Tuesday, 25 November 2014

November 25th 2014 - Winter's grip

"Tracks led everywhere on the tell-tale white mantle of snow. The roe, the rabbit, the fox and the hare had left their stains. The spoor of pheasant, woodcock and blackbird marked the surface where they had striven for sustenance beneath the snow-covered earth. Below a holly bush, where snow had not penetrated, the tiny wren, his tail cocked upright, flitted about amongst the leafy carpet. At the eastern end of Blackburn Lake the leafless silver birches stood out against the white background like witches' brooms"

So wrote Henry Tegner (1901-1980) in 1953 in his story of a roe deer, The Buck of Lordenshaw.

Henry Tegner was writer, naturalist and a deer expert; president of the Deer Society, firstly gaining his knowledge of deer in Dorset before later later moving to Northumberland. Here he continued his work from the village of Whalton near Morpeth.  He wrote 25 or so books, primarily centred around the Northumbrian landscape and the wildlife that it contained. The Buck of Lordenshaw is as far as I'm aware the only life-story of a deer that has been published. His description is as mesmerising and evocative as other more familiar works about a single species, such as Tarka the Otter and yet this life and death struggle of a roe deer in and around the Cragside Estate near Rothbury is largely forgotten. As is this wonderful author.

I have a first edition copy of that book next to me as I write, and flicking through the pages I am drawn back again to that part of remote Northumberland. This week in Somerset winter has finally showed it's first fingertip grip on a mild autumn, a light frost covered the fields. December next week yet snow, significant snow, seems far off. However Tengers words on the page I am looking at, transport me back to an often taken woodland walk in winter.

"Silence reigned over Cragside save for the soft whisper of the snow as it fell upon the fir tree... It intensified the boundless silence of the whole countryside".

It is a silence I remember fondly and hope to relive again this winter. Many is the time I have walked in the winter wood. Snow knee deep at the woodland edge slowly thins as I push forward past long dead summer vegetation into the corral of trees around me, into a silent world. Is the countryside silent? Muffled maybe. Snow provides the silence of the wild, save for the crepe and scrunch of boot on snow, a tactile satisfying sound no other substrate can mimic. Tread gently and my foot silently sinks into the opaque void, but, apply a little pressure, and the tell tale crepe of compressed flakes brings joy to my activity.  

Crepe, crepe, crepe my footfall softened. I hear my breath leaving me, billowing in a condensed cloud as I move. I am removed from the ground I walk over, soft snow obliterates form and shape, all is uniform, all is silent. I stop and listen. Nothing but silence. Nothing but the thick curtain of trunk and branch, dark against the pale sun bleached winter sky. The dark wood is silently observing me, and at leisure for the first warming rays of April sun. Then these woods which now sleep a deep midwinter's sleep will awaken to spring's choral, the willow warbler, the pied flycatcher, the chiffchaff and redstart will jostle for song borne soundscape.

Today though I am remembering the joy of a wood in winter, I revisit to a silent world, lost in thought, my stride is measured and steady. Lost in my own thoughts, time stands still, yet it has begun to snow, softly. Single flakes breakthrough the canopy mesh to float silently and alone to the woodland floor. I watch them, spinning in unison before being absorbed into the snow-mass within. Without, a heavy fall has begun, dark clouds against the white landscape, swirling flakes coating the trunks of the outermost trees. But, inside the womb like cavern of a winter wood, single flakes gentle fall, in silence. I catch one in my gloved hand. So light, so delicate yet in a moment it is gone, returned to its liquid state by my internal heat.

Light is fading now, I retrace and make my return across the fields. Illuminated from below, the landscape has a pearlescence to it,  unique to a winter snowfall. Even indoors the radiance of light from below adds a glow to a room that even without looking will confirm that indeed snow has fallen overnight. That terra firma pale glow extends dusk well beyond its scheduled timeframe. A buttermilk glow may further brighten the west sky. No torch is required to light my way home today. 

Trees silhouetted against the fading light stand isolated in the white of a countryside at sleep. Maybe a robin will break my reverie as the smoke of a cottage fire drifts listlessly up into the falling flakes.  The pheasant metallic nasal call likewise drifts from some unseen hedge, it is a sound of winter to me. The countryside is closing down for the day. Along the field I walk, my face both hot and chilled with the exertion against a cooling air. I'm home, where I shall sit warmly and wish it will all remain as I remember it, for another day. I never tire of snow.

Henry Tegner's daughter Veronica Heath carried on his country diary traditions and wrote for the Guardian for 35 years. In one of her last postings she recalled 6 of her personal favourites. For me, reading Henry Tegner's simple description of the silence of snow, did what all good country writing aspires to do, to simply transports memories into a clear view, the natural elements, the suggestion to a spirit of place.

Images: Top to bottom:
Fallow Deer - Stock Gaylard Estate, Dorset 2007
The view from my home-office over to Wales 2011
The big field, East Grafton, Wiltshire. 2010
Through the hedge, Somerset 2012
Julie's Tree, Wilton, Wiltshire, 2011.

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