Beyond the folly

Clive Wilkinson, of Rothbury, muses on the life and times of an avian pal and the lessons to be learned for our own country lives…

There’s a pheasant that lives somewhere in the tangled hedge of ash, blackthorn and hawthorn, elder and bramble that marks the northern boundary to the field next door. We call him Charlie. He was there when we moved in, but as that was twenty-four years ago, and we don’t think pheasants live that long, we think it must be a dynasty, and he must be Charles XXIV.

The way of life of the House of Charlie is utterly predictable. In early spring Charlie-boy starts strutting his stuff, letting the world, and any male competitors, know he’s around and in charge. He used to stand on a fence to do this, but over more recent years he was given a more prominent perch by the appearance a big pile of rocks that accumulated under the ancient sycamore that greets us every morning when we open the curtains. The reason for this is that the land was roughly cleared of boulders a few years back in the expectation of new houses being built there. There is now a vanishing expectation of these houses ever appearing. We are pleased with this because it provides a reasonable hope that the House of Charlie will continue undisturbed for some generations more. It also means that Charlie has been able to incorporate this rocky pile into his world view. This is now his preferred method of announcing his presence to the world. He likes to stand on the highest rock, throw out his russet chest, spread his magnificent wings and with a couple of mighty squawks report that his life’s purpose has been fulfilled. He has ensured the continuation of the dynasty, at least for one more year. Before long, his lovely mottled-fawn partner comes on the scene, plumping up nicely, walking sedately in Charlie’s shadow, and always with an air of great contentment.

Soon the whole family, Charlie in the lead, Charlotte behind, followed by eight or ten chicks, will find a way through or over our garden fence, with an eye on the lush pastures of our newly-mown lawn. They will parade up and down, exploring and pecking at this and that, sometimes at things that we would really rather they didn’t peck at. But we haven’t the heart to dampen their spirits. Increasingly, however, Charlotte takes the lead, and Charlie rummages around on the fringes, not quite knowing what to do with himself. Occasionally Charlotte takes a dust bath. With determined wriggles she cosies herself down into a patch of dry, dusty earth where the daffodils were recently blooming, and settles down contentedly to a prolonged sunbathing session.

The pattern and timings are always the same. Around us everything is proceeding just as it should and just as it has always done. The sycamore tree has finally got its summer clothes on, and the ash, always the laggard, will follow in a few weeks. The daffodils have come and gone, and so has the forsythia. The apple blossom is out and the cheeky chink, chink, chink of chaffinches can be heard in every hedgerow. A gang of starlings grub around on a weedy piece of lawn, greedily gobbling up seeds and insects. Morning and evening, a blackbird perches on the highest ridge of the house and sings its heart out, although in truth what he is really doing is telling any potential pretenders who’s boss. In late autumn redwings visit the rowan trees and strip them of their berries, bright red first, dull orange last. In the fields across the way, new-born lambs scamper around, delirious with the sheer exuberance of life, mercifully unaware of its brevity and of their ultimate fate.

The natural world, it seems, is having a ball. But we’re not. A pall of sadness and regret hangs over it all. Maybe we’ve not really taken it all in up till now. Perhaps, now that we have stopped rushing around quite so much, we have the time to notice the exquisite beauty of it all more carefully. Maybe, because we now understand the fragility of life a bit better, we are only just beginning to appreciate the miracle and transience of its patterns. Maybe we’re opening our eyes for the very first time.

Fifty paces away there’s Silverton Lane. It’s a narrow lane, just under three, in places maybe as much as four, metres wide. We’ve always regarded it as our lane. It used to be the case that the only people we saw on it were those living in the small cluster of households that we call Silvertonia, plus the postman, with his little red van, the local farmer on his quad bike and the occasional visitor.

Only now it’s no longer our lane. Since lockdown the whole world has discovered it. Being forced to stay indoors most of the time, they are taking full advantage of the one permitted period of daily exercise to explore new areas of beauty, and they would now like to have some of it too, please. So we have had to learn to share, and we now  find ourselves calculating when to go out for our daily walk in the hope that we can do so without violating the rules of social distancing. As we retreat to the opposite edges of our narrow lane whenever anyone approaches, we are gradually getting to know many more people and making many more friends.

I went for a walk the other day, having successfully negotiated my way through all these strangers, and took the farm track that goes past Sharpe’s Folly towards Whitton Hillhead, turning off towards Whitton Burn. Very few people come as far as this. The white blossom of the blackthorn was giving way to the pinky-white of the hawthorn. New-born lambs inquisitively came to the edge of their known world to enquire about me, but when I got too close they scampered away to the safety of their mothers’ teats. Some early swifts darted low, scooped up insects, swooped high, and dived down again for another mouthful. In the next field a herd of doleful English Longhorn cattle surveyed me indifferently.

I jumped over the burn and began the stiff climb to the open moorland of Lordenshaws a hundred metres above me. The sky was brilliant blue and there was a chill wind off the North Sea. A lark sang frantically overhead, a startled grouse tried to lure me away from her young. I looked out over Coquetdale and beyond to the glistening majesty of The Cheviot, Hedgehope Hill and Windy Gyle.

Everything out there was right with the world, except that it wasn’t, at least not for us. Now we are the threatened ones. The rest of the natural world are having a party. For us, at least for the time-being, the party seems over. Something infinitesimally small is threatening our very lives, and something overwhelmingly big is threatening the viability of our planet, and we are caught, mesmerised, between these two terrifying realities, lost, bewildered, fearful. Could it be that the world of nature, that we have treated with such indifference, could be about to shrug us off as troublemakers. Could Gaia be coming to the conclusion that she is better off without us. It seems that a line has been drawn in the sand. Limits have been set. We are being cut down to size, taught a lesson in how to show respect.