mob

We gathered together the broken mess of suet and seeds and brushed it onto the chopping board. The shattered tumble of ingredients bore no resemblance to the solid, cake-shaped cake we’d watched Tony Soper make just the week before on the telly; we didn’t have a video then and were doing this entirely from our memories of Blue Peter or Magpie or Animal Magic. It’s fair to say we may have got it almost completely wrong.

Out the kitchen door and down the passageway along the garage to the back garden. On the left, the nest box, a couple of blue tits rearing a dozen chicks, blind, frog-like faces, turning up as you opened the lid, lemon curd yellow mouths agape and wobbling toward the light. We stood in the centre of the big lawn and scattered the awful concoction as evenly as we could. An uncertain, heart jumping anxiety that we’d done something wrong; that sick and flighty terror of the child for making a mess or wasting precious resources.

Brushing the last off our hands we ran inside, thought about tidying there and then, but because children are capricious empty-headed monsters instead we just dumped the board and headed into the dining room, which looked directly out onto the back garden. I can hear it now, see it, it is always the first thought that blunders into my mind when I think of them; Starlings, dozens and dozens and dozens of them, whooshing with furious intent into the garden. A torrent of birds, cascading in over the high hawthorn hedge at the back, and onto the lawn. It sounded like a wave back-washing from a shingle beach, a gloriously textured and palpable sound. The grass vanished, you couldn’t see a blade, lost in a blanket of petrol-sheened squabbling birds.

I’ve loved Starlings ever since. We think of them as common, but like Sparrows they’re declining. Across Northern and Eastern Europe (from where the winter migrants flock, seeking us out for a respite from harsher conditions) their numbers are dropping. They’re now red listed, due to the severity of that decrease.

Dull at first, ordinary if you cannot see it, but close up they are jewels – “a black body crammed with hot rubies” Ted Hughes called it – and more than jewels because they change colour in the right light, iridescence shimmering as they shake their collars, stellar white diamonds scattering across the breast. Ignore the winter gloom, in the light they are exceptional creatures. Driving home one low-sunned late afternoon before Christmas, I saw across the fen a half-hearted attempt at a murmuration, that blissful otherworldly phenomenon when hundreds or, more often, thousands of them flock and dance in a careening sway before roosting for the night. A straight and empty road, left glancing, nerves flooding back from doing something I shouldn’t. The sun was dying, its light, the colour of cantaloupe flesh, thick and rich, and in it, a personal swarm of birds, waltzing and oscillating to their own rhythm.

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the lone house then

By the time I arrive at the gate, the light is blushing in the East, although only enough to see the outline of the wood; turn a little from the smudge of light and there are still stars. Softly extinguishing, as I cross the field, I see Vega and Etamin encroached upon by the dawn. Jupiter will hold out the longest, fat and yellow and low in the West. The wood is a wall, black against the Persian blue, and the path veers into the dark.

The ground is wet underfoot, muddy and sticky. In the wood it is pitch again, and quickly. I don’t know this place and I stumble, hands on trunks, feet slipping on the alien floor.

The wood knows I’m here, a box of noises that creaks and opens up. I lean back against an oak. Partridges chuckle and call nearby, Blackbirds run and yammer through the leaves. And something is mewing, crying, almost like a child. I catch it again, a near-human voice that peaks around the deep grey lines and fades away. The modest clear rise that stretches out beyond the wood, I recall from the OS map, is called Fox Hole Hill. They can sound just like babies; it is little wonder they inhabit such a peculiar space in our shared consciousness, cunning and dark, furtive and unhallowed. The phantom listeners stir and shift, their strangeness assessing mine.

I sit down and look up. It is changing almost from second to second, the bare branches grow starker against the paling sky.

Light softens and filters in. Ash and maple, some oak. Straight pillars from coppiced stools, but older trees here and there. And all around, these clumpy tumorous stumps, from which spring arrow straight pikes of fresh wood. The use of coppicing varies from tree to tree, from brushwood to hurdles (woven fence panels for temporary livestock pens), poles to thatching spars. A coppiced tree, regularly managed, never dies, and as they’re used in rotation depending on species, the gnarled fists from which some of these shoots are sprouting may have been here for as long as there have been people to maintain them. Generation upon generation of woodsmen tending the same trees.

There are very few really sizable specimens here, nevertheless this is ancient woodland. It is a fragment now, of course. The vast Wauberghe forest, from which there are surviving acres dotted here and there across the county, disconnected, breakwaters against the tide of fields.

It is musky down at ground level, damp and redolent of layered decay. A beautiful thick rich smell that creeps in and stays. Fingers into the mulch of the floor, and it is warm, or at least not the hard ground I might find outside in the swiftly disappearing gloom. There are generations here, too, here under me. And birdsong everywhere. A cloud of sound. I could sit a lifetime and not disentangle it. I stay still, and it moves around and back but leaves this space, my shape, this terrible vacuum of me, and will do so until I’m gone. In The Peregrine Baker called it the human taint: I could get this under my nails, rub it into my skin, but I can’t be a part of it. Never a part of it, not until I’m broken up, consumed and shared and my too solid artifice and otherness, liquified and colloidal, slinks back into the earth and the water.

I stand up and like the foreigner I am, brush the dirt from me immediately. I walk, easier now, brighter and clearer, to the far edge of the wood. The ground slips and falls with a striking suddenness. I had looked at the map last night, but forgotten this. A railway cutting, now abandoned and overgrown, which limns the North East boundary of the site. The old Somersham to Ramsey line, built at the end of the Nineteenth Century and then gradually cut back and closed to passengers and freight within just a few years, it draws a straight line to the road where my car is parked, and disappears under a bridge I didn’t see in the dark and then on, to the old Warboys station, or the site of it at least. The sides of the bank are slippy, and I run and hop and jump to the bottom in ungainly style. Orchids, the reserve sign promises, carpet the bottom and sides of the cutting in Spring. I walk the length of it, to the bridge. Goldfinches swarm ahead, from thistle to thistle, the new sun picking them out dipping from one dessicated briar to the next.

Simple wooden steps, wet and rotten, pick through the brush, up the side of the cutting and back out to the edge of the wood. The sky is bright blue, now, even though the sun is still beneath the horizon. I tramp through the scrub, scattering a melting frost. At the gate, I look back and watch as the sun appears. The sky is invaded by cloud already. Mackerel skinned ridges spreading in so quickly, conjoining and thickening, that the day will be grey as quickly as it brightened.

In the car, and I move away, but stop to check my kit. All careful, careful and considered, careful and considered and so very protected against the sharp and the wet and the sheer awful miring inconveniences of Creation. And something catches my eye, out in the sodden field, what seems a great clod of sandy brown earth trembles and fractures. It unfurls, uncoils, becomes something else entirely. A buzzard, shaking itself into the world. I watch from the car, astonished as it breaks apart, separating from the frame. The sunlight scatters behind as it flaps and flurries, casting water droplets everywhere before settling. He is bird-shaped now, hawk-shaped, full of tension and disdain. A study in beauty and scorn.

He sees me and spins his head away, looks into the new sun, spreads his wings, pushes his feet against the planet, and lifts from it.