Country diary: A few days away from home and the song thrush starts up
Uffington, London and Kirby Misperton: Me and the thrushes, singing our way from place to place, season to season
There’s a time when it’s no longer winter, but it seems unwise to speak of spring. Before blossom, before warmth is a turning point felt rather than observed.
This year it was distilled and formalised for me on an Imbolc pilgrimage to the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, led by the apothecary Charlotte Pulver, the druid Chris Park and the singer-naturalist Sam Lee. I found myself barefoot in a chalk spring, shedding tears for a woman I’ve never met while hugging her sister, and later crouched in candlelight and heart-rhythm in the cramped chamber of the 5,500-year-old long-barrow of Wayland’s Smithy.
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The next day in the Sam Wanamaker playhouse (the exquisite little sibling of London’s Globe theatre), we gorged on words and music as Robert Macfarlane and Johnny Flynn performed new songs inspired by the oldest of stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh. Those were songs of tree-felling and regret, quests and exploitation, pandemic and plague, love and death, and the dizzy moments on which great events seem to hinge and spin.
I came home changed, to find home changed too. In my absence, a song thrush had begun making town-crier proclamations at first light and last, and the hazels had bloomed with male catkins long and louche, and female flowers like tiny passion-coloured explosions.
A couple of days later, I join a tree-planting session in Kirby Misperton, North Yorkshire, on a farm bequeathed to the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. It seems an unlikely reserve at first: stark fields and an embanked, straightened beck, two miles from the concrete slabs of an abandoned fracking operation, closer still to the site of the camp established by protesters. A place in need of healing.
It’s a day’s work for 12 of us to get a thousand bare-rooted whips into the ground: rowan, hawthorn, blackthorn, alder buckthorn – we’re creating scrub rather than forest. I sing some of the new songs as I tuck in roots and my fingers break up clods of soil to pack around them.
At dusk, a more fitting herald comes: a blackbird on a high hedge, head back, pouring gold from his own dark and atavistic well of inspiration. “Awake!” he cries. “Unfurl, take root and sing at the world to come.”
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