Dear Readers, this week I was in the village of MIlborne St Andrew in Dorset with my parents. Those of you who are regular readers will know that Mum has had some enormous health challenges in the past few months. Dad was also briefly hospitalized last week with a suspected stroke. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to have had any major effects (in fact there was no evidence on the brain scan that a stroke has actually happened), but Dad is having trouble using his left arm and hand, resulting in a lot of frustration at mealtimes, and the occasional rude word. However, both of them are in good spirits and so I decided to take myself off for a walk, to see if I could find anything interesting to share with you all.
Maybe it was my mood, but finding something ‘interesting’ didn’t come easily. The wind rippled through the fields of barley and wheat, making waves as on a green sea, but all I could see was the monoculture, the lack of any other plant interlopers apart from the occasional bluebell growing on the edge of the crops.
There are signs telling me to ‘keep out’ and announcing ‘no admittance’ and chastising me for not cleaning up my dog poo, which seems a bit unkind as I don’t even have a dog.
I think that how we see the world depends on how we feel. I had done this self-same walk last month, and found it delightful. I suspect that the quality of my attention wasn’t what it might be. But then, as I decided to turn back, I looked up and saw a kestrel hunting, holding its own against the wind. I watched as it let the wind carry it and then hovered, all attention focused on a tiny square of green. It dropped to have a closer look, then rose again, poised on a pinnacle of air. I was so stunned that I didn’t even raise my camera. And then the bird swooped away, and disappeared behind the trees.
I walked on. I spotted a yellowhammer in the tree, not far from where I saw one on my previous walk. Blackbirds and blue tits flew past with worms and caterpillars in their beaks.
I reached a tiny area of woodland that I’d trudged past on my outward journey without noticing anything at all. But in fact, just below the level of the road there was a miniscule bluebell wood, hemmed in by fields on one side and a hedge and path on the other. From the deep blue colour and the scent I’d say that these were native bluebells, and they were mixed with windflowers and lesser celandine and primroses. Was this tiny spot a remnant of a much larger wood that had somehow, mysteriously, been preserved? I tried to work out how to photograph it but it was too well protected, too difficult to get to, what with the hedge and the ditch and the barbed wire fence and all. And yet, maybe this very inconvenience is what has kept it so diverse and so pristine for all these years.
As I passed the wood and hit the top of the hill, I saw three roe deer feeding in a field that was probably a mile away. One had antlers just growing. Roe are my favourite deer – I love the way that they just disappear into the undergrowth, jumping over bushes by seemingly retracting their legs into their bellies with no effort at all. Even at this distance they seemed to notice me, looking up and sniffing the air. A prey animal must be constantly on the look out, and it is not as if humans are safe to be around. I both understand and hate the way that creatures flee from us – it reminds me of J.A.Baker’s masterwork ‘The Peregrine’, in which he speaks of how humans ‘stink of death’. When I do meet animals who are not afraid of me, all that I can think of is how vulnerable they would be to other humans who might not have such benign intentions.
As I head back I notice that one of the houses has symbols of my favourite saint, St Francis of Assisi, and of what I’m fast beginning to think of as my totem animal.
By now, the village is coming into sight. I notice that the house martins are back, flying in giddying circles above the cottages, and a single swallow flies over the wall and on into the garage of the buildings opposite. I wonder how it would be to have a martin’s or a swallow’s nest under my eaves, and imagine how happy I would be to see the owners returning after their long flight north, and how heart-broken I would be if they didn’t come back. And I puzzle a little over how some people will destroy the nests because of the inconvenient noise and mess. For me, the thought of the confused birds turning anxious circles around the spot where they thought they’d built their nest, the knowledge that there may be eggs to be laid and nowhere to lay them sparks a feeling in my heart that is little short of anguish.
As I ponder these thoughts, a starling with a beak full of worms flies up on top of the burglar alarm outside one of the other houses. As I watch, she jumps up into the eaves and I hear the wheezing cries of her nestlings. She leaves the nest at such speed that I’m sure she’s aware of being watched, and doesn’t want to draw attention to the nest site. I notice that the house has been sold, and so there probably won’t be anyone around, at least for a few weeks. When they do move in, I hope that they are as delighted as I would be to have a nest site for this increasingly rare bird, and that they aren’t too worried about the state of their brickwork.
What strikes me most as I head back to make yet more pancakes for the parents, is how this really was a walk of two parts. Maybe it takes a little while for me to get into my stride, to slow my thoughts down enough to notice what’s going on outside. Or maybe, like the wind that’s still rustling the beech hedge, my mind is full of breezes and zephyrs and moments of stillness, ever changing. Like the kestrel, I have to learn to ride my moods, whatever they might be.