Wednesday, March 07, 2007
It happened last Sunday, in Cambridge, just before I went away. I had no idea it was coming. Nothing out of the ordinary: the usual swabby grey early morning, and, as usual, I was walking to my office through little parties of chilled pigeons processing through mist on municipal lawns. I had a pile of reports to write, and a conference session proposal, and a PhD reference, and my brain was so full of academic triage, so anxious about finishing everything in time, that I ended up dropping everything. It was as if I’d attempted a very difficult shuffling trick, a trick so difficult that suddenly the cards are strewn all across the carpet and you lose interest in the trick entirely. “Sod it” I thought. “I’m leaving the country in a day. I can’t go without one final walk. I need to get out there”. So I did. And I did something unusual. I went somewhere new.
I’ve been in this fenland citadel so long that I carry about a little mental gazetteer of familiar fens and woods and fields. My love of these places is deeply caught up with how familiar they are, which makes it such a pleasure when unexpected things happen: suddenly a bittern’s nose appears through the reeds and slowly the whole bittern, too, treading carefully on foot-fulls of stems to preen his shaggy tummy and stretch one wing over an icy pool by Trevelyan’s hide. Or a mole. Or a big marsh spider on the track. Or, come to think of it, a particularly nice cheddar cheese in the toasted sandwiches in the visitors' centre.
I’m getting old, is that it? Perhaps places are like friends. Over time, you find yourself less inclined to seek out new ones. Is that true? Actually, I hope not, in both cases. But back to the point: that day, none of these places appealed. What's more, I felt extremely edgy, all-over antsy. So I worried in a meta-worrisome way that perhaps I was worried because all my worries were getting me down. Ah, the telescoping self-absorption that is Cambridge life.
But I was wrong. As I drove out east along the ringroad it struck me that this was nothing more than good old seasonal restlessness, and it was that day! It was the first day of spring! The world opened up: there was a rubbly broken blanket of cumulostratus over the car and a steady, grey-blue light in the air. I felt something very strange in my throat, like a pebble, and then realised it wasn’t in my throat, but my heart, and it was simply a considerable amount of sheer happiness. Sing-out-loud, spring is here happiness.
I really had forgotten what that felt like. So I drove on, tum tiddley tum, past the turn to Upware and on towards Burwell, where a snaky rampart followed the horizon spectacularly blackly, and I realised where I’d ended up. This was Devils Dyke, a long track across the fens — a defensive saxon earthwork famed for its chalk flora. For its archaeological interest. For the fact that the local Morris Men dance its seven mile length at daybreak on the summer solstice. And for romance! Dr X told me once that a friend of his finally realised he’d found the love of his life after he told her that only an idiot would mis-identify the song of a grasshopper warbler: she clouted him round the head and he fell down the steep sides of the dyke to rest, dizzy, in the rabbity turf at the bottom. Ah, love!
So I parked the car and set out along the sticky foot-worn track that ran down the spine of the earthwork, which vanished into dips and hills in the distance. From this vantage, I could see distant big things, and tiny small things, close-up, and nothing really in between. So the distant things were clouds and fields. And the small things were bleached, scalloped lobes of dried liverworts, tiny stars and cushions of moss in hawthorn boles, wisps of fleece caught in rose briars, a rabbit bone or two, a twist of bindertwine.
And looking straight down its length, the Dyke had a wonderful Susan Cooper meets Alfred Watkins vibe about it, as if the whole track might just start getting all mythical, and burn along its length with cold, chalky, otherworldly fire. But this sort of chalk-inspired antiquarian mysticism was quite redundant. Because the view out and across the landscape from this narrow spine was the softest, most glorious and mysterious revelation imaginable, because it was the first day of spring, and because everything was soft and smoky yet ringing like bone china. To my right, a tractor crossing a field of overwintered stubble, attended by a flock of two hundred or so black headed gulls, kettling up and swirling down to the new plough, and there were acres and acres of winter wheat, and bolts of soft sunlight, like huge, benevolent searchlights through fog, illuminating patches of hill and field on and off for miles. I took deep breaths of air and skylark song, it made me feel rather drunk, all this. Spring!
Of course, a few days later I was shivering in thick snow in Tashkent. Blue fingers and a strange desire for mugs of hot chocolate. But I just wanted to tell you about the first day of spring because it was so exceptionally lovely.
But spring brings other news! A pair of starlings have taken up residence in one of the swift boxes outside my bedroom window. They've learned to enter the special 'swifts only' entrance hole via a cunning manouvre from a perch on the telephone junction, so I’m woken every morning by beak taps, the sound of starlings running about inside the box, so terribly excited that they break into bouts of fizzy starling song. Oh lord it’s going to be noisy when the youngsters start food-begging. Expect a very grumpy, sleep-deprived pluvialis in a couple of months...