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.

The night and a thousand eyes

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Recent snowfall at Bamburgh: photo by Alan Leightley

The deep mid-winter is upon us and with it the utterly dark mornings, in which we habitually run along the beach. Even when the wind is extreme and the tide unusually high, as it has been this last couple of days, we negotiate its difficulties with careful confidence; we respect the wildness and know where we could seek shelter, if need be. No photograph could record the strange world of shadows that is currently ours, but this one shows our castle sprinkled with snow, as it was at the beginning of this week.

The recent spring tides coincided with a sharp decline in temperature, snow on the sand and hazardous ice on the rocks which form part of our route and which cannot be avoided. This has been a dramatic week weather-wise for the British Isles, with more snow in some areas than has fallen in many years. Here we get just a smattering but it has been icily cold. On the worst days, it would be folly to venture forth until it is properly light, mainly because the road to Bamburgh is treacherous. Nevertheless, whenever we possibly can – and that means most days – we enter the world early. We pull together (just the three of us in conditions like this), Barnaby watching and waiting for Kemo Sabe as she picks her way gingerly across the rocks; me, usually getting in the way, so devoted am I, but otherwise ahead of the game, always within ear-shot and always attentive to the whistle. Our high-vis jackets do their job well, and Kemo Sabe’s head torch can easily pick us up as we skip about.

We haven’t seen a sunrise in weeks. If we are lucky – that is, a bit late in setting off – and depending on the cloud cover, we will eventually see a marginal lightening of the southern sky as we draw to the end of our run. Such mornings are accompanied by a sky-full of stars, and magic moons, sometimes as big and as colourful as an orange. Today there was even a shooting star, pointing our way southward.  Usually though, utter darkness is all there is. And we are placed in it, the sea to one side, the sand beneath us and the dunes to our right. In Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, folk would know their way about their territory by listening to the rustling of the different trees and shrubs which mapped their countryside: the scratchy holly bush, the smell of the bay, the furriness of the evergreen. They had no eyes but saw well enough, and so do we. We feel the nearness of the sea and the tables of the tides by the variation in hardness of the sand beneath our feet. We hear the ferocity of the approaching waves and get on towards the rocks, before its too dangerous.

From the dunes pairs of yellow eyes occasionally peer down on us as we pass by; foxes, patrolling their territories beyond the castle, minding each other in their desperate hunt for food and watching us in silence, rather eerily as we pass.  Last week in the darkness one trotted in front of us, the whole width of the beach from the shoreline back up to the dunes, having found no carrion which would have helped to sate his appetite. This was another first for us and, respectfully, we held back, watching thoughtfully as this independent spirit made its way back into its secret world. We know there must be others out there, of whom we are unaware, not all of them foxes, either.

Signify this to the doctor

20171021_091654Tiny Nico’s skin problem is still very much under investigation, which has kept everyone busy over the last few weeks. Quite apart from regular visits to the vet (who calls this business a saga) to see the effect on his symptoms of different antibiotics, and subsequent medications, everything we eat has come under scrutiny and, as a result, we seem to have waited extra long for the bowls to be served up.  Feeding time is always complicated in our house, but it has become  still more deliberative now that sensitivity to something or other  – and it may well be food-related – is affecting Nico’s health.

20171021_091754.jpgAs far as the little fellow himself is concerned, he is as cheerful and full of beans as ever, though the return of the odd sore spot to the back of a paw means he is no longer with us on the morning beach trundle until we get to the bottom of all this. Now Autumn is here, he’s missing the excitement of completing our run entirely in darkness, but we greet him and Uncle NuNu at the end when we are all reunited, swathed in our fluorescent suits of lights, illuminated by Kemo Sabe’s head-torch. Apart from seeing one very pleasant holidaying husky a couple of times this week, we see nobody else at all, only the curlews crying at the shoreline, and we see them only with our ears, as it were.

20171021_091923 (3)What to give us dogs to eat has become a hot topic in the last few years and one on which Kemo Sabe finds herself frequently consulted, whether it’s about avoiding allergies, preventing weight gain or whatever. Innovative dog food manufacturers have cheerfully joined the grain/wheat/gluten-free/raw-food band-wagon  (perm any one from whatever angle you like) and many dog owners – perhaps most – now think seriously about what they put on our plates. Over all the many decades Kemo Sabe has been feeding dogs, only the great and original Newman Noggs ever suffered from a skin complaint, and that only temporarily as a young pup and it was easily treated. The Dickens Dogs have eaten widely and well. Every day we are given a variety of food; a mix of dry and wet; cooked and raw meat; complemented by raw and cooked vegetables – it’s quite a palaver! Now we are getting supplements as well: fish oils and sardines, things to keep our joints as well as our coats happy, too.

20171021_091638Nico is off the medication now and we all are curious to see what might flare up and when. For three years he has been perfectly well, without so much as a hint of allergy, but he this week had a skin test which will tell us much more about any allergens he has taken a dislike to. For what it’s worth, we all tend to think this is something to do with the summer flowering plants on the heath behind the castle. We await results: if infection isn’t involved, there has to be another way forward. In the meantime, it is almost lunch preparation time and I can barely control my anticipation. As she writes, I gaze up at the one I love most in all the world knowing she really does everything she can to keep us all on an even, healthy keel. Now, where’s my dinner?

Comings and goings

20170920_065540.jpgNicholas, three next Monday, has been really unwell lately and has made three visits to the vet on account of a mysterious skin condition which, tests reveal, is caused by two bacterial infections. Worrying as this has been for all of us, apart from this Monday –  when his demeanour nose-dived as a (thankfully short-lived) depression developed – he has been his usual buoyant self. That day the vet found he also had an ear infection, and a temperature of 103 degrees, which must have made him very miserable indeed but, once he started treatment for that, his old indomitable character returned and, by bedtime, he was full of beans once more. Another couple of antibiotics to go and then, we hope, his irritating patches and sore pads will, we hope, gradually fade forever.

20170920_064806It has been a challenging and mysterious syndrome, which has intrigued the vet and will lead to allergy testing once he is fully fit. Most striking of all is the resilience shown by this tiny creature as his feet have borne blisters and his beautiful conker-brown coat has lost fur in tiny round patches. Despite everything, he has remained a very shiny sausage and, thank heavens, a hungry one: surely nothing is so worrying to those who love us as when we cannot bear to eat. My brush with that awful abscess early this year rendered me wholly unlike myself, unable to think of food as the pain and sickness racked my overheated little body. We are lucky that our human loved ones read us so well and, speaking the wordless language of love, intervene in time to bring us careful help. Every time we see a rainbow – like this extraordinary one, which recently accompanied the most amazing sunrise – we are reminded of the covenant between us.

20170908_162416All the swallows and martins are now well on their way south. We said goodbye and bon voyage to this last family, who remained a while after their fellow nesters had left, braving some miserable days in order to give the little ones extra flying and feeding practice around Bamburgh.  We wonder how they are, and the local swallows who gave us such a splendid aerial display only the day before they too disappeared. A bientot! And welcome pink-footed geese, crying as they traverse our coast and settle on the stubble, even as I write this.

When God closes a door  . . .

 

 

 

 

Winter and rough weather

20170910_153823Soon we will look up and there will be no more left – the house martins and the swallows –  though it’s true that already there are fewer now than there were until quite recently. The migration has indeed begun:  the sand martins moved off a couple of weeks ago and so once again their sandy summer home, with its line of nesting holes, stands silent and forlorn. We pass beneath every day, aware of an eerie emptiness, filled now by the curlews’ cry. The air is sad; the vacancy almost palpable. Other hirundines remain – the ones with late broods – taking every opportunity a break in the weather offers to dodge the rain and winds in order to fly high and bring home the insects. The nests near Bamburgh Castle dunes still house several families, posing patiently as afternoon by afternoon Kemo Sabe records their presence in our midst. One afternoon soon, they too will have gone . . .

20170908_162414In one way, saying hello to the autumn is easier because our own family house martins did not return to their nest on the south wall this year, so the pain of absence is less keenly felt because less immediate. But when the martins and the swallows marshall on the wires each morning, or wheel about across the sky each evening – their lovely inescapable routines – we cannot but pause and ponder on what their loss will mean and what we must endure before we are blessed with their return to us next spring. Despite erratic, frequently wet days, our cheerful visitors have graced the skies whenever given the chance and, like hope, have so far yet to abandon us.

Our winds on the north east coast, though notable within our own country, are but breezes compared to the mighty hurricanes of terrible ferocity which currently shake the peoples and places of the Caribbean, Texas and Florida.  We pray for all those affected so far, and those sheltering in fear of what nature has in store; the loss of livelihoods, homes and, indeed, everything.  At this time of the year, which we always think of as the natural beginning of a new year, things change very markedly. Good will and gentleness seem to be in short supply as the blooms buckle and the leaves fall, the stoves lit, the hatches battened and the sun retreats. What were sprinklings of sparrows gather into ubiquities, as the season stirs them to gather in every-increasing numbers. Their evolutionary task accomplished for this year, they fare forward, safe in the knowledge that they have a home and a ready supply of food. Thousands of miles separate the hirundines from their destination and us from our neighbours watching and waiting for the Angel of Death to pass. But we hold them all close to our hearts: ‘Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality’.

 

 

There goes the sun

20170821_060323This 6 am sun, beaming over Bamburgh beach this morning, is the same sun on which our friends in the United States will be concentrating hard today. We wish them a magical eclipse experience, which we believe will be visible from Oregon to South Carolina from 15.00 hours GMT.

20170821_060937.jpgKemo Sabe remembers well that in 1999 she and Uncle Johnny looked up from their work and watched dusk fall at noon, the birds’ chatter stifled in their confusion. That was a major solar event. Since we moved here there has been a partial one, given special significance because we felt its effects within a still, noiseless environment quite different from the bustle of London streets. It was like a visitation.

The natural cycles of our universe never cease to astound, and our little doggy lives are utterly dwarfed by them in many ways, yet comfort always lies in these predictable wonders – like this solar eclipse to which folk have long looked forward. No need to tremble, nor to attribute terrible omens to such occurrences, as Edmund rightly pointed out.

As someone famous once said, the world is all that is the case. All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

Ashes to ashes

20170817_065708Today, mouldywarp came home with us: a real first, this. We found this perfect little velvety creature, plump but perished, upside-down on the path which leads down from the dunes this morning and – instead of leaving him to the crows – we brought him home to give him the burial he deserves. Around here – as in most country areas –  mouldywarp is considered a proper pest, and there are numerous specialists who have dedicated their lives to eradicating the little diggers from the farmers’ land. In all the grassland we visit, mole activity is extensive and persistent: there must be thousands of them round here. But we love them wholeheartedly, for their individuality, beauty and resilience and, of course, those seriously majestic hands.

20170817_065610 (2)This little chap was unmarked, so perhaps he had had a heart attack. We found him lying on his back, his strong feet outstretched, as though he had been knocked backwards by shock, but he may have had a fight with another, if their tunnel territories overlapped – if, in other words, he’d run into an unwelcome stranger. If so, it was a bloodless encounter but one from which he had come out worse. In his teeth was a blade of grass; was this his last mouthful on earth? If so, it was an ironic one for this ‘revisionist of all things green’, as Wyatt Prunty puts it in his wonderful poem.

20170817_100543We brought him home carefully carried in a fresh yellow pooh bag, then bedecked his own little grave with what flowers we could find: bright pink hydrangeas and the last of the cream roses by the pond, which illuminated him like a light bulb in the brilliant morning sun. With a prayer we placed him near the other special creatures at the bottom of the garden: the seagull youngster who fell from the roof and little Hammy Jo amongst them, Uncle Johnny overseeing everything in his benign, all-seeing way.

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These days, moleskin means either a kind of cotton fabric or an expensive type of notebook, but in the old days when it was fashionable Kemo Sabe’s forebears would sometimes have worked with the real thing. Thank heavens those days are past! We have returned our fossorial friend to the darkness he knows and prefers. We ask the Great Spirit to accept his tiny soul, which in its last day on earth gave us all such special joy. Wyatt Prunty’s poem, which we love, captures so well so much about this beautiful little mammal, and you can read it in full here:  https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/mole