We observed the Twelfth and killed birds because their time had come. How normal it was to see the hill grass thrown and churning in the wind; how like this month to feel rain and clouds gouging the tops like a sound of crumbled pumice.
When I was a child, I’d look forward to this day above all others. Grouse were the whole and brimful year, but I know them now and the heat’s gone out of our love. They’re comfortable friends, and I’m as glad to watch the cocks fight in March as I am to see their infants killed with the dying summer. The more I look, the less sense it makes to turn upon the birds suddenly because some change in the calendar permits it. Some of the grouse we saw have been ready for a month; others will take another month, and there is something unhinged about that midnight transition into the season. I’d hate to be the one who tried to explain it to the birds.
Most grouse are shot by busy visitors who lead their lives in a flux of motion. They come to the hills in August and each year serves a fresh chance to recall seasons gone by in a place that is always summer; always fragrant with dried flowers and the novelty of dogs. On dud days, they’ll say “it’s just nice to be out”, and I envy that. I’m not so easily satisfied because the stink of that heather is too like my life to slacken me. The bracken smells like a knapsack sprayer; I can feel as short tempered shooting grouse as I would be gathering cattle, and there’s nothing new or calming in the hills. Shooting is a fine observance and the year would feel slim without it, but it’s begun to carry the taint of work. It lies on the list between speaning lambs and gathering berries; fine as part of something bigger, but layered in a thousand related tasks.
When all the guns had gone, I sat for half an hour to watch the hill repair itself. A young cuckoo dropped down from the stones above me. It fluttered in the ragwort, picking caterpillars from the stripped-off stems. Most young cuckoos are gone by now; this is the latest bird I’ve ever seen here. That was fine, and then the engineer rang to say that work on the baler’s slipclutch is more complex than he feared and would I come and see. I’ve standing oats and I’ll soon have straw to bale, so I went to see, and the year rode on.