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.

Swallows, a Hopeful Return

Across the globe as we collectively weather the COVID-19 pandemic, we are hunkering down at Crockern.  As such, I’ve had plenty of time for thinking.  Thinking of science and epidemiology.  Thinking about governmental policy.  Thinking of how others are coping.  And more immediately, I’m thinking of writing, cooking, walking the dogs, playing the piano, gardening, reading books and addressing the bounty of projects here at Crockern.    All that thinking leaves me with one certainty:  If ever there was a time to contemplate nature, it is now.

After nearly six months of relentless rain and strong winds, we finally have a reprieve.   It is blissfully sunny and the land seems to roll for miles under a gleaming blue canopy.  The green and gold of the hills are dotted with sheep.  Our night sky is luminous with an abundance of stars.   My morning dawn walk with Millie and Brock is typical for this time of year:  crisp air and a light layer of frost upon the ground.  The bird song is triumphant.

It’s important to anchor myself with these observations.  As I look at my calendar, I’m reminded that only a few months ago the political caucuses in the USA began and Brexit preparations continued to fill the news.  Nearer still, during the last two weeks of February Roger and I had the good fortune to be in Zambia on a safari.  Over the past few weeks, all of our lives have transformed into something different and what was once normal – kids in school, adults in work, and Roger and I moving about freely – now seems a long time ago.  It’s hard to imagine how much our lives will be reshaped by this pandemic.

And yet, somethings remain unchanged.   With spring upon us, the pied wagtails are busy building their nests in various nooks and crannies in the stone walls.  The daffodil bulbs are all happily blooming across the garden.  The green woodpecker continues to mock me with its laughter call as I daily set about filling potholes.  Our duck couple come and go to the pond, sparking our hopes they will have a brood of chicks swimming on the water soon.  Roger is repairing fencing in order that we can protect the 120 trees we need to plant from sheep, who will destroy young saplings in a single grazing session.  These are the very trees we had hoped to put into the ground over six weeks ago, when nothing but wind and rain confounded our efforts, and the news of COVID-19 seemed somehow distant.

When we were in Africa in February, we saw over 90 types of birds and I have no idea how many different types of butterflies.  Herds of Puku, Impala, Zebras and Elephants appeared around bends in the dirt road.  There were Hippos, Baboons, Hyenas, Giraffes, Buffalo, Kudu and Wild Painted Dogs.  We even saw a lion hiding in the bushes after dragging her kill to a more remote location.  At night, the calypso chorus of frogs would sing us to sleep.  Before drifting off, I might startle if I heard calls of baboons, warning of a predator nearby.   But seeing the familiar swallow, the very ones who migrate from Africa to Europe provided me a connection to my daily wildlife discoveries between Crockern and the remarkable gifts of Zambia.

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“Are you going to come visit us this spring?” I would ask when we saw the different swallows in South Luangwa National Park.  “I certainly hope so, and if not you, perhaps some of your friends?”

In the last several years, our swallow population at Crockern has dropped dramatically, and without any explanation.  Did they get lost on route, or blown off their migratory course with strong winds?   I’m anxiously awaiting their return.

Swallows make the spring.  Their aerial gymnastic arrival, eating insects on the wing and diving in and out of our outbuildings, is right up there with the start of baseball season or BBQs with friends.   They build their mud nests, have 2-3 broods, eat loads of bugs and sing their happy chatter song throughout the long summer days.  By September, they show their restlessness, fluttering about on the barn roof, and prepare to migrate back to Africa.  Their return journey takes about six weeks.  Swallows from different parts of Europe fly to different destinations, but according to the  RSPB, our visitors to England end up in the very southern parts of Africa, traveling down through western France and eastern Spain into Morocco, crossing the Sahara Desert and the Congo rainforest, before finally reaching as far south as South Africa and Namibia.

For the past few years, it has been difficult to trust their arrival.   Our first year at Crockern, we counted over 30 active nests around the property.  Last year, we counted a mere six.   Such a decline in a single decade.

Lots of theories abound as to why this might be.  Changes in agricultural practices throughout the globe, where pesticides and insecticides eliminate their main source of food:  insects.  The gradual disappearance of grasslands, hedgerows and wild spaces also changing the insect populations.  Climate change and crazy weather with its accompanying drought, extreme temperatures and weather events may have a hand in their decline.

It’s almost April and we’re bunkering due to a global pandemic.  Despite this madness, the leaf buds will soon unfurl with new foliage.  By May I’ll have the veg beds mostly sorted.  And hopefully in the next few weeks, we’ll catch glimpses of the long tail of a small bird diving, swooping and zigzagging flight patterns overhead.   There is something comforting in the knowledge that the Swallows are due to return.  A nod towards normal.   After a long six months since they left, we’ll welcome their return as they hawk for insects and delight us with our imagined stories of their travels from Africa to Crockern.

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.

 

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.

A NoTORious Challenge

It’s mid-may and we have lit a fire just to take some of the chill out of the air.  As I sit inside warm, dry and questioning the logic of this season called spring, I can’t help but wonder how those teenagers managed the Ten Tors Challenge which brought many of them walking past our house this past weekend, some hiking over 55 miles in two days.

Every May, 2,400 teenagers, in teams of 6 people, aged between 14 and 20, take part in an annual two-day event across the forbidding terrain of Dartmoor following one of 26 different routes.   Without adult supervision, the groups set out to face the challenges of navigation, bivouacking and field cooking all the while, attempting to visit the checkpoints of Ten Tors that are staffed by volunteers in order to get their route cards stamped.   These kids have to be self sufficient while on the moor and so each team member carries his or her own tent and provisions, such as food, clothing, stoves, fuel, navigation equipment, maps, emergency rations and first aid kits.

The event is organized by the British Army and is about more than just physical endurance and hardship; it’s about teamwork!  And it would have to be as there is no satellite navigation, just an Ordnance Survey map, compass and good sense.  Even on a clear day, navigation is difficult on Dartmoor, let alone the challenges faced in low cloud or at night.

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Sam heading towards a tor on Dartmoor

Dartmoor is one of the last wildernesses in England and this national park occupies 368 square miles of hills, many of which are topped by spectacular granite outcrops called ‘tors’.  At its lowest point Dartmoor touches 325 feet and 2,018 feet at its highest. The valleys between the hills carry streams and rivers that can rise swiftly following rain.  The land is peppered with bogs that can trick the unaware walker into danger.

In addition to the challenging terrain, the potential of the extreme weather conditions Dartmoor has on offer is significant.  While the sun may help navigation, it drains energy and burns exposed body parts.  The mist hides landmarks, easily disorientating the less capable navigator.  Gentle rain can be refreshing, but, when it becomes heavy, it can swell rivers so that they cease to be fordable and, when accompanied by dense mist and gale force wind, can even become life threatening.  During the 1996 Ten Tors Challenge, a snowstorm and sleet showers resulted in poor visibility and freezing temperatures, necessitating a mass emergency evacuation of the teams.  In contrast, in 1998 the temperatures rose above 26ºC and many of the teams suffered from dehydration.  While I sit inside with the wind and rain hammering our newly planted vegetable garden, I am mindful of the group of seven boys from Wiltshire who were airlifted off the moor after becoming disoriented and lost in low cloud and worsening conditions in April this year during a practice trek for this challenge.

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Fog Rolling in on Dartmoor

This past autumn, I set out with Sam to do a long hike in an area I hadn’t yet explored.  This was not going to be anything like the Ten Tors experience mind you, but still a small challenge, as I prefer to explore with Roger who is an excellent map reader!  The weather prediction was “cloudy with sun” and not too cold.  Given that the previous few days had seen heavy rain, the promise of a dry day held out hopes for a good walk.  With a positive forecast, I packed provisions, including the OS map, and headed a short distance away by car to begin my walk.

I’ve never been fabulous with directions, but I do okay.  My straightforward plan was to head north for about 4 miles along a bridle path and then circle round a valley back to where I parked.  Generally bridal paths in Dartmoor are friendly under foot, clearly marked and often have groups of all ages walking along them, many of whom have no intention of consulting a map.  About 30 minutes into the walk, I noticed that what should have been a clear path seemed faint to the point of being non-existent.  I stopped to consult the map.  What I discovered is that somehow, I had lost the path and Sam and I were on the wrong side of the river.  Oops.  Heading down a steep and rocky hill, I elected to not retrace my steps and instead, cross the river.

Rivers in Dartmoor are bipolar when it comes to rain.  One day a river is a beautiful babbling bit of water, spilling over boulders, accompanying the birdsong in the air.  On another, that same body of water becomes a raging torrent of deep, cold, fast moving power.  Crossing the river seemed a sensible decision at the time.  After all, it would save me time and get me quickly back on the right path.  As Sam and I cautiously made our way through the deep water, I slipped on a moss covered stone and got soaking wet.  What had seemed such a good idea quickly became a misery and we were forced to abandon our walk and head back to the car.  By Ten Tors standards, this was not an auspicious start.

The great thing about the Ten Tors Challenge is that it is a walking activity.  But, it is also a team event that demands strong leadership, spirited companionship, fitness, skillful navigation, focused determination, and a dose of luck.  Every year teams of teenagers join the Ten Tors challenge and it is an impressive accomplishment, I think, to decide to participate, let alone complete it.   When we moved to Dartmoor and took on the projects at Crockern, we knew we were moving to a wild and rugged landscape that would provide challenges.  The team approach is key and I don’t think Roger or I could pull this off without the other.   For me, when Roger is around I know if I get soaked from a misstep in the river, he’ll listen to me moan and then prepare me a nice hot beverage while I dry my socks.

After a fall in the river

When Roger fell in the river in Scotland, I took this picture!