Sunday, 25 March 2012

An Owl by the Sunset Pool

The Nottinghamshire landscape rolled by as I stared through the train window on a homeward journey. The grasslands were lit by the golden light of the early evening and the sky above the darkening horizon slowly turned to scarlet and orange. The few clouds high above captured the pink hues beneath them, but they remained almost motionless in the air at the faintest sigh of the evenings breeze barely ruffled the grasses and leaves of the fields and hedgerows. I glanced to my fellow travelers, kindles and Iphones held their attention and earphones prevented distraction from their neighbours. A host of eyes stared downward to screens, strange how such devices which claim to connect people manage to isolate them from what is so very real and stunningly beautiful. For a moment I felt despair until a lone passenger looked up to the sunset, smiled took to studying the wonders beyond the glass. Perhaps there is hope for some.

As the train slowed for my station we passed by a small pool at a fields edge. A barn owl patrolled the waters edge on slow wing beats as sharp eyes studied the bank for signs of voles or other small creatures. I could feel the cold of the glazing close to my forehead as I leaned to keep the owl in view for as long as I could before we inevitably passed by and creaked to a stop at the station. While other passengers left the train for their cars I stepped onto the verge of the road, with the lengthening shadows of the hedgerows beginning to cast the fields into darkness I watched the brown hares racing along. For all our technology and design, no vehicle can match the size, speed or mobility of spring hares a they kick up dust from long, powerful legs in the twilight, changing direction in a heartbeat and accelerating across the ruts of a fallow field.

Darkness had enveloped the land as lights within the hovel and the barking of my dogs welcomed me home. It was then I received the sad news that another of my line had died. It was not entirely unexpected, but still upsetting. My grandfather was always a modest man, but incredibly skilled, loving and devoted to all the family. He was a superb teacher and a steady light of reason when life seamed chaotic. I will miss him, but I will gladly carry his teachings forward.

Life seems to have a way of showing us glimpses of magnificence like scenes through a window, but once in a while you will get to travel with someone who can be good company, an understanding ear and who can provide wisdom and wit to the experiences you share. Such company can turn an enjoyable moment to a glorious memory to lighten your heart for the rest of your days.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Giants Cudgel

Over my years of wandering the woodlands and the open countryside I have become very aware of the passing of people and the traces they leave. From discarded food wrappers lost to the wind to piles of broken down domestic appliances dumped illegally in the ditches between the road and the trees. On one such trail I have noticed a different kind of obstruction blocking the way. The trail is one often used by day trippers to the wood as it is the driest and widest of the routes through the trees. Every now and again I find branches dragged from the undergrowth and placed across the track. To those wandering in the daylight hours they would be easily noticeable and stepped around. To a nocturnal wanderer such as I they are more of a hazard due to the low light and the tall trees flanking the path. So far I have avoided stumbling over them and have frequently dragged them away from the track and back into the undergrowth. I am never sure exactly why they have been dragged across the trail in the first place. Perhaps a prop for a child's game or a deliberate attempt to hinder the passing of forestry commission vehicles, horse riders or cyclists who are of course entitled to pass by.

Two nights ago I was wandering the track as the evening light began to fail, in the distance I could notice timber lying partially across the pathway. It looked like someone had again been attempting to form barriers. It was as I got closer I noticed the scale of the barrier and realised it was beyond the powers of child or hooligan to form. A silver birch tree beside the path had literally split in two. One half still managed to stand but the other had crashed across the path like a giants cudgel. Given the size of the timber and the fact that one end was propped against the remains of the standing trunk I approached carefully to see what had caused the damage. Since I had last passed this spot there had been neither lightening or high winds to my knowledge. The split timber seemed in good condition until I reached the point where the top of the tree must have started to split. There were signs rot and water soaking, the tree must have started to split and perhaps a combination of gravity and a modest wind had torn the tree in two.

I have seen the results of oaks split by lightening or limbs splintered and fallen as the weight of the branch had grown too much to bear. I have also seen trees shoved over or snap by the force of a strong wind, but this is the first time I have chance to see the quiet presence of rot within the top branches of a slender tree cause such a fail. Given the size of the trunk it was fortunate no one was underneath when the tree split, it will only be a matter of time before the standing half also topples or is felled. For me this is an interesting lesson from the wood, but I wonder how many others would step around it with only a tut of annoyance to mark the passing of an obstacle along the way.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

The Tree Huggers Shelter

With the sun beginning to set and the warmth of early spring in the air I stepped into the woodlands with three of my pack. The annoyances of everyday life have been hanging on to me with a tenacious persistence recently and the clear air and space to think was a welcome tonic from their tiresome presence. As is always the case my pack raced up and down the first woodland path delighted to be out and about. The last of the sunlight showed me the first shoots and hints of green within the browns of the old bracken to add a visual delight to the tactile warmth within the air and the calls of the birds. I enjoy winter but the hovel is a place where the previous owners were ill prepared for her coldness in changing times. A chance to bask in the warmth of a strengthening sun and make improvements to our scruffy home well ahead of the next cold season is something I am very grateful for.

A head of me on the path I could see another walker approaching, I turned to a smaller path and away from the figure to ensure my solitude was uninterrupted. The beauty of the forestry commission owned woods is the right to wander and to stray from the recognised footpaths, the smaller tracks are often more rewarding with their sights of nature and moments of peace. It was only a short stretch before I spotted new bushcraft shelters among the trees. I stopped and made my way through to look at them. I would assume they were built by some of the local kids, branches were arranged around the tree base ready for fallen leaves to be piled up against the structure. The space within the shelter would have been very tight. I certainly could not get in there and the base of the tree held the central space preventing all but a contortionist from lying down, even the most enthusiastic tree hugger could find it cosy. The branches were also very steep against the tree trunks, this would have left the builders a considerable amount of gathering to collect the leaves & branches required to cover them. I found myself smiling as I looked over the shelters, I wonder if their builders had learned from them. It certainly appeared that they had fun and in my opinion that is often the best way to learn.

I left the shelters behind and stepped out onto the trail again. The next hour or so treated me to peace and moments of reconnection with nature and spirit. Pheasants took flight as my dogs flushed them from their hiding places, clattering and clamouring their way into the air voicing their disapproval. The slow beats of the heron's wings carried the creature high above the tops of the conifers with the last rays of daylight warming the gray underbelly of the bird. Within the last half mile of the walk we encountered a deer. Hiding in the undergrowth on the opposing side of a ditch, the deer held her ground until my collie was standing almost opposite her. In a burst of power and speed she leapt to her feet and smashed through the small branches as she made her way towards the perimeter of the wood and the open fields. My collie made no attempt to chase her, he stood and watched her vanish before turning to me with an expression I could only read as "did you see that!".

I take it as a sign of an enjoyable wander when I reach the car or the front door with the ringing thought that I don't actually want to go back. But needs must. Someday I will put the key back in my pocket turn around and just keep going until I feel truly fulfilled.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

The Little Bridge

With the country lane outside our hovel cast in the grays and silvers of the half moon we set off into the night. Claws scrabbled on the tarmac as my lead dog was anxious to be away and running in the fields. Patience never has been her strong point but speed and stamina are, I take it as a sign of a healthy dog even if it does mean an uncomfortable start to our wanders as I resisted being dragged down the lane. We had barely gone a hundred yards before I realised she was not going to cease her pulling. I decided to stop for a moment to settle her down.

Besides us was a sight I see every day, a little brick built bridge crossing a ditch to a gated field. In the lowlands of the river valley we do not have babbling streams and their joyous waters. Here we have a gentle trickle of field and road run off water silently making its way along the dug channels of agricultural infrastructure. Nature has of course made its own uses for the bridge and ditch. The top of the bridge wears a cloak of greenery virtually unworn by the infrequent use of traffic to the field, to the sides the grass is longer giving hiding places for the field voles and occasional hedgehog or toad. The ditch itself is so often patrolled by the barn owl or the heron, tonight it would be the quiet rest of the mallard ducks keeping out of sight by the topography. The field passed the ditch lined its boundary with a hedgerow, trees projected through with their limbs adorned with ivy and the onset of spring would soon bring the nests of songbirds and the flitting passes of the bats as they would take to the wing to assault the clouds of insects rising from the undergrowth.

Last summer some of the children from the near by village took entertainment here, clambering down beneath the bridge to explore beneath it as their bikes lay on top awaiting their return. To many the darkened waters of the ditch would not be a healthy place to be, but as long as the waters are moving and remain untainted by chemicals from the fields or oils from the lanes higher up the hill nature will thrive and the cycles of life will turn. Standing in the moments between past and present in the moonlight I found the little bridge gave me time to think and a most pleasing place to be surrounded by. So often we breeze past the familiar sights of home without bringing them to our thoughts and perceptions, tonight I changed that pattern here.