Wave Song

It’s the sound. That low hush you hear with your diaphragm rather than your ears.

All night it accompanies your sleep and your waking moments; wild, slightly  menacing, yet reassuring. All day it is there, bracing you against the world.

If you turn a corner and get cut off from the sound, the world suddenly tilts, the air clarifying like oil cleared with a drop of vinegar. Everything seems louder, harsher, more obtrusive.The sound of the waves breaking is a steadying hand, holding you safe and secure. Suddenly without it, you feel vulnerable, about to fall.

The beach at dawn is a secret, special place. Rose hints in the sky reflect in wet sand. It’s as if you stand on mirrored glass, not sure whether you are reality or reflection.

Breakers curl and smoke, peeling parallel to the shore, the spray reaching as high as each wave is deep. Lace frills the edge of the land where herring gulls hop and prod, flipping over tiny shells that cling to the beach and leave zigzag wakes as the water leaves.

There’s something about being beside the sea that speaks to our primeval soul. Perhaps it’s the sea itself resonating with the water moulding our bodies; perhaps it’s ancestral memories from when we were all marine creatures before we began running on the plains.

Maybe it’s just living on an island, knowing without thinking that the sea cradles us all around like cupped hands.

The air is sweeter, the light clearer: And the sound of the waves breaking steadies our souls.

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Candlelighter Award

Ice. Fog. Cold so deep your bones ache. Feeling muffled by misery and waiting for spring that seems so far away.

Yet I have been smiled upon. Awarded the Candlelighter Award for West Country Wild. According to Four Blue Hills, the writer who sent it to me, the award is for “lighting up the world with your work”. I am honoured.

I will pass it on; but not until I have bathed in its warmth and enjoyed the idea that someone out there is reading my writing and getting something out of it. I’ve been publishing my work a long time but since I switched to books and magazines instead of newspapers, I rarely receive comments from readers. It makes a difference.

So this year I will make more of an effort to write regular posts on West Country Wild and read other blogs. And, more importantly, I will comment on posts I enjoy so that other writers will know that their work is not dissipating into the ether without being seen.

Thank you.

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More than just land

The land unrolls like a carpet, sweeping down to the Bristol Channel. Green swells are patterned with trees, fences and farms. The air is crisp, filling the head with a fresh scent. The wind lies over the horizon like a grey veil.

The deer are bunched up in the lee of a hill, backs to the wind. Most lie close to the ground; but young bucks bat antlers, the sounds of their collisions cracking over Dyrham Park like gunshots.

We creep downhill from them, trying not to spook them. But while they give us the occasional glance, there is no panic hovering among them; they don’t seem poised for flight. Years of visitors and keepers have given them confidence. A couple of the biggest stags toss their heads, silhouetted on the brow of the hill, their antlers echoing the curves and spikes of the oak tree under which they shelter.

I stand on the hill while Ben tries to sneak closer to take photos – unusually, I have not brought my camera. The broad sweep of the land and sky should fill me with peace; smooth over the cracks and crevices of my mind. After all, we are out of the city, in the heart of Somerset’s green countryside. But there is something wrong. I am agitated, disturbed.

For despite the miles of green fields, golden-stone farms and bird-filled skies, there is no peace. The M5 motorway slices through the broad plain like knife wound. And even though it is several miles away, the noise of its traffic fills the air like a roaring machine.

It’s a kind of rape. A violation. An invader from the city making his mark across the country, as if to demonstrate his power and distain for rural life. Like the Romans or the Normans ploughing straight lines through Britain like sword cuts, this road disregards everything in its path; disfigures beauty, vandalises what is already there; spoils. It’s a clear message: technology owns this land and can destroy it at will.

An over-dramatic interpretation? Perhaps. But when so much open country is smothered by noise from people just passing through it, what else can you think except that the land means nothing before the might and belligerence of “civilisation”? So thought the Native Americans before the onslaught of the railroad; so think people of today campaigning against yet more runways, rail lines and roads.

Noise pollution used to be a big thing in the Sixties and Seventies. But today’s planners appear to have forgotten that noise can destroy a natural area as effectively as development. Sure, Dyrham Park’s fallow deer are used to it, but that is no excuse – you can get used to anything if it’s all you have.

I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe new roads should be built between embankments that could reduce their sound. Maybe motor manufacturers will come up with something that muffles engine noise and the roar of tyres on tarmac. Otherwise, being in the countryside will seem no different to standing on a main road, surrounded by traffic; and there will be nowhere left to find peace and quiet.

Posted in Birds, Deer, Dyrham Park, England, Places, Somerset, Trees | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Malvern Memories

It was the crowning moment of the day; a day filled with light and love and joy bursting from every twig and seedhead. A day I will cherish forever.

It began with wrapping paper scattered like confetti over the bedclothes as the cat chased paper balls with mad eyes and I opened gift after gift, card after card. Hand-painted, hand-drawn, hand-written by loved ones of all ages; they lay spread across the bed while the sun cast gold through the window and the love washed over me from across the country and over the oceans. It was humbling.

Then, despite the forecast of heavy cloud and shadow, we followed the sun across Gloucestershire to where the Malvern Hills rose from the plain like breaching whales. Straight up into the sky, we climbed through birch and beech, sienna bracken splashing up beside us and the forest spreading out below in waves of gold, umber and green. In the distance, the Black Mountains of Wales were blue.

When we sat resting against an oak, looking up at the cloudless sky through curling green-brown leaves, dragonflies flashed around us while buzzards wheeled and pheasants coasted from copse to copse. We were washed with colour, lit up by a sun that could have been in August, except for the November bite to the breeze.

Later, as the sun faded and the sky lit up to orange over the Wye Valley, we stood at Yat Rock in the Forest of Dean and looked down a telescope. As the light dimmed and the world grew quiet, a male Peregrine Falcon perched in a pine on a cliff-face far below puffed out his spotted chest and surveyed his kingdom.

The ruins of Tintern Abbey were bathed in moonlight as we passed by; elated, replete.

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Wonderful Westonbirt

They arrive in droves. Children in brightly coloured wellies, adults with piled-high buggies, teens with bulging backpacks, photographers weighed down with tripods and cameras, artists with easels and bush hats. In chattering waves they sweep from the parking field, past noisy snack wagons and portable toilets, leaving a wide wake of mud as if a wildebeest herd had just passed through.

What have they come for? Celebrities? Shopping bargains? A once-in-a-lifetime event?

No. They have come for the trees.

Like New England, this little corner of Old England has an attraction that vies with the Christmas lights of London, the theme parks, the mountains of Scotland and the lakes of Cumbria. For just a few days, we are willing to leave the DSi, the X-Box, the TV, the computer, and walk along muddy trails marvelling at nature’s glory. It’s such a huge occasion that there are special road signs on the main routes, and an event management company has been contracted to direct parking and provide extra facilities. It reminds me of watching Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park, the geyser that shoots boiling water high into the sky to a regular timetable. There were seats built around the area, and when it was over, the audience applauded. Quite surreal.

Yet how wonderful that in a world becoming increasingly urban, people still find the spectacle of autumn tree colours exciting. Most come only for the maples, those amazing Acers that blaze in scarlets and golds far brighter than our native species – but the fact that they come at all is encouraging, especially in such enormous numbers. And no doubt newcomers return in other seasons, once they have experienced the beauty, magnificence and pure joy of the woods and meadows at Westonbirt.

Long may the spectacle of autumn at Westonbirt Arboretum continue.

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Season’s Change

Waiting. It fills up the mind with an emptiness that you constantly strain to hear. It agitates the blood, fizzing away like an Alka-Seltzer inside you. It smothers all activity, all thoughts, all good intentions. If you are waiting, you can’t do much else at the same time.

I am waiting. Waiting for family to arrive from the other side of the country. Waiting for the sound of their car crackling over the shingle drive. But in a city, traffic sounds can play with your hopes and keep you bouncing up and down to the window for the wrong vehicle.

I am also waiting to move house. Back to the country or, ideally, to the sea. We are both yearning to hear waves outside our windows instead of sirens; smell salt wind instead of traffic fumes. It’s long overdue.

And I am waiting for something else. Perhaps it is the impending move that holds me back; prevents me from embarking on my grand plan for the next few years of my life. Or perhaps that’s just an excuse. Perhaps I am afraid of failure.

In the garden and on the hills around the city, many trees are still green; others have coloured and shrugged off their leaves like a summer coat. They, too, are waiting – for the inevitable November gales that will sweep in Winter and the end of another year.

The only ones who are doing something while they wait are the birds and squirrels. Long-tailed tits and robins, blackbirds and doves – all stocking up with berries with an increased urgency as the weather changes. Expecting the change in season but not sitting still, passively waiting for circumstances to roar up against them like crashing surf. They get on with things. They get ready.

There’s a difference between being cautious and being timid. If you are cautious but confident, you remain in charge; if you are timid and hold back, deferring to others and fate, you are run over and left to scrape up your broken pieces from the debris that others have left behind. No one is truly on your side: in the wild, despite many altruisms for family, it’s everyone for himself. Survive or die. No one sits back unprepared, simply waiting for things to get better.

So I will be like the overwintering birds and squirrels and, in other climes, the bears, elk and dormice, getting ready for whatever comes. Coasting may be easy and, to an extent, exciting, but at the mercy of the wind and waves you may never reach your desired destination; and you may miss the little side-channel that could lead to wonderful things. You have to be at the helm of your life, flexible if you need to be against buffeting waves and changing winds, but in control so you can broach the storms.

My waiting is over. I am going to do.

The English Oak

Conkers from a Horse Chestnut tree

Oyster Fungus

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Surf’s Up… and Over

The sky seems higher and wider; bluer than usual. The air is sweet with the faint tang of salt, bringing memories of childhood holidays, sandcastles and ice-creams, and endless summer days. Excitement begins to bubble.

We pull on our wetsuits, instantly becoming sleek seals. Bootees and gloves for me: it’s October after all, despite the sun, and the Atlantic can suck out your spirit even on the hottest of summer days. I can hardly contain my excitement; I want to squeal.

We gather up our boards and hurry across the beach. Warm sand sinks beneath our feet. The sea whispers our names. Overhead, herring gulls wheel and mew that long, pulsing cry that lifts you up into the sky and shows you the gleaming sea wherever you are, even if you are landlocked and yearning for the coast.

The surf rises up to look at us and crashes down in a maelstrom of foam and bravado. My first steps into the water go unnoticed through the wetsuit boots. Then I feel a slight chill in my legs as I walk deeper. But it doesn’t matter: the sun is warm and I am in the sea.

There are a couple of men swimming further out, so we wade out to where the big waves break. And then I begin to realize just how powerful the waves are out here. From the beach they look gentle, creamy. Here they tower above my head, curling their lips and pounding down around like a building collapsing.

We wait for each set to pulse through, jumping to clear the smaller waves before the larger ones pile up and darken the horizon. Our boards bounce and pull away from us in the swirling wake of the breakers. The undertow that builds the big waves sucks the sand out from under my feet; I have trouble balancing.

Then the waves lift us high and smash to smithereens, and we are enveloped in foam, hurtling towards the beach in a rush of roaring, swirling water that splashes in our face and thunders in our ears. It is exhilarating. We belong here. We are part of the sea. Again and again we rush to their embrace, throwing ourselves at their mercy, becoming one with their power.

But as the tide advances, the breakers grow in strength. Wading out to them becomes more difficult, though the ride back inshore is longer. Somehow, despite the flat sand of the bed, there are waves coming from three directions towards me, breaking sightly in sequence so that the water is choppy and broken. Sometimes they meet and build a giant wave whose surf tosses as high and white as a mountain above my head.

I wait for the last wave; the big one of the set rolling in from the deep green Cardigan Bay. Then I throw myself onto my board and hang on.

But my timing is off. Instead of catching the big wave formed from the three smaller ones, I have walked in too deep and caught the first one as it breaks. Then the other two immediately crash in on top of my head, flipping my board sideways out of my grip and tumbling me head-over-heels.

My eyes and mouth are clenched shut but there is water all around me and I am spinning and churning and bowling over in the breakers, my head cracking against the sea bed, my arms and legs flailing.

Just as I think I will run out of breath and start sucking in the water, I sense light in the blues and greens and browns swirling before my closed eyes, and feel ground beneath my hands. I roll over and stagger to my feet to avoid the next breaker washing towards me. My ears and hair are full of sand, my head banging, my vision wavering.

Ben insists I get out of the sea, but I know if I do I will never surf again. After waiting for my nausea to pass, I catch the next wave – a more gentle one this time – and spend some time coasting across the shallows, intending to go ashore in a few minutes.

But it is so addictive. You can’t just stop. There is always another wave coming in, calling to you, rolling over at the lip to tempt you. Just one more…

Later, the shock will rise up in my head like an inky wave of nightmare and what-ifs. But it soon passes. And looking back now, a few days later, I can barely remember anything except the thrill of the rushing foam around me and the swift water speeding me inshore like a landing swan.

I can’t wait to go again.

Surfer wipes out

The River Saith cascades over the cliff at Tresaith

October sunlight on Tresaith Beach, West Wales

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