A Year’s Work

I made the walk on the hill’s face to the shoulder and the boulder’s lair. I worked hard at the walking; found hares for the running as the ravens rocked and roiled in the shelled-up corries below. There were sunny days, but more often the cloud came cool to my collar like a twist of tissue. Once there was snow which fell without warning, and once there was a warning of stars.

If I had to put my hand on the work of this year, I’d reach for those weeks spent watching on the tall hills, searching for plovers in the scree. They were golden plovers, a bird that nobody sees and most have never heard mentioned. And that was May, but even now I recall the birds calling at dawn, in the first grey souring of light a bird-shape standing in the black wreckage of stones. And long before light the birds unveiled display songs sung against the night sky; curious courtships pursued in the moss with a view of eighty moonlit miles beyond them.

You know I set cameras to record these birds. I told you how they came back to their nest when I found it, and how they sat through the snow when it came. Thanks to that technology, I have video footage of a bird which stands up as if from nowhere in the settling drift. There is nothing, and then a bird climbs out of the snow like a plant and the powder shakes away. I’ll show you that video sometime, but it’s small beside its own unspeakable reality.

In walking out and watching, I came to know the hill foxes; the hinds and the billy goats. I learned how the forest wood sweats in the rain, and winds fling the steam to the crags above. Standing on the highest ground before the weather turned, I sometimes felt I could fling a stone across fifteen miles of bog and lochan to Minnigaff. And when the weather turned, I couldn’t even catch enough breath to say the name of that town.

The plovers sat in turns and I counted the days. They crouched and I recorded, and one day when the sky was fine as film, I went to the nest. The male bird stood nearby with his black breast scowling. Four eggs splayed apart from their points like clover, and each shell was differently damaged in the sun. I saw the ruptures with my own eyes; cracks and the heaving churn of internal movement. I heard the shrill, early-birth noises of calling from chicks on the brink of beginning. You might expect to hear some passive drone or chirp from unborn birds, but instead I heard the adult’s song as they’d fused in the darkness above me a month before; the same ecstatic sound replayed by a new generation distantly coming without forethought or rehearsal.

So I claim that as the work of this year. That, even though it took less than a tick of the year’s true time. I claim that work as a link to the grand ulterior plan of hills which teem to the blue horizon. What came before was precursor; what followed is afterglow and God knows that nine tenths of my life is meaningless. The final share is only reaching, but to lie beside those hatching eggs and hear the same eternal song at the height of its own unfindable privacy is to have no fear of dying after all.

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