Soft but thrilling weather at the end of last week, here. Afternoon sun and shadow trounced by fenland light and fog into furry baize. En route to Wicken, great folds of pigeon-feather clouds coming in, and as Xtin and I opened the car doors when we arrived, the smell of sedge and mud and warbler-song and rain filled the vehicle from footwell to roof. Heavy rain, getting heavier. So we went straight to the cafe.
Wicken cafe is expensive, but by god, I love it. It's a shed, near enough, with a counter and melanine surfaces and thickets of tables and chairs and odd shelves with National Trust cookery books; and on a cold winter's day it fills with steam and fug from walkers and their afternoon mugs of tea. A few years ago it was run by a smashing Turkish chap, but no longer. I think he's in charge of the hangar-like full-on restaurant at a different National Turst property: at least, I saw him there a while back, and he enquired, somewhat mournfully, how Wicken was these days. "You must miss it" I said. "This" he said, gesturing into the cavernous cedar cathedral of coach parties and cream teas, "this is amazing, I love it. But I miss Wicken"
I do too, if I'm away for long. Xtin and I go there whenever we can. It's a creepy, wonderful place. Britain's oldest nature reserve, bought by some nutty posh etymologists a century or so ago. I've written about it before, so won't harp on. But it's a sprawling mess of reeds and dykes and pools and paths, with acres of carr forest and new grasslands being returned to their wetland glory. It's not pretty. It's flat, muddy, and featureless, and packed with wildfowl in the winter, and warblers and woodcock and hobbies in the summer, and is bristling with dragonflies; it's a treasure of a place.
Every so often, at Wicken, I bump into parties of student biologists from the Department next to mine. And sometimes I bump into Professor D, because he also uses the fen for fieldwork. He is often carrying a stuffed stoat in a wire cage to freak out the reed warblers, and he always carries a pair of binoculars. Of course. He is a behavioural ecologist, a fellow of the Royal Society, an astoundingly big brain, a Very Important Scientist, and also an absolutely lovely, lovely man. A chance meeting with Professor D. always leaves one feeling inordinately well-disposed to the world. He's just that kind of chap.
So when Xtin and I walked in as the rain began to pattern the ponds outside, I was especially happy to see him sitting at the near table in the empty cafe. And there was someone else with him. A chap in a realtree fleece tucking into a nosh of baked potato and beans.
Ah! I knew this person! He is a now-eminent wildlife cameraman; I met him about ten years ago back in Wales when he came to film peregrines for a documentary. And Xtin and I joined the Professor and The Cameraman for a natter, which included several cups of tea, two icecreams, and on Xtin's part, a toasted tea cake. He was there to film cuckoos, which are, in fact, Professor D's species of expertise, and they'd been there since four in the morning doing just that.
This meeting has FREAKED ME OUT. Because as we sat there and talked about jobs The Cameraman has done, and how he's just back from exotic location A filming this species, and is about to go off to exotic location B, to film a different speices, and how much his life is sitting in hides or going out looking for things, planning things, arranging everything around weather and season and oh how goddamn happy he seemed to be about what he was doing, I remembered something.
It was back in Gloucestershire. The summer before I came back to University. I was working for Jemima Parry Jones. My boyfriend of nigh-on three years had left me for a swedish intern a month before — how clichéd is that?! — and was a mess. I was also getting bored. Isn't that awful? Every day I flew display birds—everything from burrowing owls to tiny African peregrines to bloody great eagles — which was fun; and I worked with a lovely bunch of people — Jemima is an absolute treasure, btw — but my brain had gone to sleep and I wasn't happy.
It was an idyllic spring. Every other day we'd take parties of people out into the May countryside of the Forest of Dean and hunt rabbits with Harris hawks. That afternoon I was sitting with three 'pupils' on a sunny bank under an craggy singleton oak. The pasture far below us was bright with tiny wild daffodils, and the hawks were slope-soaring in a warm breeze that held them up just above and before us, white-tipped tails spread, eagley heads prospecting for bunnies. It was the lusty month of May, and it was a glorious, treasurable day. if Elgar had been there, he'd have got out some manuscript pages and a pencil. If Auden had been there, he'd have started composing on the spot.
I was miserable. Ya de ya. It's hard to countenance this, now, but I was. I was bored. I watched the hawks, keeping an eye on what was going on. But I was stuck. I was counting time. I was coming back to Cambridge to start a Masters in four months, and I couldn't wait. Bah bah another day's display, another day's hunting.
I was brought up short. I'd turned to check on the punters and saw that the chap sitting next to me was in tears. They'd made slick trails down his cheeks, and his eyes were swimmy and bright.
"Are you all right?" I asked him cautiously.
"I am" he said, with a catch in his voice. I thought the moment had passed; he turned back to watch the hawks.
But then he started speaking again. In a low, urgent voice. "You have the best job in the world" he said. "I've worked in my job for thirty years, and I've never liked it. I always wanted to do something else. But it's too late now. You come out here, you fly these birds, and you're out in the sun and rain and you're doing something you really LOVE. You are so lucky. I wish I could have done something like this when I was your age. My life would have been very different"
"Excuse me" he said, wiping his face with a handkerchief.
Right then, I swore never to stop being mindful of the moment. I'd forgotten, though, it seems to me. I've spent the last seven years in libraries, in offices, in cafes, drinking coffee and trying to write a PhD. Talking with Professor D and The Cameraman made me realise how much time that has been.
Yes there have been good things; great things! Great friendships, rewarding research; books published; a home; of course. But I am not an academic, I know now, and happily.
What I hadn't fully realised is that I've been hanging on to a whole pile of assumptions about the way to conduct one's life that I've kind of passively soaked up from my university surroundings. I think an awful lot of them are wrong. I know they are.
Xtin and I had our walk, free of rain. We heard a bittern booming, found dredged freshwater mussels, watched marigold-eyed tufted duck drakes being monstered by coots on the mere. It was a good, long walk. I've spent a Bank Holiday weekend back at my mum's house being a grumpy bugger. Partly because I'm freaked the hell out by the vision of inertia my sorry recent life has been.
So: time to start grasping for the things that don't just make life good, but make the good life. Goshawk's one of 'em. Roll on the next.