Beauty and The Beast

 

Snow descended upon most of the UK this past week.  The last icy blast of winter?  This season may feel like it will never end, but I know from experience the days will soon grow longer and beneath that blanket of snow, the snowdrops and daffodils will push up through the ground announcing the coming of spring.

After two months of rain and mud, I welcome the freezing temperatures carried by The Beast from The East (the name given to the arctic temperatures which recently came from Siberia).  Typically, English winters seem damp and temperate, but this unusually crisp, dry and cold atmosphere reminds me of winters in the States.  So cold it felt like my eyeballs might freeze.

The Beast surprised us on its first day:  We awoke to find no water due to a frozen pipe.  Armed with a hairdryer and determination, Roger made quick work to restore our water.   After that, we began leaving a tap on to prevent another pipe freeze.  We were somewhat loath to do this as the water pump working in the night might require the generator to start or drain our storage batteries.  However, we could not afford to have frozen pipes and their attendant problems.  Wisely, Roger started manually running our 30-year old Lister generator each evening to keep it from struggling to start in such cold conditions.  This simple act kept the batteries topped up through the night.

As we adjusted to hard ground, frozen sections of the river, and keeping everything ticking over, we found ourselves waiting for the arrival of Storm Emma.   We felt certain it would be as if we were collateral damage during a match-up of Marvel Comic characters.  And we were.  Emma’s arrival brought fifty-mile an hour wind gusts hurtling down the valley from the north and a dumping of snow.  Each walk with Millie felt like a polar expedition as we made our way through the growing drifts of snow.

Living in a rural area, Roger and I naturally worry about our supplies of food and fuel and the welfare of the hens.   Before Emma and The Beast coupled, we had wisely secured plenty of food, wine, firewood, books and went so far as to bring inside all the watering cans, and filling water bottles should we have another pipe freeze too big for our little hairdryer.  Battened down and ready:  Bring it on Winter!

Looking out the window to the blizzard and all too aware that we could be snow-bound for a few days, my thoughts drift to childhood memories of sledding, building snowmen and snow caves and hoping school would be closed.  The snow outside transforms the meaning of home inside, where we stoke the fire, listen more intensely to the radio, and remind one another of the various tasks to keep ourselves safe and Crockern operational.  We may be considered remote, but in truth we are generally self-sufficient and could easily manage a week or two of isolation.

But, not if we had an emergency!  With equal measurements of sensibility and adventure, Millie and I started up the Land Rover and drove down the track.  There were several large drifts across the track, but the snow was light and fluffy and I was in a four-wheel drive.  I drove through these with glee!   But at the end of our track, there was a drift about 4 feet high, blocking access through the gate.  I grabbed my shovel, and began to dig.  As this was Millie’s first snow, she realised she too could help rid the drift with her digging.  In no time, the two of us cleared a path.

We were lucky.  Some of our neighbours were stuck as there were no passable roads to their houses.  A friend’s generator wouldn’t start leaving him without electricity, which meant no heat or water.  Many friends and neighbours had no water as pipes were frozen; while nearby, a neighbour had leaking in the house from a ruptured pipe.

After the storm abated, most of the landscape was dressed in soft, virgin snow.  It’s magical appearance a reminder of the power of nature.  Across the country, traffic came to a standstill.  Trains were cancelled or delayed by several hours.  Plans to see friends aborted.  When my schedule is disrupted by the weather, I only pretend frustration. Mostly, I sigh with relief: the world has stopped.  When I look at our calendar and all the things I have had to cancel, suddenly many of them don’t seem so important.  Winter slows our pace, disrupts the business of schedules and appointments and reminds us to re-organize priorities.

It’s true, winter gets into our bones and at times can seem interminable, tedious and brutal.   But as the snow transforms the previously muddy landscape, this cold reminds me of the visceral comfort of a warm fire, a glass of wine, rest and a good book.  Hunkering down takes on greater joy!  So too, I am reminded of that sense of excitement and boundless energy to get outside and enjoy the snow.  Shovelling is not a chore, it’s playtime!  Tossing snowballs into drifts for Millie to locate becomes the height of mischief for both of us.

Shortly on the heels of the snow fall, arrived the freezing rain.  Our track was clear of snow drifts, but it was beginning to become ice.  The wind was gathering strength and generating a deafening sound, which all but muffled the moan of tree branches under the new weight of 3 centimetres of ice.

Soon, all the snow will melt, and it of course will mean the return of mud.  But this dreamy-blizzardy-back-drop, sandwiched between the rain and mud of winter, has helped restore a sense of what matters most.

 

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Ways of Seeing

Moss mimicking the landscape in the distance

Moss mimicking the landscape in the distance

One of the things I’m coming to appreciate since moving to this untamed wilderness, known as Dartmoor, is how a single place can provide a multitude of experiences.    Understanding the tiny and subtle changes, rather than only the dramatic shifts, that come with the passing of the season is best, I think, observed by being in one place.  We may have given up the convenience of a corner shop when we moved, but we have gained a privileged insight into the lives of other creatures through our unexpected encounters with them.

In the movie Smoke, Harvey Keitel takes a photograph from the same corner shop every morning at the same time.  His dedication to this daily process fixed in both time and location teaches us, the viewers, that life may be seemingly unchanging until one pauses to notice the little details, changing the perception of the every-day-familiar.

We’ve recently been gripped by another prolonged cold spell and yet the season is slowly and surely advancing.  The tiny increments of winter turning into spring are almost unnoticeable, were it not for the later arrival of the sunset each day.   As the days grow longer, the evenings are providing an extra hour of light and with it, birdsong.   I love hearing the melodic tunes of Robins and Blackbirds as they kick it out with purity of tone and impeccable phrasing, just like The First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald.  We have at least two pairs of each making their homes nearby the house.

Our friends were visiting for a week recently with their 5-year old.  While Mark provided much needed help (and master skills!) on the plastering of the ceilings, Lorenzo provided a way to view our world anew.  With each “Why?” – his preferred and nearly exclusive question – I found his natural curiosity infectious.  His impersonation of the chickens as he was feeding them, reminded me to never stop observing.

Chickens

Getting their attention.

Lorenzo feeding the chickens

Lorenzo feeding the chickens

Across from our barn is a collection of mature trees – Ash, Rowen, Oak, Sycamore, Beech, Laburnum — under which there are now clumps of snowdrops, each with their delicate stalks holding a drooping white flower as they stand their ground declaring spring to be on its way.   My friend Paul wrote recently in an e-mail, “I miss snowdrops.  They’re so quick off the mark, so optimistic!”  He’s right:  Snowdrops, along with tender daffodil shoots and the extended daylight, are our hopeful signs that this cold snap is not forever.

Early Snowdrops

Early Snowdrops

Across the river, atop the hill sits a pine forest and living in the treetops are several Grey Heron.  We’ve spotted at least six.  Are they building nests for their future families?  All the birds seem to be preparing for breeding season.  The mating calls are starting and brightly coloured males are strutting their stuff, including an unusual display of sexual prowess:  several Great Tits positioned on the fence with their wings widely spread were showing off colour, form and aerobatics like regular Flyboys.   All about us, nests are being mended or newly constructed, including at least two by the Jackdaws in the barn.

Not everything survives, however.  Up on the hillside outside our house was a dead sheep.  We are not certain what caused this ewe to perish, but her remaining carcass has been the focal point for most of the dogs accompanying their owners on walks.  Despite her fatality, there are about 100 heavily pregnant ewes on the moors surrounding us.  These sturdy creatures have mostly stayed away from climbing onto our walls, but there are a few who have it hardwired into their brains that they must clamber into our yard.  We continue our vigilance in maintaining the walls and recently have resorted to leaning less attractive wood pallets against the preferred sheep entrance points.  We are hoping to keep the little lambs out after they are born.

Born they will be, too.  I’ve been invited to help the local farmer with the lambing season.  I’m thrilled to do this, and confess that I’ve never done anything like it before.  It was agreed that if I got in the way or proved useless – a definite possibility – I’d be sent on my way.  I’m feeling a little tentative about the lambing since the last birth I attended was that of a hamster when I was 7.  After the litter was born, the mother hamster ate her young.

New line of defence to keep those determined sheep out.

New line of defence to keep those determined sheep out.

Sometimes, it’s not my eyes, but my ears, that guide me to something new.  Sam and I took a brisk walk one morning when the moors were covered with a dense fog obscuring any visibility beyond the immediate path, which I now know well.  With the thick, white, ethereal cloud cover drifting and swirling about, I understand how one could easily get lost in Dartmoor.  As we negotiated a boggy bit of the path, I heard a spooky bird call with its somewhat unpleasant “chirp, chirp, chirp” in the foreground and a haunting Theremin-like moan in the background.  I was uncertain what I was hearing, so looked to Sam for signs of alarm.  He seemed relaxed, so we carried on and with our next steps, I spotted a medium sized brownish bird zigzagging low to the ground.  A Snipe!  I remember going on Snipe hunts when I was young.  These are practical jokes designed to leave the uninitiated out in the woods while everyone in the know heads back to the campfire for a good laugh.  Recently in the UK, the Snipe has undergone some declines in numbers, placing it on the Amber list for the RSPB, so it is a treat to spot one, and know that they do exist beyond the silly pranks of older siblings.

 

Theremin player (found on the Internet)

Theremin player (found on the Internet)

Walking past the window overlooking the river, Roger spotted a buzzard hovering with wings spread as it snatched up its prey from the reeds.  We grabbed our binoculars and as we spied on his dining, we noticed holes in the ground nearby:  A badger set!  How long have we been looking at this particular spot of land without seeing what was there?

Badger Set in hillside

Badger Set in hillside

We know we have badgers.  I’ve seen one in the garden.  We’ve had our birdfeeders pulled from their hanging positions, only to be found the next morning dragged through the fence and into the fields beyond.  While bent and now broken, they still hold the bird food we set out each day.  To avoid further damage, we now take the feeders in at night and leave the bent poles from which they hang, standing in the ground as if afflicted with osteoporosis.  Spotting this badger set is thrilling so we set out for a closer look.  Crossing the river, climbing up the hill and negotiating two barbed-wire fences, we found at least ten holes scattered about the hillside, each with its telltale arched oval opening.  These are unlikely to be the badgers responsible for the damage to our bird feeders, as badgers evidently don’t swim unless they must.  Somewhere on our side of the river there is another badger set for us to discover.

In a few weeks, the Vernal Equinox will arrive.  Such a great day as it marks the point when the sun gives over to the northern hemisphere, making our days longer and lighter.  With the increased daylight, we will have more seasonal changes to observe, including the return of many of the migrant birds from their African winter homes.  I’m looking forward to welcoming back the Swallows, House Martins, Warblers and the Cuckoo who makes its brief spring home in the trees beyond the house.

Don’t ask me “Why?” but I just enjoy seeing – and hearing – all of these visitors around Crockern.