Frost and Biting Cold

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Early signs of frost damage in the turnips – this should be pure, creamy flesh

The wind stays in the north and east, and it’s cold enough to wipe the smile off your face. There’s a hare lying in the leeward edge of a turnip rig, and the ice birls upon his jacket.

I long for a brutal winter, and I’m forever disappointed. In recent years, winter has become a slippery mess which pools and blunders through the darkness. We had five days of frost last winter – five days is hardly enough to harden the soil or skin any but the shallowest of puddles. Snow fell one afternoon, but it was gone before dark. I came back into the spring with a feeling that I had missed out.

There was a time when winter was something worth worrying about. Storms would blow the electricity off, and snow would fall in swathes to the windowsill. Significant parts of my childhood were spent in darkness, reading a book by the fire because we couldn’t leave the house and sledging had stopped being fun. You had to work around weather like that, but it seems to come less often than ever before.

And it’s a failing of climate change that we’re being given softer winters as the world begins to shift away from its fulcrum. Winter weather is becoming less relevant to us, and our lives continue without any need to adjust for seasonality. Imagine if five feet of snow fell tonight from out of the blue. We’d be staggered by it – we’d have cause to think long and hard about how the world was going. But no such thing will happen, and we think instead about whether to turn the radiator up in the car. My grandparents would keep a pantry filled with tinned food and winter supplies because you never knew what nature was planning. But it’s milder these days, and we don’t have to care anymore – just at the moment when we should be caring more than ever.

And if I’m feeling miserly, then perhaps it’s attributable (at least in part) to the discovery that in the recent hard frosts, many of my turnips have caught the chill and begun to decay. Turnips are supposed to store energy all winter, but they do need a little help to hold their value. I should have had them covered over and buried in straw and muck by now, but I thought I had time to spare. I can still feed these damaged turnips to the cattle, but it scuppers my plans to keep them and eke them out. Now it’s a battle against waste; I’ll have to feed them as fast as I can.

This is the latest of so many errors I have made in this crop, and the fault lies solely with me. I was so focussed upon the mechanics of growing turnips that I seem to have overlooked the value of timing. So I was too late to hoe and thin the crop, then too early to start lifting it. Then I was too late to get the best of the shaws and I missed my chance to put a covering on the clamp to protect the turnips from the falling temperature, which fell to minus seven degrees celsius earlier in the week. I’ll know better next year, and I take consolation from the fact that everything I’ve done has been perfect – it’s only my timing that has been wrong.

And so I plead for a hard winter and the spectre of deep snow, but I would be pleading with a good deal more comfort if my turnips were safe and cosy and I had not fumbled yet another chore.

Nagaapie

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I found a book this afternoon, and the world seemed to fall upon me. It’s been seventeen years since I saw it last, and that time has not been kind to the spine and the wrinkled cover. It looks like an old thing, but I remember buying it new in a shop near Ons Hoop in the bowl of the Limpopo river. I’d been in South Africa for a month, and I wanted to learn about the game and the wildlife of the bushveldt. But I’d asked so many questions of the people around me that I exhausted them. The time had come to do some reading and find answers for myself.

It’s not a great book. The photographs are small and the descriptions are very general, but it was my compass on long days in the veldt, many of which passed in complete solitude and isolation. I’d read the book and pore over the pictures, and it’s fun to find old fingerprints on some of the busiest pages – gritty little smears of sweat and grime in the most-turned corners.

It was almost an act of muscle memory to find a particular favourite – a small and single page devoted to:

Lesser Bushbaby : Galago moholi : Total Length 40cm

There’s a nice picture to go with the words. Someone had managed to take a photograph with a flash, and the poor little brute is wincing badly. But there he is, with his tail coiled up in a spool beneath him and his lugs turned in like dishes. He’s a fine little fellow, and if the world fell upon me to find that book, then time collapsed to see his face again.

I narrow my eyes, and for a moment I’m sitting in silence in the twilight and the thorns. My little house is five miles from the nearest human habitation, and night comes to the petering hum of doves and crickets. Bush air leans upon me; the smell of cracked sap and hot sand and the stars of the Southern Cross turning out of the sky like a prickle of pins. And in a moment of deafening stillness, there are bushbabies in the trees above my head.

I can’t see their eyes or the cup of their ears in that losing light. I can’t see anything but a crisp and puckish silhouette. And they come down without fear or confusion, almost within arm’s reach to snuff with queer enthusiasm at my smell of cigarette smoke and sweat. You could say it was scary at first; to find the night sprung with tiny, silent primates. But it held no worry for me; it seemed fine that the trees had come to life and sprites moved between them.

I think I could hold a bushbaby in my hand; I think it would cling to me as if I were a branch. I tell myself I can hear them pounce and glide around me, but it’s more like the sound of my hair growing. And they creep and spring as the night deepens, chewing sap and riding like sparks in the space between the trees.

The Boers call them nagaapie, which they say as “nach-aapie” – night monkey. I told my friend about them when he came, but he laughed and said they’re not important. It was hard to explain how they were changing everything for me. It became a ritual to lie out and wait for the bushbabies, and I couldn’t settle without having seen them. Sometimes I’d lie in bed and imagine them moving in silence around the house; weird and well-met creatures in the starlight.

Now I’m home again, six thousand miles and the best part of two decades away from the nearest bushbaby. The people I worked for and knew in South Africa have gone and their businesses are finished. Three of them have died, and they’re just the ones I know about. You couldn’t find a single person there who remembers me, and I hear that South Africa is a different place these days. There’s no going back, even if I wanted to. And I wonder if this book is really mine after all. Maybe it’s on loan from somebody else.

Secret

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This high pressure’s enough to make your eyes pop. The wind’s in the North and the sky’s come over crisp and bare as a baby’s iris.

In twenty years of watching and waiting, I’ve managed to glean a single piece of wisdom, and it’s dear to me because I learned it for myself. Whisper it, because I’m not a natural gloater – but I’ve found a weakness in the cunning fox; I know something he doesn’t want me to tell you. The barometer tilts me to a smug and knowing smile.

High pressure and a North wind makes a fine day for a fox, each one newly bloomed into a luscious winter coat. There’s nothing to be had underground on a brilliant sunlit day, so a fox will lie above it and cadge the shelter of myrtle and rowans. Far out on the hanging hill, I lie in the heather and spy upon him with my binoculars. And watching him in the cold November sun, I finally fell upon a wrinkle; a glitch; a habit which allows me to predict his next move.

On days like these, certain places will call up a fox like the smell of old blood. I can think of a dozen spots where you’d be guaranteed to find him when the day’s bright and the wind is cold; they’re little nooks and corners where he’s always bound to go. At first it seemed like there was no thread of continuity between them, but now I see they’re all the same. Every fox will profit from lying in precisely the same way, and it helps to put myself in their position:

  • I want to be in the sun and out of the cold North wind. So lie just below the brow of a south-facing slope.
  • I want to see what’s coming, so I pick a spot with a good view and I curl up so I can look down upon everything below me. And the wind comes from behind me – if I can’t see it, you can bet I’ll smell or hear it.
  • And I want to be sure that I can leave when I choose. I know every exit and I roll the options over in my mind. There are always half a dozen ways to make myself scarce.

Match those three requirements together, and you’ll find a fox – sure as eggs is eggs. I know a few places where they converge, so I wait for the weather to bring me a certainty.

And there are always more places to find. I look for them with as much enthusiasm as I’d look for the fox himself. It helps to walk the high ground on other days; it’s time spent in reconnaissance. I move through long grass and find new places where he might lie in a North wind. If I find a promising site, I’ll often lie down in it myself, trying to imagine how the view would look if I stood eight inches tall. Perhaps the heather is too thick after all – maybe it’s perfect.

I don’t think I’m being daft in this – a fox will never lie in anything but the perfect spot. And when you press your belly to the ground, you realise the genius of good shelter. I stand at six feet tall and a cold wind stings me. But lie down in the right place and I’m as comfortable as I would be indoors.

Sometimes I find a good new spot and I’m rewarded to find my prediction is accurate. It’s a fine glow to foretell the movements of a fox you’ve never seen before. Some older places are so well used that if you cannot see a fox lying out in a North wind, it’s only because he saw you first.

And having found my fox, I begin to think of stalking in with a rifle; new ways to confound the security of some far-flung perch. Sometimes there’s no way to get within half a mile. You have to lie out and wait and hope that he’ll get up and mooch away from safety into some piece of ground where the odds lie in your favour. I know two places where the approach is straightforward, and foxes are easily winkled out time and again. But kill the incumbent, give it a month and there’ll be another fox lying there, having felt the same, instinctive pull on a sunlit day.

Turn the weather into the east and foxes will move again like musical chairs. There will be another list of places to check and examine. Wet weather will shift the balance further. I daresay that if you lived for long enough and spent sufficient time in observation, you might finally crack the pattern for every weather. You could wake up in the morning, gaze out of the window and know where to go.

I only have one piece of the puzzle. I know where a fox will be on a cold, bright day with the wind in the North. But a fox gives nothing easily, and I wear my puny wisdom like a medal.

 

Turnip-Chopping

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Turnips make for a strange diet. The cows hardly know them as food, so I’ve begun to mash them up and slice the roots into chips. It’s a “serving suggestion”, and the beasts will soon learn.

It’s grand work chopping turnips and I love it. I get up early just to do it. Strike a neep with a shovel and relish that crisp, barky split as it hangs around you; what a noise. And it smells good, and the flesh is clean and creamy enough that I’ll forgive you for picking it up and eating slabs of it yourself – one for you, one for me and the cattle can wait.

The cold weather has taken all the pepper out of that flavour; they used to be spicy, but now they’re plain and sweet and I could cut those turnips all day; chopping and splitting and dicing the food in the frost.

Cows come to bustle around me as I strike and sweat and lean upon the shovel shank. A raven sees it all and has no comment.

 

New Owling

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Owls come out of a broken ash tree. A late brood has got away, and the youngsters hiss like a brush on a wet floor.

I was ill a month ago. I couldn’t sleep. I heard the owls from my bedroom window and I went out to watch them in the darkness. White shapes came to me like a fever dream, and I rolled my eyes and worked up some screaming temperature in the lee of a sodden field.

Barn owls; Tyto alba. I said “Tyto” and saw them turn with hours to spare before daylight, thumbing at my own thermostat and, having sat, wondering how I could ever rise and return to bed. But I was glad to see them, or make them out below the stars. Long, steady rasping and the certainty of meat and mouse-flesh in relay.

Now that family of owls has flown the nest. They might have blown away into the wind, but instead they’ve come closer. The barns have summoned them, so they make merry in the yard when night falls. I hear them tumbling along the gutters like monkeys. Even as I work into the darkness, their shapes glide back and forth across my window. One has bumped its head on the glass, and others peer through the glazing like cats.

I go to see the pigs before bed and find the sty rafters are occupied; I send three owls fleeing out through the lunkey and into the yard. They squall and hiss and tumble like idiot children. Everything in the granary is splashed with white lime and the pellets of rat bones and beetle shells. There’s a relentless turn of white wings and sombre eyes in the doorways, and when they come to shriek on the lintel above my desk, I can feel the sound buzzing in my ears.

I hope to find them at dawn, but they’ve gone – back to a broken ash tree like a shoal of sprites or spunkies.

Foretaste

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Out in the slush and downpour, pared by a bitter wind.

Here’s a foretaste of the winter coming – darkling day; the crunch and split of turnips in the teeth of cattle.

And boring jobs which roll inevitably into my hands. Muck out the sty and cart the old straw to the midden. Split sticks ‘n’ stack ’em. Cut shaws from the turnips and build the clamp until there’s a mound of purple flesh like odd spawn in the yard.

Pals come; neighbours from across the river when the sky’s dull and the air is filled with chattering fieldfares. They don’t want their work either, so we waste time and fill the byre with cigarette smoke and stories we’ve heard before and the rain drums on the tin roof and dribbles through a crack in the skylight. I find a dog’s nose in the palm of my hand. I become a whisker-tickler, and the collie wags and pleads and shivers. He’s called Good Lad Mac.

Tales to tell, and the slight adjustment of footing. The grey rain comes down in veils, and “if you believe that, you’ll believe anything”. I wonder if I do want to buy a front-end loader for my tractor, and I wonder if it’s really for sale. Maybe we’re just talking. We lean deeper on the wooden stalls, and I tell them again about the rats which have come to wrap their tails around the rake handles.

I trapped a rat at Hallowe’en, but the steel bars crushed him wrong. He lived to scream for a moment or two, and the sound brought the rafters down upon me. All across the world, families strove to fleg themselves with plastic skulls and fuzzy spiders. But try a screaming rat to turn your blood cold; simple things work best.

Then it’s almost night again and we can hardly postpone for another moment. I watch their van away down the close with brake lights red as sickened eyes. Then I cart the turnips up to the cattle and find woodcock waddling in the verges as I go. The radio says something about sun-seeking holidays in Sardinia. Soil coils around my ankle like a hand.

 

Autumn Feeding

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The calves have done well this summer, but now they come to the autumn as underdogs. Their mothers are hungry and pregnant again, so the youngsters are hurled to one side when I arrive to feed them.

It’s grand to slit the summer bales and smell the grass which dried and set like flakes of paper in July. The keener cows come lurching in and pull the hay from my hands, so I make time to break bales into smaller parts and toss them out into heaps. Then the calves come creeping in and pinch at scraps wherever they can find them.

And all the while, the air is thick with fieldfares and redwings. Blackbirds have come across the sea to be with us at a moment of gathering. The beech trees are laden with mast-mad woodpigeons; the clumsy birds come tumbling away at the sound of the quad bike. If I stand among the cows they cannot see me – some pass so low around my head that I think I could catch one and grasp it yellow-eyed and stupid in my hand. But what to do with it then? Let it go as a lesson, knowing that pigeons never learn? Kill it as a meal for myself? They’re good eating, but I have newly-killed pork and lamb to fill my larder, and mallard too. A nut-filled pigeon would be welcome in December, but it would be wasted on me now. I tell myself that catching is pointless; that I am leaving the pigeons to be hunted by a goshawk. The obvious truth is that I am too short and slow to pick a bird out of the air – it’s just a game. Seven miles above the surface of the earth, a jet trails vapour like a streak of chalk. Perhaps I could catch that instead?

Standing up in this high field, I can see beyond the craigs to Gatehouse and Carsphairn. Grey hills roll high and cold into the morning. With the sea at my back, I smell the clean weight of hairy cattle all around me.