Our Cinema

There is a patch in our garden which we’ve recently claimed as a place to take in the view, drink a coffee and daydream.

When we moved to Crockern, our soakaway had not been maintained and the neglect of untold years left a horrid mound of reeds, nettles, bramble and soggy, fetid mud.   We set to work almost immediately to clear it appropriately so that clear water once again could freely flow towards a filtering reed bed below.   We did nothing more, moving onto other projects.

A few summers ago, Roger returned to this spot and set about clearing it of all the overgrowth of plant life.   He lined  with rocks the channel which carried the overflow from our spring.   To pretty things up further, we planted the edges with iris.   This small water feature now serves as a drinking spot for birds, our chickens and Millie and Brock.

Making these improvements allowed our previous swamp-land to dry, a job completed.   But months later, Roger was back in this spot clearing stones.   I thought we were done, “Surely there are a million other projects we should be doing first.”  As anyone who is being honest with herself must admit, I was wrong.

Roger next planted a hedge of alder along the fence.  Grasses, Nettle, Foxglove and Bramble continued to grow, but at least you could walk through without getting a boot stuck in the muck.  Once a year, Roger would strim this area.

Nearly two years after he turned his hand to this patch of land which we weren’t utilizing in any manner, I had a mad moment with the lawn mower.  Working around wildflower patches, I made a clearing.   Something about this location, with its hidden view from a corner of our yard, spoke to me.  Previously impassable and neglected, it was inviting me to spend time here.  I moved a bench from a less than ideal location, levelled it with a stone under one leg, and sat down, satisfied with this development.

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The bench is situated beneath a canopy of a Hawthorn tree, shading it with dappled light throughout the day.   After my morning chores are complete, I head to this bench with my cup of coffee.  The view to the west, backlit by the morning sun, opens with cows and sheep lazily grazing across the hillside.  Off to my right, I see the ripple of waves on the pond as a morning breeze arrives from the north.  It will be cooler today.  Four ducks just flew past up the river from the south, circled wide and landed in the pond for a swim.  Their morning splash a dazzling display as sunlight diamonds dance off the water.

The pond is doing well.  Roger has found a way to redirect the overflow from our spring into the pond at night, helping to maintain its water level during dryer weather.  While the ducks come to visit, they don’t seem to be nesting on the island.  However, the Grey and Pied Wagtails love its edges.  All sorts of bugs skate atop the water.  Just below the surface, it is teaming with tadpoles.  Three swallows just dive bombed some food on the wing before returning to get mud for building their nests.   Recently, we found two pregnant newts in the pond.

All around me is the happy birdsong of Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Robins and Grasshopper warblers.  The Great Spotted Woodpecker is attacking a fence post in search of a morsel or two.  Across the river, Herons are having a raucous party high in the pines. A Cuckoo calls in the distance.  We spotted two recently in a nearby Rowan tree. But this morning, like a James Brown call and respond band, I hear a second Cuckoo answering the first.  Is this back and forth an announcement of territory?  David Attenborough described the female call as “bathwater gurgling down a plug hole” as she announces to her mate she is looking for a place to lay her eggs – as many as twenty – into the nests of Dunnocks or Reed Warblers. I am hearing two males.  Territory claiming.  Announcing their presence to females.  Enjoying the sound of their own calls.

Morning is shifting into lunchtime and the warmth from the sun hits the hedges, they become alive with bugs, bees and butterflies.   As Roger and I enjoy some cheese and fruit, we are treated to a display of  butterflies.  Red Admiral.  Orange Tip.  Green Veined White.  Large White.  Small White.  Small Tortoiseshells. Peacocks.  We will need to participate in The Big Butterfly Count in July.

This new spot in the garden needs a name.  I’m not certain why we like to name locations.  Is it our human nature to let one another where we are?  But this spot is like a movie theatre with landscape and wildlife as the feature film.  I won’t be seeing the new James Bond from this perch, but the action is equally exciting.

Later in the day, we watched the farmer on the hill with his two working dogs shift a flock of sheep by gently walking around them, the dogs using their strong stare and obedience to “lie down”, staying in place.  Millie observes the action from our feet.  Brock, focused on other matters, eats another bucket load of grass.  Both content being non-working dogs.  Cute little slackers.

Suddenly a buzzard flies onto the scene.  A fast flap, gaining speed, and an abrupt 180 degree turn, banking to pick up a thermal.  Lazily it floats above looking for prey.

This is a great place to read, write, and reflect.  Sheltered from the footpath, we can enjoy the moors, unobserved.  Morning coffee, mid-day lunch, evening glass of wine.  No matter the time of day, I can watch without aid, spotting the badger set, across the valley, under a giant Beech tree.  With my binoculars, I believe this is an active set, each entrance showing fresh signs of daily cleaning.   I also spot a sloppy birds nest in another of the Beech trees.  Who lives there?

As the evening sun begins to set, I see the flash of gold feathers, a Goldfinch wearing its jaunty red cap, balance on the branch of a Maple.

Here I sit.  My Landscape Cinema with its quiet view of the valley, rich with sounds of breeze, birds, bugs, river, and the ever changing light.  Drinking in all these small joys as a viral outbreak continues to cast a shadow across the globe.

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Our Kitchen Window

Our kitchen window looks to the south over land dropping down to the valley’s river.  Underneath the waving of tan reed bushes, where I imagine once were green pastures, the land lies crinkled and rocky.

There is an endless magic show outside this window.  The sun poking from behind clouds and the riotous birdsong in the trees and hedges surrounding the house.  This past week, we heard the return of two more of our migratory birds:  The Cuckoo and the Grasshopper Warbler.  Almost overnight, the leaves on the trees are beginning to unfurl.

And, the swallows are back.  We saw four flying about earlier this month.

Most of us are perpetually short of time, but now we are bathed in it.   By the close of the day, I wonder how the hours flew past so effortlessly?  No doubt I lost track of time observing ripples crossing the water of the pond or birds splashing in the bird bath.  Have we always had so many bees on the Willow catkins?

Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, I have busied myself intently observing the happenings beyond these panes of glass.  Unlike Jimmy Stewart’s character, I do not have a broken leg.  I’ve recorded in my journal a week of kitchen window observations and remind myself that each of these details happens just once, like an introduction or a death.

 

Dartmoor

Fog Rolling in on Dartmoor

Monday

Today I spotted a small Tortoise Shell butterfly landing on the catkins of the Willow tree.  This very tree self-seeded itself about five years ago.  Things grow slowly here, so it is currently the size of a tree half its age, but it is coming along nicely.  This gives us both hope as Roger recently completed planting 120 trees in our fields.  I did not help.  Instead, I finished filling the certainly-more-than-a-mere-120 potholes along the track.

Next, we have the veg beds to complete before planting out in a few weeks.  And there sits 16 tonnes of rocks to shift as we build up our gabion wall to protect against erosion.  We’re busy.

 

Tuesday

While chatting with one of my brothers, I watched a solitary ant roam about the window ledge, then up and over the screen of my phone.  It paused, perhaps taking in the image of my brother as he laughed at a joke.  I wonder, when will we get our annual ant invasion?  Every spring, for one-day only, the ants come marching into the kitchen from the window or under the cabinets.  For a few hours, they are everywhere.  A proper horror show invasion!   We throw open the windows and the door and within about an hour, they are all gone.  It’s as if they have a nest deep in the stone walls of the house, emerge when conditions are just so, and then head off on their summer adventures.  Was this first ant on a scouting mission, distracted by the conversation between me and Peter?

 

Wednesday

Tonight there will be a Pink Moon, the full moon of April.  Last night we saw the preview of this Supermoon casting the most splendid shadows across the land.   But, as this day has rolled on, the clouds have increased, giving a hazy effect to what had been otherwise a clear blue sky with sunshine.  There will be no lunar observation this evening for us.

“It’s happening Reg, something’s actually happening Reg!”  In the distance, a thick cloud of smoke is filling the air, adding to the haze in the distance.  I hope it is my neighbours having a bonfire, the result of a lot of gardening work, but I will call to confirm.  It’s been so dry lately, a fire could easily travel.

In the upper right-hand corner of the window I watched a spider cast her web.  I am captured by her design and abilities to hang, drop, hang, attach, leap, hang, drop, attach, hang, knot…..

 

 

Thursday

Oh my!  The spider’s web trapped a plump fly.  She’s feasting on it but I can only see this from a distance.  Too close and she retreats, her meal safely wrapped in her web.

There’s a light frost covering the ground and most of the daffodils are blooming.  I had planted an extra 150 bulbs last autumn.  The small white flowers on the Blackthorn have emerged.  We put the hedges in almost four years ago and this is the first flowering we’ve had.  They are finally establishing themselves.  Small daisies are appearing in the grass, a cheery presence.   Seemingly overnight, the nettles are growing in and amongst the hedge plants.  I will go out and cut them to make soup and pesto.

 

 

Friday

What madness!  The chaffinches just chased the Great Tits off of the bird feeders.  Our hens just chased the rabbits (yes, more than one.  Little buggers!) and Jackdaws from the bird seed laying on the ground.  A big rat poked its head out from under one of the shrubs.  Of course, all I need to do is say “damn rats” and off Millie and Brock go to issue their barking orders to who is permitted to gather socially at the feeders.  Rats are not on their accepted list.  Of course, all the other birds fly away too, but are now returning.

Ah, two Siskins!  We haven’t seen them in ages.  Green Finches and Gold Finches are joining the crowd too.

 

Saturday

Those nettles have grown.  I must get busy and do something about them before they become too big, too tough and bullish to confront.

Atop one of the dead trees on the other side of the river a buzzard is perched.  Earlier I watched her circle above and then drop like a rock to the ground.  I wonder what she’s caught?  She’s busy now preening and sitting comfortably with a full belly.  I do love birds of prey and their “top dog” pecking order.

 

 

Sunday

In all of this quiet, it is shocking to see three separate helicopters fly over.  Where are they headed?  What are they transporting?  I don’t think I’ve ever given this much thought before.

Bold as brass, a Stoat ran past before diving in between gaps in the stone wall.  Is this what was attacking the baby rabbit the other day when I heard those horrible cries from the wall?

 

 

Any day

All this activity outside the kitchen window.  The living room window offers a view of the pond and different observations.  Meanwhile, the radio plays the news in the background of my hide.  The daily release of stats with the humanity behind it incomprehensible.  I get up to turn it off and resume my perch.

As the evening begins to creep in, there is a silence like sinking into sleep.  A calm and settled place.

Ooh, there went a bat!

COVID Quiet

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Not that many summers ago, a friend was visiting with her two sons.  We enjoyed the warm summer evening in the hot tub, watching the sun’s light slipping lower in the sky and casting long shadows, briefly providing a filter of flattering egg-yolk lighting.  Laughing at our own dim-witted jokes, her youngest son put his hands up and said, “People, can we please stop talking and listen to the sounds of Dartmoor?”

That’s us told.

And he was right.  To pause.  To listen.  To hear the sounds that are all too often muffled by the busy buzz of our lives is a gift.

With this global shut down, the usual drone of cars and people chattering have all gone COVID Quiet.  Even in a remote location like Dartmoor, we are all once again hearing the “singing of the real world” as Virginia Woolf once wrote.    Energetic bird song pulsating the air as the gang claim territory, attract mates, and twitter the beginning, middle and end of each day.  The rustling sound of the breeze sifting its way through trees newly in bud .   Sheep and cattle calling in the distance.  Our chickens proudly announcing the laying of an egg.   And once, the puttering sound of a tractor engine across the valley.

Nature boosts my mood, possibly more so now in “lockdown times”.  There is a smell of spring in the air as the earth warms up.  Oh, if only we could bottle this scent!  After a long winter, the landscape is waking up and stirring the senses.

All of nature is having a different time of it.  Migrating toads enjoying their breeding season since they aren’t likely to be squashed by passing cars.  Birds, foxes, badgers, and the lovely hedgehog may all welcome a respite from the effects of human activity.  I recently read there is a precipitous drop in air pollution, noise pollution and even surface seismic activity from trains, cars and busses across the globe.   A big change.

I’m not certain if I am imagining it, but the sheep seem less on guard.  They know Millie and Brock, so barely give a glance from their grazing when we pass.  But unknown dogs are rightly viewed as potential predators.   To look out upon the hillside and down the valley is to see sheep keeping their distance from one another, enjoying a patch of spring grass, rather than being clustered together.  Safety in numbers.

Our COVID Quiet is giving rise to the sounds of a newly settled landscape.  We’re not hearing hundreds of people each day who noisily walk along the foot path near our house.  We’re not hearing cars rumble over the cattle grate a mile away.  No calls to misbehaving dogs.  No arguments between couples.  No crying children.  And a quieter Brock who is no longer barking at people walking past with their dogs.   All of this is the stuff of life, but not the natural sounds of Dartmoor.  With damping of our collective human noise, I am certain I heard a giant sigh as the moors relaxed themselves like a tight muscle easing.  No one walking across her land.

With the old noises gone and the new sounds resonating a new choral song, I am determined to learn more bird songs.  I know the chipper tittering of the sky lark when we are walking through the reedy grasses.  The outrageous squawk of the Grey Heron and the yaffle of the green woodpecker are familiar sounds.  And at some date in the future the well-known coo-coo, coo-coo of our most mischievous migrant birds will fill the air. But deciphering the calls of the Great Tit from a Chaffinch challenges me like remembering someone’s name at a crowded party.  I can hear it, commit it to memory, but when the time comes to introduce this new person to Roger, I’m at a loss if her name was Christine or Caroline.

With nothing more than birdsong and hearing Millie and Brock sniff the ground on our morning walks, I am beginning to tease out a few different sounds.   I now head out with the dogs and my binoculars.  I am working to hear a unique bird call and then locate the source.  If I can identify the bird, then I can link its call.  I can happily say that with greater confidence the Great Tit, the Chaffinch, the Skylark, the Black Bird and the Robin are almost easy for me since I set out with this project.  I, a complete novice, am growing in confidence and soon hope to decipher the sounds of some more recent returners to our garden:  The Green Finch and the Goldfinch.

This COVID Quiet is not the same for everyone and has underscored the inequalities of life across the globe.  I recently heard from a friend in New York City who wrote me, “We’re well and so far so is all our family.  We hear sirens constantly though.  All day and all night.

Here at Crockern, we’re grateful to have one another’s company, technology to connect with friends, the energy and happiness of Millie and Brock, fresh eggs from our hens and the unfolding secrets of Dartmoor.  And through our different experiences of this new sound scape across the globe, I am reminded we’re all in this leaky boat together.

Across the Pond

We had an unusually long spell of dry weather last summer, prompting Roger to dig a test hole to see if we could have a pond. Sections of our fields are often soggy or flooded by the river.  They are only really good for grazing, or being turned over to create wildlife habitats with trees, wildflower meadows, and a pond.  We sought advice from Devon Wildlife Trust and felt a pond could work.

The pilot hole was about four feet deep.  We both hoped Roger’s digging might tap a natural spring to feed our future pond.  That didn’t happen.  Roger filled the hole with water from the river and then took daily measurements.  Our test hole mostly held, but through evaporation and lack of any additional rain, the water level dropped somewhat.  We were uncertain if a pond was going to work.

When we began our discussions of creating a pond, I never considered there could be so many different types.  Shaded.  Vernal.  Overgrown.  Stream-fed.  I can’t go anywhere without looking at ponds.   For selfish reasons, I’m especially interested in seasonal ponds, the kind that partially dry out in summers, as that is what we will likely have.  While on a mini-holiday in Yorkshire, the dogs and I were on an early morning walk through a foggy and flat landscape.  Off to my right I spied a small body of water in and amongst some gnarled old trees.  I’m only a visitor, but I suspect this is a seasonal pond and somewhat overgrown with leaf mulch.  It’s lovely.

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When I think about our pond, I have visions of clear water, rich in wildlife, surrounded by a smattering of waterlilies and fringed with rushes, cat tails, and native tall grasses.  Caressed by a soft breeze and warm sun upon my face, I emerge from a grove of trees, fishing pole in hand.  I stop not too far from the house, yet far enough to be out of earshot and cast my line.  My “bobber” floating on the water.  I wait and then wait some more for a fish to bite.  Meanwhile, the mosquitos are biting at my legs.  Hold on!  This isn’t Crockern.  I’m at Aunt Jeannette’s farm in Yellow Springs and I’m five.

Meanwhile, back to Crockern when in September we hired a man and his digger to do some work for us.  After several attempts with my shovel to clear the overgrown drains along our track, I accepted defeat.  In two days, Matt cleared these long neglected drains, facilitating the passage of water into the culverts beneath the track, the flow of runoff water we get from heavy and extended rains.  Of course, the new and freely flowing drains revealed that three of our six culverts had collapsed or were blocked from decades of neglect.  We still have work to do once the winter rains ease.   Anyway, while Matt was here we had him dig our pond.

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Matt’s the kind of person you want doing this work.  He knows his stuff, engages in the discussion of ideas, has great problem-solving-insight, and works with a surgeon’s touch as he operates a 3-tonne digger.   Not only did he dig our pond in a day, he moved earth to create a raised edge at the deeper end of the pond, creating a windbreak, and shifted stones on the shallow side of the pond, making a slope for wildlife to be able to access with ease.

The day after we dug the pond it rained.  Two days later, our pond was full and has remained so ever since.  No surprise as we’ve had rain almost without break since September.  From our living room window, our new pond looks like a donut in the bottom corner of our lower field.  The ground surrounding hasn’t grassed over the mud, nor are there any native plants to soften its edges.  But standing next to it, it looks splendid.

During the past century, nearly 70 percent of ponds have been lost from the UK countryside.  For wildlife, adding a pond has increased importance.  I wonder, what delights lay ahead in this new haven?

We spotted a Grey Heron standing on the island.  There aren’t fish, but perhaps it knows of some other food sources present and will become a regular visitor.  Two Mallards were paddling in the waters in November.  Not much cover, but at least they could retreat to the island if they elected to breed here.  Before we committed to the pond, I saw a duck with eight ducklings paddling in a quiet part of the river.  I never saw them again.  Our river is, at times, torrential and populated with all sorts of predators along its shores, not ideal for rearing young ducklings.

Every spring, we have swallows and house martins.  Our pond will serve as a great place for them to use muddy areas to aid in their nest building.

Perhaps some grass snakes?  We know our field has snakes, having spotted more than a few Adders.  Who knows what they may hunt near the water’s edge?

Having “constructed” our pond in the autumn, this spring and summer is our time to plant.  Roger has ordered 120 trees for the field and around the pond.  We have some naturally growing lilies and fox gloves, so I may do some transplanting.  In time, plants and wildlife will colonise the pond, but we want to help establish it.  I read placing some dead branches into the pond can enrich the habitat considerably.  That’s easily done.

Our pond, our seasonal pond.  Unlike my childhood memories, this pond most likely won’t have fish and that’s okay as they themselves can predate on insects and amphibians.   In our pond, if you’re not being eaten, you can thrive!  Bring on the newts and water beetles.  Welcome frogs and toads!  Caddis flies, damselflies, dragonflies, mayflies, pond skaters, snails and water beetles get your groove on and breed in our pond.  And you ducks?  Come back and raise your duckling brood.

 

Fieldfares

Winter on Dartmoor is characterised by days of rain, strong winds and lots of mud.  Hail, sometimes the size of large capers, can slap and exfoliate your face, an unpleasant experience as if a cruel dermatologist was having a laugh.  Occasionally we get snow.  All of this conspires to delay certain projects, some of which we do need to urgently address.   On the few days we’ve had a break from the wet and windy stuff, I’ve managed to get out into the garden to assess and tidy.  I observe for signs of growth and areas that need repair.  I noted last week daffodils are starting to break the ground, which seems early, but I know in our climate it isn’t.  They are hearty enough to withstand a frost or snow in February.  I look at our raised vegetable beds knowing some attention is needed.  We will be hoisting a few fallen stones back onto our dry stone walls as well.  I examine with pride our young hedge.

In 2016, Roger and I planted 150 hedge plants.  The following year, we added 100 more, doubling the thickness.  We’ve positioned a mix of native hedge plants along the south and west parts of the garden:  Guelder Rose, Dog Rose, Hazel, Blackthorn, Hawthorn, Maple, Holly and Alder.   Apart from providing an alternative boundary to stock proof fencing, our hope for these hedges is to provide greater habitat for the wide variety of animals and plants.  A happy foraging place for birds, small mammals and pollinators.  Perhaps too, we can create a bit of a wind break from those strong prevailing storm gusts coming up from the south.  Attractive and purposeful.

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Part of our hedge in 2016.

The other day we had a much needed break from the rain.  A day of sunshine with puffy clouds like giant spun cotton candy in the sky.  It was a short lived reprieve.  The next day our grey skies returned like a dirty plastic tarp on the wind.    The ground remains saturated.  The mud is everywhere.  And the smell of wet dog has become all too familiar.

Today promises a mixed bag.  Sun streaming through a rupture in the clouds and into the windows, brightening up this old stone farmhouse.  Bright blue skies peak through from down the valley.  Roger and I put on our winter-wear to take the dogs for a walk along the river, one of their favourites.  No sooner are we all set to head out when we spy a wall of filthy boiling clouds traveling fast up the valley from the south.   We dash back inside and wait for this patch of weather to move through.  We watch the cold sleet pelt the old slate of the barn.  The grey stones of walls meet the grey air passing through.  The greens and browns of grasses and mosses are lost in the precipitation.  The red berries on the hawthorn bushes strike brightly against the back drop of winter’s monochrome.

And as soon as this weather system came, it’s gone, a day of many atmospheric conditions.  No wonder the British love talking about the weather, it is constantly mutating.  Sunny with rain is an all too common forecast.   Speaking of which, here it is, the sun again.   As we stroll down the track, Millie and Brock, with tails aloft, trot on the hillside in search of scents and sticks.  Roger recently spotted a fox in the mid-afternoon up on this hill, so no doubt our two canines will catch the occasional whiff of this sly creature.   As we carry on, a flock of Fieldfares, perhaps fifty or sixty, suddenly take flight.  Their hideout, a bunch of riverside willows, disturbed by the approach of two enthusiastic collies.

I like Fieldfares.  They stand upright and move with purpose.  They are gregarious, roaming the winter countryside in large flocks.  When they perch in the open on gorse bushes or in the high branches of a Rowan tree, the air is filled with their constant chatter.  In winter when they visit us, groups of them are found on the open moorland, they seem to like the rough grasses and gorse which surround us.  Their presence indicating where berries and insects are to be found.   They like hedges, feeding happily on Hawthorn berries.  We’re glad our hedges are thriving.

Cloud cover at this time of year can sometimes be so thick I am only able to see a few feet ahead.  When that happens, my hearing becomes more acute.  Sometimes, the collective flap of Fieldfare wings can be heard through the mist.  As Virginia Woolf wrote, “The sound floated out and was cut into atoms by a flock of Fieldfare flying at an enormous speed – somewhere or other.”  However, I prefer to see Fieldfares diving about in their formation flock.  They are part of the winter scene.

Winter can be a time of scarcity, when wildlife ventures further in search of food.  We keep food and water out for the birds.  Fieldfares don’t come close into our garden to feed, preferring to feed on berries in the hedgerows and trees.  They migrate here, arriving in November and spend winter with us before flapping on.  Almost all will likely leave before they breed.   This spring, we hope for a big return in our Swallows and House Martins, numbers having been inexplicably down the past few years.

We do have a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers.  They have started pecking holes in search of bugs in a section of the Sycamore tree which shades Gin and Tonic Hill.  We like the idea this pair is so close to Crockern.  We hope they have a brood this spring.

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Fieldfare flock (photo found on Wikipedia).

Stoat Your Day Off Right

The other morning, I walked past Roger as he stood stock still and quiet in the back doorway.  His focused gaze clear.  Shhh.  Walk softly past.  I’m waiting to see something come out of that wall.

This particular wall is home to an abundance of life.  The rabbits who make quick get-aways when the dogs are outside.  Small birds making their nest homes among the narrow little cracks.  No doubt, the wall teams with bugs, worms, toads and loads of things we can’t easily see.   It must be an ongoing rave of tiny movements between the rocks and the mosses.  While Millie is chasing a ball, Brock is frequently sniffing parts of this wall, telling us there is a good deal more than meets the eye.  The plant life is spectacular.  Such a variety of mosses and lichen covering the rock surfaces it could easily impress a Japanese Zen gardener at Saihoji in Kyoto.

Crockern Farm Wall

It’s fair to say, Roger spots the majority of wildlife.  I may see it, but am often at a loss at identifying and naming. Roger sees, hears, and can identify the type of bird, animal and plant life easily.  It’s a skill I seek, but am most often off the mark.  Just when I think I can name the birds around Crockern, Roger will casually declare, “I just spotted a long-tailed blahdy-blah-blah”.  Lacking his skill set, who am I to question?

As Roger stood quietly in the doorway, his own wildlife hide, I crept up slowly to see what captured his attention.   He whispered coordinates of where to cast my view.   Just to the right of the Ash tree, down four stones and next to the tuft of ferns.  Do you see it?  There is a small, horizontal gap.   Watch that area.  This break in the wall, so easily unnoticed, suddenly was clear as day. The moss worn at the bottom of a decent sized opening.  Here is a faint, mini trail leading from the base of the hole out onto the yard.   Why hadn’t I taken notice before?  Millie and Brock frequently go sniffing about there. And while I chastised my untrained eyes, Roger pointed out the small movement in that particular void in the wall. I focused my attention and saw something.  A leaf caught in a clump of moss and fluttering in the breeze?  Then it happened again.  It was not a fluttering leaf, but a head busily poking in and out from the wall.  I too spied what Roger and the dogs already knew.  We have a Stoat!

Why this wall?  It seems a little close to the house.  Then again, we had a badger a few years ago burrowing about 30 feet from the front door. Unlike the badger or rabbit, a Stoat doesn’t dig its own burrow.  It’s opportunistic and will move throughout all the burrows and hideaways looking for prey. After it finds its prey, a Stoat will assume the home of the rodent it killed going so far as to decorate its new home with the skins and fur of said-dead-prey.  C-R-E-E-P-Y. That said, I suppose it is the ultimate in up-cycling.  With any number of stacks of logs, cracks in the walls, rock piles and the like, we’ve probably had a family of Stoats for some time.

Despite their approach to decorating their homes, they are adorable.  Those long and bendy bodies covered in a light brown fur on its back and a creamy white throat and belly.  Their tails tipped in black.  Cute they may be, this small little predator is just that, a predator. My thrill in spotting it was immediately offset with concern for our chickens.

Stoats are known for being well suited to hunting small rodents and rabbits. Bring it on little Stoat!  I just spent two days repairing the fourth of our six vegetable beds from rabbit damage.  Our local bunnies had burrowed up into the raised bed, despite a barrier beneath the soil.  I wouldn’t mind a small cull in this abundant population.

Our chickens are large hens, so should be okay with a Stoat moving into their neighbourhood.  And as long as there is an ample supply of rats, mice and other rodents, a stoat should be happy moving in and out of the wall’s hidden burrows.   Watching the activity at the bird feeders each morning, confirms a happy balance of supply and demand at Crockern.  Our chickens should be safely out of harm’s way.

One concern is stoats are known to eat eggs, but I’m not too worried about that since Brock occasionally does the same thing.  In Brock’s early puppy days, we witnessed him gingerly carrying an egg from the hens’ nest to the top of the hill.  Situating himself with a view, he would delicately position the egg between his paws .  Next, he would surgically make a small hole at the top of the egg, keeping the shell otherwise intact before slurp, slurp, slurping away at the raw egg.  Brock’s care in his thievery is impressive, as is his glossy coat.  Consequently, Roger and I check for eggs about ten times a day.  Brock and stoats be damned.

To encounter a Stoat before setting out on a journey is bad luck, or so goes the myth. As we stand in Roger’s make-shift observation spot, we both feel rather lucky to have spotted this Stoat and welcome yet another member to the diverse collective at Crockern.

Follow Me Follow

 

Winter on Dartmoor can easily evoke images of a barren and soggy country-side.  Walking across what best matches a lunar landscape this time of year is to lean into the gusty winds that shoot up the valleys.  The sheep, cattle and ponies all know the sheltered bits of terrain, and if you look through the gorse and rushes, it’s easy to spot the drier paths as the grazing livestock have laced their way across the land.   On many winter days, fogs as thick as cotton can descend without warning.  It’s easy to get lost and every year, some walkers do.

But I don’t mind the weather here.  I like how changeable it is.  Nothing beats coming in from a long walk, to cosy up next to the wood burner and contemplate my next move.  Somehow, this year it has been different.  The weather hasn’t been changeable.  It has been grey, rainy, and windy without relief.  The damp, moist atmosphere has been endless and so too has the mud.

For weeks the clouds have continued to gather, promising rain, rain, rain with seemingly no end in sight.  I don’t know if this has been the wettest winter on Dartmoor, but it certainly has felt like it.  For most of 2018, weather reports predicted more rain, mist, or fog, but nothing to indicate cold, dry or frosty.  Meanwhile, the potholes on the track grew deeper, wider and more plentiful.  Our newly planted hedgerow often looked as if it could be washed away any moment.  And, my mud caked boots felt slightly damp when I put them on to set out for another soggy walk with Millie.  As this wet winter raged on, I felt I had reached my saturation point.

Squelch.  Splatter.  Slip.  Slide.  Mud, mud, mud.

What’s happened?  As a child, I was drawn to the stuff.  Some of my fondest childhood memories saw me covered head to toe in mud.   I was busy making mud pies, jumping in puddles, or digging in the local creek to find “clay” to make some naïve pottery.   Playing in mud was just good, dirty fun.  I was indifferent to this grubby, gooey and sticky substance.  All grown up, I don’t mind getting dirty when Roger and I are building, digging, gardening, or most recently, filling potholes.  There is something satisfying to working hard and having the filth to prove it.

But after weeks and weeks of relentless mud and wet, it’s safe to say I’m fed up.  I don’t want to go slip sliding away.   One recent morning, as the coffee was brewing, I headed outside to let the chickens out for the day.  Still in my pyjamas, I carefully made my way down the hill to the chicken coop when both feet slipped out from underneath me, and I landed on the ground sliding a few feet further.   Covered in mud, this was not the way to start my day.

Squelch.  Splatter.  Slip.  Slide.  Mud, mud, mud.

As I righted myself from this soggy patch of ground, I considered the many places in the world devastated by mud, so who am I to complain?    However, days and days of wind and rain, without relief, were making me feel curMUDgeonly.  Struggling to find the glass half full approach, I reflect that there are spas where people pay good money for a mud bath and I’ve just taken one for free in my own back yard.   Mud-runs are all the rage, too.  With a bounty of websites extolling the curative effects of bathing, eating, standing, and sleeping in glorious mud, perhaps I should be more open minded.  As they say, there’s nothing quite like it for cooling the blood.  Hmmmm.

Squelch.  Splatter.  Slip.  Slide.  Mud, mud, mud.  Enough!

Mercifully, we’re now having a few consecutive days of dry and cold weather and with it blazing sunshine and a hard ground underfoot.  These few crisp and cold winter days are welcome by all.  With a break from the relentless rain and wet, the snowdrops and daffodils are all bursting from the ground showing signs of spring to come.  The chickens are happily scratching all about the yard hunting bugs and worms before settling down to spread their wings in the warming rays of the sun.

Walks are becoming less treacherous and the river has returned to a fordable body of water.   At night, the moon glow casts a silvery light across the landscape.  One of the fabulous things about living in the country-side is there is almost no light pollution.  On a foggy, overcast night, it can be pitch black outside.  But when the moon peaks out, or the stars are in full splendour, it is eerie how far the eye can see.   I imagine if all the rain we’ve had were instead a blanket of snow, the moon glow would provide dramatic scene lighting on the stage set of our surroundings.

Our wet winter has left our track in horrible condition.  Roger and I have spent the past few days working to fill the potholes which have grown large in the past months.  Our bodies ache, but we feel satisfied with our progress.  As the day draws to a close, there’s not a cloud above and the sun set is casting a rosy glow in the western sky.  While I am watching the light change, Roger is mixing us gin and tonics to put a close to a hard day’s work.   “Here’s mud in your eye!”

 

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Selfie with Millie as we take a break during a rare dry-day walk.

Teaching Millie to Swim

We don’t get many hot days on Dartmoor, but recently we had one.  Twenty-four degrees, no clouds and little to no breeze.  Sitting in the shade and reading a good book would be an ideal activity; but equally, it is a terrific day for doing some outside projects.  Unless wisely chosen, I risk melting in the heat.  Fortunately, we have a long list of possible projects:  filling potholes, jet-washing loose paint from the outside of the house, gardening, washing windows, mowing the lawn, or pointing the shed.  But a bonfire at high noon with no breeze was my choice.

The pile of rotten and useless old posts, left a few months ago from when Roger finished re-fencing the south side of the property, was calling to me.

I lathered on my sunscreen and covered most of my skin in bug spray.  Millie and I headed out to the lower field and commenced to building a fire.   Sam elected to exercise his old boy rights and snooze on the kitchen floor for the better part of the morning.  Meanwhile, Roger was tending to a leak in one of the pipes under the stairs.  This was not on the day’s to-do list, but when he went to grab a screw driver from his tool bag, it was swimming in water.  Yes, a slow and steady drip from the pipe above had filled the canvas bag below.  Roger’s plans were changed.

But not mine.  In our spot for bonfires, I piled some wood and cardboard and set it alight.  Those old fence posts – rotten and soggy from exposure – went up in flames as if they had been saturated in accelerant.  On went a few more post, and then a few more.  As the fire raged, I sacrificed the picnic table which was beyond repair.  After a few hot and sweaty hours, the pile of wood was nothing more than a circle of hot coals.  And my ankles, where I missed patches with the bug spray, were aflame with bug bites.  The itching was agonizing.  As the heat was growing both with the sun and the bonfire, I could feel the sweat trickle down my back.  Looking around, I found Millie near the stile which leads to our river access.   It was time to cool off and get refreshed.

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West Dart River, Dartmoor

With complete joy, Millie jumps from rock to rock.  She stoops low to the river and bites at the water as it passes.   She wants to jump in, but swimming is not her thing, preferring to paddle no deeper than her belly.  It’s not that she is afraid of the water, it’s more, she’s not comfortable with having her feet lose contact with the bottom.  That slimy, slippery, rocky, river bottom.  More than once, I have stepped too quickly and found a boot full of water.  But, Mille is sure footed and will happily skitter up and down the river on rocks.

While Millie is darting about, biting at the water and gathering her ball as it floats past on the current, I have carefully clambered out to the middle of the river.  The water is cool and refreshing.  Dragon flies skitter past.  They too manage to play in the water, but not swim.

Millie drops her beloved ball, and with a focused look, tells me to throw it.  I give it a high Federa-esc lob and it lands up river stalling in deep water where there is little current.  Millie waits and watches.  If it were bobbing down river, she would surely station herself atop a rock and wait for it to float nearby.  But this is something altogether different.  She must be thinking, What am I to do?  How do I get that ball? It’s not moving.  Surely, it should be moving.  There is no way I’m going to SWIM to it!

I issue encouraging words, but no amount of coaxing seems to get her to release the contact her paws have with these stones.  So, I slip off the rock where I’ve been sitting and begin to dog-paddle toward the ball, “C’mon Millie, you can do it.  This is how we swim.”   She barks with excitement.  Running up and down the reedy shore line, trying to get that ball before I do.  My hands and knees are sliding across the mossy rocks below as the water isn’t that deep.  “See Millie, this is called dog-paddling.  You can do it.”  She barks in response, sizing up her options.  Moved by her competitive nature, Millie takes a tentative step off her underwater perch and takes her first splashy strokes.  Catching the ball in her mouth, she quickly makes it to the other side of the river.  It’s true, dogs know how to swim.  Some, however, swim with grace.  It is safe to say, Millie does not.

On terra firma, Millie shakes the water from her coat and clutches the ball in her mouth. She is not giving it up anytime soon.  And, despite the heat of the day, this is enough wild swimming for this little collie.   The bonfire is burned down.  The leaky pipe is repaired.  Dinner awaits.  Millie has learned how to swim and Sam is taking an early evening stroll about the garden.  Roger is heating up the hot tub, and me, well, I’m sitting on the new bench on Gin and Tonic Hill.  Bliss.

Just Put One Foot in Front of The Other

Walking may be the most natural way of getting from A to B, but there must be more to it than that.  Are the dandy, the drifter, the dog walker, the peripatetic artist, tourists and their guide, barefoot pilgrims and sign carrying protest marchers all on the same footing?  Tomes have been written and TV shows produced about why we walk, who loves to walk, and where to find enjoyable walks.  A few famous and keen walkers are Wordsworth, Martin Luther King, Jr., Elizabeth Bennet, Nietzsche, Bob Dylan, and, of course, me.

But why do we do it?  What is behind this temptation to get out and put one foot in front of the other?  Nietzsche wrote, “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”  That certainly bodes well for this blog, as I thought a lot about it while walking.

In mid-May, I began a two-week stay in East Sussex.  Several years ago, a colleague from Rutgers University and I developed a summer class for students.  A simple concept with so many possibilities:  We would spend two weeks walking the South Downs and letting the rhythm and landscape, the people and events, provide a springboard for creative writing.  An opportunity for these students to develop a sense of place and express it through poetry and prose.

As I walk through a meadow smothered in wildflowers near Kipling’s home in Burwash, my heart expands seeing the abundance of daisies, buttercups, cow parsley, poppies, and soft brush tops of a variety of grasses.  A herd of cows eye me as I approach, all the while, slowly chewing, chewing, chewing, chewing the spring grass and clover.  During this brief staring contest with the cows, my mind drifts to home and the field outside our kitchen window where pointy reed bushes provide a backdrop to the wild foxgloves poking through for summer.  Together, both create a camouflage for the hidden-ankle-spraining granite boulders and rabbit holes that make walking through this field a challenge for all but the livestock.  An outcropping of gorse, heather and a slow-growing, but determined Rowan tree are reminders of the nutrient weak soil.

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Sussex!  Oh, lovely Sussex!  With its soft and forgiving walks, easily navigated with an OS map and a bit of intuition.  Even a downpour of rain results in nothing more than getting wet and muddy.  It’s rare to have a descending fog, relentless gale force winds and the cold weather that can spell curtains for a rambler gone astray on Dartmoor.  I confess, it is wonderful to have a few weeks of walks offering forgiveness under my feet and the freedom of simultaneously walking and looking out at the horizon.  While I strut along the South Downs Way, I watch birds soar above and the green undulation of the downs reaching out toward the sea.  I let my mind drift.  And drift it does.

In stark contrast is the country-side of our beloved Dartmoor, significant for its wild, untamed and elusive landscape.  Its jagged outcropping of tors, torrential rivers and hidden bogs require a constant vigilance to prevent a misstep or an ankle twist.   Remaining ever mindful to avoid stepping onto an unstable rock or into a boggy patch, drowning my boot and socks.  As Roger and I cultivate a quieter life, we find ourselves in a more demanding location.  In Sussex, I spy lovely cottage gardens – hollyhocks, gladiolas, forget-me-nots – and know none of this could ever survive our acidic soil, battering of rain and wind, cooler and cloudier days where nettle, moss, gorse, and lichen take their time to establish a tenacious existence.  The hills and moors of Dartmoor fold over themselves deep into the distance.  When one falls from sight, another appears.  The only limit upon them is the horizon.  Is loving this rugged and untamable landscape like lusting after a strong and silent cowboy?  Despite all effort, it may never reciprocate my affections.

On a recent walk with Roger and Millie — Sam electing to remain napping on the cool kitchen floor — we set out with a soft sun and puffy clouds above and a strong breeze from behind.  About an hour into the walk, a coolness descended and the light turned grey.  As we paused to note this, the wind kicked up and we were soon being pelted by hail.  The weather swirled around, causing us all to struggle with our steps as if we had been drugged.  Racing up the hill, we took brief shelter behind a tor and bemoaned the limitations of a weather app in this microclimate.  The wind eventually pulled back and the hail stopped, but not before we were wet, exfoliated and somewhat chilled.  Soon, the sun poked out between layers of grey and white clouds as if nothing had happened.

We walked home where Roger fixed us a medium-enormous gin and tonic and we moved into the living room and sank into the sofa.  Soon we would begin to prepare our dinner, discuss the news or our next project, watch the birds at the feeder, play endless games of fetch with Millie and massage Sam’s old and aging back legs.

So why do we stride out? In an ever auto-dependent world, it’s nice to see the country-side, get some exercise, take photos, learn about birds and plant life, catch up with friends, and even stimulate some creative juices unleashing a story or a song.  But, it’s more than that.  Whether in the company of others or not, there comes a time in every walk where we are alone with only our thoughts and observations, falling neatly to the rhythm of our pace and our breath.   And in that solitude, there emerges a sense of self and grounding.  Whether it is a familiar path walked daily, or a new trail yet to be discovered.   It may just be that no one can provide a sense of place for someone else.  We have no choice but to find it for ourselves and it is in doing that — taking it in our own strides, shuffles, struts, or lopes — that we cease to be alone.

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Spring Tidings

The past few months have been consumed with a lot of travel.  These work demands on my time have taken me away from Crockern and its rhythms.  Meanwhile, Roger, Sam and Millie have held the fort.

Being away does give me a chance to recover from some of our projects.  Pot holes, roof repairs, fencing, ceilings, gardening, etc. all leave me feeling some aches and pains.  A few days away and my sore muscles recover; and I return to see anew the beauty of Crockern.  What may take a week or two to unfold seems to happen overnight.  After a recent two-week trip to the States, I returned to find spring in full force at our little homestead.

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Driving back from the train station, the woodlands, lanes, verges and hedgerows are bursting with wildflowers.  British flora may be modest by international standards, but it is full of pleasure.  Wild garlic, gorse, buttercups, bramble, nettle, red campion, cow parsley, poppy, primrose, daffodils, cornflowers and soon to come, speedwell, teasel and foxgloves.

As we cross the cattle grate and climb up onto the moors, a chequered scene appears with green fields, scrubby land, river valleys and patches of woodland.  Newly born lambs, cows and horses chase after their mothers.  Across the hillside, gorse flashes its golden yellow flowers and fills the air with a heady scent of coconut.  These low shrubs are still prickly and I worry about my eyes when I get too close, but they make such a spectacular accent to the landscape.

Spring at Crockern comes later than other parts of the country, even those parts just 5 miles away.  Still, and despite the colder temperatures, things are in bloom.  Bleeding hearts, hostas, geraniums and comfrey are all erupting in growth and flowers.  The bees are starting to buzz about reminding us all this planting is worth it.  So too, the rabbits are making their tunnels in the flower beds making me shake my fist like Elmer Fudd.  Blasted little buggers!

The other day, Roger flew out the front door only to return with dirt all over his hands.  “I saw a rabbit in the spinach bed; I’ve had to block its tunnel.”  Despite last year’s efforts to protect the vegetable beds, this one needs increased attention.  These rabbits never rest, nor do they seem to stop having sex.  Once again, we are spotting several generations dining on grass in the yard.  Of course, our chickens seem more than happy to share space with them under the rose bush.  If only my camera were to hand to document three chickens having a dust bath while two rabbits are curled up napping just inches away.  I suppose if you’re a rabbit, you can let your guard down when clucky chickens are busy preening nearby.

And the birds are back in town!  While walking Sam and Millie, I hear the call of our cuckoo.  Yes ours.  Each spring I anxiously await the return of the cuckoo, worried that its migratory flight may have met with disaster.  But when I hear its melodic mating song across our valley, I feel a peace descend.  So too, the swallows are making their return.  We have only a few so far, but the rest of the crew should soon be here busily making their nests and raising their young.

Of the many bulbs I planted two years ago, the daffodils and snowdrops made their showing earlier.  I noticed, a few of the bluebells were bravely poking through the ground.  With luck, in a few more years, they will spread and form a visual treat under the trees.  To celebrate spring, Roger and I joined our friends on a circular walk taking in acres of woodland carpeted in native Bluebells.  Oh, how I hope ours will one day look like this!  British bluebells are somewhat endangered from cross-fertilization by the hardy Spanish bluebells which were introduced in many gardens.  But I don’t care.   As I pause to inhale the unique sent of spring growth on the breeze, I wonder if the bluebell issue will come up in Brexit negotiations?