The one or the other

Spectacular trees on a beautiful autumn day. It started with a frost, and built from there. Sunshine setting the branches aflame; sparkling water, two hours of tramping across fields and along the riverbank – and I saw hardly any birds at all.

But the trees, oh the trees.

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And a month ago I walked part of this track in unpromising drizzle and met a kestrel: one of the best bird encounters I’ve had on this path. We watched each other from about a hundred yards away for a good five minutes – me muttering “you beauty” under my breath and taking as many pictures as possible with my inadequate camera, the kestrel sheltering in the lee of the trees and surveying the copse (and me). The rain then eased, and it took off and drew a gentle, sloping circle around me before heading off to continue its hunting. Rubbish weather, mighty reward.

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Gravity

On a mild but blustery early-October day I went to see some trees.

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This view alone was enough.

On the way there, I passed one of my favourites, the venerable oak, accompanied by more oaks, and birches and beeches and chestnuts, and below them the waving, browning bracken. A hand to the bark before moving on.

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With every fresh tug of the wind more seeds helicoptered away and leaves floated slowly downwards and the sighing and rustling grew to a wave-crash on shingle: a stormy sea.

The woods were busy with grey squirrels and far above, tiny high-pitched chatter, seep, seep, as families of long-tailed tits, great tits and blue tits moved among the firs.

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(They’re up there, believe me.)

Needles plummeted. Leaves crunched underfoot. Acorns everywhere. And an enormous sweet chestnut, laden with fruit, cases spilling open on the ground:

And on the way back, the oaks on the common, standing in their little ditch, just starting to turn, roaring with each new wave, and once underneath their canopies and looking closer, there were the hawthorns (I think) that long ago pitched camp here too. How long have these trees been here? When was that sinuous path made through the meadow?

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Everything is heading downwards. The slide into autumn is well under way, and gravity is winning.

Vertigo

The rainwater changed everything. It had been raining all day, settling into a steady fine drizzle, but there were blackberries to be picked, and this was the final chance for a while.

Two weeks ago under hot mid-August sunshine, the riverbank had been a profusion of flowers and dragonflies, bees and butterflies; a breeze carried the cries of skylarks across the fields and the leaves moved lightly. But this time everything was was dripping, drooping, dwindling. Heavy, expectant, poised for downhill. A touch of autumn vertigo.

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Blackberries in their thousands weighed down the hedgerow. September gold.

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And more gold.

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It all got a bit Tunnicliffe as hops clambered over the blackberry bushes and a sprinkling of elder, hawthorn, and dogrose in autumn form showed up among the ivy.

I like autumn. There will be those blue-sky days when the air is like glass; beeches in full golden sail; shiny new-wood conkers; sparkling frosts. This was an early glimpse of another, soggier, greyer autumn and a reminder to make the most of the best days – it is but a few short steps down to winter, before the cycle begins again.

Differences

Ah, Mull. I wasn’t prepared for how wonderful it is.

Off the ferry in fading early-July light after a long day of journeying, and only a few minutes along the single-track road the sprinkle of houses ended and then we were driving through a high green pass, the land on both sides rising steeply into mist and darkness.

The main impression on our travel-befuddled minds was mystery, on that first journey: miles of shadows in dark forests and cloud-obscured peaks, until the houses reappeared by the dark shimmer of water in the loch and we found our temporary home, with still a glimmer in the sky even in the final hour of the day. Where on earth had we come to?

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We’d come somewhere entirely different. The field in front of the byre – in fact a wildflower meadow – sloped gently down to the shoreline. The Burg rose on the other side of the loch, its distinctive stepped outline coming and going according to the weather. A buzzard visited daily, using the skein of poles and wires bringing electricity to the house as lookout posts for small prey moving about in the rippling grasses and flowers below. I miss Billy still.

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And on one heartstopping occasion a hen harrier dropped down from the crag and flew over the meadow. A battleship-grey Presence, gone in seconds. I never thought I’d really see one, and certainly not that close.

On grey days the clouds moved down almost to the lochside. The vast space and the shrouded quiet, pierced by an eagle crying out high above. We saw eagles almost daily once we’d grown accustomed to their scale; a golden eagle over Tobermory, a white tailed eagle above a densely forested hillside; another being mobbed by gulls.

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On sunny days the sea glittered in jewel tones; seals investigated us from a few yards out and the birds’ late spring continued.

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At the byre we saw Coll and Tiree across the water, Dutchman’s Cap nearer in. But looking west from Iona the Atlantic just went on and on as far as the imagination dared.

After a sunny day came a spectacular sunset. The Burg shrank to a silhouette and the glow grew for almost two hours before the final blaze.

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We’d arrived at fledging time, like long-haul flyers who experience two sunsets in a day; back south juvenile birds of all types were already foraging for themselves but here it was the last days of feeding young and encouraging them out into the world. Broods of swallows were still sitting high up inside chapels and under eaves on Iona, sparking into a split-second of gaping and calling as a parent dashed in with food for the thousandth time that morning. And on Mull itself the white tailed eagles were still bringing food to their single chick, glimpsed on its huge pile of a nest at a distance through the warden’s scopes.

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Moy Castle, of I Know Where I’m Going fame, is just as stark and commanding as you’d hope if you love this film too. Entirely appropriate for a powerful curse and a highland romance. And proving that towering and fortified can also come in small packages.

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The 15th century tower still sits at the edge of a broad bay; the MacLaine family moved out into the nearby house in the middle of the 18th century. There is a freshwater well inside and it is said no-one knows the source of the water supply. Sheep nibbled at the grass around the castle and on the waterside; out to sea we could see distant Kiloran (Colonsay).

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The sheep were everywhere; roads, hills, beaches. On Erraid – where the sea cuts off the island at high tide, and where RL Stevenson set Kidnapped – we saw them rounded up by the farmer with his four dogs, deftly bringing them in from the shore in groups.

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Herons took up position in the shallows awaiting the tide’s turn and the rich pickings when the sea refilled the narrow channel to Mull. A lapwing hurled itself into the air as we neared its hidden nest and made hurried circles and strange swannee-whistle calls, distracting and alarming. We turned away and watched cows ambling across the sands.

I was unprepared for the grandeur of Mull; its scale and its beauty. Delighted by the differences.

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Punctuation

An hour by the river. A break from everything; an intake of breath. Hot, still air criss-crossed with damselflies, butterflies, dragonflies, bees and birds. The water moving quietly under the sun; small fish breaking the surface occasionally.

Dunnocks and wrens issuing competing trills from opposing hedges.

Banded demoiselles glittering over the water, X marking the spot only fleetingly.

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Blue damselflies doing their thing.

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A tern, all graceful curves, moving up and down the river, and from time to time suddenly folding and diving into the water with supreme style and the smallest of splashes.

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A yellowhammer, at the top of a bush, singing his falling note, over and over. I find it a strangely mournful phrase from that cheerful yellow face – but I was delighted to see him.

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Lots of butterflies, including several commas. A well positioned comma is truly a beautiful thing. And on closer examination there’s a tiny yellow ladybird beneath, among the bramble flowers. Oh, the brambles stretched high and wide; maybe half a mile of them, eight or nine feet high in places, all humming with bees.

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Once upon a time, I spent a largely sleepless night in the US listening to the unfamiliar sounds of a big city; among them a car alarm that appeared to be designed specifically to grab your attention, seize you by your neck and wring it until you told the authorities, or ran away screaming, or perhaps smashed the car to smithereens. It was a hideous music, changing every two bars: rising pairs of notes followed by falling triplets, a high trill, a low shriek, an insistent whoop whoop and then back again to the rising pairs, a Da Capo without Fine.

Here instead is a reed warbler I heard today, working to infinitely more beautiful effect. It simply does not draw breath. It hurls phrases one after the other, a medley of insistence that you Move Along Now, Nothing To See Here and all from its secret hiding place among the reeds. Little brown bird, how I admire your effort. Watch out for cuckoos.

Sunshine inside

Sometimes it all goes right, all at once, and there it is – a perfect little moment, a sunshine generator.

The rainy morning petered out eventually, inviting a walk after a tricky sort of week. I thought I’d go along the river for a mile or so and see the cow parsley and flowering hawthorn combination that had prettified the lanes in recent weeks.

The sky was heavily grey and the rain possibly not quite finished; the wind was strong enough to tear some of the new lime-green leaves from the oaks and bring little confetti storms of may petals with each new gust.

Spring had been in full swing at the house for a couple of weeks – a garden full of delightful noisy fledglings, the delicate apple blossom long gone – and so too along the river. The hedgerow frothing green and white; the fields alongside full of things cultivated and things wild, everything all so very . . . growy.

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Great masses of comfrey along the bank and nettles under the hedge. The trees all in full sail now, even the ashes. I stood under the umbrella of a horse chestnut laden with candles and looked up.

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Walking down towards the swans’ nest I could see her doing a little tidying but there were still no signs of cygnets – they’re for her to know about and me to find out about next time, maybe.

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As I was standing quietly watching her, a kestrel rose from the small strip of land just behind the nest, and began to hunt with an elegance that took my breath away.

Little dart just so, a swoop higher and the trademark trembling hover; a drop of several feet brought to an instant halt as the hover resumed; a change of mind and off he went again, crossing the field, darting, swooping, hovering, working hard. A brief pause in the branches of the largest tree before he resumed operations. Not the first time we’ve seen him here: I wonder where the nest is.

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And all the while the A road thundered by barely a couple of hundred metres away, a continuous roar punctuated only by the cer-lunk, cer-lunk of lorries over the bridge spanning the river.

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I moved a little further upstream away from the traffic until it diminished to a background grum and the wind’s sounds began to dominate again. The sea-sighs of tall birches; the hawthorn snowing all along the path; and suddenly, screams as swifts hurtled past, with impossibly quick turns as they climbed and dived and skimmed the tops of theose fields. Too fast for me to catch on camera, though I, slow and stupid, still pointed my lens to the sky. That small sooty bird and its scything aerobatics always, always thrills.

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Welcome back.

To start the rusted wheel of things

Down the riverbank a mile or so to start with, as the gaps in the cloudblanket grow larger and there is the promise of a fine, still afternoon. A pair of swans preening under a willow; goldfinches chattering and skipping from tree to tree. The trees have been pushing out leaves and flowers. Horse chestnut leaves in particular look freshly washed, limp and shiny.

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In the big open field next to the river, which is still slightly waterlogged, a couple of mute swans and some greylag geese, and above them – oh! a pair of buzzards. They loop and spiral, higher and higher, my binoculars picking out the wings’ pale patterns, until their aerial ballet takes them in front of the sun and I have to look away.

Dunnocks rootling about at the bottom of the hedge ahead of my footsteps, and returning to work as soon as I have passed. A moorhen scolding me from the safety of the water. A blackbird singing from a lookout point. More tinkling bells of goldfinches.

Where the path ends and briefly becomes road, it curves around to bridge the river by the mill and I stop to admire the mirror surface of the millpond. Behind me there is a sudden eruption of high-pitched noise, which abruptly stops – I turn – and a male kestrel darts out from a large ivy-clad tree on the other side of the road, crosses right in front of me at shoulder height barely six feet away, and pauses in a tree opposite before vanishing.

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I have barely time to register my delight before a female kestrel emerges, too. I lose her quickly among the branches, but a few minutes later further down the road I catch sight of the male again and watch him making his way back to the same ivy tangle. What a thrill.

In a stand of trees nearby there are cherries to be had in late summer, and here and there the first flowers are just opening. As I lean in to take a picture of one a bee fly (I think) hurries in ahead of me. There are more of them, and a lot more flowers, on the blackthorn around the corner.

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On I go, across the railway line, towards the turbines, and there, rising above the engine of the tractor raking over the next field and the distant A road and the trains passing at intervals, above all of this, skylarks. The sound is everywhere. And here they are, climbing above me, that huge fluttering effort, and that glorious sound.

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(Title: from “March” by AE Housman)