In and out the garden

20180531_161831As we write this, the sparrows outside the spare bedroom window are shouting away, full of beans, their home in the martins’ nest alive with the sound of babies and their proud parents’ calls. At last, after the most protracted and disconcerting few months of uncertainty, things have settled down and all the creatures are getting on with life. Everything seems to have been compressed into the last few weeks but having said that, even now – ten days into June – our new oak has only recently come into leaf, the last of our trees to feel secure enough about sunlight and warmth to begin to burgeon forth. 20180512_072525After a good fifteen years of development, first in a planter at the other end of the country, latterly facing south in the garden soil not far from Uncle Johnny’s grave, the wonderful wisteria has relaxed and, in a minor way, let rip, several floral cascades complementing its lush foliage.

The two nearby firs have responded with bright green tips all over and, along from them, the Huw the Yew, planted just before the ‘Beast from the East’ hit everything for six, seems optimistic in its new growth. They say that yew trees flourish where good things thrive, so let us pray for this one’s continued health. No sooner was it in the ground when the snow fell and clung to its cold feet for days on end, apparently doing it no harm other than a bit of brown. These are trees that have seen everything, having endured as individuals often for many centuries, reputedly a thousand. It is humbling to plant a mature specimen and hope that it will honour us with its mysterious gaze for many many years. Perhaps most of all, because we ourselves will not be here to see it.

20180512_072636.jpgEven the humble bay, long one of us and also previously for many years in a planter, has never looked anything as glorious as it did when this spring finally arrived. Imperfectly cropped into a vague ball-shape over the years, its thick, dark green leaves generated lovely bunches of creamy, fragrant blossoms in which it was completely covered.  Ours is essentially a green garden, probably with more than forty shades as well. Looking across the range, you notice especially the sharp lime-yellow of the maple, nestling near the Lincoln-green of the hazel – both big trees now, after several years left to their own devices – and, in between them, the motley holly, which breathes better in the winter when the other two are asleep.

20180512_072441Near the oak, Johnny-Crab-Apple produced a promising crop of blossom in this his first season with us, presaging a little harvest for later in the year. The sweet chestnut has also grown well since being planted last autumn. Lots of new trees; lots of new greens: acts of faith, for the long-term pleasure of man and beast alike. The spiders, beetles, mice, frogs, toads and birds of all kinds speak the language of these (to them) leafy labyrinths and find under and about and within them the wherewithal to sustain their lives. In the black elder, our beloved collared dove has at last settled on her spindly nest of twigs to warm her new-laid eggs. She is patient and trusting, never moving when we stand beneath and talk to her. She knows what she does. And what we mean. The noisy sparrow children will soon fledge and, we hope, feeling secure about the plenty surrounding them, their parents will sit tight and start another family. The more, the merrier.

A bit of radiant joy

20180119_081934Early Saturday morning, we were met at the end of our run by a bonny seal pup, resting on the beach between fishing expeditions. As the unaccompanied Kemo Sabe approached him, he turned and snorted, then returned to his laborious struggle towards the unhelpfully wave-less sea. Even when the water kissed his nose, he was reluctant to take to it, but there was no doubting he would be safer at sea than on land once the sun was up and the number of curious and interfering dogs running on the beach increased. Recent news reports from around the British coast have highlighted the plight of record numbers of seal pups – brought ashore by the wintry storms – where they’ve been troubled by the public and their pets. This has all too frequently resulted in pups being abandoned by their mothers.

20180119_082246.jpgDay by day we up here are unsure which season we are meant to be in, even though country-wide – and not too far south of us, either – the winter has been making its presence felt. On the ground here, in our little corner of north Northumberland, we were until yesterday afternoon’s bit of a blizzard snow-free, and all that excitement had completely disappeared by evening. Mostly, despite varying wind strength and direction, things remain calm, though every day is different and, prevailing over us, is Jack Frost. The intensity of the cold varies from day to day; it has been bitter here but, more often, the brightness of the sun is a joy and, this coming Wednesday, we are once again in for temperatures in double figures. And so the days rumble by, giving us a bit more light as they do so.

20180113_092949A few days ago on an undistinguished morning – certainly un-spring-like, the sky grey, a bearable chill in the air – one of our local blue tits stopped his back and forth from the nuts and fat balls and flew across to the nest box in which he was born. He sat at its entrance, comforted perhaps by happy thoughts, and pulled at a few tufts of retriever fur which Kemo Sabe had stuffed inside on top of last year’s bedding. He then paused for several minutes on his perch, poking his little head inside a couple more times.  There, in the depth of Winter, it was as if one tiny creature among countless others  could contemplate something distant yet fateful which we cannot begin to comprehend. Some glimmer of a future back and forth; as though rehearsing a part for which he is as yet un-cast. Truly, ‘the world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper,’ as someone famous once said.

A week of sun and sausages

120px-Sand_Martin_(Riparia_riparia)_(14)The sand martins have begun to return to the nesting holes! Joy unconfined! Proof, if proof were needed, that life is gathering speed in our midst and that we – the watchers and the waiters – are worth the candle.  The wind-blown nesting places which have lain forlorn – and indeed unseen – as we passed beneath them on the 20160425_073658darkest mornings, are now alive with the chattering of the creatures which, with miraculous accuracy, have located them as home for yet another breeding season.  As of today there are at least four pairs, but, when the wind turns southerly again, numbers will shoot up and soon the dawn will be full of their gossiping voices.

20170331_125642Around and about our home itself, our friendly neighbourhood bird life is busy, too. Any returning house martins will be terribly disappointed to find that the boxes erected especially to attract them to our eaves have one and all been commandeered by our fat little sparrows, most numerous of ‘the ones who stayed’. Even the two natural clay martin nests are now providing bed and board to chatty couples, late risers though they be; unlike the sand martins they never celebrate the early morning sun or greet us on our return home after the run. But the dawn chorus of blackbird, robin and the rest is intensifying day by day and the dawn obliterates the moon ever earlier. Our jackdaws have kept an eye on their chimney throughout the winter, and now look set to get cracking with a brood. The feeders are kept full, so starlings newly returned to them can have a mouthful, too and, to the box in which they successfully raised their clutch last spring, have returned our blue tits, busy all day, every day, and so conveniently near the nuts and fat balls.

20170401_141432But if the birds know what they are about, that is more than can be said for the sausages. It says it all about the serendipity which characterises our little posse that a family get-together last Saturday at the Scottish Dachshund Club Championship Show, ended with both Nicholas and his sister, Tiggy, having qualified for next year’s Crufts. Having achieved second place in their respective classes, the terrible twosome will now be heading Birmingham-wards next March, ‘for the experience’, as they say. This picture captures all the chaos of the aftermath, 20170401_120107both from the confused disposition of the certificates (which, in a way, says it all) to the restlessness of pup Frederick, their tiny nephew, whose intervention displaced the intended line up. We are grateful to the friendly judge who found Tiggy and Nico worthy: it was a lovely surprise. Who knows, once he reaches six months young Fred will probably honour the ring with his presence and may even qualify as well!

Mahler and the martins

220px-Emil_Orlik_Gustav_Mahler_1902On Sunday morning, to the glorious soundtrack of Mahler’s Symphony No 5, we found our imaginations soaring with the aerial antics of our house martins. The morning was very warm and sunny, a wonderful change from the dank and murky days we’d endured previously. The plankton of the insect world was rising from the fields and with them – as the second movement swirled into life – our martin family, whose darting and dashing and dry chattering around and about the rear of the house nabbed our attention, so we watched in growing amazement at both their presence and what they were doing.

Having emerged from their nest at the south of our house, the family was flying free over the garden and over the patio, rising and falling, transfixing us – we poor earthbound things  – with their agility and purposefulness. Their noisy calls from on high drew our attention to their clinging in twos under the eaves. It was as though they were practising for an air show, pushing off into a round of flight before returning to the precarious foothold above the windows, where the lintel provided a generous half inch of solid ground to which to cleave. What was all this about?

DSC01682Kemo Sabe was the first to notice that where the little creatures had been holding fast, brown blobs were apparent, muddy blobs which certainly hadn’t been there before. Nest building, or practice for it anyway, was underway. Was this to be a new nest, an additional one for the younger generation or for new arrivals to the colony? The adagietto gave us time to think.

Only the day before, having breakfasted as usual, our little blue tit family had upped and quit their fur-lined nest-box under the wild rose. The parents began undertaking much longer flights to serve them, nipping over the fence, high above the neighbouring gardens and up the lane to an oak full of the caterpillars they love which we can clearly see from upstairs. It felt then, as Mahler’s music unfolded loud and clear, as though the inevitable sadness of losing our daily visual commentary on the vicissitudes of the blue tits had been assuaged by the invention of the house martins, whatever they were up to – and still are – as the days roll by and the blobs in one area coalesce into the base for a nest.

Whatever the answer may be, we cannot hold, or truly understand, any of these creatures, any more than we can explain in words why this sublime orchestral exploration of life’s light and shadows is so electrifying and why, as we watched their spirits unfolding in the sky, its twists and turns enhanced and expressed the birds’ activity to perfection that Sunday morning. We thank you Radio 3  for this auspicious choice. Most of all, we thank you as warmly as we can, Herr Mahler: has there ever been a composer so life-affirming, so all-embracing, so moving?