Caught by the River

Pleasures of…February

4th March 2016

IMG_0001 Photo: George Wright

Words: Anna Pavord

The greatest pleasure of February is the feeling that the land is poised, just at the edge of spring. Of course there is no actual beginning or end in this passage of time over the landscape. It is at the same time ephemeral and unchanging. The flux is constant, though we don’t always register it. But this morning gave me a reminder of what we have missed in this long, dank, wet, dark winter. Sun. By half past eight the sun had just pulled itself up over the brow of the hill on the other side of the valley. Already the frost was melting. It was a beautiful frost, outlining the leaves of the periwinkle, crunching the grass into glass.

It is also the time of the full moon – a pleasure of every month but last night particularly spectacular because the sky was so clear. Together, the moonlight and the frost stole away all colour from the fields and the trees, the hedges and banks. At half past five, before sunrise, I went out into this monochrome landscape to admire the moon, still high in the sky to the west. And as I looked, a shooting star hurled itself across the sky, also moving west. It was a weird conjunction, the one object revealing itself for such a transitory moment, the other the reverse of ephemeral. Changing, in the way it shows itself to us, but ever-present, even if we don’t see it. I love the moon.

Our house faces south and looks out over a steep valley with land rising the other side of a stream. Alders have wandered down alongside the water and this is where the rooks nest, among the catkins which just now give a magnificent pewter-purple haze to the valley. The rooks haven’t started building yet, but conversation between them starts early, before dawn. They are my favourite birds: handsome, agile, full of courage, industrious, companionable. They have a massive vocabulary. The caw, caw is the most common perhaps, but there are plenty of other expressions, like the quick, clipped chip-chip noise they make when they are winging back into the rookery at the end of the day. They are intensely social and the rookery in the valley usually has at least sixty nests.

Rooks animate the landscape. Constable, the countryman, understood that, including a crowd of them over the trees in his oil painting of The Valley Farm. They are brilliant fliers, great groups of them shaping and reshaping into fluid dark pools and streams against the sky. In the evening, small, scattered bands return to the roost, clatter about companionably, exchange caws. Some of the nests survive from year to year in the alders, lodged high up, the trees still leafless though hazed round with the catkins. Five pioneer rooks are hopping around in previously uninhabited alders upstream. Is this a big moment for them? Like moving from Shepherds Bush to Acton?

The catkins on the hazels provide another of the great pleasures of February. They are long now and full of pollen. The hazel is never truly dormant: even when it sheds its leaves in autumn, you can already see the tight beige nubs of the catkins-to-be. They vary enormously in the rate at which they develop – a good survival technique. West Dorset is sheep country, and the way they used to be managed required vast quantities of hazel hurdles. That is why there are still so many big old stands of this tree, no longer regularly coppiced, but still producing from their bases fresh wands of strong, whippy growth. It grows fast when it is young.

The same kind of hurdle, daubed first with mud, then with plaster, provided the inside walls of the farmhouses in the border country between England and Wales where I grew up. Thatchers still use it to peg down their bundles of reed and straw. Coopers use it round barrels. And the baker in the village where we had our first house heated his oven with faggots of hazel twigs. The faggots came from a walking stick maker who only used the thick bits of the branches he cut. When the walking stick man went out of business, the baker had to stop too.

Now, outside, the sun is high in the sky. All the frost has gone, even on the north-facing land at the foot of the valley. It is a magical day. Writing my recent book Landskipping taught me an important lesson: we do not always need to be searching out new places. We just need to look more carefully at the places we think we know.

Landskipping was the Caught by the River Book of the Month for February. Read Sue Brooks’ review here. Available in our shop here.