30 days wild, 30

There were six Magpies on the Histon Road.

They sat on the hedge by the village sign, three facing me, three away.

Behind them, the dark soil that stretches to Cambridge, and beyond that, seven miles away, red lights visible atop the cranes that currently cower above the Addenbrooke’s site. The sky lightens quickly now, a faint mist hangs on over the ditches. By the time I get into town, there will be bright sunshine.

There are rabbits everywhere, unconcerned by me on my bike. Some of them are very small indeed. Two chase about, launching themselves into the brambles.

Blackbirds set off their alarms as I pass. They are the main soundtrack on mornings like this. I am quiet, but I wonder if I’m prompting them to wake people as I go.

In Cambridge, cutting through a pindrop silent suburban street – I instinctively look up at the windows of the house I rented almost thirty years ago when I first came here – a muntjac stands across the centre of the road. I’m only a few metres from her when she realises and she clatters away between two cars. No sign as I pass seconds later. They are so quick and elusive.

Down the alleyway where I’ve seen a Jay a few times, but no luck today, and out onto the main road. On the work site the walls of the new buildings are alight with the dawn. Carrion Crows and Jackdaws bounce about. There is something wet and red and flat on the road. They’re unhappy as I glide past and disturb them.

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The oxeyes on the scrub land around the office are just starting to go over. I lock the bike and walk out into the middle of them. A few Meadow Browns fly up. The air isn’t warm enough or they’d be tumbling around at knee height, but give it a couple of hours. I watch as they drift past the fading flower-heads, and drop to the floor out of sight.

Watching, tracking, idly following the butterflies. Among the daisies, which are overwhelming, here and there are thistles, spiky pink counterpoints amid the white and green. And perched by those, bobbing on a thin stem, a Goldfinch. He is considering the seeds hidden in the head of the thistle.

My favourite bird. An impressionistic flurry, a blushing curlicue of mindfulness and glory. The sum of the summer. The brightest bloom. He outshines the sun. He is perfect.

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30 days wild, 29

Engaging with the wild is usually an arm’s reach sort of exercise, if that. We observe things, they pass us by, they make an impression, we move on. That’s standard; unless your job brings you into direct contact with animals or birds – and very often licences and authorisation are required for such a thing – our experience is almost always distant or fleeting or both.

And when it finally does happen, when some conjunction of circumstance conspires to put you up against the actual wild, it can be genuinely shocking. There are some things you don’t buy a ticket for, you’re not guided to, certainly, there are things unexpected.

Have a comical example, I don’t mind being laughed at. When I was 6, we moved house and I was dropped wide-eyed and terrified into a new school. First day, in the playground, my twin and I stood in the middle of dozens of strange kids, side by side, nervous and not a little lost. Clarks shoes, shorts, a hooded quilty anorak. Very 1970. I looked like a Ladybird book schoolboy. Our tacit agreement, I imagine, was to keep it quiet and no one would notice us. This went swimmingly until a Jackdaw landed on my head.

Immediately I did precisely the worst thing I could have done at that moment and threw my hands up to the top of my head, managing to lock the bird to my skull under fear-clenched hands. It panicked; I panicked. I started to scream and the wretched thing furiously began pecking at my head. We danced around the playground like some sort of ghoulish special effect, making the world’s worst first impression.

I can still feel the cold bumpy feet, like hard bent vinyl-covered copper wire. The sudden unnatural natural, fast up against me; fiercely real.

The wild we want is the wild we know, it’s the wild we’ve tamed for ourselves. Or, maybe, it the wild we know how to be in. We’ve conquered it, we’ve conquered ourselves, so it’s ours. And that will do, thank you very much.

Most of us, and I absolutely mean me here, are happy with Thrushes cracking snails, water-boatmen, rabbits on the grass verges thrown into sharp relief by our passing headlights, or a Kestrel hovering above the hard shoulder. Close proximity snapping and biting, that’s a different thing. The only time I slept out under the stars without a tent or sleeping bag or provisions was the final night of a sponsored survival week out on some desolate Dorset heath, and despite the Nightjars and the glow worms, ten minutes after dark I wanted nothing of it.

All of this fell into place earlier when I tried to do my bit and rescue a trapped Woodpigeon. It had to be a Woodpigeon because I’d dollied them in anthropomorphic garb in the last post and then all of a sudden one arrived under my radar.

We work foursquare around a sunless grey courtyard, about the size of a tennis court. Often, birds find their way in and with three floors of glass and chrome surrounding them they have difficulty getting out. Recently, a Sparrowhawk has used the area for kills, presumably over the weekend because undisturbed its victims had been thoroughly dealt with.

And today a Woodpigeon was caught in the space and couldn’t get out, indeed it wasn’t really trying. It sat, hunched up in the rain, unmoving. There was a growing chorus of oohs and aahs and looks toward me. Might I try something? A friend, who is a much more accomplished birder than I, and a ringer, so knows how to handle birds, suggested we try to persuade it out, or maybe even apprehend it ourselves.

We were lucky, it headed into a corner as we approached and my friend moved quickly to intercept it. He held it as ringers do I guess, easily, restraining but gentle. Turning it over, it was clear the crop had come open. Seed, corn maybe, a bird table mix, was visible in a large hole in its chest. We took it quickly through the building and out into the carpark. At the bottom of the large hedgerow that grows along the borders we let it go. It ran off into the dry dark.

Was it a Sparrowhawk strike? Probably, a poor one, not followed up, or maybe disturbed. Maybe it had flown against the glass – there are often ghostly outlines where the bird’s feather dust leaves a perfect negative at the moment of impact – and damaged itself that way. I’m tempted to go with the first theory; enough damage to disable, but not enough to kill. Whatever happened, I felt, I was persuaded, it would have perished had we not managed to release it.

Oh, but I don’t know. It left me feeling pretty useless in the face of it all. If it was an attempted kill, did the Sparrowhawk and maybe fledglings go without? Was it really resigned and empty of willpower? Did it have a chance, injured like that, or would the Rooks and the Magpies be harrying it within minutes? Or a fox, or a cat from the housing estate across the road… I felt unequipped for any of that. Not invested in it, nothing like that, but so far from understanding any of it. Knowledge not mine, experience unconquered. Finally unknowable to me. Unknowable. Hopeless and unconnected. 

The breadth and volume of that small shivering life seemed to take the wild further away in an instant. Is it that we ignore and sweep aside that which we can’t understand and afeared of that void of understanding we replace the gaps with our useless transferences?

Noble beasts? No. They just are. The problem’s ours. We’re scared of that deep intuitive wild, worse, we deplore it. 

30 days wild, 28

First thing, and the roads are full of birds, but two species dominate. Magpies are everywhere, and quite skittish. No misery  though, no singles. I’m barely at the green and into silver, gold and a secret never told. Before the village sign it’s ten plus, past the De’il himself and into unknown territory. Is there provision for twenty and more?

They’re put into the shade by Woodpigeons though, for there are dozens, perhaps hundreds lining the sides of the road at 4.30. They crowd in across the verge and on to the tarmac. Only at the risk of being hit do they even think about shifting. They’re faintly ridiculous, constantly looking somewhat surprised that they’re in the way. Their ubiquity pushes them into being a rather humdrum bird, but like Starlings or Sparrows or anything we overlook, it’s rather shortsighted.

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They carry the bemused yet haughty expression of a middling dandy who realises he is perhaps no longer worth the candle, but has still managed to dress well in high collar and iridescent cravat. It is our fault we do not appreciate him, he is trying to keep up appearances after all.

I’ve noticed from pictures I’ve taken that they have this odd fissure on the pupil, like a blob of black emulsion that has suddenly broken its own surface tension and is bleeding across a field of Farrow and Ball paint. Ridiculous things, but I can’t help liking them.

30 days wild, 27

So, yes, as mentioned yesterday while locking myself out on a rainy Sunday evening, lavender has exploded into the garden.

And it’s a good word, I think. It’s certainly apt. It looks like a small fireworks display all set to go off once the guest of honour arrives.

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The bees love it, of course and even in the evening as the tiny flowers close up they’re still crawling all over it. If you want pollinators in your garden (and why wouldn’t you?) then plant some lavender. It is the easiest thing to grow, I’m told.

I’m managing it, so it must be. The only problem is the Marillion earworm. That’s a pest with which I cannot help, sorry.

30 days wild, 26

One of the faculties that seems not to have dulled with age is my ironclad determination to completely screw things up at a moment’s notice. I demonstrated this on Sunday by locking myself out of the house, sans shoes brilliantly, solely in order to take a photograph of some lavender.

It’s fully exploding into life outside the front door and the bees are crawling all over it. This will make a good jumping off point for a 30 Days Wild post, I thought. Stepping out into the front garden in my socks. All the bees vanished as I took my one picture, momentarily disrupted by, to a lesser extent me, blundering toward them, but more importantly by a small gust of wind that moved not only the flowers, but also my front door to close with a bang.

I had about an hour and a half to contemplate things while a pal – I luckily had a few minutes’ of charge on my phone – set off on a rescue mission with his ladder. It was dull and spattering with rain, so I retired to the back garden and the faded parasol I’d found last year in the shed. Sitting under it, with little to do but wait, I engaged in looking more carefully at the stuff I took for granted. My back garden is a little bare, just slabs and gravel-filled borders, although the feeder (unused while I took up temporary residence) has brought some life to the place.

Mine is the last house before the fields, living on the village or the fen (depending on your point of view) edge. Behind me is a dark border of trees, mostly overgrown leylandii and then hazel and some silver birch. They’re unmanaged trees, dense and light-preventing, but filled with birds, Great Tits and Blue Tits mostly.

And I noticed, intriguingly, something that I’d not seen in all the year I’d been here: an old and incomplete set of gateposts set up just the other side of the fence, hidden in the gloom of the overhang. These houses are, at best, 1960s, a mixture of council properties and old forces accommodation. Where did that gate lead? From where to where? An old poem I was made to learn from school poured in, jumped up,  and I sat there trying to coalesce the memory of it.

It’s Kipling’s The Way through the Woods. I couldn’t recall the whole thing. When my friend turned up and helped me get in I made him a cuppa and sat staring at the spine of Leeson’s Golden Treasury of English Verse willing the words to come.

They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.

Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few.)
You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods …
But there is no road through the woods.

30 days wild, 25

The room half dark. Air still, heart beating. No sound on the landing.

It’s stopped, has it? Time, I mean. Stopped. 

Rain on the window, drops presaging a storm, the charge in your chest. You can feel the pulse of energy, a wave pushing before the turmoil.

It’s there, across the fields, getting closer, giant and untetherable. Sullen, unsparing, encroaching.

My God. My God. What a thing. What a thing it is. The wild. The very heart of the wild. And it rages. Look at it raging.

And behind me, in their separate spaces, happily engaged with their separate realities my children breathe and live and they do not know. 

And there it is, the place we inhabit. The most important place. Genuinely. All this, this, all that, barely at arm’s reach and we have to find somewhere, a human gap to inhabit and work in. Not to withdraw, or to hide, or retreat, well sometimes those things, but in reaction to it to carry on doing the living and loving. Alongside it. It is the space where love and reason live.

30 days wild, 24

Well, I’ve started this several times, let me tell you. It has been hard to be positive today, considering the dreary prospects splattered down in front of us with such a charmless lack of ceremony.

Led by the least and advised by the worst, we have with great shortsightedness managed to conjure a completely unnecessary decision out of the ether, one that will affect us for generations. There are serious and pressing concerns, I know there are, from genuine worries about human rights to our sudden economic frailty to working conditions and the treatment of the most vulnerable among us. I get that.

And they should be the chief concerns of all of us. Of course. Of course.

But there are other things, deep, far-reaching, perhaps even catastrophic things, that need addressing. The Brexit vote places us in an uncertain position. I can’t imagine it is news to anyone that the EU, for all its faults, has over the last few years put in place many and varied protections for the benefit of the natural world. Pollution limits, the quality of beaches and coastal waters, the provision of support for farmers who follow wildlife initiatives, the ban on pesticides that harm bees and other pollinators, renewable energy targets…the list goes on.

So what now? Will those ideas and protections remain in place? Will the tearing up of red tape and the urgency to get cracking without all that pesky limitation-setting prove to be disastrous? Well, what do you think?

This post has had all the swearing redacted. I didn’t think it helped, really, though it did allow me to let off steam a wee bit. But anyway. I must be positive, we must be positive. 

We cannot be anything else.

So, what to do? Well, doing something is the key, I think. Here are some thoughts. Comment in others, please.

Firstly, get involved with your local Wildlife Trust. The Wildlife Trust run conservation initiatives, sites of special interest, volunteer groups, vaccination programmes, habitat consultancies. Did I mention volunteering? So you can get your hands dirty and do something. Get your hands dirty; do something. And they’re lovely people – they would be delighted to hear from you. What’s more, you will have a local one to talk to, because they’re everywhere.

There are other bodies who will maybe focus your attention. Try the Woodland Trust or the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. They all do vital work.

Read, read as much as you can, be inspired by the people who are inspired by nature. You will find people who share your interests and excitements and who might just spark you into doing something because they write so wonderfully about it.

Melissa Harrison is a novelist, journalist, reviewer and essayist who was one of the first proper nature writers I followed on social media. She lives in London and engages with the nature there and further afield. Her blog, Tales of the City, is a must, especially if you’re rediscovering or discovering nature anew.

Two writers and bloggers who I follow that really get out there and get hands on are Ryan Clark and Tiffany Francis. Ryan seems to have become, through hard work and some might say an obsessional interest in cataloguing his finds, the go-to guy for bug identification and advice on social media. He knows his stuff. He really knows his stuff. Tiffany has written for the Huff Post and Countryfile Magazine and throws herself at her subject with great passion.

There are PLENTY of others. Look at the amazing prints Katie Fuller produces; check out Jack Barnes‘s astonishing photographs (or Mike Arreff come to that). Take a second to breathe over at lagomlagomlagom; or go for a long walk with Robert Yaxley.

Trawl Twitter. There are some great people on there waiting to spark an interest: @farmuponthehill, @BirdTherapy, @BirdgirlUK, @Railraptor, @mrkjduffy, @eastofelveden, @typejunky, @YoloBirder, @HelenJMacdonald, @procuriosity @RSmythFreelance and so many more. I’m missing some, I’m sure – well, I know I am. But get among them and more will present or suggest themselves.

There are other people out there, there is you out there. You’re not alone. Differences can be made, but it’s not daunting if you know others can pull you along. And they will, because they’ll need you. We’ll all need each other. Dive in. Soak it up. There’s a world needs looking after.

Happy trails.

 

 

 

30 days wild, 23

More confessions.

In a world – even a small world, or one from a particular viewpoint, or taken at a distance – crammed with wonders, it’s inevitable that much gets overlooked when the showy, glorious and sunbathed enter the stage.

I’d already walked past the stubbly,  rocky verge on my way to the view point across the floodplain (and there, saw a Red Kite, a calligrapher’s frill written across the sky), and failed to find anything of note.

But returning,  I looked down and splashed across the broken concrete was a burst of light. Stonecrop, tiny yellow flowers, also known as Sedum acre, cast across the pebbly ground like discarded mats. The flowers are beautiful, but very small, starry lemon-bright explosions, mostly of five petals, they’re pressed together with bright splendour. Not that I knew the name then, hopelessly I needed to research it.

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And there I stayed for a while, looking not just at these tiny flowers but others all within a few feet. Because I never really take notice of wildflowers and I felt all of a sudden that if the 30 Days Wild project is about anything, it ought to be about learning.

Speedwell I know, easily one of the smallest and most delicate blooms, and just look at it, isn’t it heroically lovely in its smallness?

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But there were others. Campion, which I’m particularly embarrassed about. I’d always assumed it was pink (well, Red Campion), but no, it’s white too. And I had to look that up also. Michel Desfayes’s amazing list of dialectal names for flowers says that in Lancashire it’s known as Lousy Soldiers Buttons. Which is as fine and wonderful a how do you do as I can imagine.

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And then Alkanet, or Eyebright, a slight, petite thing overfilled with the biggest and most exquisite sapphire blue. Lesson happily learned: don’t overlook. Wonders. Wonders.

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30 days wild, 22

PREVIOUSLY on the scruffy little garden…

Tragedy with the Great Tits, who abandoned their nest beneath the tiles, but cheerful hourly visits from the solo Dunnock, quietly hoovering the mess left by almost everything else. And the Collared Doves, always here as a pair, always together.

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I thought Sparrows might be nesting in the hedge by the front door, but that too proved to be a no show.

It was OK, I was content with the show as it was, although fledgling Great Tits would have been a treat. Still, there has been and there is plenty going on. It’s a peaceful small patch, no cats, none to speak of really, just a prowling ginger tom at the front; and a grey squirrel but even he seems to be a rare visitor now. No, it’s all pretty bird friendly.

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But this evening the Collared Doves returned and it wasn’t just the pair. They brought with them three slightly scruffy, slightly smaller fledglings.

I always see Collared Doves as marble-smooth and pristine, but these were a tad ungainly, more patches of grey than cream, and bit spiky rather than that neat onyx sheen. Their collars are there but undefined; there is the last hint of nesty fuzz.

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Like teenagers on their last holiday with parents, they skulked about and sat glumly just out of reach.

They’ll be off soon, probably tutting and huffy, embarrassed by Mum and Dad getting amorous again. Typical.

 

30 days wild, 21

I love me a copper beech. Look at them.

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I suppose the Sherlock Holmes story helps, it was my favourite as a kid, and it always nudges into my consciousness when I see one. The tree on my patch is old, maybe even as old as that (1892). It hums with life. Insects love the leaves, birds love the insects. It was shimmering with it.

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I don’t know who V & L were (certainly not Violet and Lestrade), and I don’t hold with cutting scars into beautiful things; maybe they’re feeding worms or soil and turning something fundamental into something useful.

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It is a commotion of colour and shade. It supports and shelters. Sit under one, look up, lean against it. No need for initials, though.

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