Instinct

January 15, 2014 § 17 Comments

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          It stirred between the folds of the curtains the day I left the central heating on. The Red Admiral flew circles around the orb of my Japanese lantern – but it was not the sun. It settled on the painting of red and blue and green – but it was not a nectar garden. It flew again and again at the window – but it was not seeing the light of spring.

          It would have stayed forever on that cold pane. I couldn’t wait. The butterfly flew towards the full moon rising over the oaks – already rimed with frost.

Fisherman’s Deep

January 8, 2014 § 9 Comments

Another attempt at nature writing.

Again set by my local river, but this time closer to its source.

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            It’s muddy on the old cart track leading down to the river, and I’m happy to be outside. Faint wisps of cumuli sit peacefully beneath an otherwise clear sky, and there is no trace of a wind to pummel me, even though I am on top of a long, low ridge known rather strangely as High Suffolk. It’s a fine day for a winter walk, but, as usual, I have not left enough time. It will be dark in less than two hours.

It is three weeks since the shortest day, and this confuses me. It’s getting lighter as the seasons nudge us closer to springtime, yet the bitter cold that keeps me indoors is still to come. Part of me will crave to be out in this stark, bare landscape feeling the earth beneath my feet, while the rest of me will demand I hibernate close to a spitting log fire – feet toasting, pen and paper on my lap – making time for pauses of nothingness that always quieten my mind.

But today I take the track that leads to the river. It is concave – worn down by the passing of many boots and hooves over the centuries – and, with the overhanging oaks and horse chestnuts either side, forms a natural tunnel. But it’s difficult to enjoy the view as I have to watch where I put my feet, picking my way through the ancient roots, which, like thick varicose veins, spread over its surface.

To the north, a stand of winter wheat pokes itself out of the soil. It is planted in the chalky boulder clay, grown sodden and claggy after all the rain. Autumn sown crops often yellow and wilt as if they will suffocate and drown, but they rarely do. Instead, the seedlings put down deep, fibrous roots in preparation for their magical growth in the spring.

Last year’s sugar beet thrives to the south of the track, and will be harvested over the next few weeks after the cross-bred Suffolk ewes have been let in to graze off the green foliage. It’s not a pretty sight. The ewes are not yet heavy with their lambs, but I still think they deserve better care. They go into the field clean, and will be herded into a cattle truck a month later, their belly fleece caked with dried mud, their delicate hooves and lower legs encased in thick layers of the stuff. It seems cruel to me.

I come to the bottom of the hill where a rusty barbed wire fence bars my way. The track clearly continues – although much overgrown – onto the Saxon church at the far side of the valley. A sign says, ‘Private Fishing. Keep Out.‘  I continue along a narrower track that follows the fence to the north. Blackening comfrey leaves rot in large clumps either side. I cannot guess why there is so much growing here – there is no evidence of a house ever being this close to the river. Perhaps they’re the consequence of bird droppings and subsequent self-seeding. Bending over the comfrey are the spiny seed heads of the bush-like burdock plant. My mother, brought up in the country, would make us a cooling cordial of dandelion and burdock, but I have no memory of whether I liked it or not.

A bridge large enough for a small tractor, with a modern kissing gate alongside for walkers, leads onto the marsh meadow. A large stream passes under the bridge through a small sluice gate draped in water mint. It seems to be jammed half open with debris, letting little more than a trickle of water pass. The stream leads to the disused watermill, and the water between here and the mill moves very slowly. It is perfect for the nervous or novice canoeist, and there are always dozens of dragonflies here in July. But the water is stagnant, and algae and pondweed appear overnight on its surface turning the water a slimy dark green.

Cattle are kept on this marsh all year round, and they are blocking my way as I swing the kissing gate open. They are a motley crew – no pedigrees here. Long legged bullocks and heifers bunch close together raising their tails at me. They are skittish, nervous – curious, yet ready to run. Rarely handled and never confined, they will be taken off the marsh in the summer and sent straight to market. I shout at them unkindly: ‘beef burgers, fillet steak, roast beef and Yorkshire pud’ – and they scatter and let me pass.

The river this side of the sluice spills over onto a neglected willow coppice on the far bank. A few trees still stand straight, but many, now with multiple trunks, lean at drunken angles. Some have fallen into the water. A cuckoo lives here in the summer, and it is a favourite habitat of the water rat.

I follow the river upstream round a sharp bend, and it becomes suddenly wider. This section is called Fisherman’s Deep. I have no idea what was fished here; it is not a popular place these days. I know there are river trout, which are still eaten even though it is said they leave a muddy taste; and I expect there are many pike in this deep, dark water; but few people eat them these days.

A concrete weir divides the river a little further upstream. The water passing over it continues on its normal river route, while the rest is siphoned through the sluice to the watermill before it rejoins the river. A mill has been on the site for at least two hundred years. Corn, flax and linen have all been processed there. It was also a good place to catch eels – many being sent, presumably still alive, to Billingsgate market.

The soft ground is uneven from the deep hoof prints the cattle have made when coming to drink. I am in ankle breaking territory. Nothing makes a sound today, and I am grateful for the peace. The cattle are gone to the far side of the marsh, no birds warn of my intrusion, no fish rise, no heron glides overhead. My eye follows the line of the river further upstream to the site of an abandoned mixed wood. It is maybe a quarter of a mile away – and there they are – a family of swans. Both parents float as if suspended above the water; their adolescent offspring between them. It is almost the size of its parents, yet still with the pale pinky brown plumage. They are like apparitions – they do not move. I watch them as the mist forms over the water as the temperature drops for the night. I turn away briefly, then look back – but they are gone. Were they really there?

A cripple of a crack willow leans into the river. Most of its branches are gone. A rope with an old car tyre tied to it dangles from a thick, dead branch. The village boys come in the summer because they know this stretch is deep.

The weir has only one function for me, and it is for playing Pooh sticks. It is also the place where my husband proposed. I collect a handful of seedless teasel stalks and throw them upriver. They hesitate, begin to spin, then are sucked over the ledge into the shallow sandy water downstream. River trout hide in the reeds where the water is still. They make their own light, flicking gently to stay stationery in the current, their bellies sparkling. The teasels have separated into single stems, and all but one has caught in the reeds in the far bank. I watch the single stem float downstream until I can’t see it anymore.

Marsh

January 3, 2014 § 23 Comments

A first attempt at this ‘nature writing’ lark! Feels very different to writing stories. Any feedback would be lovely – but I don’t feel I quite know what I’m doing yet!

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            It’s about ten minutes on my bike to the shallow glacial valley, and downhill for most of it. I let the wheels take me as fast as they want, then chicken out half way down under the concrete flyover. The brakes squeal too loudly and the frame judders, reminding me the bike’s overdue for a service.

The river cuts East Anglia in two, forming the boundary between Norfolk and Suffolk. It’s been a symbolic divide for hundreds of years. The north is flatter and exposed to the icy winds; its flint houses, like its people, standing square and sure of themselves. Suffolk is softer. It undulates, its light is gentler on the eye, and many of its inhabitants still live in the houses made of wattle and daub built four hundred years ago.  Roofs are still covered with a thick layer of straw, each topped by a decorative ridge unique to its thatcher; or if the house is close to the river, the thatch is made of the longer lasting, more expensive reeds. Suffolk is closer to London, and it shows: people, cars, and life in general, seem to move faster.

This river – which draws me to its banks when my mind refuses to be still – begins about twenty miles west as a spring surrounded by a sedge marsh. It’s the home of the rare fen raft spider. Like many arachnids, it has strange habits I prefer not to think about. This elusive creature, which favours life in the old peat diggings, injects its prey with digestive enzymes and sucks out the victim’s insides that are transformed by some primeval alchemy into a nutritious soup. I have never seen this happen nor seen the emptied skins that result, and I remain quite content just to read about it.

            The valley is full of cattle now, as it always is in summer. Mostly owned by one family who, according to modern folklore, fetched up one day in a gypsy wagon and finding it suited them, stayed. This was forty or fifty years ago. I sometimes wonder why so few sheep graze this wide flat marsh, as they would do far less damage to the soft ground than the heavy hooves of cattle in a wet summer. But few farmers here seem to favour sheep, except perhaps the incomers from the cities – the so called hobby farmers – who often keep a handful of rare breeds that look pretty in a paddock next to the house.

            The road is flat as it follows the river’s path. I stop often to look at something that catches my eye, parking my bike in the hawthorn and alder hedge, or against a stubby oak or bowed crack willow. I learned early on in my cycling career that it made more sense to dismount and watch the heron cruising silently overhead, rather than careering into a ditch with a buckled front wheel.

Part of the marsh has been fenced off into a small holding pen. A young cow stands passively, her head lowered, shoulders slumped, as she watches over what is probably her first calf. It is dead. She has guarded it now for three days, and it pains me to look. Her water bucket is nearly empty. There is plenty of grass, but she does not chew the cud. She has clearly stopped eating. Why does the farmer not come? Should I knock on a few doors? I know I won’t because I don’t want her grief disturbed.

            There are dozens of strange webs at the entrance to the meadow. They appear in a long line, as if by design, on the banks of a dry ditch leading down to the riverbank. They’re always there, even in the winter, but I have never seen the spiders. Their webs are funnel shaped. There are many species that weave this type of web that carry a painful or even dangerous bite, but a quick look on the internet the first time I discovered them told me they were common residents here, and quite harmless to man or woman.

                        I come to a small hamlet and turn down a lane towards the river, stopping by the old millhouse and its line of terraced cottages. The brick bridge, heavily discoloured by yellow and orange lichen, has two arches: one to take the weir water, the other, much bigger, is fed by water passing through an open sluice. Some of the stories I write begin their lives here. Some need the silence of a hot, dry spell to be born; others demand a violence, that disturbing energy that comes from the overwhelming river as it bursts through the arch bringing farmers’ rubbish, whole limbs of trees, and once, a bloated black and white cow. These stories always come too quickly – they bombard me and demand to be written down then and there. But unless I hold some overriding image in my head, I can’t retrieve them – even after cycling home as fast as I can and sinking into my thinking chair with a mug of tea.

Tom Cat

December 30, 2013 § 25 Comments

I have never been one for New Year’s resolutions, but the end of 2013 is proving different from other years – primarily because I am now part of a vibrant, blogging community. It is, and continues to be, wonderfully life affirming, life changing stuff. I have posted many short stories during the brief time I have been here, and it has given me the opportunity to look at my work more objectively.

Of late I have noticed a subtle shift in what I want to write. When I first became aware of this, the shift manifested as a kind of dissatisfaction with the content of my work. It no longer felt enough – some of it actually felt pointless – yet I felt no compulsion to write anything else. It was as if I was drying up.

I now know what it is. At least for the beginning of 2014, I shall focus on Nature Writing. Much of my work has a strong nature content anyway, so this is perhaps nothing new – but it is as if I can own and acknowledge this. Perhaps what I will now write will have a story embedded within it – perhaps it will be  just a collection of thoughts in the way that writers like Annie Dillard and the late Roger Deakin speak to us in their evocative, eloquent prose. So I shall be writing in the dark. I have no idea where it will lead – and that’s exciting and not a little scary. In the end, all that matters is to write.

And finally, I love your feedback – it helps me and my writing grow – so when you have the time, please keep it coming.

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I once had a cat who visited at night. A tom, he was born on the farm – so I felt I owned him – but he was never really mine. Gerald belonged to himself. He wore his history on his skin, and stank of his passions, his lust, and the battles he conducted nightly in the oak meadow next to the house. At first I thought he was the shriek of a fox, and worried for the chickens who insisted on sleeping in the trees overhanging the pond – but I soon learned that foxes are quiet when they’re hungry.

 His manners were his own, and driven entirely by instinct. A good jumper even for a cat, he visited by leaping onto the conservatory roof and shrinking himself sleek so he could slide through the open window onto my writing desk. He left paw prints of mud and blood on the blank page. Then he arched his back, waved his tail in the air like a sail pulled tight to catch the wind, and kneaded my chest until I got out of bed to feed him. Afterwards, he sat by the kitchen door and cleaned every part of himself  – his eagle-like talons splayed as he stretched each back leg into the air to be washed. He sat quietly and waited for the door to be opened – he never did get the hang of the cat flap.

With long, grey fur that collected burrs and twigs and bits of broken shell from the snails he liked to eat – he looked like a lap cat – but unlike his sister, he never had the temperament for it. I was happy he didn’t spend much time in the house as he left his scent everywhere: on doorposts, on laundry straight off the line waiting to be folded, and on me. Even pots left to dry on the draining board could not escape the stink of his tomcat urine. Perhaps he didn’t know where he really belonged, so he marked everything with his smell.

But the last time he visited he came home to die. I regarded it as a compliment. He came in the daylight through the open door and stretched out on the sofa. Grown thin, his fur had an odour I did not know. He shivered, so I wrapped him in a towel. His body leaked death fluids – yet he kept his dignity. I think he had been poisoned.

I still think of him sometimes – particularly when I hear the night time yowl of the fox, or the new tomcats from the neighbouring farms come to mark out their territory on his patch.

Things are different now. The chickens are gone, and I sleep with my window closed because these days I feel the cold. I miss the deep purring from his chest and the bloodiness on mine – and sometimes I wake and cannot be sure he’s not there. Perhaps he wants to be let in. I get out of bed, wrap myself in a blanket and open my window. I sit at my writing desk and listen. But now there are other noises – sounds that demand nothing of me. The wail of the curlew, the sharp cry of a rabbit being taken by a stoat – simple sounds of other lives not connected with me. So I close my window, and take up my pen.

Circle

December 9, 2013 § 13 Comments

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His mother was a wild creature and knew how to run. With the brown hair-like fleece of her feral descendants, she was living archaeology to the ancient sheep of the Asian mountains. Her son had slit yellow eyes, and slid into my world in the long grass when no one was looking. He was a good size and already at the teat when I found him. Feisty and proud with sharp, thick horns, I kept him as breeding stock.

That was eleven years ago. Every November he did his job. I put him in with the ewes, and five months later each one scraped a shallow bowl in the home field, lay down, and pushed out his lambs.

He stayed wild – he never let me know him. And he hated the sheep dog – teaching his brothers and sisters to scatter. Eleven is old for a sheep, and he knew. His age could be counted on the rings of his horns – his battle scars shiny and white on his forehead. He was a fighter – and had been fighting again with his younger brothers to keep his place in the flock when I found him. His body looked wrong, his neck crooked. Perhaps dislocated.

The man came with the captive bolt in a black case. I made myself watch. I thought the killing would be easy, but his skull was old and thick. The ram fell forward when the crack came. Then he got up. Teetered. Shook himself. The man fetched a bolt strong enough for a cow. A louder crack, and the blood came like a bung lost from a barrel.

I walked away to be sick.

Soon after, the lambs came. A brown ewe scraped and lay down to push her baby out. All day it wouldn’t come. I washed my hands and put my fingers inside. Legs. Two back ones and a tail. Sticky yellow shit and blood stains on my hands.

I waited for her to squeeze and carefully twisted the lamb out of her. Long and thin, it stretched out on the ground. With no breath.

I cleared the mucus from its mouth, its nose. Rubbed it gently. Spluttering. It shook itself to life.

The mother heard the life noise. A lick, a snicker. The only sound she ever made.

Any suggestions for improvements much appreciated…

The Girl Who Heard Seashells

November 26, 2013 § 7 Comments

A fragment of a children’s story

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In those days she was too frightened to swim in the sea. The water was a mysterious place harbouring evil creatures. Ginny imagined them on the pages of her drawing book and in her dreams. Joined at the horizon, the sea and sky were one. It was a place she could see on a clear day, but never, ever touch.

That was the time she decided to believe in God – and the sky was where He lived. The sea birds were His messengers. He told them things they must pass onto the world to make it a better place. But Ginny knew people were too busy, too noisy to listen – so she learned to be quiet and still. Sometimes she heard the words hidden within the shrieks and mewling of the seagulls; but if the birds were silent, she took a seashell to her ear. All His messages to the world were kept safe in every shell, waiting for someone to listen.

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