Friday, 8 January 2010

Footsteps in the snow

Living where we do, on the edge of wild heathland and at the foot of a wooded hill, our human habitation and the small fields of enclosed pastureland seem a recent and temporary part of this ancient landscape. We do not feel "ownership" here, but more a sense of stewardship as we spend our few precious years husbanding this little patch of earth. Among the wild plants and creatures who have lived here since time out of mind, we are just passing through.

Our house cannot keep out the wild things. A colony of house sparrows lives winter and summer in the wall cavity above the garage. Mice defy wire netting in the eaves and make passageways from the attic, their footsteps pattering through the wall and down across the roof tiles. Swallows return each spring to nest in the shelter of wooden buildings outside. Ladybirds have found a way through the dining room window frames.

Outside, the birds and animals of field and woodland use our garden as their ancestors have always done. It is a trackway through to the lane. It is a source of food, water and shelter. It is a place to nest, to burrow, to raise young in the warm months and to survive in the cold of a bitter winter. Sometimes, with unearthly shrieks and screams in the darkness, it is a place to die. On a morning after snow, the white blanket is not pristine and clear. It is a criss cross of footprints. Signs of the creatures that pass through in the night; the ones that we seldom see. The ones who will still be passing through long after we have gone.

The thaw that stopped at sundown. Temperatures dropped to -9 in the night. Icicles hang from a pear tree near to the house.

The dogs are old now and cannot stand the cold for long. In the morning sun they played in the snow like puppies, before barking at the back door to come into the warm for another sleep by the fire.

Border Collie foot prints . The long hair on their legs and tails sweeps patterns in the surface snow.

A rabbit has been. There was evidence that the usual family of rabbits had come in under the fence from the fields. They had been eating grain dropped from the bird feeders, instead of grass from the green lawn.

A fox passing through. A young dog fox and an older vixen, probably his mother, pass through the garden each night. Before I go to bed I shall throw out some bread or scraps for them on this freezing night. Their main diet is rabbit, insects, small mammals and fruit but food will be hard to come by in the frozen snow. We and our neighbours do not keep poultry or lambs, so this fox family is no threat to us. They are an important part of the Forest environment and food chain and are beautiful , secretive creatures.
As we sit inside the warm house on nights like these, I think of the poem by Thomas Hardy, where a shy fallow deer peers in to their room from the cold night outside. Much as the visiting foxes do outside our window here.

The Fallow Deer at the Lonely House
One without looks in tonight
Through the curtain chink
From the sheet of glistening white;
One without looks in tonight
As we sit and think
By the fender brink.
We do not discern those eyes
Watching in the snow;
Lit by lamps of rosy dyes
We do not discern those eyes
Wondering, aglow,
Fourfooted, tiptoe.
Thomas Hardy


Morning's Minion said...

Your essay today has a quiet beauty. The photos enhance the words, but even without them I can "see and hear" your surroundings and the small creatures indoors and out.
"as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be"---same sense of a rightful continuity.

ChrisJ said...

I have never read that poem by Hardy before, though I have read all of his novels. The description of all the day and night-time creatures in and around your house is beautiful.

rachel said...

What a beautiful, evocative post! Thank you.

Bovey Belle said...

Ah, one of my favourite poet's poems to accompany your beautifully described - and illustrated - day. I know what you mean about just being temporary custodians of your house and land - AND having to share it with the wildlife! Be glad you don't have bats!!!