At this time of year when we lack sunshine and warmth on the British Isles, when every bud seems to hold on for that frostless dawn and every bird tries to keep itself fed to hatch their eggs, it’s difficult to get up and be our best each day, crafters and grafters; to create something new, to tell a different story, to start again. Even the camera feels heavier than usual when snow flurries sting you face on the moors and rainfall keeps the owls from hunting.
I find myself a patch of shelter behind a dry-stone wall, dressed for a blizzard to stay warm, to stay put and wait and at times, it’s a bit lonely. Patterns of lichen draw the scenery, my eyes follow stone by stone and fence by rock into the distance and questions rise about purpose and use as legs get stiffer and digits sore and the light fades for any decent photo. But you stay and remind yourself you’re here to see them, be amongst them, those creatures of twilight. When you’re still, under your camouflage netting, you’re accepted. And then the mind wanders and can’t help a sense of guilt from rising, asking if we aren’t trespassing on something unspoilt. This thought, in turn, evokes a sadness, hinting at the separation between the wild and us.
As the moon rises, cold and metallic and the moors turn cobalt blue, hares run along the ridge and wings spread in silver light as the owls reveal their perches.
I would not know of their existence and never return to tell their story had I not stayed.
Those sightings mean enrichment for me, for us as a society. They’re a reminder that we share simply everything. So I come back to sit and wait for a few frames at sundown, from the edge of their territory where I won’t intrude, waiting, getting colder, hoping to meet them again. Never trespassing, but sharing. Surely, that must count for something?
To waken our consciousness, our perception of space, of the wilderness still there, still amongst us, I start out again.
At dawn, stillness wrapped in emeralds and anthracite, the airs a glassy curtain, heavy on the shoulder, cold on the skin. Across the field and through steep dell, tracks lead to a meadow and a herd of sika deer. The stag sees me first, stands still, antlers up like a crown catching the first of light. His court of ladies assembles, proud and lean, onyx eyes trained on me. As I slink away, a silhouette emerges further up the hill. A solitary youngster. Just as sunlight blinks from across the horizon, it’s pulled away into clouds now shedding their burden of snow.
As I climb the ridge, the buck stands still against the woods beyond, snowflakes flurrying around him as if his own spots are dancing from his hide. We remain like that for minutes, the quiet holding us in a cocoon, until he relaxes and starts to dig in the soil for grass. Because I’m still, watching him with calm, deep breaths, syncing into the moment and the oak tree beside me, the pheasants start prancing and mincing carelessly past; dandyish Georgian revellers in their Sunday best, painted with gemstone dabs against the charcoal bark of oak and lime. On the waters, further down the valley, the mute swans part the icy liquid of their lake, bright against the dark backdrop of hills, snow falling heavier now. Only much later, as the sun wanes again, having stroked field and moor with copper touch, frost sets in, drawing the soil into an icy grip and the owls’ call echoes across the valley. We meet at the forest’s edge, his small dark eyes in moving head locating my stand before commencing on a feast of vole on her silver birch branch.
All that can seem hostile and cold; biting winds, wet skies and twilight is but simmering coal from which the shadows spring, painting the season’s tales on the anthracite morning sky. The stag moves into the clearing, an archaic silhouette of armoured strength balanced on graceful hooves, strutting past sturdy oak and drooping ash into autumn’s dawn, a wonderful illustration sprung from the ink-marbled land.
As day eases out of darkness’s covers, it piles its bed-throws on the valley floor, stepping out of discarded blankets, tree by tree, barn roof and spire.
While mist continues to swirl, the sun enters the forest, its rays sliding down stems to touch lichen and bark before reaching the ground; stirring moments blotted in shed leaf and branch, a summer’s worth of memories, now pulled into the ground; laughter, tears and traces of the ones who scampered past.
When light fades once more, the skies are threaded by birds bound for their roost, here for the season, recounting their tales with excited shrieks and caws, wings woven into lilac skies.
Autumn arrives on a carriage drawn by horses of mist. Cotton-gauze swathed trees stand still in a moving sea of colour ever-changing with the layers of hills at dawn, meadows saturated with moisture and a sharp chill that’s only eased by the rising sun. With day’s beginning, a promise is spoken. Presents are laid on a table for us to unwrap. Instead of rustling paper and bows, it’s our steps taking us towards the revelation of surprises. There is so much to discover. Old, familiar places change with season and light.
As the afternoon burns out over the hills and fells, the hunters circle the breeze. With wings of ivory and alabaster silk, they find their quarry in fields whose hues they match as if cut from the same cloth with gilt-stitched edges in grass and wing.
And as dusk comes, the skies turn a royal blue. The day is sliding into night, into another realm.
When the sun stays up late and the flowers reach out to touch the sky, when daddy-longlegs paint the air with notes sung by the bees and the owl watches from her tree in silent benediction of the birds circling her perch, a peculiar magic flows through our meadows and woods, over hill and dale, as we come near Midsummer Night. It’s no great leap of imagination to find the strangest, tiniest creatures dancing above creeks in droplets of reflected light over water rolling past ancient oaks with twisted branches posed for their partner’s embrace. When the light fades westwards, tinting the valleys in pastel hues, the lanes meander from day to night with fancy robed gentlemen strutting along to find a partner for a reel.
When the rain whips around the small boat you’re on, the waves rocking it like a toy, and the mountains mock you in their stoic, giant magnificence high above the loch, when the sea is silver in sunlight but lashed with diamond hail, then Scotland unfolds her velvet and sequinned drapes for you. Out of this elemental fabric’s fold the eagle emerges to stop your breath. Circling below rain-heavy, pewter clouds, golden talons curled to grab fish, focused amber eyes, wing-strokes slow and measured, they have come to claim their price.
On the outcrops of Scotland, where its coast crumbles into the Atlantic, where the last volcanic rocks sprout from the Hebridean Shelf, little clowns have made their weatherbeaten home. In flocks they rise from the ocean to come to their nests, beautiful and small, facing gales and gulls magnificently to raise their chicks where the sea crashes onto cliffs after a thousand miles’ journey. As wild as they are exotic, the Treshnishs are magnetic in charm, alive under a concert of seabirds’ squawks. The skies open to drench you to the skin while the sun laughs from behind clouds to spill her warmth over the glens beyond Mull and you are enslaved forever to the area’s wild beauty.
Svalbard in winter. Frozen fjords, mountains of brightest white with only a few patches of granite freed by the whipping wind. The pastels of dusk and dawn of sweet deception as the temperatures sink when the sun hovers over the horizon. The ice is moving, breaking in sharp cracks and deep sighs, working and shifting in a jagged landscape and where the water is freed, it’s of a menacing blackness. The pristine snow is untouched by all but tracks of animals, swiftly made, swiftly covered. The clouds rolling in deny the vealed mountain-tops their innocence.
Walrus lay on thick ice so bright it hurts the eye against the cerulean backdrop of the Barents Sea. Bearded seals dry their fur in the whisper of sun at mid-day and eider ducks rush across the open water to create the only sounds with their splashing wings and the reindeer drudge through the snow on the headland.
The little fox moves over the landscape like the tip of a clock’s hand, from East to West in a semi-circle mirroring the moon. As the days and nights lose their distinction, time is defined by the tides, the freeze, the melt. This elemental beauty shows our fragility in sharpest contrast under mountains that line up as characters from ancient tales, frightening gods of old, a chorus of shrieking fulmars circling their abode, gliding over the water, their wingtips slicing the surface, mocking our inability to fly from their human-like eyes while the guillemots scramble to flee from the ships bow, a bear but a speck in the distance.
As we sail these Northern waters, predators to this habitat, hunting no more for fur but a need to be healed by the beauty and its honesty, we aren’t humbled as much as reduced to our mortal package of bones, our chance existence. Exposed and fragile, our voice carries farther, without the distractions of the world we corrupted, now that we seek healing by what we once ventured to destroy. The air is hard to breathe, thickened and painful in the lungs. Sea-mist descends, a thick brush wiping across air and water, mixing all into one matter, one living, breathing beast of which we are part, through which we sail. Our circulation slows, the waves flatten, the fog thins and the sun appears over a crystal clear landscape of a new day’s dawn.
The sun sets over the rim of coastal hills near Silverdale in Lancashire and the cloudless sky of an early spring evening glazes over with a cold, bright cerulean blue. A sliver of a waxing moon appears, edged into the firmament, circled like a stage-light as yet unlit. Quiet descends, made more so by the burring call of a bittern in the reeds. The audience is hushed. A few shadows emerge on dusk’s stage, a few cries of revellers escape, slowly assembling, excitement palpable in unseen vibrations. Finally, the curtain rises.
To the sound of an orchestra played in frequencies unheard by human ear, the starlings brush about under the hand of a painter in the elysium of their art. Pirouetting and spiralling from east to west in tens of thousands, the performers listen to the drumbeats of the universe.
Up, down, below, perfectly synchronised as if the whole flock thought and felt as one, bound by magnets and each other’s wing-stroke, in a choreographed show whose composer is the very planet over which they dance.
As one gigantic fan flicked open, the flock disperses into a sea of peppercorns, flooding the skies over the water’s mirror, swarming to their chorus of chattering calls.
And as the sky turns of an Egyptian shade the moon’s white gold is glimpsed beyond the dancers’ troops, aglow for the final crescendo before the fan is shut by the same will that had first released the birds and now commands them to their roost.
Migratory birds draw eyes and hearts with their calls and mesmerising shape-shifting through the fluid colours of dawn and dusk. The birds are pulled by forces we can’t always understand but their passing above us marks a passage of daybreak and night, a separation, through which their freedoms seem multifold to ours as they sail far up in the skies. By witnessing their journeys we remain earthbound in body but never in mind. As the years pass by, season after season, we think we gain or lose, but everything in our universe is present still, gone from here, arrived elsewhere. We’ve always had it all, we never had it at all, but we are always part of it all
Samhain has passed and we’re in the realm of withdrawal into the root, the self, the soil. The hours of sun are reduced, but its rays are like flames of candles lit to recall, remember, to reflect. Out of the calm comes new strength. The other half of the moon is only dark until we step across the threshold and see it lit. We harvest our crops just as we take our imagination’s fruits, weigh them, hold them, serve them. The forest floor is covered by past’s treasure and our steps shift shed leaves so they crackle and dance. We can see a new side to what’s not lost, but changing, adding to the earth, fertilising new seeds that gather strength as we take our time to breathe and dream, never knowing what encounters await us on our ramblings through the woods, what will grow wings and take flight to cruise high above the treetops, calling out across our November fields.