the same silver as the tin-foil paper-suns of knapweed, reflecting light after the thistledown has been teased out. A juvenile bird sits on the noticeboard of our little village green, eagle-eyeing the sward of drying hay. Concerted effort from villagers has brought this tiny mown oasis back for wildlife. Hand scythed and turned over with hay forks, it is a delight to see.

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On a still-hot day, acres of wild bird cover are in full flower. Tall, thick and joyfully full of scent, colour and life, we wade through phacelia plants bent low by enormous bumble bees. There are honey bees and hoverflies among kale and vetches, brimstone, red admiral, peacock and tortoisehell butterflies, small skippers and speckled woods everywhere. And hummingbirds from France – or possibly Africa: hovering on a blur of wings, proboscis like a long bill, hummingbird-hawk moths are every inch a tiny exotic bird. Here too is another exciting migrant; a clouded yellow butterfly on dark-bordered, marmalade wings.

Then, above the escarpment, the bewildering spectacle of a white mini-tornado, coming from the ground up, spinning fast. There is no wind. The ripe wheat-ears, bent meekly against their own swan-necks, shimmer, crackle, but do not move. Hot air has risen speedily from the bare stubble-ground below, through a pocket of cooler, low-pressure air and begun to turn, pulling in more hot air as it does so. It has quickened rapidly into a spinning vortex: a dust-devil! Something of an uncommon harvest phenomenon, I have seen them stir up hay or straw into a travelling chimney as the ‘straw-devil’ tracks along between windrows – but this one, this one is made of thistledown and has whipped up like a swarm of silver bees, rotating rapidly to a blur. The column widens, tilts forward and walks along the ridge before stopping abruptly. The thistle-seed parachutes are released from the dance and, in the absence of any wind, hang suspended like the ghost of a whirlwind – a tall, chalky smudge of an apparition – before the ravished down ‘fairies’, by slow increments, drift away.

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Along the down, later in the week, a wide chimney of ravens has formed, rotating in the updraft off the steep slope. We count twenty, then thirty; a handful of buzzards and kites spiralling up among them. The ravens pair up, mirror each other’s flight, rise to the top of the chimney, then dive, tumbling back down through the cooling tower of its centre. More birds arrive, and more; we count and recount, then spot others, so high as to be just pairs of simple black crosses, only the direction of flight indicating which end is which, their thick necks and long anvil beaks stuck out as much as their long diamond wedge tails. There are 50, 65, 70. They speak to each other in soft September ‘gowps’ and ‘cawps’ and we stand mesmerized, watching. A vortex of birds above the harvest, a dust devil of ravens. A season’s turning.

 

Nature Notes

Harvest, home.

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Patchy holiday weather, patchy harvest weather. The two go hand in hand of course – harvest and a holiday from school – a relic from when everyone was needed in the fields. We rush out to pull the washing in as the combine roars into the field as if it were on fire.

We are enveloped in a gold-grey dust-cloud.  Straw lines the gutters all the way to Hungerford, through it and beyond, festooning hedges all the way: the shining gold days of June and July stored in each fluttering yellow ribbon. At night, we go gleaning straw from windrows lying thick as gold plaits across the stubble. The uniform straws rudely spurt accumulated dew up the insides of our bare legs. John Barleycorn has the last word.

There are grain spills on the bends of the lanes, for the last of the farmland birds. Modern farming has become ‘an ecological holocaust’ (according to John Lewis-Stempel in The Running Hare) and harvest for me is a bitter-sweet romantic time when the recent rural past is perhaps at its most tangible. On this farm, the wild bird cover, nectar strips, beetle banks, grassy headlands, widening field margins and chalk grassland break up the chemical aggregation of the arable: rich seams of life and colour, joy and hope holding the patchwork together.

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The secret combe radiates the sun’s heat. The soil over chalk in this deep hidden valley is thin and dry and the plants are specialists; low growing, mat forming: even the thistles don’t bother with stems. Lie down in this fragrant, wild kitchen garden and your clothes keep the scent for days. Wild basil, calamint, cucumbery salad burnet, thyme on the raised castle mounds of anthills and wild marjoram all tremble with the life on them. Embroidered through are trefoils and bedstraws, a heather-haze of red bartsia, blue-violet self-heal, and eyebright: pansyish, purple veined, white with a splash of egg yolk. Scabious and harebells are sky-coloured. There are waves of butterflies, moths and bees with every jubilant step. The silhouettes of buzzards and kites rotate over it all with the shadowy arms of a windmill.

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We count the days down now and on a hot day, bookended by rainy ones, make a mad day-trip to beloved Bude. A bank of slate-grey cloud is mistaken prematurely for the sea and a hedgerow cloud of blue sloes for a patch of summer sky. The treat of a pretty beach hut with a yellow door helps us pack a week at the beach into one day. We swim in the sea-pool until the tide overwhelms it.

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Then one morning, the air is fresher with the tang of the sea in it, though we are miles from it – and the light has a softer, nostalgic quality. As my hand reaches for its practised turn on the smooth-worn handle of the kissing-gate, it is chill and damp on my palm; the gate wrapped and spun shut with spider silk that crackles when I open it.  The August-absence of birdsong slips into September and a robin sings its autumn lament. It makes such a catch in my heart and falters my steps.

Nature Notes

Seams, ridges, holes, pellets.

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In the park by the footpath, two big old ash trees are felled. They dropped branches in storms and sometimes, on still, benign days. I inspect their prone forms, paying my respects, investigating a canopy I wouldn’t normally have access to. Their deep grooved trunks and branches supported lichens and insects, sought after by the thin, curved bill of treecreepers. Hazelnuts are jammed in the grooves, posted like coins, by nuthatches.

The broad trunks are stepped with the sloping, ridged roofs of southern bracket fungus – a village upended by the fall; the dusky, spore-powdered angle of them protects the thick white lip beneath, so it gleams in contrast, like a horse’s shod hoof.

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One tree had been compromised by lightning strike, a black plumb line scorched down a major upright. Woodpeckers had made inroads, leaving a series of giant, neatly spaced needle holes down the black seam. The other tree had been de-stabilised from the north by a lone badger, tunnelling in between the toes of its roots, burrowing under its foundations. But felling the tree also exposed the extent of rot: the undersides of more bracket fungus, growing in the space where the heartwood had been, glow like small moons or flying saucers all the way up the close, warm, velvet-dark of the hollow trunk. There are still leaves on both trees. The smell of chainsaw exhaust lingers, curdles with the flowers of neighbouring sweet chestnuts; a distinctive scent of ivy bloom, unwashed linen and something else …

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There are owl pellets on the ground, below where the birds have roosted. I tease one apart – it appears to have blackbird feathers in it. Perhaps I know the bird that coughed up this cylindrical sarcophagus? One late, sultry night, with the bedroom windows flung wide, there was a sudden whumpf of a soft-buffered landing against glass and sill – then the frantic beating of wings and distress of a blackbird. By morning, it was obvious the hen bird had gone from the nest in the jasmine, along with her second brood.

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Another pellet lying on the fallen tree is not so easy to decipher. It looks like a classic owl pellet, grey, full of fur, feather, bone and beetle wing cases; yet it is far bigger than anything a tawny owl would cough up. Short-eared owls are here in winter and long-eared owls pass through at any time. Could it be? I pocket it, get out my books, search the internet, tweet. When the answer ricochets back instantly from my phone, it is from a friend who knows: foxy loxy. Sat on my writing desk is a fox poo. Old, unsmelling, but nevertheless … I just can’t fathom how it ended up on the side of a recently felled tree. Such mysteries, such connections.

Nature Notes

The Long Twilight.

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The domed hill is shedding chalk rivers of rain. Chains of bubbles slide past either side of the raised camber, as if there were otters beneath the slick, wet surface of this river-road. Yet, after another 12 hour deluge, the late evening is quiet and still.

Blackbirds are piping alarms from the wood. Urgent chinks of sound chipped off like flint-knapped sparks, catching fire into shrill screams. There are waves and volleys of other avian urgency: chaffinches, robins, the loud ticking-off of wrens and the repeated, crest-raising churring of tits. A tawny owl is under siege, half way up an oak, eyes tight shut. It hears me and floats silently off, like a chunk of bark detached from the tree, taking an unshakeable veil of tenacious little birds with it.

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I walk on though the grainy mugginess of the evening and hear two or three more groups of birds mobbing owls. By now, the calls belong less and less to the tits and finches and more to those singers with the largest, light-gathering eyes; the early risers and late-stayers, the blackbirds, thrushes, robins and wrens. The mobs become more mobile as the owls wake to hunt. The songbirds are late to relinquish the day – perhaps on second or third broods – and the owls are impatient to begin hunting; the nights are short enough. There is a fraught, fractious overlap: an uneasy twilight that lengthens inexorably into undefined boundaries.

A stoat appears ahead like a perky, too-long train. It hesitates to cross the open road, then bolts back, tail up like an unlit match on the last carriage, a stretch-limo streak of red, a fired elastic band: exit, pursued by blackbirds.

I climb to the fence between the field and wood, bordering the badger sett. Cobnuts gleam like milky fairy lights against dark hazel leaves. There is not a breath of wind to stir them. Before me is a great ski-slope of powdery chalk spoil, white as washing powder. I don’t have to wait long for the badgers; they crash and thump about and the growing cubs yikker in rough play – all unseen behind a wall of waggling nettles.

Then in full view, 5m away, one reverses out, hugging and scraping a pile of chalk as he comes, then powering it out behind with great, bear-like feet. My bare legs are showered in dust, and chalk cobbles roll down to my feet. I can hear his long claws clicking together. He looks up once – his black nose completely whitened, black stripes powdered out. The owls call now in earnest. Not a blackbird speaks. When I get home and take my boots off, they are white with chalkdust.

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