gentle his condition

I arrived at work too early, and crossed the road in the dazzling low sun dawn to walk through the trees and parkland that surround the Astronomy buildings. Although much here is new, the main building is almost two hundred years old. It’s about a mile from town, and when the Observatory was completed, it must’ve been a splendid walk out here, no lights, just a slew of stars above and sparkling new instruments waiting to be used.

Now it is surrounded; newer buildings, small sheds, larger blocks with great domes, a 36 inch telescope from the 1950s, the huge Northumberland telescope from the early years.

Along the straight drive toward the old building, past the bare trees washed rust by the new sun, a Sparrowhawk glides a foot or two above the tarmac. She is so low a few dried leaves are pulled up in her wake.

All is quiet. The other birds have stopped. Nothing dares but after a moment the hedgerow begins to shift and stir again. And it’s full. Woodpigeons, Collared Doves, Redwing, all start to shake themselves back to life. Across Churchill’s playing field the Rooks and Gulls drop back to their squabbling, shadows expanding at their feet.

Threaded through the hedges, a dozen or more dots move and plait, all lining up and separating, and then lining up again. Long-tailed Tits. More than a dozen, twenty maybe, a wave of tiny almost weightless birds. They’re so difficult to see individually and focused, but peripherally, not directly stared at they moved and dance around. They will be in kin groups, they invariably are. When they nest, and they nest in great numbers, sometimes the broods fail and when that happens the unlucky parents will latch on to broods set up by their own siblings and help out. Chicks are fed and tended by a host of family members and these groups then stick together throughout the year.

Confiding, the bird books call them. They move along in front of you and then double back and follow.

Earlier in the year, in a reserve up in the North East, I had watched a small group from a hide, busy at the feeders, industrious, restless, hanging upside down to feed. A Sparrowhawk appeared there too, although I didn’t register it until it had silently steered in through the trees and hammered straight into the middle of the group. A tiny combustion of grey feathers and it was gone.

No such drama here. Not this time, at least. The wave moves on, the happy band dashes to another tree.

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full and fair ones come and buy

Early. Pothole dark.

From somewhere, I have adopted an addiction to the planned early start. And, although more often than not I dismiss the idea as the alarm wrenches me from sleep, occasionally I still grab the opportunity as it floats past. This time, it helps that I know where I’m going. A field I know well, a route with which I am more than a little familiar. I don’t have to look at a map and hope it might work out. Too many times I’ve done this with a head-shaking ignorance and hope and faith and only a vague idea which evaporates in the milky light of dawn. But not this time.

I even discover, as I swing my legs into the chill of the room, that I’ve laid everything out in some sort of preemptive strike against my own inertia. Camera, binoculars, boots, all my warm weather togs. The earlier version of me, the last night version of me, I now recall, really wanted to do this, and so up I get and the film from the previous evening runs in reverse as I pick up each item, and pack it or climb into it, arranging myself in preparedness for the shock of the cold.

But the cold is part of it; the sky, clear of cloud, is part of it; the brilliant moon, only just beginning to wane, is part of it.

The frosted world is layer upon layer of emery paper flat diamond sparkle in the moonlight. Leaden, echoey, magnified and still. There are shadows, the moon is so bright. Sharp and clear, black and white, a relief-printed landscape.

Along the A10 nothing moves, but turning off onto the fen roads, the droves, the farm tracks, here there are tractors which roar past, their halogens kicking the darkness away across the dark ridged soil. When they vanish around the right-angled corners the raven night thunders back in like a cellar door closing, and the moon gradually has to reassert itself. The furrows in the fields look like corrugated iron.

Down a tunnel of trees, the road littered with mud and debris from the fields. It is all dips and hollows this road, demanding a steady slow pace. The trees illuminate in grey and pass behind me. Dead and leafless frames imprinted by the sweeping headlights. Momentarily I bring to mind Maurice Denham’s character in Jacques Tourneur’s brilliant 1957 horror movie, Night of the Demon. Denham is racing to the country estate of an occultist to call off a demon that has been summoned against him. He knows the creature might be in the trees he’s racing past (“I’ve heard it, I’ve seen it, I know it’s real!”) and glances fitfully back and forth, as if the presence is right there, unseen behind the first few branches as they loom and vanish. It must be forty years since I saw it for the first time, but that thought blooms in my mind each time I drive at night through those woods that seem to arch across the car. Something in the trees. It’s in the trees. I’m somewhere else entirely when I do this. I think myself out of where I know, pluck myself out and there, haunting, the memory of an old movie places me elsewhere.

The road turns again, another ninety degrees. The sun is a long way off but the sky is lightening and shapes are pushing out of it, crawling, easing from the dark. By a crossroads, a hidden crossroads, appointed not with roadsigns but footpath markers, the trees thin above me and become taller and more distinct, pushed apart by this unknown junction. As I swing the car down the track I want, the sweep of headlights, the car noise, something, sends a thunderhead of Rooks into the air above me. A scattering of pitch pebbles the sullen blue.

I pull into the layby by the field entrance and step out. It is warmer than when I got into the car, but not by much. The moon beams down and over by the small squat hide the sun is a half hour from making its entrance. In Spring and Summer this field jangles to the sound of Skylarks, but now there is another cry, something keening, wailing. A mourning in the distance, lost in the murk, the fen taking it before I catch it properly. The gloom is thinning – light unthickens – but the fen seems flawless and smooth and easy from here, and I know that it isn’t, I know it’s scrubby and rough and marshy. Into the grey line of the closer horizon, beyond there, the field hits a river and beyond that turns into a wilder, ancient landscape. Managed, but a managed wildness, reclaimed wildness.

In the hide, and the short walk across to it sees ever quicker and quicker changes in the light. A stretch of water opens out, reeds fringing the edge, Coot and Gadwall negotiating. And I stand here and watch it. And stop, and allow time to compress around me. I chisel these spaces out of my time. I wrest them from the mire of engagements and appointments and obligations and people and demands and all the fearful dread cataloguing of life. Standing still and concatenating the dull, measured nonsense of the world so that it can be put aside, even if for just a minute. A man standing on his own in the retreating dark, breathing and holding the moment.

And in the tiny, priceless, frost dusted moment: I watch the dawn turn the clouds a coral pink that last for seconds, just for seconds; I see a squadron of Fieldfares vault the trees in waves of grey and fawn; a dozen Gadwall lift and circle and splash back into the water; and a Hen Harrier, drifting in along the water’s edge, her head down and scanning, the wings a perfect scimitar, filled only with intuitive malice and hungry compulsion. As rare and glorious and fabulous as things can be.  But, I’ve heard it, I’ve seen it, I know it’s real. A startling thing, a brilliant thing. She turns and banks and I see the white rump and the thin dark tail and she vanishes, simply vanishes against the chaos of the trees and fresh new bright light as it floods in from the East.