You see strange and wonderful sights when you walk, and particularly when you walk early in the day. Some of these encounters bring us to within touching distance of those animals who live so close to us, but who for the most part remain unseen. We see signs of their existence, but – as with neighbours in cities – we rarely meet. Sometimes, however, it is the eccentricity of our human nature that stops me in my tracks.
I offer this photo as an example of the latter, glimpsed one morning in a Suffolk wood. Unless, of course, this is not human whimsy, and I have stumbled unknowingly on the Little Folk…
As for the former, the dog and I – walking down a track around 6am – came face to face with a badger. This was a marvellous encounter, for in my three score years and thirteen I have seen only one badger, a shabby and mangy specimen late at night on the outskirts of a southern French town. British Brock however was a splendid creature – sleek, fat and groomed. We glimpsed him at the same moment, the dog and I. She stiffened, and quivered, straining forward. I stood absolutely still.
Badgers are extremely short-sighted for they are nocturnal and live mostly underground in their setts. Brock trotted on towards us, unconscious of our presence, and then – at the correct social distance of two meters – halted, peered myopically at us, saw a wolf-like hairy dog in front of his face, realised the full horror of his situation, did a swift U-turn, and disappeared back down the track at a shambling canter. Such encounters make my day.
What of July? It has been what my father would have called a mouldy month. After the Mediterranean spring has come a British summer: dark, gloomy, windy and often wet. On the dry days harvest is in full swing. First the oilseed rape, and early in the month the combine turned in to the field beside the house – a great lumbering roaring mastodon that sent straw and dust flying and the earth shaking. I am glad the rape has been cut for once it has flowered it then smells of rotting cabbage until harvest. Rape stubble though is vicious: sharp calf-height stalks prevent walking over the field, unless you want bleeding legs. Even the dog declines to chase a hare far through it.
After the rape, the barley and the wheat, and the fields of gold disappear into the monstrous jaws of the combine . The distant rumble of the engine accompanies me to sleep, and the clatter and roar of the tractors hauling grain through the small hours then wake me again. The air smells of straw, a scent I love, a smell of summer – and of adolescent holidays spent at stables.
My own harvest is abundant: every day I pick and process, pick and process. The early days of lockdown this year have taught us that food security is vital, and the Brexit negotiations don’t seem to be going too well. We are not surprised. It seems both right and somehow sacred to work my small parcel of land, and – insofar as possible – live from it.
These final few days of July have seen a return to sun and heat.
Once again the dog and I go and walk by the sea in the brief hours of cool before the sun is high. Between the tiny hamlet of Eastbridge and the beach we see the ponies often – but wrongly – called Tarpan horses, a name which comes from the Kasakh or Kyrgyz for wild horse.. They certainly have the look of the horses in cave paintings: dun with the characteristic dark eel stripe down the back, stocky, a thick neck and a thick, often standing, mane.
Strictly speaking, these are not Tarpans, but Koniks, a breed created by Polish horse-breeders to resemble, as closely as possible, this extinct wild horse of Europe. Although they look and behave much like Tarpans, they are a separate breed, since it is impossible to re-create an extinct species/breed.
They were brought to these marshes by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, for they are at home in wetlands, where they graze the reed-edge and fen vegetation and create tussocky areas that are favoured by birds such as snipe and teal.
Nearer to home the horses on the Common managed somehow to bridge the cattle grid, and one misty morning I saw four of them walk in procession, led by the dominating white mule, up the lane to disappear down a grassy headland behind a hedge. They were too far off for me to do anything about it, and besides that mule is not to be messed with. Have they returned? The Common looked strangely empty, with only a few mares grazing. I return to painting them over and over. I could draw a horse with my eyes shut, and they have been my subject since childhood. A meagre claim to fame aged 11 was to have a painting of the rumps of two heavy horses ploughing tour the country as the result of some long-forgotten competition.
High summer segues into late summer, and there is a hint of autumn in the chill of dewy mornings. The long grasses are dying back, and when cut for hay smell sometimes inexplicably of liquorice. Leaves have long since lost their freshness. Despite the sporadic dampness of the month the paths and fields are dusty. The year is past its youth, past even its middle age, and the poignancy of August is that it is the beginning of the end, the year slips into old age, and soon we shall descend once more into the darkness.
It is now three years since I started these chronicles. Each year the same flowers grow, the same birds sing, the same crops are cultivated. Each year the weather is either good, bad or indifferent. I feel – as witnessed by the above – that I have little to say, and last month there was an accusation of trying too hard to write poetic prose. “You really went for it,” said a friend. And so I think it is time to stop.
Thank you for reading.