Sunday, 21 December 2014

Winter Solstice

The year-weary sun is crossing the sky towards an early sinking death, leaving us in darkness. The moon too has turned and hides her light from us. Only the cold stars will stud the sky if the clouds allow. 

The hours of night will be long, the longest we have known since the sun warmed the land last spring. 

But there are buds in the oak and catkins in the hazel, under the deep drifts of fallen leaves seeds soak up the winter rains and swell, preparing. 

Eventually dawn will come, and a fresh sun will rise with renewed energy, and in its pale sky a slim crescent moon will reflect this bright light. 
Each day this new sun will grow in strength, shining longer and warmer. This is the signal the nature has been waiting for. 

As the old sun waned, life retreated and withered; only the holly retained its verdant green. 

Now the oak will reclaim its crown and encouraged by the youthful sun, will allow energy to flow back into its leaves and unfurl to glory in the coming spring.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Festive frolicking in the heather

Come up to the Common, and help us with some conservation work They said! You can take home a christmas tree They said! It''l be fun They said! 
... They were right!

Saturday morning dawned cold bright and heavy with frost. Every leaf, grass blade and rooftop was crusted with ice, or glinting in the sun. I arrived at the common at about 10am, mid morning. The sun was well risen, and the day had aired long enough for some of the frost to sparkle as it melted, and the thick mud to ooze underfoot. The brightness of the sun blocked my view to the east; slender trees danced in front of it, and the light burst through between their ranks of trunks. All was grey-green and brown, yet gilded by golden light. Except the gorse, squat bushes of which were growing resolutely along each side of the path, proffering its vicious spikes to the frost, each thorny crown cradling a mass of yellow flowers like distilled december sunshine. 
High in the birch trees, minute movements dashed across my vision, accompanied by high thin calls. an autumn flock of small birds, mostly tits and crests were feeding in the topmost branches. I recognised the bold black markings of a great tit, and several bouncing pinkish baubles paused just long enough to reveal themselves as an extended family group of long tailed tits. the smallest of all were the goldcrests. Like mobile leaves these miniature green-hued birds flitted and hovered, seeking the insets and spiders succumbing to the frost. One goldcrest dropped low in the trees, taking a moment out from foraging to plunge into the icy waters of a tree-root-puddle and clean his vital feathers. I watched him through my binoculars as he sat on a branch preening and drying off. His flame like orange flash on his crown, bright and glorious. The flock moved on in their continual roving travels, and I too continued my walks, in the opposite direction. 
An unusual sound stopped me in my tracks; a bird like chattering from the gorse, someone clearly wasn't happy with my presence. a shifting, a movement, an appearance. There sat on top of a gorse bush in perfect field-guide-picture pose, was a dartford warbler*. A gorgeous male bird, of uniform charcoal grey from beak tip to long tail, with a bib of deepest claret wine. This was my first really good view of this bird, one that I had only glimpsed before. A heathland specialist, the dartford warbler relies on gorse bushes to harbour their insect food during the winter, even under snow cover, but here we are at the northern reaches of their range, and populations often crash during hard winters. This sighting cheered me to good spirits for the rest of the day, and was boosted by the additional unexpected view of a glorious male bullfinch, plump pink plumage illuminated by the sun. 

My birding walk was just the start of things. I returned to the car park to join the local Wildlife Trust volunteers and gathering public. We made our way out onto the heathland, and gathered to listen to a talk and instructions. We were here to help clear pine and birch trees from a patch of the heath, essential management work to protect this rare habitat. Lowland heathland has developed through centuries of human activity, and if ignored trees would rapidly grow up and the area would become woodland in a natural process known as succession. The Wildlife Trust (and other organisations) are endeavouring to maintain a mosaic of different habitats to protect the specialist species that rely on each. 

Very soon, small seedling scot's pine trees and twiggy birch saplings were being cleared and stacked beside a glowing bonfire. Smoke drifted lazily, misting over Neolithic barrows, dropping low under the high pressure of the fine weather and rising phantom-like from the heather. However, not every pine was destined to burn on the fire and scent the smoke. Across local villages and towns, preparations for christmas are gathering pace as the festive season gets underway, and now the homes of many of Saturday's volunteers are also adorned with a proud tree of heathland heritage. 

*Please note that Dartford Warblers are a rare, and sensitive species, both in the breeding season, and through the winter when they are particularly vulnerable to cold weather. I have purposely refrained from giving an exact location, for this blog/species for this reason.

Monday, 8 December 2014

The Summer Lands; Their Secret Season

Morning. Frost. The ground beneath my feet is frozen hard. I feel a little sorry for the cattle that shuffle and huff in the fields but more glad that it was them that had to stand out under the cold empty skies last night, not me. The landscape appears flat, stretching out away and away and away in every direction, to right, left, behind and ahead, until it is blocked at its farthest reach by a row of unmovable squatting hills. The sunlight is flat too. Straight beams, long light that sends one-dimensional shadows across the grass. Features of the landscape seem to hover on a different plane to the level land itself. Hedgerows run in crumpled ribbons above, and the water of the rhines below. And each layer, hedgerow, field, rhine; all is bound together with a tight wrapping of frost.
As the sun slowly warms, the birds are the first to free themselves; bouncing, and flitting over the frozen scene, loose and detached. Starlings head west, lapwings east. The Buzzard watches them pass, his large bulk still welded by frost to his night’s perch. The fieldfares take advantage of the hedgerow berry trees’ vulnerability, pulling and tugging at the precious fruits that are pinned down by the grip of winter. These grey-hooded thrushes are invaders here, scouts that arrived ahead of the cold weather, and they cackle and chatter together in a foreign tongue. Their ranks move through the hedgerows, looting and pillaging as they go, scattering ahead of us in disorganised panic when they realise we have caught them in the act.

At last the day has warmed enough for the buzzard to take flight, flapping low over the fields. A car passes in the lane. Each first of the morning, the first light, the first flight; it has happened now and the day passes the threshold from the new, fresh, and unpredictable, into the everyday, commonplace, and ordinary.  

~ ~ ~

Pale sky, cloud cloaked sunset and still, cold air. A few ducks dabble. Reeds are doubled in height as the flat calm of the water is plunged deep with reflections that are gently nudged by ripples as a coot paddles across the open space.  A water rail squeals breaking the peace, but quiet soon returns. A black crow flaps lazily eastwards.

At first they come streaming from the distance as though the very clouds are disintegrating into fine dust and blowing closer, swirling in drifts.
Dust gathers dust and soon they form a continuous plume accompanied by a whispering sigh.
Within minuets the sky is a shifting, never ceasing pattern of birds. Each follows its neighbour.

Gathered watchers gasp and many, later that night, or tomorrow, will try to describe the sight to those who were not there. Awesome, they might say. Or incredible, awe-inspiring, amazing. But our mere human brain; our usually all-conquering combination of logic and emotion cannot help us now. No words will quite convey.
This is nature reminding us of our insignificance.

The flock decides. Like a communal exhaling, bird after bird they drop from the sky, rushing, jostling, frantic, pouring in a darkening roar down into the reed bed. They turn the ground black.

As the remaining light fades, each individual bird merges with its neighbour and the unstable fluctuating congregation becomes indistinct, taking on the form of one larger entity, made of shadow, sound and movement.

The sight of thousands of birds silhouetted against the fading sky is of such sharp edged contrast that the image appears burnt onto the retinas at the back of my eyes, like the glaring intensity of sunspots, so my vision superimposes a mass of black specks on the pale surface of the clouds, even when the sky is clear and empty, and the birds are gone.

~ ~ ~

A waft of lapwings passes overhead, and I turn up the collar of my coat despite the efforts of the sun. Its warmth is outcompeted by the chill of the wind. I raise my binoculars again to take another look at the lapwings, which are now strung in a loose wavy drift across the rain-darkened sky. Their flickering forms catch the suns rays, white undersides glinting brightly and adding a pleasing element of life and movement to the scene of wide sky above rippling wetlands.
In the distance, tufts of rushes become clumps of willows, and further beyond them, beyond the occasional intruding corner of a rooftop or barn, is a shadowy audience of hills. Each high point has a name, but I only know the most famous, the distinctive mound that spirals up from its quaint sprawling town and is topped with a square tower; Glastonbury Tor.

I hadn’t realised the wind had abated for a moment, until it returned to shiver the rushes and water-lights, and find its way inside the neck of my coat. The lapwings are still circling, spread out now, into two hesitant groups. They seem unable to decide whether to land and are still continuing their fussing flights when the rain signals it is time that I leave them to their deliberations, halfway between the clouded sky, and it’s reflection.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

A change in the weather

The rain eases. Shoulders un-tense and breath comes sweeter. Down-turned faces rise towards pale  pastel, broken sky. 
Colour slowly drips back into the scene; subtle ochre's, fawns and earthy browns, soft layered greys, apologetic greens, jewel like yellow-golds and spangles of crystal and silver. 
The robin begins to sing.
The wind shivers the water droplets from the wayside vegetation, and a sudden gust catches the tops of the trees, ridding them of their remaining leaves, which fly high, tumbling and twirling, spread across the sky in a wide swirling flock as they twist and turn in valiant attempt to resist the ever downward tug. 
A blackbird's shrill alarm call pierces the quiet lull after the gust, its shadow-form darting across the path and vanishing into a mass of battered nettle stems and purple bramble thorn. 
At the corner of the path, a plumb breasted wood pigeon, blue-bloomed like the sloes and wild plums, balances precariously in the glossy ivy, pulling keenly at the black-eyed berries. He watches me with a wary yellow-ringed eye and tumbles unceremoniously out of the climber, flapping laboriously and frantically, pitting his bulky body against the laws of physics. 
The clouds have broken somewhat, taking form and shape, allowing a last glimmer of the day's brightness to lighten the sky before the hidden sun begins its slow sinking into evening. 

Sunday, 16 November 2014

For the love of books

"When o'er these verdant hills I stray, whose outlines bold and flowing to the sight, and forms of beauty swell in soft delight..."
'The South Downs. Sonnet.' - Charlotte Smith : "The Sussex Garland", James Taylor

I found treasure today; it smells wonderful and stirs the imagination in a delightful way. 

I have always adored books. Particularly old, sweet smelling books which have passed from hand to hand and seen a history of love, imaginings, and life. 
Second-hand bookshops and fairs have an irresistible lure for me and the few precious pennies in my pocket.
Throughout the winter, a monthly book fair is held in the community's centre in Midhurst, my home town, and I am often to be found browsing the numerous tables and shelves very much aware of, but trying to ignore, the dwindling bookshelf and storage space available at home. Today was no different, and once again the romanticism of soft paper and faded printers ink drew me to a number of lovely books. Alas, I could not give them all a loving home, and so I settled on one that kept catching my eye. 
Its blue-cloth and gilded cover is a little rough around the edges, but the spine is intact and the pages largely clean and unmarked. Gold letters adorn the spine; "The Sussex Garland". Upon closer inspection I found that its pages were filled with verse, rhyme and descriptive passage clearly inspired by and 'Illustrative of the County of Sussex". The foremost pages include a list of some 89 subscribers, a dedication to the Sussex Archaeological Society, and the date of 1851. It is a piece of Sussex Literary History, and I couldn't resist.

One poem that caught my eye was written by Lady Sophia Burrell (nee Raymond) of Knepp Castle near Shipley. The lines speak of the ruins of the former castle at Knepp that gave the later house its name, and of the rich history woven into the ruined walls and the landscape of the estate. Lady Burrell muses on the scenes the castle would have witnessed and the stories it could tell, and how the fallen stones remind us of how we are each only here for a lifetime and all must give in to fate and the rolling on of time. One of the subscribers was the then vice-president of the Sussex Archaeological Society Sir Charles M. Burrell, Bart., MP., who I am sure would have read the poem on Knepp Castle many a time with the perspective of familiarity.

Later in the book Shelley’s ‘The Skylark’ soars from the page and brings to mind one foggy day early this year when I stood atop The Trundle and listened to the song of a skylark that must have been flying in sunny heavens high above the dank cloud that cloaked my view.

The lines at the top of this blog-post are taken from ‘The South Downs. Sonnet.’ By Charlotte Smith and are just one example of how the downs and the county of Sussex have moved many a literary heart and soul across the years. And now the words of the moved live on long after the author's pen has ceased, to move us now as they have for the 163 years or more since they were recorded and this book was first read. 

I wonder what the history is of this particular copy. It has survived two world wars, and countless other conflicts from global scale down perhaps to family feuds and sibling squabbles. The soaking touch of damp has not reached it, and the fingers of fire have been kept at bay. All that, and now it has landed in my hands. 

'The Sussex Garland' is a book which I can see will have a special place on my shelf. It will join a number of other books that have found their way into my home and make me smile to gaze upon them and remind me of my place in time. Among their number are some with names handwritten within the cover, of family members in previous generations including a small copy of 'Wayside Thoughts From Tennyson', inside which reads "To Mary, from Edwards", names which I have come to know, to put personalities to, and to love, as I have discovered my family history through research in recent months. 

It is often said of how we are not owners but guardians, of land or suchlike, simply looking after it for our ancestors, before passing it on to those who will come after us. And so it is with anything, even with books.