Early morning and the sun shooting low, straight in my eyes like an inquisition. I couldn’t see where I was going so studied the ground, seeing for the first time, reflective specs in the white lines on the road. The low light revealed snail trails like invisible ink – a log of night-time journeys, written in loops and flourishes. Bird droppings studded with yellow seeds blotted the pavement. Overgrown brambles and nettles plucked at me on the narrow path.
On the river half a dozen young mallards had turned sideways against the current as they swam under the bridge – perhaps to slow themselves down. Petals of Himalayan Balsam lay flat on the surface of the water like purple hearts.
Along the lane where it borders the site of an ancient track I got my usual goose bumps. The sun dappled the road through the trees and the only sound was birdsong. Suddenly I heard approaching footsteps – a jogger going by. I looked over towards the old high track almost expecting to see someone. As I emerged from the shade my shadow sprang ahead and startled me.
I could hear sheep tearing at the grass. Low down in the hedges, convolvulus flowers were furled in the shade, but open trumpets in the sun. Higher up, was a collage of colour and texture. Berries of all hues and sizes hung against a green backdrop – deep purple elderberries, dusky wild damsons, red and orange honeysuckle berries, wild cherry plums and peppermint-white snowberries. In an alder tree were compact green cones like hand grenades about to explode.
Some plants made up for lack of colour with intricate patterns and shapes – propellers of sycamore, knobbly hog weed seeds like jacks ready to scatter, wads of thistledown on the wind and delicate drifts of dandelion seeds counting down the days to autumn.
At home about twenty house martins were swooping up, one after another, to a nest under the eaves then dipping away as though saying goodbye to summer.
Leaving the dog-walkers behind I followed the footpath over stiles and along hedges to Charminster Down, scanning the fields for the shape of a running hare. Low sun skimmed across the furrows. The wind had a sharp edge, smelling of snow. Walking through the wet clay soil was heavy-going. It was littered with flints which skittered away from my boots and almost tripped me up several times. Some were huge like misshapen bones or skulls, others had been split by the plough, revealing cut surfaces reminiscent of blue and white china or birds’ eggs. Sometimes fossilised sea urchins can be found in these fields from ancient times when this area was an ocean.
The sound of traffic became fainter and I imagined Wilderness, wondering if I would ever experience it. Four roe deer grazed far away in a sunny valley. I could just see the flash of their white tails. A fat partridge flew up in front of me from the sparse hedge. I remember once having a hedge properly laid by two Dorset craftsmen – a chap of about sixty and his father who must have been at least eighty. They climbed, cut, bent and wove the hedge to a tight stock-proof lattice, creating the perfect A shape which lasted seven years without any further attention. Now hedges are brutally flailed to thin spindly palisades, not strong enough to support nests, provide cover for wildlife or dense enough to create habitats for a diversity of species.
In a coppice two magpies were arguing and rooks were clattering around above the trees with their beaks full of twigs. The tops of the hedges were snowy with wild cherry blossom and I noticed a chaffinch motionless amongst it, looking like a Japanese painting. But no sign of a hare. I have seen one in these hills before, but nothing today. I once found the skeleton of a hare in a derelict barn, crouched in a dark corner, the folded white bones tense and poised – as charismatic in death as in life.
Now the sun was dipping down and deep shadows lay in the furrows. The hares were hidden from view and I shall have to return another day …
Saturday began with darkness and the howl of wind and rain. A power cut. We decamped to relatives in Portesham where, a mile from the coast, salt spray had frosted the windows. A pheasant and pigeon were battling over food in the garden and, despite the weather (or perhaps because of it) a great tit was investigating a bird box on the garage wall.
It didn’t get light all day. Snowdrops glowed like fibre-optics in the darkness of afternoon. As we drove home at dusk, an animal crossed in front of the car. At first we thought it was a fox, but the silhouette was wrong – and this creature seemed to float rather than run. It looked like a large wild cat. I have seen these a couple of times before in West Dorset. I once saw one through my kitchen window. It was crouching in the long grass, feral and wary. We stared at each other for a long split second in mutual shock before it shape-shifted back into the undergrowth and vanished.
We drove on, headlights shimmering on the wet roads. Suddenly we saw a flare like a firework arcing through the darkness towards the ground. It was phosphorescently bright with a tail trailing behind. We concluded it must have been a meteorite – a brilliant end to a day of darkness.
Sunday however was a day of light – golden, green and blue. The sun reflected off floodwater, the silver bark of birches and the intense greens of ivy and grass. Golden catkins and daffodils shone out from the muddy banks. Little Egrets, like white paper cut-outs, dipped beside the river Frome. Low light gilded the Mallards’ green heads. Along the lane, white chalk cascaded from a badger’s sett. Drifts of snowdrops had covered the dismal roadside and, I noticed, among the bare branches of the hedgerow, the tiny exquisite white blossom of the Wild Cherry. In the distance, the hills seem to reflect light back to the sky, perhaps from the sheer white chalk which lies like a sheet just beneath the grass.
The storms had swept winter from the countryside leaving piles of dead leaves, branches, twigs and mud on the edges of everything. Now sunlight was filling the gaps.