Monday, 31 January 2011

The changing of the guard

I begin my walk in darkness, part of a daily ritual at this time of the year. Stepping out into the gloom of the forest with the dogs, I am otherwise alone. I know this patch well and the dark, sometimes shifting, shapes and sounds of the forest no longer hold any fear for me. The sound of something large moving through the vegetation will be one of the many deer and the upright figure that haunts the edge of the track will be a now familiar piece of broken trunk. For many the darkness of night is an unsettling experience, no doubt a reflection of our reliance on the visual. Perhaps we hold within us some primitive fear, an echo perhaps, from our ancestors whose wild woods held the threat of large carnivores long since lost from our countryside.

I have always enjoyed the sensation of being out at night, away from the pervading light pollution that spoils so much of our landscape. The darkness reins in our sight but heightens other senses, most notably those of hearing and smell. The damp, soft air of the forest night holds onto the smells of passing fox and muntjac, and carries the harsh calls of territorial tawny owls and the high-pitched notes of nocturnal migrants like redwing. Whether it is the warm, moonlit summer nights out ringing nightjars or, as now, the pre-dawn walks on damp winter mornings, the dark of the forest embraces you, shortening horizons and engaging you more closely through senses that strain to grasp at sounds and smells.

There have been times, however, when some of night’s sounds have unsettled me. The crack of a rifle close-by or, once in a chestnut wood in Sussex, the sound of footsteps following my nocturnal perambulations. It turned out that the source of these footsteps was a pheasant that had been following me as I worked my way around a regular beat (at the time I was monitoring small mammals with live traps baited with grain). The pheasant had learnt that when I caught something I emptied the grain out and replaced it. My laughter upon discovering this was clearly an outlet for the tension of my nervous energy!

Night’s dark shroud can be slow to slip away on these winter mornings, particularly when the moon is spent or the cloud thick. As the deer retreat from the rides and clearfell, to seek shelter in the thickets and forest cover, so other creatures are stirring. Noisy wood pigeons, roused by my approach, explode from their treetop roosts in a crash of flapping wings, while the calls of crows hang in the air. The world is waking, and it is time to turn for home and breakfast.

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