The windows at the back of the house – in the bedroom, living room and dining room – face east, across the loch. In the morning, if the sun shines, it shines into these rooms.
Being very easily distracted, I often find myself staring out of one or other of these windows before I start work in the morning and again at various points during the day. When light allows, I stare out in the evening too.
I suppose that I must look as though consumed by thought at these times – troubled, perhaps, or at least engaged in sober contemplation – for I am often asked “What’s wrong?” or “What are you worrying about?” My answer – “Nothing” – rarely seems to suffice.
But the truth is, for the most part, that I am not thinking. Or at least I am not thinking consciously or purposefully. I am not seeking solutions to problems. I am not, more’s the pity, crafting perfect lines of prose. I am merely watching, and seeing how the pieces come together.
This morning, looking northeast to where the loch slips under the bridge and into the sea, a mirror calm wedge of water was broken by swirls and splashes. My view was obscured from the bedroom window by tall bushes in the garden, so I moved to where the binoculars were sat on the sill in the dining room and looked again.
The swirls were still there, and in that uncertain movement the disturbance became a black shape, which became, in turn, an otter.
I saw the head first, then as it rolled to dive the arc of its back lifted, followed by the tail, like a thick eel protruding momentarily from the water.
It was hardly gone ten seconds before it returned, swirling again, swimming in the direction of the house. Slipping just beneath the surface, it careered sideways, dragging a shallow bow wave behind it. For a moment I couldn’t see the animal, only the wake it left as it swam. And then it was up again, spilling broad circles of light over the loch.
While otters in Shetland do most of their hunting in the sea, they must swim in freshwater regularly to wash the salt from their fur and keep it in good condition. Since there are certainly otters living somewhere close the village, it is surprising how few times we have seen them over these past six months. In the summer, one individual bumbled down the path, past the front door and then disappeared into the garden. But for the most part they have been remarkably elusive.
Visitors to Shetland are generally keen to see two things in particular: puffins and otters. The former are easy, at the right time of year. They are bold and camera-friendly, posing unhurriedly at cliff edges, with their brightly coloured beaks resplendent in the summer light. Otters, on the other hand, are masters of invisibility. Even the best local guides would not be so foolish as to guarantee a sighting.
And yet sometimes, like this morning, they are apparently determined to be seen. They make no attempt to be discreet, even in a place like this, with houses and human activity all around. They just carry on, almost oblivious.
By this time, the otter was almost out of sight, having come so close to the house that it was hidden by the bushes and short wall at the end of the lawn. I grabbed my boots and hauled them on, slipping quietly out of the door and making my way down to ‘the forest’, where I thought I’d have the best chance of getting nearer.
Stepping slowly and (I thought) quietly down from the gate I saw no sign of it, so kept going. Then, as I reached halfway towards the water, it was there: the dark shape on the surface, now very close to the shore. I could see the strange, serpentine movement of it, as though the animal had no backbone to contend with. It splashed and curled and dived and rose, hunting perhaps, though in a perfectly leisurely way.
The morning was colder than I’d expected, and I was uncomfortable there without my coat. It made me impatient, and I took my next step without looking where I was going. A twig broke loudly in the still air, and when I looked up again I could see the place where the otter had been. Several moments passed, but I saw nothing more – only the memory of it spreading out in bright loops across the loch.
If there is one thing upon which it is almost possible to depend in Shetland’s unpredictable and eclectic climate, it is the wind. As an exposed and relatively low-lying archipelago in the North Atlantic, we get our fair share and more of strong winds, gales and storms. The upper echelons of the Beaufort Scale are familiar – sometimes wearyingly familiar – territory.
Over the past couple of weeks, we have been treated to several, sometimes prolonged, incursions into that territory. Gale has followed gale, with little respite between. Twelve days ago a gust of 90 miles per hour was recorded; and last night was even worse, with gusts reaching up to almost 100 miles per hour. This is not exceptionally strong for a Shetland winter, but it has been particularly unremitting.
As in all places where extremes of weather are to be expected, life adjusts. Buildings are constructed with winter in mind, and when forecasts are bad, anything that might move is either tidied up or tied down: plant pots, wheelbarrows, sheds, caravans. It is remarkable what a bit of wind can do.
Inside, we separate ourselves from it, sheltering in our bubbles of stillness – behind curtains, beside fires. Like passengers in a speeding car, we are disconnected from the violent pace of what surrounds us.
But when the wind really blows, as it did last night, it becomes impossible to hide from it. The air whistles under doors; it batters and rattles windows; it howls and growls and hisses and screams. A strange, inexplicable fear can rise out of this din: the fear, perhaps, of being consumed by something wild and monstrous.
“I always feel the wind as a bad-tempered thing” wrote John Stewart Collis, “and my mind contracts in resisting it, and I can enjoy no pleasant, expansive thoughts when ruffled by its peaceless, ceaseless wave”.
This morning did not exactly bring calm – a force eight gale blew for much of the day, with gusts of 60 miles an hour or so – but the worst of the storm had passed. There was that shimmering sense of relief that comes when a threat is lifted – when the grizzly bear steps away from the cabin door and the sound of its bellow abates. At once, other details emerge. You become aware, firstly, of yourself: the stiff heartbeat and the first conscious breath. Then the world, as it was, returns.
I took a walk around the garden this afternoon, looking for damage and for an excuse to be outside. On a whim, I hopped up on to the wall below the ‘upper’ trees, and pushed my way in among them. At once I felt more sheltered and more vulnerable than I had outside. Here the wind was changed – not subdued, exactly, but constrained, as though held on a fraying leash. The sound was amplified, too, roaring up among the evergreens, which swayed precariously and unpredictably beneath the weight of the air.
Here and there were broken branches, hanging loose or lying where they’d fallen among the rotting leaves. One tree had tipped a little, exposing a wedge of severed roots and soil. Then, further up, a pine was leaning over at 45 degrees, resting hard against the trunk of another. At its base was a semicircle of earth about three metres across, with a dark hollow lying beneath.
There was something poignant about this sight, and I walked slowly around it, reminded again of somewhere far away and long ago. I was six years old, almost seven, when the ‘Great Storm’ of October 1987 hit, blowing over an estimated 15 million trees in Britain. I can just recall walks near our home in the south of England in the months that followed, among forests changed forever by the strength of that wind. And it is those hollows that come back to me most clearly – deep holes in the ground where roots once had been, with headstones of earth now towering above.
A biting shower of snow bristled around me as I stood there beside the tree, watching it, still rocking gently from the force of the wind, like the quieting beat of a heart.
That last storm was followed by three days of cold and relative calm, the loch shifting between light ripples and mirror stillness, edged by a fragile skin of ice.
The valley becomes smaller at such times. Sound is unhindered. The bark of a dog from across the water is loud and disconcerting. The yell of a crow seems to come from everywhere at once.
Stillness like this does not feel like a zero point or a state of equilibrium, but, rather, like an absence of wind. Calm, in its way, is just as shocking as a gale. If there is balance, it lies somewhere in between.
The bird lands in the willow just outside the dining room. Or at least, the bird appears in the willow. I do not see it land. One moment I am reading beside the window and there is no bird. The next I have stopped reading.
It stands on a thin branch, somewhere close to the centre of the tree. Cocked, its slim tail twitches up and down, not quite rhythmically. Each movement is sudden and convulsive. It looks about, then bows, dipping and lifting its head in an instant. Then it calls: a single, high-pitched chkk. It calls again: chkk-chkk. With each sound, the tail jerks, steadying the bird and keeping it from capsizing. It bows further, wipes its tiny beak on the branch – one side then the other – turns and calls again. Shifting direction gradually, it shouts a wall around the garden, then pauses, waiting for a challenge. There is an unmistakable hint of arrogance in its stance – the head is held high, the orange-red breast is plumped up and puffed out defiantly. “This is my place”, it seems to say. “I live here.”
There are few birds so widely recognised or so well loved as the robin. There are few birds, too, so emblematic of one particular time or season. For though it is a year-round British resident, the robin is most fondly thought of as a winter bird.
Here in Shetland that is even more true than elsewhere. Only a tiny number of robins, if any, actually breed in the islands, but from late autumn those few residents are joined by an influx of migrants from Scandinavia. Some of these birds will stay only briefly, but others remain until spring. Winter is their season.
Robins appeal to that part of us that is beguiled by simple things: bright colours, funny walks, amusing characteristics. We enjoy them because they catch our eye, and in doing so invoke some kind of strange empathy. A dead robin on the doorstep somehow seems more tragic than a dead sparrow.
This feeling is all the more peculiar since we face a problem when looking at birds: how do we separate the individual from the general? I can sit and watch this robin outside my window for five minutes, ten minutes, half an hour. I can describe its behaviour, and note down the details of its appearance – the sweet red-orange of its breast, neck and forehead; the grey outline of its face; the flash of white belly; the nervous posture. But this picture will always be lacking. When the bird flies and I am left only with my words, they seem no more specific than the illustrations in my guide book or on my Christmas cards.
Robins on garden gates. Robins on fence posts. Robins on snow-draped branches, flanked by mistletoe. Is it possible to tease out one bird from these dense layers of images? Can we understand this single robin without reducing it to the generic one that each of us carries in memory and imagination?
For the most part, our understanding of individuality is tied up with intelligence. The difference between looking at a robin and looking at a raven, say, is that while the larger bird may see its world quite differently from the way that we see ours, the raven’s gaze is nonetheless recognisable. There is something like thought going on behind those eyes; and where there is thought, there is personality. In the robin, I do not see thought; I see only an indecipherable code of action and reaction.
So what, then, is a robin? What is this tiny creature that stands and sings and flies and feeds?
The truth is that, amputated from its perch, that robin may be less than we imagine. Written or drawn from the tree onto the page, the bird becomes something other than what it is. For what it is, to some extent, is there in that tree.
Barry Lopez once wrote that an ‘animal’s environment, the background against which we see it, can be rendered as something like the animal itself – partly unchartable. And to try to understand the animal apart from its background, except as an imaginative exercise, is to risk the collapse of both. To be what they are they require each other.’
This bird, like all birds, like all living things, is defined by its context – by its place. While it is here, the robin is part of the garden and the garden is part of the robin. Both are entwined in a way that reaches beyond observation and certainly beyond description. It is a relationship that goes to the heart of what it means to be at home.
For a time the bird is gone, somewhere unseen, though I continue to watch the branch where it had stood. A few minutes later it returns and begins to call again: chkk-chkk. The robin’s little tail lifts and falls; it wipes its beak; it looks around; it calls again; it flies.
I return to my book.
As the year gets older, darkness fills more and more of the day. Right now, the sun rises at eight o’clock in the morning and sets again about half past three in the afternoon, though even between these hours daylight can sometimes seem pallid and weak, infected with a kind of grim lethargy that fails ever to lift itself out of the shadows. By late December, another ninety minutes or so will have disappeared into the night.
Between three and four o’clock in the afternoon, as the air pales and the trees blacken against the sky, I have taken to standing outside for a moment to listen as a frantic dusk chorus sharpens the soft edges of the day.
At first it is the crows that come, wheeling in from around the valley and calling as they settle down among the branches. Then, from every direction, scores of thrushes – mostly blackbirds, with redwings and fieldfares among them. Silhouetted in the murky light, the birds arrive, flapping impatiently into the safety of the garden. The sound of them lifts from the trees like rowdy restaurant chatter. One evening , amid that glorious din, an owl ghosted silently above me and then was gone, as though it might never have existed at all.
From four o’clock, night thickens and the world closes around us. To be outside is to be somewhere new, in which we humans are rather improperly equipped. A torch now sits beside the front door to compensate for this inadequacy, and to make journeys to and from the house somewhat less hazardous. The electric beam opens a narrow space in which we can move without impediment and pretend to ourselves that we are not out of place in this nocturnal world.
Yet even at this time of year there are nights when, lit by moon or stars, the claustrophobic blackness is lifted and the universe is suddenly bigger than ever it is in the day.
Tonight, on my way back from the shed with a basket of wood for the fire, I stopped on the grass beside the greenhouse and stood still. Facing east, I could see lights from the houses across the valley shining like earthbound constellations against the darkness of the hill. Above them, the moon glowed brightly, highlighting the grey smudges upon its surface. Two days past full, only a slight fuzz at the right edge blemished an otherwise perfect circle.
Between earth and moon, a long thin cloud stretched out like a swimming seal, with a smaller partner following close behind. Besides these, the sky was clear and pale, infused with a colour quite unlike anything ever seen in the daytime. It was, perhaps, like the deepest blue silk held up against a dimly lit window, permitting only a thin blush of light to penetrate. But it was not really like that at all.
Around me, the garden was lit up enough to find my way without fear of mishap, enough to read back these notes as I scribbled them, childlike, across the page. It was bright enough that, standing there, I cast a long shadow over the lawn (suddenly I imagined Cat Stevens singing, entirely against my will).
In the night time, sounds untangle and identify themselves in a way not required at other times. And even then, in that strange light, I could hear what might go unheard in the day. There was the loch lapping against the bank below the trees; the purr of a wind turbine turning just up the road; the bustle and thrum of wings among the branches; and though it was almost calm, there was the white noise of water and air moving in the same direction that is the constant background to life this close to the sea.
As I turned towards the house, a shooting star blazed for an instant above me. Always they seem to move at the edge of vision, and are gone so fast that, like the owl, I can hardly be sure they were ever there at all. Looking up, tiny sparks were rising from our newly-swept chimney, glittering golden yellow as they danced and faded in the night.
Each evening, when the hens have retired to their house, one of us must go and close the door behind them. The birds are entirely free range, roaming around the garden, kicking up mud and leaves in the flower beds, picking their way methodically through the lawns. They make a mess, but for now it is tolerable, and they do pay their way in kind.
When it reaches a certain time of day – or more specifically a certain level of light – the hens cease their wandering and head home to one of our sheds, which is accessed by a hole in the wall, with a ramp both inside and out. Once they’re in, it is up to us to close the door.
Tonight, on my way out to a meeting in Lerwick, I did just that – lowered the little wooden door and fixed it in place. Then I looked inside the shed to make sure there was food and water, and to see that everything was okay.
Everything was not okay.
We have – or had – three hens, all Rhode Island Reds, with subtle differences in colour, character and social status. The lowest ranking of these was also the tamest, with one characteristic perhaps compensating slightly for the other. She was, in addition, a layer of enormous eggs. Recently though, this particular bird had adopted a bad habit of roosting on the ramp just inside the entranceway rather than jumping up to the perch alongside the others, and it was almost certainly this habit that cost her her life, for when I arrived in the henhouse she was lying beside the door, virtually intact but unquestionably dead. At the back of the coop, now deprived of an escape route, was the foul-smelling culprit.
There are no native land mammals in Shetland but several have been introduced over the centuries and have made the islands their home: house and field mice (which have been here long enough to evolve into sub-species), otters, rats, hedgehogs, rabbits, mountain hares, stoats and, undoubtedly the least popular of all, polecat-ferrets. This hybrid, with its familiar robber-mask markings, only appeared here about 30 years ago. Whether first released deliberately or accidentally is unclear, but they bred and now thrive, eating rabbits, wild birds, eggs and just about anything else they can find. Given the chance they will also eat hens, and once inside a henhouse they will often as not kill everything.
This particular individual was interrupted in its task by my arrival, which was lucky for me and for the two remaining hens, but considerably less so for the polecat-ferret. Standing on its back legs in the corner of the shed, it was looking for a way out.
My choices were limited. If I opened the door and let it go, there was little doubt it would be back the following night to finish the job. As I had no interest in losing any more hens, I could not let it go.
Not for the first time, I regretted not owning a gun. The chicken wire that separated me from the polecat was reassuring. While it was alive and still capable of biting me I would have preferred to stay separated; but that wasn’t going to be possible. The only solution I could see was the shovel leaning up against the wall, and that was a long way from ideal. I picked it up reluctantly and the decision was made.
The temporary stalemate within the henhouse was immediately broken when I undid the latch and stepped through the gate. One of the birds, which had so far been as still and quiet as if they had been sleeping, saw in that instant an opportunity to escape. In a flash of feathers she leapt over my shoulder and out of the shed door, squawking all the way. Her companion, now more terrified than ever, just sat still, her eyes fixed on me, then on the floor, then on the shovel. In the time it took for the first hen to flee, the polecat-ferret had moved from the back wall towards the hatch, and finding it closed had curled up in the narrow entranceway, putting itself almost out of reach.
It is at moments like these that we see things that may not be there: complex thoughts and emotions in an animal whose face we cannot truly read. At moments like these we see a kind of distorted mirror, where the muddle inside of us is reflected in the eyes of another creature. I did not see fear in the polecat, nor aggression. Though it must have experienced some kind of anxiety, the hopelessness of its situation – trapped in a cage with nowhere to go – seemed to bring out something more complicated and unnerving. A strange kind of resignation was what I saw: an absence of panic. The polecat seemed calm, as though it understood, in a way that it could not possibly have done, that the game was definitely up.
When I swung the shovel against the wall to try and dislodge the animal from the entranceway, the polecat didn’t bolt as I’d expected. It unfurled itself out into the coop, then walked slowly back to the far corner, where it stopped still and waited. I lifted the shovel again.
When it was done, I removed both bodies – bird and animal – and laid them in a cardboard box to deal with in the morning. I stayed with the one remaining hen for a few moments, waiting for her to calm down again and for quiet to return, then I switched off the light and flicked my torch back on. I had long since missed my meeting in town.
I wondered then how I would feel if this creature were native. Had it not been a recently-introduced pest – a threat to both wild and domestic birds – could I defend my actions so easily? After all, were it to speak, the animal might quite justifiably say to me: “I was here first”.
The polecat doesn’t need to talk, of course. I know the questions, and I know that my answers do not entirely release me from hypocrisy. But I do not feel guilty.
As I came back down the path towards the house, I saw that our cat had found a juvenile blackbird and was waiting for a chance to finish it off. The bird was flapping against the windows and walls, unable to lift itself high enough to be free. I picked it up and chased the cat away, then held my arm in the air. The blackbird opened its wings and vanished into the night.
Autumn in Shetland can be the shortest and most ill-defined of seasons. It comes and is gone in the rushing of air. Gales drag summer southwards, leaving behind a space that autumn must fill. But gales do not stay silent for long, and winter begins quickly to press itself upon us.
Here the season is marked most clearly by the passage of birds and, for some, by work. Lambs are sold and slaughtered; vegetables are taken from the ground. The traditional signs of autumn elsewhere – the yellows and reds and the falling leaves – are not entirely familiar in Shetland, where trees are uncommon and mostly diminutive.
But here in this house, we are lucky. The southern border of the garden is marked by trees – a line of 100 metres or so, by ten wide, sloping down from the road to the bank of the Vidlin Loch. That slope is divided both physically, by a wall and a fence, and botanically, into three roughly equal parts.
At the top, closest to the road, are densely planted conifers – mostly shore pines and Sitka Spruce, if my identification skills are to be trusted. These are big trees by Shetland standards; the largest are fifteen, maybe twenty metres tall. Here, trunks and branches are tangled, and the light struggles to break through. Walking in among them, pushing limbs and needles out of the way, it is possible to feel a great distance from home.
Below them, in the middle part of the garden, closest to the house, the cover is broken and the trees are mostly shorter. There is a diverse, somewhat eccentric mix here, both evergreens and deciduous, as well as a few feeble currant and raspberry bushes, clumps of fuchsia and a very un-northern sprouting of pampas grass.
The lower section of the garden – ‘the forest’ – holds a mixture of well established trees, most likely planted when the house was built back in the late forties. It is enclosed on all sides by a fence, yet it feels, undeniably, the most ‘natural’ part of the garden, if such a label can be comfortably applied, which of course it cannot. There are firs and spruce here, two kinds of willows, hawthorns, sycamore and others. I recognise some but several remain a mystery. I am frustrated by my ignorance.
On an afternoon between gales I took an identification book – newly purchased for the purpose – and wandered slowly beneath branches, pausing beside each anonymous tree. Blackbirds harangued me from above, and two robins, recently arrived, watched my progress with apparent concern. A tiny Shetland wren (Troglodytes troglodytes zetlandicus) crept like a mouse among fallen leaves.
Even with this book though I struggled. Most branches are now bare, and to uninitiated eyes like mine the differences are hard to distinguish. Those leaves that remain are largely in poor condition, fragile and discoloured. I have picked the wrong time of year to educate myself. And what is worse, I had been forewarned that Shetland’s climate can produce trees quite distinct from textbook examples of the species. The odds were not on my side, and I barely knew where to start.
After twenty minutes or so, cold and frustration pushed me back inside, and I returned to the dining table with an armful of leaves and twigs and cones, determined to make at least semi-informed guesses at all of them. With the book in front of me, I sat down and picked at random.
A leaf, about ten or twelve centimetres long, roughly oval in shape, but pointed at the end and more rounded towards the base. The edges were toothed and 14 or 15 veins spread out on either side of the midrib. Despite being one of the last on the tree, the leaf had retained most of its colour. Only a light singeing of the apex and teeth gave away the season.
Immediately I was stuck. The closest image I could find was of a wild cherry, though that seemed improbably exotic for a Shetland garden. But perhaps not. Unsure, I moved on.There were some I was confident about. The larch was unmistakable – splayed tufts of yellowing needles all along the rough-skinned branch – and the three-part leaves of a laburnum were equally unambiguous. There were two alders, I think, of two different varieties; the cones, though more or less equal in size, were quite distinct in appearance. But again, I had little confidence in this conclusion.
Of the others, one more was familiar: the scaly green fronds of a cypress tree. The look and, more particularly, the smell of it dragged me unexpectedly back to a place quite distant from here. I couldn’t picture it at first, but then I remembered: the garden of my paternal grandparents – both long dead now – in the Sussex town where I spent the first years of my life. Not all of it comes back to me, but I remember the square lawn that my grandfather cut slowly and meticulously with his push mower. And beyond it I can see the trees: a tall oak in the centre and a broad holly bush to one side. Behind them were others – a world to explore – and somewhere in that garden, I am certain, were cypress trees. As a child I would run and hide among them, the soft leaves brushing against my face, the scent of them in my nostrils. It seems strange that a smell would stay with me for so long, yet somehow I am relieved to have found it again.
When I returned to the table the following morning the leaves had dried and curled in upon themselves. The larch needles too had begun to loosen, and as I ran my finger over them, a shower of yellow exclamations fell, leaving the twig bare and almost ugly. The table was strewn with the victims of my curiosity, brittle and withered after just a few hours inside. All except the cypress fronds, which looked and smelled exactly as they did the day before, and exactly as they did more than 20 years ago.
As the light drew back over the hills to the west and a soupy gloom slunk in around the garden, I crouched down at the tiny plot of vegetables sheltering beside the south wall of the greenhouse. At five square metres or so it is not exactly providing for all our needs, but this is almost as much as we have managed in this first year of growing.
The soil is damp but not too cold, and I press my fingers in around the stubby-bodied carrots and pull. They are a disappointing treasure, emerging finger-length at best, with most even shorter than that – an inch or two of root to show for a whole summer’s patience. Autumn King this variety is called, but these specimens look more runtish than regal. The fault is not in the seed though; the fault is in the soil.There have been successes this year – a great bounty of fat courgettes, some salad leaves, lettuce and a few spring onions – but our first attempt at coaxing vegetables from this ground has been largely disappointing.
We started late, if truth be told. When the house became ours, at the end of March, our first priority was inside. Day after day was spent hauling out carpets, tearing down plasterboard, insulating, sanding, painting, varnishing. Stripped wallpaper piled up around us like fronds of damp, claggy seaweed, and it seemed we might never escape from the mess or make this house into a home.
Beyond a few brief excursions, the garden was almost ignored. On one dry day I tried to turn over a patch of the scrubby back park for planting, but layers of thick roots and stony soil resisted both spade and rotavator. All big plans were laid to rest and alternatives were temporarily postponed.
The backup scheme was simple, born of limited time, energy and easily clearable space. We planted potatoes, onions and a few brassica seedlings in the vaguely brown square I had scraped out of the back park; courgettes, cucumbers, peppers, salad and tomatoes went in the greenhouse; and we squeezed whatever we could fit into the narrow bed just outside, from which I’d hauled several overgrown clumps of Lady’s Mantle and other unidentified plants.
There were numerous disappointments through the summer. Out the back, the onions and brassicas failed to grow at all, though the tatties – Cara, Kestrel and Shetland Blacks – did well. In the greenhouse, tomatoes refused to ripen and peppers failed to flourish. In the little bed, almost everything is stunted – the beetroot, neeps and cabbage, the leeks and parsnips, the tiny carrots. The soil is just not good enough for vegetables, it seems. And making it good will take work. It will take time.
Compost and manure are needed; seasons of gradual improvement are required. The feel of those little roots between my fingers reminded me that, if we wish to continue, it will not be a case of just planting and hoping for the best. We will need to make more effort. We will need to think about the soil.
Not so long ago, owning a house seemed like a great responsibility and a greater commitment. But now I’m not so sure. Ownership itself commits us to nothing, and leaves us responsible for not much more than payment. The desire to grow bigger carrots, however: that is a commitment. The soil demands fidelity – a virtue that has no place in the housing market – and it asks for care.
If we can leave things at least as good as when we found them then perhaps that is good enough. Perhaps that is the best that we can do.
I gathered a few things together – the mud-coated carrots, a fist-sized neep and a courgette from the greenhouse. The blackcap was calling again from the back park, with a staccato signal that bristled the air.
And then a response. Another bird. Then another. And another. Five blackcaps were scattered around the garden, announcing themselves in the gathering night. I could see none of them, but I listened on until the birds were silent again, then carried the vegetables into the house, where the smell of cooking had already filled the warm, bright kitchen.
Ten days have passed and the garden feels a different place altogether. The warmth has gone, flushed out with the first of the season’s gales, and what is left is brittle and transient. Colours are changing – rich greens fading to olives and browns – and there is a yellowing of the air now, which pales quickly to grey as evening arrives. When the sun comes it rarely stays for long.
Trees and bushes are growing gaunt, their skeletal frames emerging from behind the summer attire. Leaves scuttle like crabs about the garden’s edge, and in the long untended grass. The last autumn crocuses have abandoned their show and drooped, leaving only two lonely poppies and the gangly monkshood still in bloom – brash, blue and deadly.
Overhead, geese move together in broad wing-strides, their ragged arrow formation pointing the way towards winter. The sound of them falls like hail over the valley.
This is an unsettling time. Everything is changing; each day, each hour is different. Knowing this place now, as it turns through this restless season, seems impossible. Like a lover whose temperament – whose very face – alters from one moment to the next, the land has become elusive, mysterious, enigmatic. It has left me lost.
Beyond the window, a blackcap flits from elsewhere to here. He visits the little goat willow often, and I sit, distracted, watching him fluster among the branches, picking intently at invisible things. Now and then he stops, looks out over the garden and offers an alarm call: chack-chack-chack-chack. He waits and listens, but nothing responds.
This bird should be on his way to somewhere else by now, and I expect each day for him to be gone. He arrived a couple of weeks ago, together with a female (whose cap is not black but chestnut brown). The female though has disappeared, and I wonder if he is still waiting for her to return. I wonder about this particularly because, while I hope that she has flown south, I fear that our cat may have been responsible for the disappearance. In my guilt I have written tragedy into the tale, and a grief that most likely cannot exist.
As I sit watching the bird, a movement beyond catches my eye. At the edge of the overgrown lawn a little hedgehog is nosing through the leaves and the dirt. His tiny feet take him in and out among the plants, as he weaves his way through the flowerbed. There is an urgency to his movements, and to his daylight appearance, which suggest that all is not well. Hibernation cannot be far away, and maybe this one understands he is not yet big enough to survive.I step out from the living room and up the path, to where the hedgehog has paused. It does not try to escape as I approach; nor does it attempt to roll up into a ball. The little creature simply lumbers from one edge of the path to the other, uncertain of what to do next. I wonder if perhaps he is no less lost than me out here. He knows this garden from one angle only, and has just a few months of life behind him. Maybe next year, with another summer and a long winter under his prickly belt he’ll be a wiser thing, but for now we might not be so different.
I let the hedgehog shuffle back into the flowerbed while I shuffle back to a warm house and a cup of tea. I sit down again in my chair by the window, and think of the great, impossible allure of hibernation.
It is right, I suppose, to be lost at this time – to feel pulled by an ebbing tide. The things around me are unsettled and uncertain, and to be immune from that uncertainty would be to miss a point. I could close these windows and doors, draw the curtains and turn up the heating. I could climb into bed and stay there till springtime. I could shut my eyes and imagine myself flying south. But then where would I be?
There is a conversation going on, and I am part of it. Or at least, I want to be a part. There are words whose sound is strange and whose meaning is uncertain; there are signals and signs that I cannot yet follow. There is a language, not foreign but unfamiliar. I am trying to listen. And I am trying to learn.
While we may have exchanged money for this house and garden, it was clear from the start that our ownership could never be exclusive. Our title was a limited one, and meant less than nothing to those long-established occupants with whom we would be sharing our new home. Seen from their side we were, at best, neighbours. At worst, we were squatters.
It was the crows that told me this. Looking down from their places amid the pines and spruce they watched us arrive, unload our belongings and begin the job of settling in. The crows observed us and they discussed among themselves. Their claim to this place was inherited, and as old as the trees in which they perched. It was the family seat, I suppose. They would let us stay, it seemed, but not without reservations.
Crows are intelligent birds, like all corvids – rooks, ravens, jackdaws and the rest. They are curious and creative, driven by something more than mere instinct. They fly, sometimes, just for the joy of it, and they can remind us of ourselves if we let them.
This particular branch of the family, corvus coronix, the hooded crow, has a reputation as a trouble-maker – mischievous, and dangerous even. It is an expert and ruthless scavenger, and for its sins the bird has long been considered a symbol or even a harbinger of death. For many it has been an unwelcome sight. But not here. And not now.
On the last afternoon of September, I stepped outside into the garden. The air was warm – as warm as the best of the summer – and the sky was a sweet, syrupy blue. A light autumn wind combed the loch below the house, and a few yellowing leaves were beginning to curl onto the lawn.
Across the road two hoodies were huddled on a telephone wire – black birds with grey apparel. Another passed by in flight and kraw-ed, its voice zigzagging across the valley like dark lightning. In the field beside the house, a fourth crow tiptoes through the grass on his way to nowhere. Then pauses. Then begins again. Like a country pastor consumed by some troubling question of scripture – head bowed, hands tucked neatly behind his back – the bird shuffles about the field. Here and there it stops, stoops, picks up some unfamiliar object in its beak, then returns the item carefully to the ground.
A cry behind makes me turn towards the lower part of the garden – ‘the forest’, we call it, relatively speaking. Around the tree tops a crow coils, flapping and cawing urgently. It burrows down among the branches, then up again and over. The voice is coarse and insistent – a provocation, it seems – and the manoeuvre is repeated, once, then twice.
The challenge evidently succeeds, for out of the muddle of needles and limbs comes a sparrowhawk, as though fired from a cannon into the sky. In an instant, the pair turn about each other, coiling and gyring, their paths wound and tangled in tightening nooses of air above the garden, until it is no longer clear who is chasing and who is chased. The hawk’s screams, thin and needle-sharp, are all that escapes this knot of feather and flight.
By the time the crow tires and swoops away over the loch, I have come down among the trees and hidden myself as best I can. When the hawk settles, it is to a branch just ten metres from my head. I turn slowly and lift the binoculars to my eyes. I can see the dark bars upon the tail and breast; the upright, alert posture; the restless yellow eyes.
The bird is still for a moment and then relocates a little further away. Again, I rearrange my position as discretely as possible, but this time I am seen. The hawk responds, hunching and twitching in my direction. A second’s hesitation and it is gone. Looking down from high above me, it identifies the threat, then pushes east over the water, pursued once more by the crow.
Later that evening I returned to the garden, torch in hand. Dozens of birds gather here at dusk to roost, and in the darkness the place feels alive with them. Crows bluster like grey ghosts among the branches. Invisible wings gust from limb to limb.
I cast the torch beam up among the trees and swung it back and forth, carving brief holes in the night. Through them, I saw strange, distorted fragments of the world that I could hear, and I felt lost for a moment, and a long way from home.
But then the beam alighted on an unexpected thing, and I understood at once what before had been unclear. For some weeks our sleep had been punctured by cries from outside – serrated shrieks that burst through the half-open window. But I had not, until that moment, identified the culprit.
In the upper branches of a Norway spruce stood a heron, looking huge and ridiculous and perfectly handsome. The bird twisted its long neck, awkward in the light, and squawked. A few seconds later and another squawk came, this time from another bird, close but unseen.
I flicked the torch off and waited a moment longer, letting the darkness settle down around me. Once my eyes had re-adjusted, I slipped back across the lawn towards the house, leaving behind an unfamiliar garden, two herons, and a night full of crows.