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.

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