Of Meadowland

The slow-going amble of a hedgehog had welcomed our first evening, its stretched body almost lost to us in the creeping dusk as it pulled night down slowly around it. Bothersome flies mobbed us, determinedly unspooked by waving hands, troubling the eyes and tickling at the nose. Loosening our strides down towards the river for some relief (past the honeysuckle, scenting sweet nectars), our eyes chased the evening’s swallow flights as they gulleted airborne suppers. This. This is what we had come for: space to breathe and to collect nature’s gleanings.

We had driven through moors of welted thistles and lapwings whose cunning kept them hidden in the stooked marram grasses; a snipe on a brief respite from its young; and grouse that only made themselves known by an antic chuckle: all throat and no song. Taking the narrowing country lanes that corset you between jumbling stone walls, we had seen the dying back of the cow parsley, and the emergence of the hogweed – all elbows and knuckles – evangelising to the sky. Loudly-proclaimed umbels; finest lacework before our eyes. We had looked doubtfully at glowering clouds of grey, against which the moors hulked sullenly. Here and there skulked hen pheasants, dun bodies carried low and a wary eye trained on all passersby. But as we got down into the valley, the creamy, tasty elderflower blooms saucered in the lanes: gone the hawthorn-blossoms that made the Dales white in May. Down, still down, through deepening lanes almost completely overarched in tiring summer greens of ancient oaks and sycamores, the road flushed us out like two partridge into the village of Low Row.

Fetched up in the bowl of Swaledale, away from wild unknowable moors, with their secret pockets of heath thymes, trefoils and bedstraws, our eyes claimed the downy meadows as our own. Stone-barned and stone-bordered living links, threading the valley’s geography, and as old as anything else here that the eyes can see, save only the brooding treeless hills. Their brute aspects are millenia-old limestone, crumbling in loosening shale at the top: slate-grey and warning of the folly of trying to climb them. They preside over layered volumes of stone, laid down almost-accidentally like forgotten books over centuries of time; little creatures, fish and plants, ossified forever in sedimentary secrecies. A day is but an eye-blink to these Yoredale geomorphologies; they deal in deep time. Stacking up silt and organisms in archives of rock; each one speaking to a different age of the world, differently charactered, with plants and animals discoverable in distinct typologies. I have been at Wain Wath force, the river licking at the rock like a tongue at gap-toothed gums, and found the minutely-preserved frond of a palm, and the impression of a bivalve shell. I have held them in my hands and felt the telescoping of time to when each of them thrived, in a landscape I would not have recognised.

And lying so lightly atop it, as seemingly impermanent and ephemeral as fossil is tough, meadowland is a temporary greening crust. The surface glamour to buried treasure. It does not know the words ‘lasting’ or ‘forever’, yet year on year, seed by seed, it incorrigibly grows itself again. To see a meadow is to see nature’s optimism writ large. Their vernal grasses were in the process now of oldening, some farmers already busy about the first summer cutting, leaving silvery waves of sillion hay in their wakes. Touched with a million yellow stars – buttercups, upturned faces transfixed skywards, the sun reified in each one – they were taking energy and laying it down for winter. Hard not to see them without the mind playing chin-tickling, fleeting tricks. At a distance, gold and green were the valley’s mantle: a straightforward dales greeting.

I am not deceived by their delicate glamour. However fragilely they may seem to cling upon the earth, there is something antique also in the meadow’s temporary armour. Some of these dales meadows have taken centuries of persuasion to come into being and are truly medieval. Years of sunshine have sung their petals and grasses open to make this rich lexicon of flower; countless winds have dispersed and deposited their seeds; floods of rain have watered them well in and been drunk down deep. Meadows are one of nature’s finest paradoxes: they are old and at the same time constantly renewed. They speak to decades, sometimes centuries, of patient craft and alliance between nature and farmer. If it is an orchid meadow, you can reckon that at least a century of sympathetic farming – leaving the meadow to its own devices for the majority of the summer; only mowing in August or September – has allowed the orchid to establish and bloom. Each one is only ever a temporary display of splendour, and I am smote with the nostalgia of looking over old things made crisply new.

Etymologically, the word meadow carries its own doom within it, deriving from the OE mǣdwe, which is in turn derived from the proto-Indo-European for ‘mow or reap’. Its name speaks of its unique relationship with farming, but also of its yearly ending. There is the undeniable risk that, mown too early, species of wildflower can be lost from meadowlands, and far more quickly than it took to grow and habituate them there. The farmer, working with nature, keeps the meadow alive and gets the benefit of the hay bounty as winter feed for the herd. The wisdom it takes to farm in this way is perhaps what George Ewart Evans meant when he called his account of the dying way of Suffolk farming life, ‘Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay.’

The next day – a birthday – we had come to the meadows from waterfalls where I’d sluiced my feet in sharp-cool water, and felt the touch of millenia in the peat-reddened rock and silt between my toes. I’d let abluvion wash the cares from world-weary bones. Now, under skies vastly blue, and standing in the midst of meadows pulsing with life, heat seethes over everything. It beats its velvet wings at the neck and limbs, as though it were a living thing itself; it crowds and sits like flannel in the mouth, and all the air is filled with the acrid tang of green growing things and dry dusts and grass seeds. The sun is a bright white disc above, with nowhere to hide from it in the wide-open cleft of the dale; fermenting the air to a heady cider in the blood. Everything about the meadows is wanting to get in: to get under the skin. It is oppressive and at the same time friending. I look on them as presiding mysteries. I want to chlorophyll up my lungs, and make them a little into my own chemistry.

Details come slowly from this cabinet of curiosities. I look upon the meadows with a collector’s avidity: wanting to claim and name every wildflower I see; to store up memorial specimens for my mind’s eye to take out and pause over later. My eyes, illiterate at first glance, see only grass, encompassed by walls of stone which trees have bitten through. All colour is made monochrome under the bleaching sun. In the blinding light, I have only mere impressions of blooms on the retina as I stoop-bend to uncover them from the grasses that crowd them. The grasses themselves – cock’s foot and meadow fescue, sedges and timothy – are brittling before my eyes. Bees and flies rise and fall, flower to flower, in lazy flights, absorbing the stark heat into their wings. Though newly July, the meadow’s hedging trees begin to show the oldening green of their leaves, left too long out in the sun. A percussion of cricketty strings from a myriad unseen grasshoppers clamours at my ear drums. All noise and no sight of them – I kneel to look. Ghostly things. A tinnitus of leg-squeakings. The meadows are a veritable factory of such things. A world in miniature, busy in the throes of industry: so alive that I feel the more so simply from being here under the same skies, breathing their goldening air.

Heartsease

Time was, we believed there was a signature for every ailment here: a plant resembled that which it was designed to heal. Eyebright to mend the vision because the flowers looked like little eyes; heartsease for an erratic pulse because the petals form a heart. The doctrine of signatures was the country folk’s herbal, and how many of the common names came about: lungwort, lady’s mantle; self-heal. This kind of physick was very literal.

I bind the Dales: I am flower-whisperer, way-maker, step-slower, rain-drinker, seed-shaker, stem-quaker, wind-friender, bird-bringer, ankle-kisser, hand-tempter, bee-fetcher, cure-grower, grass-singer, leg-clinger, lung-filler, soul-lifter, dew-sparkler, wave-bearer. See my pink storksbill, jewelled to perfection in magenta with a white eye; and here the perfect white stars of my stitchwort-flowered eyes; here tormentil to stud the grass and wink up at the sky with yolky yellow. These my treasures: come try, come try. See here, this harebell, here this bell of robin’s-egg blue, for you. Here, I’ve brought the colour of sky to earth. I sat on this through a hard-bitten winter, worked all the springtime on it, awakening seed and soil to this alchemy. It is a love song I prepared for thee. Self-heal for the hurt you carry; orchids to show you that there can still be beauty; betony to knit and clean your open wound; stitchwort to sew you back together; eye-bright to help you see all my treasures laid before you. I implore you, do not pass me by without brushing a hand through all my bounty. I am the layman’s apothecary: come try, come try.

Harebell

Meadow speaks the most eloquently of the two of us – with the fluency of flower and grass – so that I read its arrangements, every time, slightly differently, and always with wonder. Its fragility is inherent in the careful parasitic balance of yellow-rattle (sometimes called meadow-maker) and its host plant, grass. Like hedge bindweed, and other plants that make their way through symbiotic, mystical pairings – the yellow rattle binds itself to the grass and exhausts it, strangling its ambition to take over. Its smothering love makes space for smaller and yet more delicate flowers: dainties like the harebell, which the meadow conjures on the slenderest of stems for its little knell, such that a stiff fall of rain could lay it out.

These meadows are a vital link in the old Dales Corpse Way – the way in the medieval period linking Keld to Muker, to Reeth, to the final destination at St Andrew’s Church in Grinton. St Andrew’s was known as the Cathedral of the Dales and was the only church for centuries where mourners could bring their dead for burial. What hard-grafting business it must have been. We had walked some of the way from Keld in the morning’s heat, stifled by it with only our own bodies to carry, whilst noting the pale yellow and purple of the heartsease like a drift of snow upon the grass. The thought of bearing a body on hill-climbing and steepening ways, round about the valley until final reaching its bottom filled us with awe and horror. Did the meadows midwife them through her passages as they do me now? Through snug stone squeezes into meadows new, past green upon green of ripening winter feed: fattening and not-quite-mature-yet seeds. And did they pick some of her summer blooms to arrange in the funeral bier? Heartsease for remembrance; harebell for grief; agrimony, an old physick for melancholy.

They are sustenance in every sense, these meadows: in the practical sense, they keep a dwindling array of insect life alive; they feed the farmer’s sheep come winter; and they meet, perhaps least importantly, a deeply-felt need in me now, with the immediacy of a shot taken to the bloodstream. I inhale and draw the sillage of the meadow deep into myself: embrace the feeling of being pollen-bothered and spore-gathered and petal-fuddled in the waning light. My cantering heart won’t be still, but is attuned to smell; to the powdery puffs of pollen from the cock’s-foot grass; to a fescue’s touch. Remnants of living things thick-tickle my throat until my tongue is dumb from their clamouring.

It occurs to me that, across the whole country, meadows are kin – a dynamic chain of natured, inexhaustible being, which the bees, hoverflies, butterflies and moths, know the particularities of, and the byways between. Each one colludes to form a living map whose job is to sustain all manner of creatures. As we turn steps homeward out of the final stone squeeze, I know that soon enough it will be the time of the reddening sorrel, blazing its red-caped leaves to quarrel the grass; when all else will have gone to seed and sorrel alone will stand different and special. Then the ancient insect flight-paths, unmarked on any map, will once again lie dormant and unused: flower, seed and bee all buried, for another year at least.

Self-heal

At the time of hay-making

Muker4

The air hangs in heavy skeins about us, thick as threads to walk through and swollen with pollen almost tasting on the tongue. Unlike in the cities, the sky is split wide open here in the Dales and stripped by the hungry cries of the swallows winging it above, skirting the stone barns and scooping their dinners out of thin air. They swing loose on invisible paths, their characteristic forked tails making perfect stabilisers as they sail gracefully through each arc. It is pleasing simply to watch them belly out across the view and join up the two halves of the valley like a pendulum. Is it my fancy that they seem to fly southerly, as if rehearsing the end of year exodus to warmer climes? The snap and glide of their wings is nearly all one hears on this sultry day in the stillness of the meadow, and I think to myself: their dynamism is mine too. My thoughts follow them freely, hitched to their flights.

We’ve come to the hay meadows at Muker like pilgrims, humbly and seeking something rare: Yorkshire’s wildflowers grown undisturbed on Yorkshire soil. We are pilgrims in spirit at least, because in terms of transport we’ve cheated and driven in the VW to get here, parking up under a tree where the bank falls away into the river. The busyness of Muker envelops us from first footfall on its soil: sounds of water and laughter, ice creams being bought and slurped outside the general store which has faded postcards on sale at the door for 30p, proof that some things stand still. As we made our way over country-cambered roads, the farmers of Swaledale were out in force making hay while the sun shone, big machinery methodically cleaving, releasing into the air the acrid tang of newly cut grass so that it smelled ozone green, sappy and harsh to the nose. But at Muker the grass and flowers are left long until late in the season, an agreement between the conservationists and farmers to let the native wildflowers and the biodiversity they encourage thrive for as long as possible. It’s June. The meadows are not for harvesting yet, but are still in their growing season. Borrowed time.

Muker7

The heat is not yet the smothering heat that will settle in this summer and cram like cotton wool in the ears and the mouth. It lilts on the tops of the buttercups, the yellow rattle and the delicately lobed flowers of the stitchworts. The shepherd’s purse is not leggy, stressed or dessicated with it yet, nor have the speedwells faded to palest blue, the edges of their petals crisped by the scorch of the sun. The tiny white tubular trumpets of the eyebright are still stout and unwavering in the embrace of the rattles and grasses; the cranesbills livid bruises of colour. Time for wilt and running to seed all too soon. There’s the promise of it even now in the building noonday heat.

Meadows like those between Muker and Keld are many decades in the making. Yet you can make a meadow in just a year too, proving that endurance is harder than beginning. They are part of the DNA of Muker and Swaledale now – a “unique selling point” the guidebooks depressingly averr, as if here were to be found a commerce of flowers; nature’s supply and demand.  People travel to Muker specifically to see the meadows, as did we when first we visited in May, walking slowly but purposefully up the hill from the main street, anticipating our first view of them laid out under the sun, our imaginations having conjured great tempting images of meadows flower-full and an orchid in every patch. To see a wild orchid was the apotheosis of my desire and I coveted it like a child that wants the most prized sweet in the shop. I knew such images were traps for disappointment, but no one can control their wishes. Such was my wistfulness when, stopping to admire some flowers accidentally-on-purpose growing in a trough, we were accosted by one of the residents who took this as her cue and nipped in to provide botanical assistance. Cuckoo flowers, she informed us: pale, lavender-pink and lovely, clustering on slim-throated stems. The visual counterpart to the bird which (if you’re lucky) you hear calling at this time of year. The encounter savoured of the professional Mukerist, I thought at the time, fully aware of the town’s draw and perhaps assuming that the average Joe doesn’t know the names of Britain’s wildflowers. And I don’t really blame her – there are few enough of the native species about these days to make their names familiar.

Muker9

To say their names out loud all together is my kind of liturgy – lady’s bedstraw, yellow rattle, eyebright, meadow cranesbill, self-heal, stitchwort, shepherds purse, speedwell. Sacred almost, and to be spoken of in hushed, reverential tones – or a jubilant incantation: a spell. And in one sense, these flowers were thought of as spells: self-heal for minor aches, cuts and pains; buttercups to tell if you like butter; stitchwort to relax spasms. All your cures at your feet, as it were: nature’s walk-in pharmacy for those who lived on and worked the land.

Muker8

Now that it is June and our second visit, we approach the start of the way through the meadows knowing a little of what to expect. It’s the buttercups we notice first, as though the tips of the meadows unfolding before us have been burnished with yolky liquid light. May was good for this – but June! June is godly. To see them now, numbering in the thousands and clothing the earth with gold is mirage-like. You or I would dream a place like this. It is this vague elusiveness that enriches the sense of the meadow’s impermanence. You walk through it aware of the cycle of the seasons and each flower seen is as flash-by-soon-die as if it were already cut and dried.

My gaze snags on the roughened walls of the stone barns on the approach, already looking ahead greedily, but as with so many national trails and popular beauty spots, there is a bombardment of signage at the start which arrests you just as you’re ready to begin. At Muker, these signs are mostly wooden with some plastic and metal ones for variety. Variations on ‘keep your dog on a lead’, ‘stick to the paths’ and others trumpeting the rarefied nature of the meadows jostle on a crowded wooden post. Admonitory salutations to get us on our way with the appropriate air of solemnity for the task at hand. Meadows are not to be tripped through lightly, you know.

Muker6

When we embark into the first, we do so paying the required fee – the cost is to our dignity by having to push ourselves through the stone squeeze, like camels through the eye of the needle. The passing from each meadow into the next is conducted in this fashion: through the sutures of stone squeezes in various sizes. The effect of so many uncomfortably close encounters with the local stone is to transform the simple act of passing through a gate into an event, and entry into each meadow is bargained for in this way. That’s fair enough, I think to myself, secretly enjoying the ceremony of passing through each different stone ‘cwtch’.

Muker10

I find the meadows themselves slightly self-conscious of their draw for the tourist: divided by a flagstone path up the middle with a to-ing and fro-ing of dog-walkers, families and hikers processing up the line. One man calls out in our general direction as he passes, “I’ve not seen a single insect in any of these meadows!” It’s a baffling salute to strangers on the way, as if the meadows are not performing satisfactorily in his eyes. We ourselves have witnessed many insects, and bees in particular, and I share a look with my companion, again thinking of the profesional Mukerist, preoccupied with demonstrating their conservation-mindedness, here to affirm their allegiance to the local flora and fauna.

Muker1

The valley is so far removed from its glacial founding that it feels a little like a large open nave, with worshippers treading the old stone aisle cutting up the centre. Curious. The flagged path serves the twin purposes of keeping the wilful worshipper along the straight and narrow (and in case you don’t get the message there are signs telling you to keep to the path), and forcing your momentum as you proceed ever onward. There is of course an onward inclination to every path, and I am driven by the hunt for the elusive orchid too, my heart a little sore at not having found any. But I must confess what is most attractive in the idea of a meadow is the dilatoriness it invites. The way in which it calls one to meander in amongst, not simply through. Dogs illicitly off the lead have made canine desire paths through the long grass, and Oh how I wish I could join them. With regret, I discover that the Muker hay meadows do not encourage dilly-dallying, and you are certainly actively discouraged from all thoughts of wandering in amongst them. Bent backed, our heads at flower-height, we must appear oddities to those toeing the line. At this level, the bouffant heads of the clover are rendered in beautiful and particular detail. Our survey of the flowers on offer is of necessity limited to those which can be glimpsed from the path, and our naming of them is something between tentative skill or guess work and clumsy misattribution.

It is not that I do not understand that the walker is corralled in this way to protect the flowers, but that I regret that such prohibition should be necessary at all. The path through a meadow feels as unnatural as a corset and the experience of walking it – for one who has come to see the wildflowers – thrums with latent frustration. I am heartened to see one woman, having abandoned the path, sitting against the dry stone wall of the last meadow before the river and simply relaxing into the moment as swallows jettison their bodies with abandon above.

Muker3

You can stare at a clutch of flowers against grass for a long time until the mind slowly unstitches them into their different forms. Sense is made slowly of them. More enchanting perhaps than any orchid are the heart-shaped seeds of the shepherds purse. And plantain – which I’d been used to think of as a playground weed, so sad and lank in tarmac crevices – when in flower has brown heads dusted with white pinpricks like sugar. My favourite flower glimpsed this day? The eyebright, once thought to be a remedy for soreness of the eyes; its little hairy stems support spires of brilliant and tiny white lipped flowers, not unlike those of the penstemon family. Beautiful, all clustered together, like nuns’ wimples or arms stretched wide.

Awakening the Moor

A throwback to my holiday last autumn…

Near the improbably named Botany Bay in the North York Moors threads Ouse Gill beck, plunging swift and strong through ironstone and shale deep down into the cut of Bransdale. Travel into the heart of the dale and you will find the National Trust’s High Lidmoor farmhouse, rented to holiday-makers like us: people on the hunt for adventure in the wildlands of the National Park; for escape from the humdrum everyday; for what Richard Mabey calls the ‘nature cure’. ‘Botany Bay’ conjures Antipodean daydreams, making its appellation here bizarre in the extreme, the village sitting in the middle of the North York Moors, where the briskly cold moorland tops brim with heather, offering a kind of wilderness irrevocably removed from the hot sand of south-of-the-equator beaches.

With music humming from the car speakers, we make our winding way through Gillamoor and begin to climb the moor. Twice we make a wrong turn just beyond Ouse Gill Beck and, my navigation skills cast into disrepute, I am relegated (perhaps fairly) to passenger only. But another thought occurs to me, legacy of countless children’s books where entrance portals to other worlds are found only after a test has been passed: the holiday destination that is hard-won is at once more worth the trouble, more private, and more likely to lead to adventures. This is a good sign, I think to myself, in this way neatly excusing my poor navigational skills. In direct proportion to the increasingly wild beauty of the landscape, dwellings of the human variety become fewer; instead gluts of beehives colonise the purpling moor-tops with their sweet promise. The bees are in heaven — in heather — up here under a sky I am not used to thinking of as so silvery-big. It hangs with infinite possibility. Scuds of cloud are caught on it, their pace leisurely and unhurried — a pace it is only natural that I will borrow for the week.

We climb the moor road which ridges the valley like a spine and startle unwary cock pheasants into berserk runs. Others pay us no mind at all and dawdle regally as if to make a point of access rights. Good for you, I think, as we go up and over the moor. It feels wonderfully remote up here, as though we are putting the rest of the world away for the week, and I can already feel myself ready to slough off my working day self: all the minutiae of life that keep us small and wearied in a busy world. A left turn with caution down the valley (the car managing the traps in the road woozily, jostling us back and forth), and then the breath held as we arrive up the gated farm track to take stock of our new fiefdom. Clouds spool out over the sky, farms pocket the fells on either side and between them fall enclosed plots laid out untidily like a quilter’s fat quarters, drystone walls threading between them. A great sycamore tree alongside the track pins the focus of the view to itself. Everything, for a week at least, is ours to the horizon line, and I am temporary custodian of this house and land.

High Lidmoor is a stone-built eighteenth-century farmhouse full of all the homely character we could wish for in a week away, and we fall into the swift game of choosing bedrooms and putting our possessions away the better to claim it as ours. I don’t think it would judge us if we spent the whole week indoors reading (my bag is bulging with books), baking and just being. Yet it’s a practical house too with its porch for walkers’ gear. Settling down in the easy chair in the living room with my book, I am facing two windows onto the little banking rise at the back of the house which leads up to the moor. Surprisingly close, the woolly white fleece of a grazing sheep passes outside, and in another minute a few more of them potter past nonchalantly mowing the grass. Then my eye focuses on the brown patches in between and I realise that there are countless rabbits among the sheep, fellow grazers enjoying an afternoon feast; little balls of brown fur almost invisible to a merely human gaze, were it not for the typewriter motion of their heads along the grass. The windows frame them like an alternative and better TV and, my book forgotten, I’m hooked.

It is the beginning of a steadfast fascination over the course of the week’s stay and – though I felt it when we first entered the comparatively small Bransdale – I begin to appreciate that this is indeed a special place, with the suggestion of being the last fully-wilded bastion in Britain. A townie by birth, I have never before seen so much wildlife so plentifully and trustingly out in the open. With the present day list of endangered species growing and the drive to conserve and ‘reserve’ natural habitats, it is refreshing to experience wildlife so blithely careless of my own human intrusion into its domain. I stand at the window for some time and watch a rabbit clean itself, totally absorbed by its fidgety and particular movements: the ears relaxed and mobile in the absence of any perceived danger; the hind leg up to scratch; the twitching of its mouth. It has not escaped me that glass divides us and I know very well that were I to venture outside into the rabbit’s world it would freeze, turn its impossibly snowy white tail (how do rabbits’ tails stay so clean?), and run. Meadow pipits arrive like leaves blown in haphazardly on the wind to their over-wintering homes, picking over the ground between their larger neighbours of grouse, partridge and pheasant.

I go out the first clear night to see the stars shining brightly, pricked into the deep blue velvet of the sky, for once uneclipsed by the cityscape smudges I am used to. Bats sound overhead with their leathery flights and I stay out a while to spot constellations, occasionally obscured by black shadows passing between me and the stars, quick as an eye blink. Leaving my curtain ajar at night, I wake with the sunrise to a new morning ritual of looking out to see what is stirring in the spell of mist that rests in the valley with the fragile impermanence of spider silk. Only the lonely sycamore punctuates it. Seeming to hover over the lane, the tree is a ghost of its yesterday self. I feel as though I could blow a puff of wind down the dale and send all the mist scattering into nothing. High Lidmoor is a place which seems to invite such fancies.

On an impulse, I want to awaken the valley out of its shroud; to stir it up; and put the dozy pheasants picking prettily like dainty pedants along the lane to flight. They’ve got the world to themselves at this hour, safe from intrusions upon their morning perambulations. With mayoral swagger, wearing their feathers with vanity as badges of office, they are curve-bellied, sleek and ponderous. Mischief takes over and before I know it I am impatiently booted and out the door onto the hard core of limestone and shingle. The pheasants have heard me coming and scramble in their undignified runs down the lane, bobbing under the fence with outraged croaks. It seems they will only fly at great need, preferring to wheel their legs like pull-along toys, but always with the perfect posture of their office. I have a fast-growing affection for them: the glib walk, the tail feather dashing and signing the air in their wake, the green neck and white collar – some of the best plumage that fowl finery has to offer.

Walking out on the tops of the moors I am at the ‘betweening’ of the seasons: summer is issuing bursts of sunshine and warmth, and autumn is beginning to claim the heather, scorching the tops of the fells with its slow, amorous burn. The arrival of the meadow pipits signals cooler autumn weather on the way, but it is still warm enough to leave my coat behind. I hug the dry stone walls (stone is the Yorkshire building element) as I ascend the hill behind the house, passing a fir plantation to my left and a view unravels before me in broad strokes of greens, purples and golds under the vast open sky. The weather changes quickly here but I have some warning: I see the rain coming up the valley and try to judge the time it will take to reach me as the grey stretches out its fingers up the hillside. I search out cover in the wide open space and hunker down into a rabbit run between deep marram grasses. It is boggy, cold and wet, and I instantly question the wisdom of this hiding place. Better to be on, to spring the fence and climb into the other fir plantation down by the pond. The dense needles of a spruce enwomb me and I am an escaped Magwitch under a desultory tree, under the clouds, under the rain. It is a humorous position in which I find myself, mingling with spiders, scarlet cap fungi, and last year’s pine needles underfoot. I am almost supine in my idiocy without my coat. But it is a close vantage point which allows me to observe the particularities of things.

Silflay for the rabbits lasts all day and there is one abiding pattern: feed, flight, hide. They are particular creatures, industrious little mowers grazing the thin grass of the fields, round little balls focussed downward. Their sidewise eyes are alert to danger in case of encroachers – least patient of strangers of all the wildlife I have encountered here. I can be 200 yards distant and my steps will render them absent. I am the flight-provoker; the scurry-hurrier; the threat-deliverer. Yet even in flight rabbits are interesting to study: their run a stretch-gather movement powered by the hind legs. First the ears twitch, noting my presence and alert for the danger I might pose and a stillness settles over them. It’s a stalemate and if I break it, that’s it, they’re off, flowing through the cracks of a dry stone wall with fluidity and economy of energy. Through improbable gaps barely a spit wide – how do they do that? During another holiday in Low Embleton, Northumberland in 1993, a rabbit became my first encounter with death. I was eight years old, and a bother in the wake of an older sister gone for a walk over the sandy hillocks on the extreme edge of the village. I had followed her and she’d probably rather not have had me slowing her down over the duney marshes. I can’t exactly remember now how we came upon the rabbit, only that across the sandy ground we sensed its distress and knew with the clarity that children sometimes have, something was badly wrong about the eyes and the limp-driven limbs. A man and his wife came along, assessed the situation with pinched frowns, and all of a sudden I was clutched tightly to a stranger’s chest and then – whack! – the rabbit was no more. A swift compassion. Soft shock, the thump of rock through bone. Something alive was no more. This was the first I knew of death in the wild and the first I knew of death as a kindness. I was shaken and a little numb as I recounted what had happened to mum back at our week’s home. Myxomatosis she said, a big word for an eight year old to swallow. It came to the UK in the 1950s shortly after it was trialled as a ‘pest’ control in Australia. 99% of our native population of rabbits died in a few years, but numbers have since recovered. Looking about me now, I believe it. Rabbits have the moors almost to themselves up here, more numerous than the game birds. I will always be grateful for the kindness of the stranger who held me tight to her so I wouldn’t see her husband lift and lower the rock in his hand.

It is the curious loneliness that afflicts the nature-lover the most: that which we wish to cherish and be near, we cause to disappear. It is a shame and I regret it: to approach the natural world with wonder and joy and yet feel myself to be excluded – by virtue of humanness – from it. But it is the curse of our over-industrialized, intensively-farmed age. We love the wild, yet at best our presence constantly transforms it and, at worse, destroys it. These are the melancholy thoughts that plague me in this kind of lonely, nature-retreating funk. I can watch the wildlife and wonder at it, but I will never be wilded into it. I am in a world of vital bodies, could I but see them, yet I feel myself to be utterly alone up here, on the crown of the fell, on the cusp of the world.

Perhaps it’s the slower pace of things, or the delicious-tasting water piped in from a nearby spring, or the sheer availability of so much wildlife to watch at close quarters, but gradually over the course of the week the tensions of elsewhere ease and I am delightfully weathered into the rhythms of the cottage, birds, sheep and rabbits outside its windows. Waking with, watching and following the wildlife outdoors becomes my routine and my obsession. Swallows stoop and swerve outside my window one morning, swooping through the air in swinging motions to catch insects ready for their migratory journeys to Africa. Strange to think of such a staple of the countryside soon to be flying over sub-Saharan dust. Their destination on each scoop-dive is the eaves outside my window, a muster line on the edge of the roof. No telegraph wires here for them to settle on as they prepare for their great journey. The risks are high, some will not return. With the changing seasons, all creatures are having to adapt – the swallows now arrive a week earlier each year than they did in the 1970s, and I wonder if in fact they tarry later as well, putting off the inevitable, as I do before the commute to work?

Like the swallows, I will return here, and slip once again into the rhythms of Bransdale.

HL24

The Day of the Corvids

As seen in the February 2018 issue of Dalesman magazine.

Last night was snow-cold, the wind coming in from the west, whistling down the chimney, and I went to bed with an extra blanket and a childish hope for snow (the proper job stuff) come morning. I woke to a bright white light streaming in through the uncurtained sliver of window and rushed to see – not the immense powdery drifts of my childhood when mum would dress me in the pink “Michelin” body suit – but a clear sky with a wafer moon hung past its time and a thin crisping of snow, gift of the night. Enough to put a smile on my face and call me outdoors.

A snow day and its promise of adventure prove that snow transforms the spirit just as much as the landscape it blankets. I have a spring in my step as I begin my walk to Trench Meadows to watch the birds, ignoring the sullen portent of the one-for-sorrow magpie on its straight arrow-flight – the first corvid of the day, part of the genus which includes rooks, ravens, crows, jackdaws and jays. Snow crystals encrust the roof tiles and duvet the cars. The pavements are rinked with ice and puddles are crackle-glazed with it. The feet retain a memory of how to walk on snow – of how it crunches and makes an awkward impression of the foot and, compacted, slides me as I go. Firing off the top of Baildon Moor, a cold hard sun etches everything sharply, chiselling at it like a knife. Reaching a grassy verge, I put my hand down to touch a snow wavelet (only word for it) and find it a surprise to the skin: hard and smooth as glass and tingling with cold.

On the way I stop by a hornbeam hedge I know to listen in on the sparrows that have set up residence inside, chirruping busily, invisibly and it must be said very loudly so that you cannot help but stop to wonder at the commotion as you pass. Hidden within their hedge stronghold, their cries are a playful “nothing to see here.” Just flashes of colour arcing between the close-grown branches. Pausing with my ear cocked towards it, I feel like Gulliver in Lilliput, wondering what all the different twitterings mean. Great tits swoop exuberantly from small front garden trees in flashes of yellow and warn each other of my approach. While among the birds, my presence is foretold along the hedgerows as that of an intruder.

Corvids8

Trench Meadows is designated an area of special scientific interest because it includes patches of rarefied and much prized acid grassland. In early summer a litany of wildflowers drive up between the grasses: orchids, self-heal, meadowsweet, cow parsley, dock, nettle, greater plantain, creeping buttercup, harebells, knapweed, loosestrife, bird’s-foot trefoil and thistles, later to be joined by the marching blue of the devil’s bit scabious and the sulphur yellow of ragwort. Birds are attracted by this superabundance of wildflowers (the meadows in summer teem with them) and their seeds, a staple of their winter diets. The tramping of the bullocks let loose in autumn helps to re-sow the flower meadows, and the birds join in the effort of renewing it. Moles plough the ground (their mounds today dusted white), turning manure and seed under, ready for next summer. It is a habitat in perfect and rare balance with itself, supporting a vast array of invertebrates including moths, butterflies, grasshoppers and red soldier beetles — and these in their turn feed the birds.

I find the gateposts at the bottom of the lower meadow rimed with velvet ice that slicks the fingers with remembered cold. The moisture in the wood has been cooled and then frozen overnight, expanding out of the posts to create ice-prisms that glint-warp the light. Snow is scribbled untidily into the meadow dips and edges and the glare of reflected sunlight makes it hard at first to see the birds; it is easier like a spy to pick up their chatter. I collect birdcalls at random and try to detect which species I’m hearing. With diligent watching, I glimpse them on the wing: blackbirds, red-bibbed robins, sparrows and tits flit deftly in between the steel stems of the brambles with busyness and purpose. The bones of the trees and shrubs are exposed with the fall and decay of leaves, freeing up uninterrupted sightlines with which to observe bird flights.

In the middle-storey branches, wood pigeons are making clumsy landings and unceremoniously inserting themselves on an already crowded perch, no matter whether their fellows are shoved off or not. Rose-breasted nuthatches drilling their beaks into low-slung branches add a different layer of sound, and in the foreground tiny clutches of goldcrests hop from grass to scabious stalks in dainty whorls of flight. There is such a rising chorus of bird calls that it’s as though a great drama is taking place at the avian level, from which I am excluded. Perhaps this has always been going on just fifteen minutes from my doorstep and I am only now tuning in to it. Still higher above, the sun catches at the white wings of common gulls, wheeling in a loose pack, keeping a weather eye on the lie of the land below for any choice scraps. Tens of thousands of feathers shutter and bar the light over me.

Corvids13

The black shadows which I hardly notice at first, so ubiquitous hereabouts, are the crows, corvus corone — the birds everyone thinks they know and which Chaucer dubbed the ‘jangling’ bird of woe. These are the ones I’ve particularly come to study, learn and glean the habits of. Crows on the top-loftiest perches of the meadows’ birches and oaks, sitting singly, lonely, on improbably slender branches. Crows on the ground carrying out forensic searches with their plague-doctor beaks, turning over the snow for any signs of life: a dusting of white on the black lacquer of their bills and the sheen of their feathers. Crows stooping in the sky crying their guttural, malcontent rawks. Close to, the power in that 45cm wingspan is raptor-like and I am captive to its flight.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I became intrigued by crows a couple of months ago when one appeared from its perch at sunset and commenced an exhibitionist rawk! rawk! rawk! interspersed with loud mechanical clicks of its beak, producing a sound like two halves of a coconut shell being snapped together. It was utterly mesmerising and confounding to watch, the crow often seeming to pick the elevated platform of a rock or bench from which to declaim. Though I had not witnessed this call before, it seemed to be an end-of-day ritual, carried out with the nonchalance of routine, like brushing teeth.

Corvids1

Today the crows are so assiduous in their uniform searches among the snow-stiffened grasses you’d think a murder had been discovered – and in a way it has for that is the collective noun for crows: a murder of them. Yet, bent in scimitar curves, beaks to the earth, displaying their elegant feather pantaloons, they amuse rather than threaten. One – a jester – puffs up its feathers and hops crab-wise, looking in my direction with an oblique, obsidian eye. It dances over the snow and when I look away at one of its companions starts up a petulant karr! keearr! to draw me in again to its antics.

Corvids3

Two hours of counting crows and the light is beginning to fade. Oak branches with gluts of them in their weave stretch into a snow sky, pink and buttery at the horizon line leaching into cool blue. The air is desolate with cold. The crows swoop against it like bits of cloth caught on the up-rise, to eventually land and re-commence their calling. I spy a second magpie and my thought follows the nursery rhyme: two for joy. All the promise of spring lies under the snow, under the crows, in the cold hard ground.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.