Reseting the clock

Even though it was misty and this delayed the darkness leaving, Shakespeare’s owl was away to its bed.  Even though I had high hopes of visiting the patch regularly, things this year conspired against it.  There were three things I wanted to get out of what might be the last visit of 2016.

The first as always was to see whats there.  Unseen a Waxwing added itself to the patch list as it flew over calling, seeking more of its kind.  Fieldfares kicked up from windfall apples and Redwings beat their way into the sky; one slightly smaller bird with a different wing action may have been a Song Thrush, but was lost in the mist too soon.  Redpoll -all dark picked through Birch trees above the land ruined by MotoX.  The male Buzzard saw me long before I saw him and flew to the female in the wood where they nest.  They both brought in the sound of the Fells as they left.

The track through the wood has been ruined by the bikes so I detoured through acres of Pheasants which will be gone on Boxing Day.  Returning to the path I found a footpath sign buried in the mud.  Beyond that a permanent sign on the bridle path saying shooting in progress keep out.  Two indications that others want the countryside closed.

A Roe Deer, a Jay and a Dipper singing low down in the valley as I passed Causey Arch were on my side.  Hi-vis jackets fixing a fence and two dog walkers were not.  I left my patch and through and past Beech trees with their feet in their copper-coloured leaves; another Buzzard sat high above me near a Yew that had already stood longer than I ever would.  Middle-aged women with trusty steads between their thighs and more dog walkers, before plunging down to the river.

Another Dipper sang above the water over rocks percussion.  I had not realised how lovely the song actually is.  Then another let me stand and watch it sing and feed.  Further upstream I watch the river pass, swirling leaves in a eddy.  I could still hear the Dipper.  The second point of the winter walk was reached -a oneness.  I can hear birds and wind in the trees and the stream.  In a man-made environment I hear no sound of man. I sit until the moment passes, my clock reset.

I head back to the patch.  Four male Goosander watch over a female as she fishes.  She looks up and two display.  They are magical in the dull light.  Another Buzzard again allows a close approach but is scared off by the bells on dogs collars.  Avoiding the paths I push past Hazel whose catkins are there already.

On the patch I am greeted by 4 MotoX bikes racing along a bridle path.  Illegal.  And then two old men walking dogs calling the police.  Who ruins the patch more? I do not share their concerns and reach the car after nearly five hours.  Part three, the joy of walking. Grey slips into darkness.

Ash 2




Double Glazed Over.

I might get to an end of year review, though there is a general consensus that whatever hope rung in the New Year, 2016 is now drunk and should go home. Three weeks feels like a long time and nothing is going to change just because you wake up with a hangover as 2017 starts.  So in at the end of the first week in December when mostly temperatures have stayed in double figures what troubles me the most?

I think mainly it is the disregard for nature -biodiversity, ecology, sustainability, which ever word you want to use.  Recently, I have been around RSPB, National Trust and Wildlife Trust estates and two thinks have struck me.  Firstly, we are turning nature, even here, into commodities -tame and constrained; and secondly, people often see it as a lump of nature.  Somewhere to take the kids or in the latter two walk the dogs.  They are not seeing the diversity and they are not seeing how much less of it there is that 10 years ago.  and this is less than it was 10 years before that.

So I began to think what is the worst invention that is going to accelerate the distance we have from wildlife.  Its not TV as everyone is watching David Attenborough’s swan song -Planet Earth II.  Its not pollution and urban sprawl.  True enough this is killing wildlife, ask the 10,000+ dead snow gees in Montana.

No the thing that I kept returning to is double glazing.  It deadens the sound of the Robin that sings outside my window at 5 am under the street light.  It stops me feeling the change in the weather.  It keeps me distant from everything that is important.  Not just me, all of us.  It allows us to be emotionally attached to nature as much as we need to be.  The less attached we are the more of it can slip through our fingers.

It starts at home.  I can see 16 back gardens from my house.  Only three have a tree, only two of them have more than one.  There are no ponds apart from ours. And in the summer if they do anything apart from cut the grass -outdoor vacuuming they put out ‘pay-and-display’ bedding plants maintained by their array of noxious chemicals.  Suddenly 2017 is not looking much brighter than just being 32 days away rather than the start of a new era.Image-1


Two and a half minutes -Alder.

With jumpers already thrown down as goal posts, a single Alder gets picked last when the trees play football; no Spring show; and no pool of gold at its feet.  Awkward by itself, it comes and goes, with no fanfare. The maroon it wears in winter reinforces its isolation, but as a team they are a force of nature.

The ecology of an Alder wood, roots deep in primal ooze, shin deep in winter floods, is one of hope.  Here, even in a mild winter Alder is the boss. At this time, when dusk hits in the middle of the afternoon spirits move.  Picking through the cones on the outer most branches Siskins quietly giggle amongst themselves.  Pointing at the earth bound man sinking deeper as he stands still, Siskin twinkle.  Even when they sell their soul and feed from garden seed dispensers they bring with them the air of untamed wilderness.

Long before I saw my first Siskin I had listened to the words of Native Americans as they responded in 1855 to the advances of the ‘white Chief’ in Washington.  How can one sell the air?.  It contains the first strands of understanding of consumerism and some things that are beyond money.  In this mud and ooze of youth there was a fertile place to bury a seed.  To be followed by the cold rain, summer heat and patience, too much patience.

But money makes the world go round; get a good job with more pay and you’re OK; getting old way to early just to impress you with the money they make.  Then suddenly something reminds you that, ‘ When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money‘.  It is at this point, the seed hidden away for so long begins to grow.

The election in the US is the single biggest ecological disaster in my life time and it will unfold while we bash out a few characters on Twitter.  In January 2016 the Domesday Clock remained at 3 minutes to midnight.  It is a representation of the danger from threats like climate change, weapons technologies, and perhaps most importantly, the potential for nuclear war. The closest the clock has ever come to “midnight” was in 1953 when the Soviet Union conducted its own hydrogen bomb tests following tests by the United States. At that time the Doomsday Clock was two minutes to midnight.  Don’t expect it to still be at three minutes in 2017.

How do I know? Look to North Dakota.  Here Native Americans will be evicted from their land on the anniversary of General Custer’s Birthday -5th December.  They are protecting their water supply from the pollution that will come from the oil access pipeline.  The black snake of ancient mythology that signals the beginning of the end.  This is a few days after Canada’s Trudeau approves pipelines to extract more oil from tar sands. At a time when we need to move away from oil based technologies and meet the Paris climate agreement.  Remember the bad guy has not arrived in the White House yet.

So I return to my small piece of Alder woodland.  In the growing darkness I watch a Woodcock pick along the edge of a small puddle.  This is the only place I have been able to watch this secretive bird feed undisturbed.  Crossing my fingers will not stop them ebbing away, as a tide never destined to return.  Nor will it keep the water fresh or the trees in the ground, but we cannot just let the crime of the century unfold.




The last leaf on the Ash Tree did not hang like an analogy.  It did not tug at the thin thread like a metaphor.  It was, simply, the last leaf on the tree, at the end of a year warmer than the ones that have gone before. It does not need me to describe it into existence -it just is.  Or should I say, it is now, before it drops and transitions into becoming soil.

Earlier in the year I read that ‘New-nature writing’ has become too tame.  So it made me wonder what I had to offer that would not become a symbol for something else like Helen MacDonald’s Goshawk; an act of remembrance rather than a daily lived experience;  or a bucolic stroll across rolling cliches.

So I break the seal around this blank space to write about a leaf, that rattles in sheeting rain, backed by a northerly breeze.  November’s short days do not live in a romantic world.  The tree stands in our garden, 30 cm of vitality was planted a few days after we moved in; that was 24 years ago.

Ten years ago, I cut it back to 7 feet, aiding its journey towards a pollard stump.  Now I take the second step and begin to take down seven upward thrusting branches, each of 15 feet.  Its too early, the sap has not yet solidified to await the coming spring.  There is no sawdust, it emerges as gloppy porridge. The branch weeps; the drops run like tears down the smooth skin.  I count the rings back into my past.  I cast the same circles forward and I will nearly be sixty years old.

The branches come down slowly in sections, none drop onto a neighbour’s car.  I know I am being watched, but from up here just for a moment I can see things differently.  The buds on the twigs are like stubby pencils with which to write about Ash.  Or with Arctic temperatures being 20C above normal perhaps it is the story of ash that needs to be told.  The last leaf remains -neither analogous or metaphorical.

Ciao Sicily.

Finally our adventure comes to an end.

Today was spent around time and down by cable car to the beach. Should have bought the snorkel as the fish in the bay looked amazing.

While on the beach we still managed two more honey buzzard which came in off and flapped over our heads.

The new highlight being last night we discovered our place has Geckos so tonight we will be back to watch them hanging as only they can.

Etna and beyond.

Much of the early planning centred on going up Etna. No euphemism intended. Anyway today with clear sky a flat calm sea we headed inland to Etna Sud.  You go up through lava flows some as young as 2001. And then reach a rather commercial district of tourist trinkets and fast food.  Go past that get the cable car and the bus up as far as you can go. This is 2500m above sea level. To see steam coming from a live volcano that last erupted in May 2016 and deposited the ash on witch your walking is amazing.  There is even a bit of snow buried under the ash from the spring just visible.  There are a few flies and I guess that’s what the 2 black eared wheatear were after but they were the only birds.

On the way down we stopped randomly for a scan. 1 calandra lark , 1 kestrel and three Chocolate Marsh Harriers .

In the woodland nuthatch and short toed treecreeper but no Sicilian long tailed tit . Have to come back this cop pice chestnut woodland is incredible. Fungi hunters coming out of the woods in battered Fiats and truffle hounds gave authenticity and we even got good information on Nesting Bonnelis eagle for next time.

We had sun all day but came down into cloud as we headed up the eastern side of the mountain to San Alfio to see the Hundred Horse Chestnut reputed to have been planted in Roman times it is a colossal beast of a coppiced sweet chestnut protected by a fence with its own viewing platform. It was surrounded by a communal nuttery. Further north to Linguaglossa and its vineyards took us through a green and pleasant land unexpected when we first saw the dry island two weeks ago.

20 year journey 

We travelled to Taormina a two and a half hour journey but with the detours it was nearly dark by the time we got parked.

First stop Milazzo on the face of it a medium sized port with its associated heavy industry. But head north along a long finger of land that points out at the Aeolian Islands and you are in a magic world which on a less suitable day i.e. 29c in the shade migrants from central Italy and else where would drop in.  Best we could do was a hooded crow and a great tit.

Then to Messina into the city turn left at the water and head right out to the point.  From here 3km of water separates the Calabrian toe of Italy from the kicking the rump of Sicily. Right on the quayside past the marina and lagolungo we had a great lunch. Too stuffed to take in the home made ice cream the only thing that let us down was a large bird coming high across the water. We had to settle for a Yellow wag while up on the watch point they were excited by their Slovakian Imperial Eagle.  This was the end of a 20+ year dream and in some ways felt like a pilgramage. 

However to get back out we had to go back through town and watched as an African guy begged for money at cars stopped at traffic lights. What are we doing wrong?

I am sure Taormina will b e lovely but getting up to the place started badly with having to climb out of the car window to get an Autostarda ticket from the lorry height (car one not working), getting off the machine did not take notes ( in the end they let us through without paying ) and then the windy roads of Taormina are hard work. An Alba wagtail from the hotel window and house martins overhead.