Fox trails from a Welsh valley

Of awakenings and wildings; of cold and snow; of tracks and feetings; of the fox and Welsh names for things.

Rooks cataract the sky blackly to my right, winding invisible ropes of flight before settling on the bare branches of sycamores. Winter has embarrassed the trees of their leaves. The agitated birds work strange percussive music from their throats: kek kek rawk! – seeming to squabble before relenting and then starting up again. I scour the meadow’s edges between the river and the pinewood like a bandit, hunting, searching, plotting boundaries and blotting snow that gives way crisply underneath my boots. I am following a course which would in any other weather at any other time be invisible to me. But, unmistakable from its first paw print near the fence, a fox was here before me, the padding of its feet deliberate and defined, pursuing the trail of another animal. Hard to be covert treading hardened-off snow. No cows today, presumably kept in at the barn up the valley with silage to feed on, but the reek of them remains in ammonia tendrils of odour. Cold shrieks over the exposed skin of my cheeks and dries my eyes, which are focused downward to detect the darker white impressions against the snow, the rest of me nested into layers of clothing like a Russian doll. The cold tastes on the tongue, mineral and metal, a sharp taste, but a good one and I draw it down.

There are owls in this valley – I heard them last night when, leaving my window open in expectation, I lay straight-jacketed under blankets, nithered in my bed. Whoohoooo. And then a few seconds later in answer: wo-wo-wo-wo-whooo. To hear them is to bring them into being in the mind’s eye: mottled feathers, point-blank gaze out of twin saucer sockets, the oscillating head. A tawny owl and its mate, encompassing the length of the valley with their fibrillating calls. I smiled invisibly into the freezing dark. As I tread the valley basin in the yellow light of day I wonder where they are now – slumbering in the woods, unconscious of the day’s goings on; or ghosting the pines for more kills, having been unlucky in the night? I will hear them call the next night for an hour, in the muffled dark. I will also hear the fox, its odd scream-bark reaching out to me hair-raisingly from the opposite side of the valley.

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This morning I looked out through my mullioned bedroom window – leaded into diamonds of glass – at the winter sun rising weak as a newborn babe upon a world whitened by snow. Each pane partially revealed and partially withheld the view, but even so I was aware of the shock of white. Snow that has fallen overnight is always encountered at first glance with surprise, as though the sky has fallen. Suddenly the world is bright, fresh and new-made – a tabula rasa of possibilities. Snow wilds the landscape in this way by rendering even familiar haunts different, new and strange. It calls for exploration and re-exploration. I was shivering, my eyes flitting between the snowy ground, white treetops, and the unmarked deserted lane, the snow a baffler to finding a focal point in the view. Somewhere a pheasant was scraping alarm from its throat. The unmistakable burbling cough of its call sounding from between trees that smoked mysteriously up the sides of the valley. Their prickly darkness bounds the meadow within which the house sits, leaving the snow-covered valley floor gaping open to the sky, the dun white of a bird’s bones.

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Dolbelydr. The name of this Welsh manorial grange trips over the ear as the jangling of a stream and I roll the word around my mouth like a stone, whetting each strange syllable on my tongue: Dol-bel-ydr. One of its meanings is “meadow of the rays of the sun”, but the winter sun does not rise far, tipping its light just over the bosky rim of the valley to filter down through veils of lucent cloud. Passing the orchard, its trees sculptures in twisted friezes, I remember how on another visit in September I’ve seen their boughs spill with fruit; bees and wasps nectared and sticky with their juices, clumsy and a hindrance on windfall apples underfoot. I’d made a golden crumble from their bounty. To the right, blackbirds are busy in the woods by the river, flitting with precious expenditure of energy for berries, grubs – anything to sate the gnawing hunger of winter. The river beyond is purling over stones and cold as steel to look at, the wash of its passage accompanying my steps. I try to get purchase on how the valley might have appeared in the past, before it was tamed by centuries of grazing and enclosure, and before people came to Capel Ffynnon Fair on the other side of the river for their spiritual observances. Glaciated ice cracked stones and carved out earth by exerting enormous pressures of weight and forward advance. This ice was like adamant, leaving rocks, a cleft of valley and the river Elwy in its wake. Today a different ice element transforms the landscape.

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I cast my gaze out onto the cwm before me. The trees are already sloughing off their snow mantles like old dames sighing out of eveningwear. The snow under boughs is speckled by their branch thaw as it begins to ungive itself. Under the bramble thicket at the meadow’s edge, a cutty wren hops in darting parries, the impertinence of its tail upright and waving. The thorned brambles are rimed with frost, their spurs furred with filaments of ice. On some of them, pendant aquabobs distort and catch the light. Cold is reflected in waves off the ground, scenting frozen and particulate up the nose.

Snow connives at uncanniness, bringing that which should remain secret and hidden to light. Footprints left in snow are called feetings in Suffolk vernacular and part of their wonder is that they can only ever be experienced or reveal their narrative in this finite span of time – until the melt. It is the rabbit prints that I see first – feathery and lithe, barely making an impression, suggesting its fleetness of foot across the snowy ground. They are staggered dashes hugging the cwm’s edge, fearing the open and their increased visibility away from shelter. Everywhere a predator. I imagine the rabbit’s nose twitching in confused over-drive at the snow’s suppression of scent. I match my steps with it, scrying for impressions, as though the rabbit were an invisible familiar leading me further along the boundary. I hoof snow all too audibly. Under the fence, and joining the rabbit’s tracks are the prints of the fox. You’d think the fox would struggle to scent its opposite too, but the tracks are tandem nonetheless. Rabbit and fox feetings, crossing and parting. The fox prints are comparatively blatant to the eye, pressed down methodically leaving clear ciphers as though great stealth were being employed. The void in a fox’s paw print is like a mountain in miniature – a little moel in the centre, with the four clawed toes stretching out from it. Those claws are visible even in snow.
Split across time, the fox’s steps are echoed by mine.

I’d woken to the knife-edge balance between dreaming and day, panniered in cold, my blankets heavy as sorrows on my chest. But I did not mind. I felt like I had woken actually in the valley as if camped out in it and it was pleasing to feel a sense of wildness and exposure. I like to feel worked upon by the elements in this way, to be so much at their whim that I am made a part of the valley; temperate with it; lying sensate just as any other wild creature out here. And I thought about how rarely we allow ourselves to feel the elements these days – how cushioned we are against rain, cold and discomfort; how we insulate against their raw unpleasantness, embattled in winter coats, waging war with central heating and umbrellas. We numb ourselves to weather and to wildness.

So it is partly to feel – to be sensible to winter, wind and cold – that I have ventured out, tracing a line around the manorial curtilage and meadow to know the extent of the house’s land – what might have been termed in Domesday times its messuage. I was like the fox, patrolling the limits of my territory and marking it with my feet – my scent. Almost at the farthest extent of the meadow, a burrow entrance by the river has been raided, dug out, fresh earth mixed with snow. I can sense the remnant desperation of the fox driven by hunger as blatant as spraint lingering on the turned soil. There’s no definitive reddening of the snow, nothing to suggest a kill, and looking to my left, the rabbit’s and fox’s paw prints slope off again, this time out across the meadow. I lose them in the open amongst the tusky grass. So who knows?

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So focused on the interplay of rabbit and fox, I am caught off guard when I finally look up to see five roe deer excavating for grass through snow: a hundred yards away, no more. They have not scented me yet and I am stiller than statue, opposite of owl, my eyes doing all the movement my neck and head would normally do. I try to receive every detail I am seeing – to imprint them deep into memory and being. The almost black back and ears stark against white; the elegant slope of the down-bent neck; the soft light under-belly. I watch them track and slowly crop the snowed grass for fifty yards – and then they scent me. Two look straight up at me, ears back and tucked out to capture any sound of my threatening advance. Check. For a while we are matched in stalemate stillness, staring at one another. I break the connection and take a step: their muscles tighten and off they spring, gracefully like superannuated carousel horses, disappearing through a smeuse in the bramble hedge, a little hind’s holloway of thorn.

I wait a while, then turn back wizened by cold. The inky rooks are still in flight, but now mobbing a brown buzzard, majestic in its soars, their cries invitations to battle. The buzzard separates one from the many and they dance together in narrowing gyres, and just when their counter-orbits might bring them to clash – the buzzard stretching out its talons – the rook jinks out of the ellipse.

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Soon they fall back into their orbits again. They are connected, like the fox and rabbit – as by a centrifugal force – through the primal instincts to kill and to survive. I find it difficult to look away from the feint and stoop of the buzzard.

Back in the lane puddles cinder like toffee under my feet. Mists are settling in the tree-tops as I return bone cold but exhilarated with what I’ve seen. Such mists are also known, appropriately, as ‘fox’s brewings’.

That night I wait for fifteen minutes listening to the owls at my window and catch the faintest sound of another creature on the night air, willing my ears to greater hearing as I stare out into darkness pricked by stars, the Plough hanging low and – there – Orion’s belt. A catch of excitement as I strain for another sound, heart beating distractingly in my ears. After five more minutes I realise through a series of breath-holdings that it’s me: the breath I’m trying to stifle to hear the owls and fox is rattling in my chest. I am the other creature, and I smile again into the dark.

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Cabinet of Curiosities 1

Starlings murmur out of cover
breath made visible on the air;
a stutter, recover, fetch, inflect
the sky with your feint-jive.

Dive as one without a leader,
above me conjuring song to prayer,
rippling swarm fleeing stillness,
fluid in the sky to bide.

Image (c) Pixaby.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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