I knew that the night had been a cold one from the way that the heating boiler lurched intermittently into life, the radiators clicking and jolting as the hot water gurgled through their veins. But it wasn’t until next morning, when I couldn’t get the top off of the composting bin because it had frozen shut, that I realised exactly how cold.
Through the window, I could see that the rosehips were wearing halos of ice, and the slats in the dark blue fence were rimed with frost. A destroying angel had pointed her finger at the geraniums next door, and they had collapsed. She had touched the leaf edges of other, hardier plants with a delicate brush, painting traceries of white along the veins. The lawn crunched under my feet and, as I left the bungalow and headed out along the pavement, every indentation held a milky puddle.
I didn’t want to walk too far: the sun had risen but it was bitterly cold, and I was fighting a throat infection. So I stopped to take a picture of a rook silhouetted against the sky on one of the roof tops, and then pressed on. I was heading for a sad little farm gate just along the road, surrounded by weeds and discarded farming equipment. I had a feeling that it would be worth pausing there for a few minutes to let the calm seep back into my bones.
I was in Milborne St Andrew visiting my parents and, while there are no immediate crises, there is always the question of whether there will soon be one. Dad has a bad cough, Mum has a potential UTI. We’d been out and about, buying a new bed (Mum took a tumble out of the old one because of the inadequate mattress) and looking at carpet (because the old, cream bedroom carpet had taken a dropped cup of coffee too many). We’d been out to dinner at an inn where we had been the only customers, and the standard of the meal was evidence as to why. Add into that some computer support, a fair bit of cooking and general troubleshooting, and it was clear to me that I needed to recharge for half an hour. It’s been my experience that just being still and patient and keeping eyes and ears open is a fine cure if I’m overwrought or anxious.
I cross the road to the farm gate, and take a few minutes to tune in. This really is an unprepossessing spot: there’s a pile of logs, a fine stand of teasel, some of the ubiquitous farm sacks and pieces of orange twine, a copse of hazel and hawthorn. But there’s also a little stream that winds past the shrubs and the gate, and disappears into the estate of fine cottages next door.
I can see and hear that the branches of the hawthorn are full of little birds: there is the chirruping of sparrows, the wheezing of starlings, the tinkling of goldfinches and the occasional irruption of an angry blackbird. I lean over the fence and can see that the birds are waiting on twigs above the stream to bathe.
I am always surprised by the joy that birds take in bathing, even when the temperature is below zero. But there they are, bellyflopping into the water, ducking and flapping and shaking themselves. Perhaps the importance of keeping feathers in good condition is even more marked when the weather is cold, and insulation is vital. Or perhaps they just enjoy it. At any rate, whole flocks of birds are ‘utilising the facilities’, a noisy, enthusiastic rabble.
Closer to me, goldfinches are flitting down to a shallow ‘beach’ on the other side of the stream, taking a few mouthfuls of water and throwing their heads back to swallow before flying back to the safety of the shrub, and then off. Something tells me that these are migratory birds, just arrived from Scandinavia, and on their way to somewhere else, with no time to hang around. They seem to be in perpetual motion, anxious to be off, a bit like my Dad when he has a doctor’s appointment and the car to take him to the surgery hasn’t arrived yet.
The water at the sides of the stream is a little bubbly, as if there is some kind of mild pollution. Nitrate run-off and other water contamination is widespread in the countryside, pouring off of the fields where crops have been fertilised or sprayed with biocides, but hopefully this is neither of these things. I hop over a stile (no mean feat in my long coat) and walk along the shady, overgrown path for a few yards until I can see the stream more clearly. Here, where the sun hadn’t yet touched the water, there is a filigree of icy lace along the bank, a thousand individual shards that are melting back into water even as I watch. I wonder what has fashioned each pattern: some combination of the shape of the bank, the currents in the water, or a stray piece of weed or stalk of grass seems to have changed the structure of each shape.
I love these seedheads with their myriad facets and their alien appearance, and so, it seems, do the travelling goldfinches. I notice that one of the seedheads is bobbing up and down, and realise that a goldfinch is grasping the stem with his claws, turning his head this way and that to pluck out the individual seeds. He weighs the plant down, and when he flutters to the next plant the teasel head bounces back up. The goldfinch is soon joined by another bird, and then another, the gold bands on their black wings fluttering between the plants until something spooks them, and they fly off into the bushes beyond. There is no time of year when it is more important to feed the birds: this year’s youngsters may not yet have worked out how to keep themselves alive when it gets cold enough to freeze the ground. And the way that birds of all kinds are attracted to the water reminds me to make sure that the ice on the garden pond and in the birdbath is broken so that they can get fresh water.
So, I head for home, only mildly frozen myself. A collared dove preens a wing with a long stroke of his foot, while he stands on top of a roof that is golden with lichen. A starling whistles from a telephone line. The puddles outside the house are starting to thaw around the edges. The beauty of this time of year is ephemeral, and it’s been worth dragging myself out of bed, and out of the house, to see it.
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