Sunday, May 27, 2012

At the edge of dark woods

A cuckoo is calling in the far wood. The morning birds are finding their voice; trill notes against a sky of perfect cerulean blue. The clarity of the air is so pure, this far north, that a pair of magpies seem like etchings of themselves, a vivid impression where the bird may once have been.
Around the veranda where I sit, azaleas and juniper merge into bilberries beneath the tall pines. The bilberries are bigger here than at home, their leaves soft large green ovals, the size of old pennies. A single rowan tree in flower seems garlanded for the day: creamy rosettes of blossom seeming so innocent, so naïve against the sombre viridian of the pines.
The view northwards through the bay is striped with the soft creases of wind, as though freshly raked for the morning, like the gravel in a zen garden. A single Swedish flag drifts heavy on its pole, testing the morning breeze.

After breakfast, we walk in the forest, noting the flowers which are coming into bloom in the dappled understory; wild strawberries and wood anemones, bog myrtle and a flower I cannot recognise, the Skogstjärnor or 'wood star'; Trientalis europaea. There is something contextually unsettling amongst these trees: the rich understory of native woodland beneath trees which we regard so often as non-native cash crops: spruce and pines. It feels like home, yet is not; is familiar and somehow strange.
We are discussing the subtle differentiation between 'woods' and 'forest' in English. I tell my Swedish friends that 'forest' has a different sense, somehow more scary, more unbidden than the tamer concept of 'woods'. In Swedish, there is no difference; only degrees of wildness, layers and layers of pine and spruce receding into the penetrating sun, the dry crispness of mosses beneath the feet, the scatters of cones like leavings from mischievous wood spirits.

For a short period in my life, I came to Sweden often, flying in at night into snow-bound airports, taking late express buses through the monochrome forests. On one such trip I walked to the edge of Katrineholm to get some fresh air after a day spent in a stifling conference hall. It was late November, a time when darkness settles around the margins of the town by three in the afternoon. I turned off the the road on which I was walking, onto a track which led through houses to where trees pressed hard against the limits of the town. A soft snow had begun to fall, soundlessly sifting on the pavements into a greyish sinter, like the settling of a fine ash at the end of the world. The sky was a sulphurous grey, the colour of a stain.
I imagined how it would be to follow the track further into the trees, to keep walking beyond the houses, into the darkening evening forest with the snow settling on my jacket, my hair, filling my footsteps behind me. It was a moment of fear and allure, of fascination for the sentient forest, a moment in which I could almost feel the trees breathing, their shelter welcoming yet dark, warmer than the falling snow, bigger than the small parcel of open land to which this town seemed only temporarily anchored. It is a fear that perhaps we all face down at times; the lure of the forest, the promise of the untamed wildness which hovers at the margins of our lives. 


Thursday, May 17, 2012

The improbability of spring

I step into my garden, and wait for spring to begin. The morning air holds a chill, like a memory of winter. One morning in early May there was a thin sift of snow on the top of the fells, an icing-sugar reminder that the truly warm days of spring are not with us yet. The swallows arrived as expected in early April, their thin screech splitting the air with a sound heard so long ago it is almost forgotten. Now they sit on the wires, fat and well-fed, their long journey only a memory; an ache in their wings, a scent of orange blossom still in the air. They have a grace which I lack after travel; I imagine they do not feel the same sense of disconnection, their souls are not strung out along railway tracks and airline flight paths the way that ours can be at a journey's end. I tire of travel, and the arrival of the swallows is a reminder of its deprivations and burdens, the inevitable toll that must be followed by a period of rest, a time to feel the necessary sense of arrival.
But for now, I am home, noticing the shift in the hedgerows, the blousy harbingers of cowslip and marsh marigold, the buttery sheen of early spring's flowers. I recalled that, when I wrote the first post for this blog a year ago, the boughs of the hawthorn were heavy with blossom like whipped cream; this year, they remain only green, the very first of the flowers still curled into the tiny pin-head buds that are neither green nor yellow, but carry the promise of both.
Spring's activities continue whatever the vagaries of he weather: the cricket season has started, and we spend evenings shivering at the boundary rope watching matches end in the gathering dusk, picking out the white figures against the darkening green, hearing the thock of bat against ball as alien as the sound of the swallow.
I wonder if the seasons have always been awry like this; whether there were always such huge shifts from one year to the next, such incandescent warm spells in March followed by snow in May. Perhaps our memories smooth over the differences, in the way that our eyes smooth over the crags and scars of the distant hills, picturing them as a pure curve of land, failing to perceive the bumps and wrinkles, the imperfections that distance heals.
On the path at my feet is a filigree leaf, a remnant of last autumn; a memory of another winter weathered and endured, a reminder of the fragility of our seasons. In the morning skies above, a single swift stitches the spring air, a shriek of joy splitting the dawn.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The lives of animals

From the track along the brow, I can see across a shallow valley of sedge-filled fields, wet from the rains of winter, the soft earth pocked by the feet of sheep and the incessant pecking of rooks. To the north, a small nature reserve, a low downy copse of alder and birch ringed by bog, folds itself to the curves of the land. Southwards from here, a small stream, a trench of murky water, flows from beneath the village and crosses the broad valley. It is a passing route for deer; I see them running close to the hedges, the slip and curve of their dun-coloured hides indistinguishable from the olive smurr of sedge which lines the valley bottom.
On a rainy afternoon, towards evening, I saw a young female grazing in the field which slopes upwards from the beck, its head bent over the scuffed remains of autumn's grasses, the curled leaves of docks. The slope of the land allowed me to approach unseen, to peer over the brow only a dozen yards from her. She paused, raised her head, and looked at me. I hung my arms by my side, stilled my movement in the damp evening rain, my breath unrolling in the breeze. For a while she watched, assessing me, and then turned back to her grazing. I stepped closer forwards, lifting my feet deliberately through the damp grass. She looked again, then turned towards the hedge. After some time, her grazing finished, she turned and loped slowly across the field. Around twenty yards away she stopped and looked again. This time I felt the intensity of the gaze, the calm unblinking certainty of her moist eyes, as though there was some message to impart, some warning that I have failed to register. She turned her head to the rise in the land ahead of her, and trotted away from me.

For years I have watched deer amongst these marginal lands. I begin to learn the places where they can be seen at certain times of the day. I find their bedding scrapes - circles of compressed grass in the damp morning earth – and I linger with a sense of envy of their fluidity, their freedom, their poise and balance. I try to imagine how their lives are; the places they frequent for food, for water, for play. I picture their world as it must seem to them, the mental geographies they carry with them; see a network of hedges and fields, a series of green corridors along which it is safe to move, broken by the threads upon which our own limited lives depend: roads, villages, fences.
In the early morning, it can be possible to see them more closely, bewildered in the dawn light, restless yet immobile. Sometimes, on foggy mornings, I have surprised them amongst the hawthorn trees and, for a few seconds, we have watched each other in mutual incomprehension. Their eyes are like polished pebbles, the colour of wet slate.
One March evening, I walked with my son to the top of the brow where the wind comes from the south-west. The trees droned with the ache of it, a constant hush of motion and sound. Two deer were scuttling in the lane, perhaps sheltering from the wind. They bolted towards the gate and then, finding it closed, vaulted the thorn hedge, five feet high and three feet wide. We watched them cross the field, bounding and leaping as they ran. They paused to drink from a rain-filled pond in the corner, then cleared the farthest fence in a single, fluid bound, like a bolt of cloth shaken in the wind. A moment later, a third deer broke from the dense hedgerow of thorns and crab apples and crossed the same field. This one was heavier and ran with a more purposeful, flatter gait. It too cleared the fence and was gone. Hoof prints pitted the damp earth at the edge of the field.

It is in the mornings when I earn that sense of privilege of seeing deer at their early grazing; there is an unspoken alliance amongst animals who pass in the flush of first light that owes something to the complicity between the hunter and the hunted, that is not so much trust as a mutual wariness. I find myself thinking of them when I leave the village early, bent over the handlebars of my bike, dreaming them like a talisman against the chaff of modern living.
And then, last week, on the long slope downhill by the village church, I saw something flapping in the road a hundred yards or so ahead of me; a bag, perhaps, or the wrappings of a silage bale. A car which had passed me moments before had turned and was returning up the hill. The flapping took shape: long thin legs, the rise and fall of a chest, a deer which had vaulted the high hedge directly in front of a passing car; a young male, his antlers only two short prongs, their dull shine like polished ash.
The driver of the car was shocked; the speed with which an animal can appear in the road, the powerlessness to stop or swerve. We took a pair of flailing hoofs each, and dragged the animal from the tarmac onto the soft verge. His eyes were closed, his breathing fast and rasping. I watched the warmth of his laboured breath as it plumed in the chill morning air, the heaving of his body , like the shuddering of someone in tears. I wanted to put my hands on his heaving chest, to offer some form of apology for the senseless hurt we inflict on animals, for the warning that I saw in the eyes of that deer only a few weeks earlier.

The passing of deer always leaves a sadness, like a love remembered and lost. They are pure movement, when all around us in autumn is wilted and dying. I ache for the ease with which they travel across the land, the sense of grace they bring to our landscape. I imagine the mysteries of their lives, and feel a sense of completeness, as though complicit in their wildness. I see the fear in their eyes, and can only imagine the atonement we must give, the concessions we have yet to make.