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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.