The valley wakes under a duvet of mist. The nights are cooler once more, the air rich with moisture. The deer, once hidden in summer’s richness, step out into the landscape. Framed by a weeping willow’s branches that trail the quiet surface of the River Hodder, they traipse across the ford, hoof by careful hoof. Birds dart across the water, carefree in the morning sun, chasing midges, while here and there a leaf glides down to land softly on the water, joined by another and another.
The forests change, day by day. Going to sleep under bright, saturated green, where light seems to outlast the days, one wakes to an easing of foliage, a slow shedding summer’s glory and we accept a new wisdom, a ripening, a glimpse of rust, an honesty of branch and twig. All that was once so sure, so bright, soon withdraws from our valleys. The light won’t reach as far into the woods now and dusk stretches her inky arms out, to hold the world closer.
We find a new quiet that has us listen to new voices, softer ones, wiser ones, guiding us into a different world, where the stories are passed in the night, revealing new thoughts and truths, against the dark side of the moon.
The forest’s eyes are opening. It watches our every move as we stumble, light-spoilt, into the underbrush, awkward and humble, until our steps ease into this darker time whose riches we discover, day by day, with the falling of the leaves, until a new bright warmth fills us from within.
Golden hour – the short time before sunset, when the light glides across our world, setting it aglow, turning it into a celebratory shrine – it’s also one of the times for best wildlife encounters. There’s a place on the edge of the Forest of Bowland, from which the moors roll down towards Morecambe Bay and the few farms dotting the dells and valleys have anchored the landscape with its copses of trees and ridges for centuries past. The rocks are populated by hares and stouts, the dry-stone walls see partridge and snipe strut and prance and the majestic hen harrier still circles down the breeze. When the sun rays stretch out in their magic angle, the colours rise in a whirlwind and the meadows sparkle in gilded dust. The short-eared owl spreads her silver-white wings and hunts across the fields, her golden eyes matching the hour and setting the beauty of the moment alight. Towards sunset, the Bay turns into a sliver of silver and the layers of hills into Cumbria take on a different hue each. Starting with deepest purple closest to the water, they fade into peach and rose until melting into a creamy sky, taking our eyes and yearning hearts into the distance on these long-lasting summer evenings when life seems to last forever.
June: The meadows smell of cut grass, the light is at it brightest. The hares run across the hills before the setting sun. When the very last daylight strokes the fells with its brush of gold and the sheep’s bleating carries across the valley, when lady’s lace and buttercup turn into embroidery on the lush meadows and the day’s heat still lingers on the dry-stone wall, when the days never seem to want to end but keep promising new glorious tales with every moment the light lasts and badgers go out for their strolls before dusk, Midsummer is upon us.
Stop fidgeting, quell the impulse to look at your phone, to change your location, but stay put and attune yourself to your surroundings. Let your eye wander across the fields, the moors, observe the nuances in light on the maroon bracken, the gold-tipped meadow-grass, the lichen on the dry-stone wall. Listen to the lapwing’s call, the curlew’s song and the whirr of different sets of wings. Once your breathing has synchronised to the hour and the place many of nature’s inhabitants start to reveal themselves: The movement in the reeds is indeed a roe buck. The shape in your periphery is a little owl, landing on the wall, then taking off to get a look at you. The tiny shadow on the grass right next to you is a vole, hushing in and out of her hole to collect seeds. The twitching is a pair of hare’s ears, the shaking leave is a blue tit, and when the light hits the underside of a barn owl’s wings, follow its flight and you may find its lair. And if you’re lucky, some may even join you on their window-sill to watch the evening unfold in sweet companionship.
Snow-covered fields at dawn, nature blanketed by quiet, January rules the moors. Up on Pendle, the snow provides a unique opportunity to follow the local wildlife’s footprints. A fox’s tracks lead up from a dell, along a hedge and underneath, only to cross back on the trail of a hare. Uphill for twenty minutes where fox and hare must have met, a large area is trampled by small clawed foot-pads. Without the tell-tale sign of blood, fox and hare must have gone their separate ways again.
The snow softens our tread and mutes the landscape, apart from the brooks and streams running down Pendle fast, filled with thaw. Before sunset, in a field, the quiet is balm despite the cutting air above frozen moors. As the skies turn rose and lilac, the last of the day’s light catches the white wings of the barn owl as she glides past Pendle’s wintery fields.
In dusk’s theatre, the animals reveal themselves. Deer race down-hill in a distance, seeking forested shelter for the night. A hare jumps along a ledge and a field mouse hushes into a hole. The owl lands on a gate post, aware of my watching. And as the light disappears and the cold sneaks into my bones, I leave the animals to their nocturnal hunt.
The dune grasses are combed with tender sun-rays and a tactility of melancholy in the day’s final hours . It had been so lovely, the sand, the water, the cut grass smell, when time was plenty and the hours long. Now, life keeps clicking and ticking away like the steady grinds of an ancient clockwork, working a weaver’s loom, pushing an engine, moving time. The world is a little older.
We went back to the dunes once more, but the sand was bereft of the day’s heat, cold under our soles. When the sun set, the pastel hues were fading westwards, the grass highlighted briefly, just as it was when we splashed in the tidal pools and salt caked our shins from spray. The ocean beckoned still and we stepped closer to try and grasp a little of what was the essence of summer, now changed into something different, more herb, more spiced.
The sun sheds its strength and brushes our sky-turned faces with less conviction.
Night falls now. Daylight’s flames are taken away by the torch-bearers who seek the southern climates, across the sea, far away, past our summer’s end.
Travel this year has been a lucky draw, but we managed to land in Svalbard mid-August, free to embark the MS Origo - a 40-metre expedition ship originally built in 1955- for a ten-day journey in search of all this archipelago in the Barents Sea may disclose.
Having lived and breathed the dusty savannahs and sultry rainforests of Africa and South America, digging my fingers into the red soils and crumbly clay, I found myself at the edge of our world this summer, in an unfamiliar environment, hostile to all but a few; cold, barren, tree-less, and utterly enthralling. The Arctic
I was led into a new story, called by its illustrations of amethyst hues against aquamarine, the writing penned in crystal, and all the while the waves of an angry sea lapping at the book’s corners to make the tale that much more precious.
There are moments afloat in our minds, not yet understood or comprehended, like the drifting sea ice in the fog; moments we can’t quite grasp or catch, but which are as enchanting as the glow of the midnight sun. When the light rips through the blanket of clouds and discloses a world of which we had no inkling, the need to immerse ourselves in these new sensations is acute, but the arctic environment and its protagonists hold us at arm’s length. In this polar wilderness we can’t trespass, except with manmade tools or boats that ferry us through, where we can’t obtain or even touch. Our limitations are akin to a pain, an ache, but the same cracks this lack of access cause in us are filled by the sheer beauty of the knowledge that not everything is ours to hold, that there are secrets yet to discover.
The young polar bear goes to sleep on the frozen float on the edge of the pack-ice, drifting off into twilight, nestled on its side, curled against the rising wind, his eyes closed, ready to persevere against the elements and the winds of change.
The mountains of “Spitzbergen” are as sharp as the archipelago’s name suggests. Eternal ice and fresh snow cap the triangular shapes amongst which the sea-birds circle in a cacophony of haunting caws and shrieks, gliding over the water on their wing-tips, above an ocean interchanging between forbidding slate grey and sheer emerald gauze.
Gargantuan glaciers drop into fjords, where we drift through the ruins of a glass palace succumbed to time, shattered into a million shards of ice like a gigantic broken mirror from which the light reflects and bounces skywards, touching every bird and every mountain tip. The rims of the icebergs are the melting gilded frames that once hung on the walls but now drip their metallic glow into the sea. The demolished pillars and archways form a new, open-ceiling edifice, built from deepest cobalt to purple and alabaster, the working ice’s a constant crackling as we make our way through.
The kittywake’s wings become translucent against the fading sun, the feathers blend into the soft light. The ice they rest on is a study in texture, of marbled and pressurised time-lines, thousands of years trapped in frozen water. Sunrays dance in front of the stark mountains, only the tips brushed in roseate.
In the midst of this shrine of glacial beauty swims the harbour seal, popping up and diving, like a jester looking for his lost court to come and play. The bearded seal, meanwhile, rests on his slab of ice, content to observe.
Like a water-monster of Greek mythology, the walrus appear with a breath pungent of fish and a body covered in scraps and barnacles.
The sun sets for the first time this autumn when we land close to a colony of these marine saber-toothed animals, with as much grace between them as a mountain of potato sacks. By unseen queue, they rush into motion and flop and roll themselves into the sea, the backlit spray sparkling above them, to adorn even these most massif of sea-dwelling mammals with a sprinkling of grace.
And in these last streams of sunlight, when summer gently glides into autumn, the sheen seems to thin, and this polar world is almost attainable, makes you one of its own, for a short moment only, but long enough for us to be forever entranced.
The arctic landscape is changing rapidly, the sea-ice melts, the bears rush to adapt, fighting hunters and traders on top of their diminishing habitat, but still the world seems deaf to calls for protection. The hope remains that the people fighting for this fragile eco-system and its precious inhabitants will prevail and one of the last true wildernesses will remain untamed, to let us know we are not master of all.
Lockdown nudged us to open our eyes to life outside our doorstep. Over the past years we’ve come across fox spur many times, but walking dogs is detrimental to encountering wildlife and as daily life took over, we’ve never put in the effort to find the animals. This changed by April. Having a suspicion that a row of holes along a dry-stone wall was inhabited by the red-haired predators, it was the obvious place to start our vigil, now we did have plenty of time. The lack of an early morning alarm allowed us to lie still and hidden in bracken deep into the night, while the skies were still bright. Foxes always know if someone’s watching. Even if you move against the wind, they know you’re there. So ultimately it’s their decision if you get to see them, or even photograph them. The curious youngsters from this spring’s litter weren’t too shy, but it took a few evenings until they stopped jumping into their holes the moment I was within sight and smell.
Hares are easiest photographed downwind as their dependency is on hearing and smell much more than eyesight. As long as you can keep your shape as small as possible and crawl on your stomach to get on eye-level chances of a camera-worthy encounter are high.
England’s woodland creatures, hare, fox and badger are famous beyond the books of Beatrix Potter, but apparently 80% of the British population has never seen a badger. They are an important part of our eco-system and though often brought in disrepute as carriers of disease, it’s now understood their contribution to the spread of bovine tuberculosis is negligible. Badgers aren’t endangered in numbers as much as they have suffered from inhumane attempts on their setts and therefore enjoy a protected status in our country. Being almost blind, they rely on their exquisite sense of smell. Leaving a piece of your clothing close to their sett will get them accustomed to your scent. To observe badgers draw fresh grass and hay into their sett for bedding, to listen to the youngsters play-fight with loud squeaks and grumbles, is probably a highlight of local wildlife watching. Just remember to not encroach too closely and to keep setts’ locations to yourselves. Mr & Mrs Brock appreciate their privacy.
A joyous palette of mixed greens sprout and grow in the woods, bold grasses and fresh leaves move in the breeze. Birdsong accompanies the butterflies’ dance above the purple and lilac clusters of bluebells covering the forest floor.
To translate all these sensations in a photograph is nay impossible. As the human eye focuses on small details of any scene, near or far, and the brain fills in the gaps to give us the whole image, so a photograph is only a tiny piece of a scene that should tease the other senses to collate the moment’s ingredients. Opening your camera’s aperture to paint an image’s background with guessed-at shapes outside your focal range, may thus do more to evoke a scene than a clear and crisp landscape can.
If all is revealed in a photograph, there is little space for our imagination to stimulate our senses. The bluebell may be but a smudge of purple-blue, a tree’s branches a watercolour’s marbling. We are immersed in April’s hues.
Less is more. A tease of a glimpse into a world that can be anything. An narrow depth of field is a book without a movie, a story that is ours for the visualisation.
When the mists roll in to take us on a journey through a land newly imagined, we’re like a child seeking to escape a dream, only to be pulled further into the mesmerising story. A wonderland of twisted trees and dancing branches, of shapes materialising only to be swallowed again in the mysterious white gauze.
The landscape we see every day has changed and we follow a path into the unknown where sounds are muted, distorted. The cawing of a pheasant is now a witches cackle, the sheep we’d not known stood next to us, have grown in the fog, look different, big bellied and long-eared.
The sun teases with a glimpse from drawn curtains, only to pull them the tighter as we err through the dreamscape’s ever-changing twists and turns, losing ourselves in a land we can claim for ourselves in the absence of other people. When we think we’ve found the way home through a gnarled Hawthornes framed doorway, the bark and stems turn into a sorcerer’s long-fingered hands tickling our skin.