Wild in the Woods

The Forest of Dean is one of the few surviving ancient woodlands in England, a place of winding mossy paths and dreaming ponds. Since the turn of the millennium, it has also been home to a thriving population of wild boar after a number of the animals escaped from a nearby farm.

When my husband and I were walking in the forest, we could see signs of wild boar all around us – uprooted plants and areas of soil ploughed with strong snouts. Our little dog knew they were there too, sniffing the ground with his tail in the air, keen to run up steep banks and off into the trees. We kept him close. Boar have been known to kill dogs if they feel threatened.

It was disconcerting yet somehow thrilling to know that boar were there, so close and perhaps even watching us – yet we couldn’t see them. There was something magical about too; folk magic always has an element of wonder and fear. At night, as we lay in bed in our rented cabin on the edge of the woods, we wondered if we would hear them, tiptoeing under the windows, snuffling, bringing with them the wild from the heart of the woods.

Later, at home in Somerset, I wrote the following poem.

 

Wild Boar

We heard wild boar had been sighted again

Deep in the heart of the forest,

Where mists drift over lily-specked ponds

And the ground is moist and black.

Of course, we showered them with curses:

Martha’s pigheadedness and glutton Thomas

And precisely why Morgan’s curtains are drawn…

Then we forgot all about them,

Left them to rootle, tusking up moss,

Cleaving the soil with their dainty toes,

Hoof prints sharp and pointed,

Approaching on the soft-turned mud.

Till we glimpsed the sun rise on the ridge of their backs;

Their moon-cradled bellies and skipping tails

Dancing too close;

Furrowing the turf by the back door,

Sending the dogs wild with rage –

You know that scent – ancient as roots.

At night, we hear wild boar outside,

Below the bedroom windows,

Trampling down marigolds, ripping up daisies,

Waking the dead in the churchyard;

Snuffling and squealing, carrying with them

A legion of sorrows, the sweet sins of the Earth.

Small Treasures

I went to walk the dog at lunchtime and realised that sheep were grazing along the ridgeway where I had intended to take him. So I kept him on the lead and meandered along the lanes instead, past a clear, shallow stream and around a pond where we startled a pair of  ducks, hidden under the branches of willow.

Behind the hills, the sky was bruised blue, but the steep grassy slopes glowed in the winter sun. I paused and thought how lucky I am, to be here, in such a beautiful place.

Earlier in the week, a friend reminded me that happiness springs from gratitude, rather than the other way round – advice I intend to take with me into this new decade. I want to remember to use gratitude as an active principle, seeking out the good and then treasuring it.

In a year baptised in fire and flood, warmongering and violence, whatever else 2020 brings, I hope it brings you many small wonders to light the way through the dark.

Boundaries

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: somebody was standing on our garden wall and lopping off the branches from our hazel tree that overhung the wall slightly. And the tree-lopper hadn’t even bothered to knock on our door to talk to me about it first! I hesitated for a second or two – I rarely lose my temper – and then hurtled outside to ask them what they thought they were doing. A few heated words were exchanged and I spent the rest of the day smouldering with rage, until an apology and a bottle of wine helped set matters right.

Even at the time, I was taken aback by the strength of my anger and how it flared up seemingly out of nowhere. The overwhelming sense of affront and indignation – of how very dare they! And now, when I see our 11-week-old terrier puppy starting to yap at the passing strangers he glimpses through the gate, I’m struck again by how deeply rooted this territorial instinct of ours goes.

The theory proposed by neuroscientist Paul D MacLean in the 1960s argues that primitive drives such as this are processed by the reptilian brain, which comprises the basal ganglia and brain stem, and which also governs vital functions such as breathing and blood pressure as well as procedural memory. According to this model, like the fight-or-flight impulse, the territorial instinct is hardwired into us as human beings.

Which is quite a sobering thought.

At least, I guess, I didn’t rush outside and try to bite the offending tree-hacker (though if I’d had the teeth for it, I might have been tempted). If the territorial instinct comes as naturally to us as breathing, then perhaps it’s a question of how to adapt these kinds of instincts to the times we live in – and trying to make conscious decisions about when to suppress and, likewise, when to give in to our animal drives?

The new pup: butter wouldn’t melt…

Spring Fever

‘The city mouse lives in a house;

The garden mouse lives in a bower’

Christina Rossetti, ‘The City Mouse and the Garden Mouse’

 

A dash of brown caught my eye, up and over the garden wall. I watched and waited: a rodent of some description was on the move, building a nest among the masonry and scurrying back and forth to collect bedding. It was too far away to be sure and I’m no expert, but based on previous sightings, I’m guessing it was a vole.

During the winter, I found the entrances to one or two burrows in the lawn after snowmelt. (In fact, a neighbour became so fascinated by these holes that she suggested installing a camera to capture the occupants.) Now the weather’s warm enough for mowing and the grass is short again, perhaps the tunnels have been abandoned – after all, who wants to live rattled by lawnmowers – and the voles have opted for high-rise living instead?

Mouse or vole, I was impressed by the little creature’s industry as it dragged rose leaves the length of its body back to its hidey-hole. I was also secretly impressed by its lack of respect for boundaries: although it had made its home on my side of the stone wall, it kept nipping over into another neighbour’s garden to collect building materials. This particular neighbour has a very beautiful and ordered garden – and a notable aversion to rodents.

Try as we might, perhaps it’s impossible to prevent a little chaos creeping in; and maybe that’s no bad thing? The end of April and beginning of May are traditionally a time of celebration, of dancing and rebellion, fertility and Beltane fires, of waking energies and creativity on the loose…

When I inspected the wall where the beastie had built its nest, I found hazelnut shells crammed into the crevices, fragments of brown amidst grey. Evidence of life hidden in the heart of rock.

****

The paperback edition of Down to the River and Up to the Trees will be available this summer. Watch this space!

The Edge of Spring

Drenched fields hold pools of sky and, in the surrounding farms, the cattle are restless in their byres. There is a tension in the air. One day the sun is out; the next it vanishes behind banks of cloud. Yet the birds are beginning to sing of spring, with the great tit’s two-syllable ‘It’s com-ing, com-ing, com-ing’; and pairs of jackdaws have started to make their nests in the outbuildings.

This past week, where others catch colds, I’ve found myself infected by anxiety. A couple of delayed projects meant my work temporarily dried up. Such are the joys of life as a freelancer: one day you’re drowning and the next you find yourself in a desert. Rather than stay fretting at my desk – or doing the sensible thing and phoning around for jobs – I went in search of water.

Over the course of the next couple of days, I walked for hours along the footpaths that crisscross the River Stour in the heart of the Blackmore Vale, a landscape immortalised in Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles. It’s flat and lush pastureland. The farms are large and ancient, and the river ribbons its way between them.

Along the way, I saw herons and egrets, skirted an ox-bow lake and was befriended at one point by a perky white terrier (whose owner I had to phone to come and fetch her, so keen was she on accompanying me across the fields).

And it struck me how hard it is to feel like a failure when you are walking: when you are simply moving one step at a time across the land and engaging with what you see, rather than worrying about what you should be doing or what you think you ought to have achieved. Equipped only with a map and a sense of direction, it can be easy at times to lose sight of the way markers – especially when you are trying to tiptoe your way round farmyards – yet somehow you always find the right track, even if it’s not the one you intended.

Of Rainbows and Burning Branches

When I realised I’d just spent the last 10 minutes by the window, staring at a rodent that was fine-dining on the fat crumbs from the bird feeder, I decided I probably needed to get out more. To be fair, the rodent was a bank vole – that round-eared, snub-nosed cousin of the mouse – and it was a lot more interesting than your average hamster. But even so.

I’d finished work that afternoon on the first draft of a text, and my brain and eyes were aching from pushing words around. In fact, I was beginning to feel a little like the Jack Nicholson character in the Shining typewriter scene – ‘All work and no play…’

Fortunately, while being a freelancer can be a risky, feast-or-famine and occasionally lonely business, one of the perks is that you are, after all, your own boss. If you need to take a few moments out, there’s no one to tell you that you can’t. I pulled on my parka and headed through the door.

It started to rain – but no matter. The light was a curious cast of brilliance against dark rolling clouds, and the horizon was smudged by the tail of a rainbow. By the time I reached my destination, the drizzle had cleared and the sky had cleared to blue. The trees were bare, but out on the lake a pair of willows burned like two torches, their reflections catching fire in the water.

As I walked, I let go of the day’s trivia. And for a moment I experienced that sense of freedom which carries with it an echo of childhood – of just being. It didn’t last long, but it was enough.

Today, I made a point of going for a quick stroll at lunchtime. Just down the lane and into the fields, squelching through mud. And, yes, it rained and, yes, I got soaked. But again it didn’t much matter. I returned to my desk feeling alive and awake – and promising to give myself permission to get out more. To live a little.

The Secret Life of Cows

Over the years, I have been licked in the face by a cow (gloopy), wrestled a newspaper off one (stubborn) and once found myself on the wrong side of a fence with a bull and his maidens (dangerous and quite frankly terrifying). However, I’ve never really thought of cows as close neighbours, even though they can be found in many of the fields around where I live. Most days I only have to cross the lane and lean over a five-bar gate to say hello to a herd of Friesians. But I think my attitude is set to change, now I’ve read The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young.

 

The Secret Life of Cows is a completely charming and very thought-provoking book, first published in 2003 and reissued by Faber in October this year. In it, Rosamund Young shares stories from Kite’s Nest Farm, which she runs with her brother, Richard, and partner, Gareth. Her stories don’t focus on humans at all, but on dynasties of cattle and other animals at the farm, which sounds like a very special place.

 

Without particularly anthropomorphising them, Rosamund Young sketches the different personalities of cows, bulls, calves, pigs, sheep and even hens. I’ve often been intrigued by the ways in which cows interact with each other; and their sheer joy when they are let out into their spring pastures is something to behold. The sorts of behaviours that Rosamund Young describes are funny, intelligent, fascinating, moving and entertaining – and make a convincing case for animal sentience.

 

The Secret Life of Cows also shows the benefits of a different way of farming: about working with the needs of animals and allowing them a measure of freedom, rather than corralling their instincts without compassion. In addition to a score of animal anecdotes, it seems to me that The Secret Life of Cows is very much about the importance of kindness and the value of treating all other living beings with dignity.

For the Love of Pets

Perhaps one of the most delightfully eccentric works in the English language, Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart (1722–1771) pays tribute to the poet’s ‘Cat Jeoffrey’:

For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.

For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.

For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede.

For he can tread to all the measures upon the musick

For he can swim for life.

For he can creep.

 

Jeoffrey was clearly a very special cat indeed, and Christopher Smart’s tribute to him shows the place he held in the poet’s affections. While Smart was in fact locked up in a lunatic asylum for some of the time during which he wrote Jubilate Agno, I think many of us can probably empathise with this particular form of madness: if you have a pet in your life, the chances are you love that animal to distraction.

Which means it is heart-breaking when anything happens to them.

A couple of weeks ago, my other half and I discovered that our beloved cat Bramble had been killed by a train. It came as a huge shock – we also have an aged lurcher-lab cross who has various health issues, and have been preparing ourselves for what lies ahead for her; so the loss of Mr B – a characterful cat in his prime – came like a bolt from the blue. Terrible as it sounds, I’ve been to a few funerals in recent months, and losing my little cat has affected me as much as any of them.

It also made me think that, for all that cats are maligned for the damage they undoubtedly can do to wildlife, nothing really compares to the destruction that humankind can commit pretty much absentmindedly while going about our business on this planet.

I suppose all we can do is to carry on doing our bit individually and collectively, however small, loving and caring for the domestic animals in our lives as best we can – as well as the animals on the fringes, visiting our gardens, hiding in the woods, brightening our world.