Shipley glen is shrouded in mist as I make my start, for last night’s rains are already burning off under a sun beating to get through the lingering cloud. It could go either way, I think, but cavalierly shuck the idea of a rain coat like a too-cautious skin. Anyway, I’m aiming for cover: for nature’s putting-away and hiding place, the woods. The leaves will umbrella me if needed. I am all eyes down, for I have about me an express purpose today: today I will search out the liquorice-lacquered stag beetle – Scarabaeoidea – and like a child I of course hope to find the male of the species with its cumbersome and fearsome looking antlers. Pincers I’d always thought them; nippers; doers of harm and my soft brain had counselled caution. Not to go near, not to like, not to find it beautiful to carry your weapon of defence so outward and obvious. All its perfections on its head. Once, I had seen one outside my first remembered home traffic with a spider. And lose. It was dragged down a sewer cover in the end to an undisclosed but entirely known fate. I must have been little for all my memory is very close to the ground of that little battle.
No remarker of hawthorn blossom today I – and just as well for it’s nearly all over now; no noticer of the almost-adult goslings on their glides. The canal a brown be-petaled stillness beside me. Too open to the sky and moving feet, bike tyre and push-chair wheel here. But still I am studious at the sides of the path looking for its jet-black armour. It’s a kind of discipline, to hold the image in the mind’s eye – a glint of black making ponderous passage through last year’s leaves – and hope that by omnipotence of thought you’ll somehow conjure it to shuffling life. Any black thing is a tantalising promise for just a second until the eye discovers it as something else. More often than not the intrusions are dog litter, careless cast-offs by the way. There’s a claustrophobia in looking down into undergrowth so long and I want to turn up the face, stretch the back, and see the birds who are trilling their songs, but as I said this is a discipline and just my luck if I looked up and lost the sight of this click-carapaced wanderer. It’s a slow kind of walking that’s required in swervy zigs and zags. Were I a snail, I’d have limed the path in silver traces back and forth by now. But I don’t really expect him to show himself here: I’m waiting on Hirst Wood for my prize viewing.
There’s a close relief as I get under the canopy of the first few trees and breathe deep the mulchy, pulpy air. It’s thick and heavy under here: humid invisible presences like walls you walk through under the densest of the trees. The wood trying to air itself after the rain. And I should have thought about the mud as my impractical shoes sink and grapple. I tussle with a problem here which I had not thought to have – there is leaf mould in every direction of course so where best to look for the bashful beetles? There’s a loggery up ahead. That might yield something. But I look into all nature’s hidey-holes along the way, just in case, for these are the refuges I know will keep them: close, pent, safe for a secret mating. Into bored out tree trunks – made shells of their former selves by wood worm; under logs wet with last night’s rain. And all the while a chorus of loud dripping going on about me as the leaves shed the last drops of wet in heavy globes. At the stands of nettles and brambles I am defeated – beware all ye who enter here. A spiteful thought: that will of course be where they are hiding.
At the loggery I turn up the usual suspects under the smallest logs: woodlice almost made primordial in their see-through armour that the dark has not trained to colour; some worms wriggle about; and no doubt smaller things than I can see. I stand up and still disappointment takes me for a moment – and then in the periphery of my eye, a rustle of leaves. I look down in almost-welling hope and there’s a flash of grey-brown soft down. No stag beetle but something else. Tiny, delicate, pointy-nosed little fidgeter dives out from under the log to pull at leaves. Like a mouse, but not. The name won’t come, but I’m struck by an almost-recognition on the tip of the memory – something moley, casting me back to a Wind in the Willows or Farthing Wood childhood parody. That sooty brown coat, that whiskered sharp nose, the hiding eyes. Two of them now! I am so still beside the fallen tree limbs and other ‘whack’ that they’re safe enough to venture a sniff from out beneath the log and tease leaves back under with them. One look is to imagine one in my palm: its lightness, its smooth fur, the tiny bones, absorbing all the world – food, mate, danger – through its uplifted tapering snout.
It was, I later learned, a common shrew: sorex araneus. A whole realm of signification haunts this innocent snuffler. Wayward women we are told need taming: wives who berate, scold and prate at husbands worn down into the ground by it. How did you, little burrower, get weighed down by all this angst? Is it the pointy nose that struck a chord? Looking as though it would be in at everyone’s business: poking, prodding; nagging, attacking. But all I see is a dainty little rummager. Furtive flashes from the safety of the logs into the cool leaf mould show you to be indifferent to human mythologies. I stand and observe you in petrified stillness for a while lest I disturb. Then – nothing. You’ve hunkered down in your lair, I assume, but I still linger as if my reverent quiet will bring you out again. But no, no more. Don’t be greedy.
‘Beshrew me’ uttered in the antique sense was to call a curse down on oneself. But I felt the opposite on this day where I went out to see stag beetles and instead caught darting glimpses of shrews. Like so many of life’s adventures, misbegun; but in the slick-treed wood, errant hope got this exchange.