On the Trail of Boar

This piece first appeared on Caught by the River in May 2019.

Wild Boar in the Bracken
Wild Boar in the Bracken

It doesn’t take long to walk from the cottage up through the Turkey oaks and larch into Flaxley Wood. On the way I linger, and catch the papercut silhouette of a roe buck between the trees. Stock still, I wait and watch, hardly daring to breathe. He browses on leaves, strips some bark then moves slowly between the trunks. I can see his finely tined antlers, his slender head and neck, and can just about make out the dark oval of his right eye in the evergreen shadow. Then he looks in my direction. Unsure whether I am there or not, he hesitates, shifts his head a little, but he doesn’t flee. He just turns and gently makes off into the tangle of undergrowth.

Reaching Flaxley Wood I stride uphill as quietly as I can, periodically inspecting the mud beside the track for animal prints. My main hope is to see wild boar.

Flaxley Wood
Flaxley Wood

The wood is located on the edge of the Forest of Dean, well-known for its large wild boar population; estimated to be over a thousand. They were driven to extinction in the UK back in the middle ages. There followed various attempts at reintroducing them. Then, in the 1980s, a few boar escaped from boar farms. Some were deliberately introduced back into the wild and small populations became established in the south east and south west of the country.

My first introduction to wild boar was reading Asterix books as a child. Asterix and Obelix always seemed to be spit-roasting the ubiquitous boar of the forests of Gaul. It was much later, while on holiday in Portugal, that I had my first, brief, sighting of a boar – the back of a large rufous animal slinking off through the cane grass.

Wild boar print
Wild boar print

Where the track forks I find fresh boar prints in the mud – two bean-shaped cleaves about two inches long with dewclaw marks just visible. They have been here, but I don’t see any this evening. Tomorrow I will visit the main forest to see if I have any luck there.

*

It’s the following day and I’m with my partner Kevin in the Forest of Dean. We’re following a vague trail through an area of young birch, well away from the main tracks. There are signs of boar everywhere – churned up earth, scattered bluebells and wood spurge in disarray. Boar rummage in the earth looking for roots and worms in a similar way to badgers. They also eat young leaves, nuts, fruits and whatever they can find. In the Forest of Dean their presence is not always appreciated. Not everyone likes to find their lawn uprooted, their crops raided, the playing fields disturbed. Occasionally it happens.

The trail undulates and meanders through the trees. I notice heaps of brown scat, larger and lighter in colour than sheep or deer droppings. It looks fresh and I guess it belongs to boar. We tread carefully.

Up ahead is a lookout tower, a shooting platform. I ignore the unease I feel about this and we continue walking. Beyond the open birch woodland the terrain slopes down to the muddy trickle of a stream. We negotiate the stream and make our way up through a stand of stunted beech, deeper into the forest.

Dry bracken, bramble, gorse and scrub now surround us. It is quiet; no sound of people or the road. I enjoy feeling a little lost among the chaos of last year’s bracken. The scrub thickens as we proceed further, fresh scat and prints on the bare earth. Some of the vegetation has been fashioned into boar-shaped tunnels or flattened into boar ‘couches’. I’ve learned that they’re largely nocturnal, lying low during the day, and they could be anywhere.

I have often noticed, usually in retrospect, a hush, a subtle change in atmosphere, when a wild animal is close by. It’s the sudden quiet when a sparrowhawk is on the wing and the rest of the birds fall silent. Perhaps I catch a scent that I don’t immediately register as a scent. Or feel a sound almost below the threshold of hearing, like the ominous moment before a storm when the wind dips and there is a faint murmur of thunder. I need to become conscious of these subliminal signs to get into the mind of the tracker.

Birch scrub
Birch scrub close to where the boar were seen.

Suddenly there’s a crash, a scuffle from the gorse and a large boar explodes into the clearing. An image of a stocky build, head, shoulders and earthy thatch of coat – a rush of primal energy. Away it thunders into the trees. Kevin, quiet and alert just ahead of me, declines to continue; we should back off, not follow the boar. We pause, senses heightened, awestruck. Then a second adult boar violently erupts from the bushes and, like the first, charges off into the trees. It is powerful and unnerving; they could have rushed straight into us. Boars have good hearing and an acute sense of smell, but poor eyesight.

We double back, a little startled, away from the thick scrub. After a minute or so, two more boar decide to break cover and rush off out of sight; we realise we were in their midst. I don’t feel in any real danger, but they are wild animals, strong and unpredictable. I can’t help but feel a little euphoric.

It is far from ideal disturbing the boar in this way – in fact it is really quite clumsy. However, I am pleased to have seen them. Sightings are generally quite common, but not so common during the day. We retrace our steps, cross the stream again and find a forest track. A nonchalant family of cyclists passes us by, followed by a dog walker enjoying the warm spring afternoon.

There is a legend of an animal, The Beast of Dean, that lives or once lived in the Forest of Dean. The legend arose after boar became extinct in the UK, becoming better known in the early 19th century. The animal was supposed to resemble a very large wild boar – one capable of bringing down trees and wrecking havoc. Back in 1802, farmers set out to capture the beast, but found nothing. Large animal sightings have always been prevalent; we like to nourish our imaginations with tales of unidentified creatures and monsters. I believe the reason for this is our fear of the wild, the wild dark edge of things – or maybe our love of it. Boar are powerful animals, not to be messed with. Having now encountered them, I think it is no surprise that their presence and power has spurned all sorts of folklore and, perhaps, other, less fabricated stories.

Next time, we’ll go looking for boar at dusk, just when they are likely to emerge. It would feel better to observe them from distant cover, simply going about their business undisturbed – perhaps from that lookout tower.

Tracks in the Snow

This was originally published by TOAST magazine in December 2018.

Tracking bears

We parked the car and started walking along the track in silence, save for the crunch of our boots on the granite-hard snow. When we came to a stop, Ramon explained what to do if we came across a bear. We should not fear unless it is crouched and ready to charge. A bear on its hind legs is just assessing the scene, deciding what to do. There is time. Back away slowly. He spoke softly, in a quiet manner, having spent many years studying bears alone. There was much of the forest in the man.

The park reserve was thick with snow. Yesterday a blizzard started when we set off in the four-wheel drive. Over the Piatra Craiului Park Reserve, sky and landscape blended seamlessly, like charcoal smudged white paper. I could not tell if dawn had broken. These were unusual April conditions; the week before in Romania the temperatures had reached 24° C, now the thermometer read -4° C and in the early hours with the chill of the wind, that felt more like -7° C. We were stopped by too much snow – despite our winter tyres – and by broken branches over the track.

Today, the scene was similar, but it was no longer snowing. It was still and quiet except for a few birds beginning to sing into the pre-dawn air. The landscape was blue tinged, forest and rock shapes still full of night. The sun had not yet crested the eastern ridge but the day was opening as though a lid was being drawn back, letting in light.

Tracking bears

Ramon took us off the path into the trees through snow two foot deep in places. I stepped into the footprints ahead of me to make the going easier. It was tiring and hot work in my many layers of clothing – two coats, gloves and hat with gaiters over my boots.

Step by step through the snow. Sometimes a footprint revealed the stream, a mere dark trickle. The glassy clink of ice, the hollow suck of trapped water, a faint gurgle – give-away signs. We managed to cross without wetting our feet and, holding onto saplings, we continued further into the forest and started to ascend the valley side.

We climbed through Norway spruce, beech and fir trees laden with snow, pausing occasionally to catch our breath. A natural clearing opened up and the slope became steeper, the snow deeper. Ramon pointed out a track made by a bear, which had slid along on its belly. He showed us the two curved cleaves of a red deer track; a male red deer in walking gait. He could tell by the size and depth in the snow, the length of the stride, the alternate hind and fore prints.

It was still dim when we reached a flat view point from where we could look out over the valley and see the mountain ridge opposite, the tree line and meadows beneath. At first, a snowy landscape can appear like a simple scene especially in early light. A neutral scene. White, dark, grey. Then features start to appear: the snow-flurried tree trunks, logs and bushes, ermine meadows, the edges of the forest, cross-hatched.

Tracking bears

We stood and surveyed the scene with binoculars and the naked eye. Eyes can play tricks in the half light. Logs take on new forms, become animals. I was convinced the incessant dancing and swaying of a branch in a draught of wind far off on the opposite side of the valley was a bear scratching itself. But it wasn’t. Dark dots in the snowfield became deer. And then I was seeing deer everywhere – deer bushes, deer shaped fallen trees, deer snow mounds. Dark, stick deer. The longer we looked the more the wood subtly seemed to shift into life. Obscure forms morphed from the forest edge, lynx-shaped, lichen textured, bear loping figments of my unreliable vision, my sleep deprived imagination. And we waited in hope, rubbing our hands, withdrawing fingers into gloves to keep them warm. Breath, smoke in the cold air.

I wanted to see an animal, I so wanted to see an animal.

The croak of two ravens sounded over the valley; there may have been a kill or carcass nearby.

Then I did see an animal, a real one at the edge of the wood, black on white, a dark, slender shape of grace. It was moving, pricking its way, ankle deep. A roe deer. Then there were three of them with sleek, long heads and large ears. Alert. On guard – or one of them was, the other two grazed.

The dark deer could easily have become a dark burrow, a hole in the snow, a silhouette, an absence. But they were real and good to see. Now I wanted to see a bear.

Ramon turned and gestured towards the hillside behind us. He wanted us to continue walking and following fresh bear tracks he’d found. He was convinced there was a bear close by. We trudged further on in the snow until we reached a tree covered rocky outcrop, a scoop out of the hillside. Ramon told us to stay back while he went on following the fresh line of tracks. He looked into the trees and backed away. Then he came back and told us that a bear was taking refuge in the trees, effectively cornered, and we needed to keep our distance.

Ramon clapped and the clap echoed around the chamber of rocks and bushes. The bear was in there waiting, listening, knowing we were there. Or was it? Had Ramon really seen a bear? The evidence was all around in the snow. I had to accept that it was there, although I struggled to believe.

Ramon hollered. His echo hung for a moment, but sound was muffled by snow on rock, snow on bush, on mountainside. Quiet, Stillness. Coldness. Waiting. In the after silence, hung a hollow absence, a could-have-been, might-have-been presence. He clapped again but the same: the after-silence in the encroaching dawn.

Bear prints

I looked down. The blue snow now sparkled like diamonds, crisp and clear – the air too was so clear. The mountainside had patches of rufus, purple and beige amongst the snow. Now the opposite slopes were sun-washed in pink light, fresh, vivid and new. It did not seem to matter that the bears weren’t to be seen.

We started going down. There were tracks everywhere, fresh tracks of bear, boar and deer. The bear tracks led into the trees across our own, bold, broad tracks, larger than my hand. Adult tracks and cub tracks. Ramon counted bears by the varying tracks – nine, ten bears had passed by recently, unobserved but leaving their mark so clearly in the snow. We were probably surrounded by bears.

Perhaps it is the wind carrying our scent, our voices or rustling clothing, the cold or heat which causes wildlife to retreat and hide. Sometimes elusive wildlife stays elusive.

The sky was now a clear, empty blue. The air was still and cold but the icicles on the branches dripped, the forest clicked and cracked as the ice and snow began to thaw. A chaffinch started singing and a chiffchaff chaffed and chiffed from a birch within the forest. The morning was under way and the valley and mountains shone in the magnificent light.

Time in the Limestone Hills

This article was first published in summer 2018 in Toast online magazine.

The Cabin

On a hillside in the old region of Quercy in southern France surrounded by oaks and maples stands our little cabin. It is handmade from rough hewn logs. There are two small solar panels for lighting and water comes from a tank and needs to be filtered for drinking. It’s rustic and simple and here it buzzes with sound; the forest is singing.

I have come here with my partner to spend a few weeks immersed in the natural world. From the top of the hill behind our cabin scrub and woodland stretch for mile upon mile with hardly a building in sight. We sit on a plateau between two rivers that snake through an undulating limestone landscape, carving steep-sided, honey-coloured cliffs and leaving broad meanders. If we walk south for a mile or two we’ll descend into the valley of the Lot. Walking north takes us to the Cele, one of its tributaries.

The River Lot and Cliff Houses

It’s mid-July, dry and hot, and the cicadas sing all day. At times it is deafening. To me the song sounds like a thousand maracas or, when they are just starting up, the winding rasp of an old-fashioned watch. By focussing on an individual song and searching carefully it is sometimes possible to spot one on a lichen and moss festooned branch, masquerading as the branch itself. Their pervasive, metronomic song is created by the contraction of a membrane in their stomachs that loses its elasticity below 22°C. This is when the insects fall silent, as they do in the evening and when it rains. We have caught them at their summer peek. They spend most of their four-year life-cycle below ground, only coming to the surface for a few weeks to attract a mate with their song and reproduce. The landscape holds many secrets.

At first I was overwhelmed by a sort of synaesthsia; the sounds, textures and colours; the buzzing, humming, chirping and flashing of the myriad insects and other life swept me up and enveloped me.

This place is an entomologist’s dream; bush crickets, long-horn beetles and butterflies abound. Swallowtails float drowsily over the cabin glade. White admirals flit between dappled oak and sunlit woodland floor.

Sketchpad

When evening comes its progress is marked by the emergence of various animals. First come dragonflies patrolling the glade on their late shift. Then, at about nine-thirty in the evening, stag beetles emerge. The males look comical as they fly upright, horns held aloft, wing cases spread, veering randomly though the air in search of a female. As night encroaches the bats take flight, then we hear nightjars and finally tawny owls.

“Here I have time to think, time to watch spiders build webs as I lie in my hammock”

Here I have time to think, time to watch spiders build webs as I lie in my hammock, time, simply, to be. I wander through the rough sun-bleached grasses and contemplate the changes the landscape has seen. There are layers of history, prehistory and deep time here.

St Cirq de Lapopie

Farming in these hills brings to mind an earlier time. Farmers work golden fields on tractors that were at their peek decades ago. The fields at home in England must once have been brimming with life as they are here, before agriculture became intensive, fields enlarged and pesticides widely used. In this part of France the fields are small and so are the villages. Some are perched on the cliffs overlooking the Lot, like the village of St. Cirq de Lapopie, once voted the most beautiful in France. It is a picturesque jumble of turrets, towers, pigeonaires and steep, winding lanes where cars cannot pass.

A deeper layer of prehistoric time lies hidden in caves beneath these limestone hills. It is a world of Palaeolithic art, images of wildlife captured by the hand of our ancestors long ago, painted on the smooth walls of caverns and passageways sculpted by underground rivers long since gone.

Dolman

We take a journey to Pech Merle, near the village of Cabrerets, the site of some of the most spectacular Palaeolithic art in the area. We have booked on to an English speaking tour which starts with a 15 minute presentation about the caves. Then we are taken down into a cavern of stalactites and stalagmites.

It is spacious and awe-inspiring. Descending from the cavern roof into the floor is a long strand of roots massed together like hair; the roots of a single oak tree, solitary in its quest for water. It is like the world tree of creation myths, branches in the heavens and roots in the underworld; we have entered an ‘other’ world.

Down here it is cool, almost cold. Apart from the rustle of clothing, the muffled slap of shoe on damp floor and the muted voices of our group, all would be a silent black stillness, a velvet darkness punctuated only by the plip of water droplets off the stalactites.We follow our guide deeper, through tunnels full of geological formations mushrooming from ceiling and floor. What must the people of 14,000 to 25,000 years ago have made of these strange, alien shapes, glimmering and alive in the light of their simple lamps? In some of the calcite accretions I see seated Buddhas, faceless, wordless figures, family groups, silently waiting, contemplating, and suspended in time. For millennia. This could be a place of deities, rock gods, a realm sacred to our ancestors long ago. It would have taken a curiosity of mind and a strong spirit for those early people to venture here.They would have been brave and experimental, secreting themselves away to leave their mark, to create. Perhaps they were young, adolescents like the two boys who accidentally rediscovered the cave in the early twentieth century, while out walking their dog.

Cave Painting by Alexi

St Cirq de Lapopie

We move on to another chamber with a horse, mammoths, bison and aurochs outlined in black, manganese oxide on the walls. There is energy and movement in the sweep of the lines that bring the animals alive. A simple dark stroke becomes the unmistakable outline of a mammoth, another becomes the curve of its tusk. Animals overlay animals as though in a dreamlike, silent herd.

Another cavern, massive boulders. The ceiling has scratches in the soft clay, a sketched tangle of entwined bison and mammoths, a mammoth morphing into a woman with pendulous breasts, a ‘mammoth-woman’. It is easy to see how rock becomes animal and animal, human here; a realm of dream beings. Dots and sinuous lines – helped by the contours of the rock itself, glacial, river-worn and pock marked over time – become broad-bellied horses, a massive aurochs, the head of a stag. The animals stand or run, leap, collide and almost bellow silent roars from beyond the walls and across the millennia.

We come to the image of a cave bear scratched cleanly on the rock as though created yesterday. Through more dark tunnels and cool shadows we arrive in a long chamber with a smooth wall on which is painted a frieze of spotted horses. Their black heads are tiny, but where one of the horses is drawn the rock is shaped just like the head and neck of a horse making the creature life-like and almost life-size. These horses, we are told, were painted 24,600 years ago.

Dots and dashes, associated with some of the paintings, are perhaps symbolic of a shamanic consciousness, of a distant magical realm. Negative hand prints, created by blowing pigment on to the rock surface, were made by both a woman and a man. And there is a footprint crystallised in calcite, frozen in time from millennia ago, left when a young man walked across the cave through a wet patch of clay.

Emerging into the light the blanket warmth of the day hits us. Near the entrance we find the tree whose roots descend through to the cavern below. From its branches we hear cicadas singing.

Back at the cabin we cook a meal and sit out into the evening. The stag beetles emerge on cue, followed by the bats and the cicadas’ song is replaced by the soft chirp of crickets. Soon after ten, from the scrub, comes a churring sound like the rhythmic purr of an engine. A nightjar. We make our way up the hill where a few tall oaks stand silhouetted against the western sky. Sunset has been and gone; now it is dusk. A solitary male nightjar sits in one of the trees like a night watchman, a sentry. He sings his soliloquy as if just for us. Then he flies scimitar-winged, low over our heads and disappears into the night.

A Volery of Wagtails

A Volery of Wagtails was first published on the City Creatures Blog in March 2018.

Brighton Clocktower

In the center of Brighton, beside the iconic nineteenth-century clock tower, stands a small solitary tree. It is an olive tree, an evergreen that retains small leathery leaves into the winter. The tree stands at a junction, especially busy during rush hour on a Friday evening in early January when the streets are lit up and lively with people returning home. Walking past, I pause and look up.

Above the traffic, telephone lines and Christmas lights crisscross the buildings and shops, and high above them in a darkening sky hangs a gibbous moon.

On the roof of Boots, our local health and beauty store, and on the ledges of the camera shop across the street, there’s a restlessness; it is as though the very buildings have become animated in sympathy with the street below. Dark dots of birds punctuate the outline of the buildings like notes on a stave. Above the human turmoil, an avian agitation starts up: the flutterings and hoverings of birds gathering at their winter roost.

I wait.

The illuminated clock on the tower marks 4:20 pm and I notice birds begin to descend to the olive tree. First just a few flutter between the rooftops and the tree. Then more and more birds come down. They dance about the tree like restless thoughts, chattering excitedly. Among snagged plastic bags in the branches, the birds congregate, a fluster of wings and tails. They are pied wagtails—small, sleek, black and white birds with a long tail that constantly flicks up and down as they move.

Amber-lit buses swing round the corner onto Queen’s Road, emptying their cargo of commuters, shoppers, buggies, and bags. Onto the street people flock, some momentarily distracted by the increasing commotion above them in the little tree. A group of girls pause and look up as they pass.

“Wow, how beautiful!” Someone exclaims. There’s talk of what the birds could be and what they’re doing. “Long tailed tits?” a woman asks.

Pied wagtails live their summer lives beside water, usually building nests among stones although they also nest in towns. In winter they often come into cities to roost in flocks of more than a hundred birds, sometimes many more. The birds in the olive tree may be from further north, having migrated south to where it’s milder. Roosting in numbers provides warmth and a degree of safety. As birds depart in the morning, they follow each other to find food. They usually feed on insects but they will seek out any edible morsel they can find in the concrete crevices of towns.

A small crowd gathers, clogging the flow of pedestrians intent on getting somewhere fast. Out come mobile phones. A Big Issue magazine seller, clad in a sheepskin trapper hat, meanders sinuously through the throng waving his magazine like a fan. The tree twitches and rustles, the white bellies of the birds are visible among the leaves.

Pied wagtails have many names, including Gypsy Bird, Penny Wagtail and Polly Dishwasher. Their association with “washer” may have arisen because they frequent rivers and water pumps where women once washed clothes, their white and black plumage suggestive of white aprons. Wagtails feature in the myths of many cultures. In Ancient Greece, they were a symbol of love and a gift from the Goddess Aphrodite. Some say they are harbingers of rain, beckoning it with their constantly wagging tails.

When the crowd disperses, I sit beneath the small tree and reflect for a while. The birds seem oblivious of me. I believe I could reach up and touch one and my boldness would not disturb the gathering. The center of the city can be an uncomfortable, harsh place for anybody, bird or mammal; a few rough sleepers have taken up residence on the steps of a nearby shop, huddled in their sleeping bags. As I gaze up into the branches and watch the birds jostling and chirping, I smile; this little tree has provided a safe haven in the midst of a hectic, noisy thoroughfare. And the birds don’t go uncared for either; someone from a nearby shop has hung a couple of birdseed fat balls in the tree.

In the city, surrounded by tarmac, concrete, glass, and steel, it is easy to feel cut off from nature. When I find wildlife thriving safely, in the most unlikely of places, I feel surprised and happy; all such encounters are wondrous. Recognizing and tuning into this life that dances and sings all around us is rewarding in itself and a joy to appreciate with strangers I meet on the street.

Clocktower and Olive Tree

The half-baked moon looks down on the clock tower, a favorite perch for a tawdry selection of feral pigeons and herring gulls in the city. The enameled portrait of Queen Victoria on its north façade looks forever east from her arched recess. A few drops of icy rain fall, causing the marble steps to glisten; the air is chilled. A woman in a canvas jacket and rucksack stands against a shop front. She tries to take a photo of the tree and the birds as they chase about it. Darkness falls and the birds settle in, quieting. They all face in the same direction, southwest, like a collection of clay pipes in a curiosity cabinet. I follow their gaze. Between the buildings where the sky is a lighter blue, the sun has set over a dark winter sea.

The Barn Owl of Baconsthorpe

This piece was first published on the Caught by the River website in March 2018.

Baconsthorpe Manor

On a cold February afternoon I stand with my partner in a ruin of crenellated walls, towers within towers and a gatehouse open to the sky. We wander the rubble fragments of centuries past and sit with the age of stones. No longer the home of landed gentry, Norfolk Horn sheep, the rhythm of loom, Baconsthorpe Castle in Norfolk is a square of crumbled walls with a moat and mere surrounded by fields, copses and damp hollows. Flint, mortar brick, ivy and nettle. Bones. Rooks and crows caw and congregate in its leafless trees. Against the fading light the gatehouse throws a solemn shadow over the grounds, a mist of teasel and dead fireweed all around.

Like a mirage on the eastern boundary of the ruins, the white shape of a barn owl appears. It’s dusk, a changing hour; barn owl time. The bird seems almost a figment of my imagination, moon powder white in the pastel landscape. It flies with such softness, each feather barbed to make no sound, to hold the air, fluid and weightless like a breath over the land. Perhaps it is companion to the phantom that haunts these ruins, the one who wanders the moat and betrays his presence by dropping stones that ripple the reflected sky of the waters. With its banshee screech echoing through the nocturnal hours it is not surprising that the barn owl was seen as a harbinger of death in earlier times.

The barn owl alights on a short wooden post – a white, twilight flame. Its head turns, listening; an alert attentive bird. It ruffles its feathers and I see clearly through binoculars its heart moon face, its understated beak, its dappled breast feathers.

Barn Owl of Baconsthorpe

I once found a dead barn owl. It lay between the cabins on Havergate Island off the Suffolk coast, a mass of sodden feathers on a hollow-eyed carcass. I felt a strong sense of loss for this fallen, lunar bird now leached of life. It must have succumbed to the harsh winter, a lack of food or the poison put down to keep the rats at bay. The out-building where it roosted was empty, with rounded, dark pellets strewn about the floor.

More recently I found a feather that looked like it belonged to a barn owl. Small, soft, fawn and teardrop-tipped, it lay in long grass beneath a ruminating autumn sky in the shadow of the South Downs, providing evidence of their presence there. I returned again and again to the site at dusk, but the owl proved elusive and I began to doubt myself. I began to search more widely. Look for rough, unimproved grasslands, look for farms with barns away from roads and be hopeful, I told myself.

I remember reading that barn owls need undisturbed places to breed – old barns are favoured but other buildings, tree hollows or cliffs holes will sometimes do. In some parts of their range, a lack of suitable nesting sites reduces their opportunity to breed. Elsewhere their habitat is in decline. They prefer to be away from roads in areas with rough grassland and a healthy vole population, although they will hunt and eat other small mammals, frogs and nestlings.

Now the owl lifts up off the post, flaps low along the edge beating the bounds. Perhaps it has a partner and potential nest site tucked away in a barn nearby. It may be winter and cold but it’s still and dry and voles will be active; the owl will probably not go hungry. We keep watch, hoping it will swoop down suddenly – talons out, head back – onto an unsuspecting prey. Silently. But it’s back on the post, waiting, its head cocked. It sits and listens, waits and listens, while we watch from a distance. With the evening encroaching it looks vulnerable in its solitude.

Now everything is amber. Between the flint walls in the fading light, there’s a new magic to the place. Shadows of the ruin elongate as the sun teeters on the tree-fringed horizon; it’s time for us to leave. We say goodbye to the ruins and the Baconsthorpe owl, wishing it success as it patrols its home among the stones beneath the enormous Norfolk skies.

Night Eyes

Night Eyes was first published on The Real Story on 22nd January 2018.

Slow Loris in Tree

He looked at me from high up in a canopy tree. The forest was tinged rose by the early evening light, but I could see the blue of his face quite clearly, like the sky’s reflection. Below him among the bare branches sat the rest of his family, eight Black Shanked Douc langurs of varying sizes, monkeys with striking faces and long, black agile legs. I was standing near the “Danger” sign on the road, looking into the forest where the monkeys were sometimes seen at dusk. Beyond, the road ascended through wilder forest where there were gaur – wild cattle – and even tigers.

The forest was shifting as I wandered back. It was like glimpsing performers in the wings of a stage, like the bustle of an event about to take place. Evening weavers stitching up fragments of forest, birds in pairs contact calling each other, frogs starting up in the swamp.

My memories are fragments of mauve and orange. Orange for the sunlight I saw when I closed my eyes, mauve for the shadows of huts silhouetted against the evening sky.

* * *

This was a few years ago. I was staying in Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area in Eastern Cambodia, helping a PhD student, Caroline, carry out research into slow lorises. Two species of these small nocturnal primates can be found in Cambodia and little is known about their ecology; Caroline’s first job was to see if there were any living in the conservation area. The plan was to search the forests, set live traps and eventually radio-collar any lorises caught.

I’d only ever seen them in a zoo, huddled in a dark corner to escape the light – endearing creatures with large, round, forward facing eyes and a body as fluffy as a cuddly toy. Sadly, slow lorises are in decline. They are traded illegally as exotic pets, their body parts increasingly used in traditional medicine, their habitat lost as Cambodia develops.

Feeding on insects, fruit, tree gum and small animals, lorises move deliberately through the trees. Their silence and slowness helps conceal them from predators, but they are not always so slow. The Vietnamese call them “monkeys that move with the wind” and in Indonesia they are “Malu malu” which means “shy one.”

Forests and their wildlife draw me – they always have. Many years ago I studied zoology at university. Now, at a crossroads in my life, I questioned whether I could work as a researcher, whether the scientific approach was right for me.

* * *

On the first night at the field station we walked out along the road looking for nocturnal life, lighting our way with red head lamps. Red light is invisible to many nocturnal animals but it picks up their eye shine, the light reflected off the tapetum lucidum layer at the back of their eyes that helps them see at night. In the darkness lorises’ eyes appear as two large round orange spots, set very close together.

We walked west, serenaded by the frogs in the ditches and the cicadas in the trees. The road was wet, it had rained a little, but the rainy season was yet to come. The sound of cars on the dark road had us hiding in shadows with our lamps turned off. Caroline was uneasy; there was still a lawlessness about the place.

The field station was a series of blue huts. When evening fell, the verandah of our hut would fill with insect life that fuzzed around the lights. There was a large rhinoceros beetle, with a protruding snout, that would hiss irritably if disturbed. The tockey gecko would appear from its corner, the same blue as the hut walls, flicking its tongue in and out while patrolling its patch.

Sometimes rats scuttled our room at night. In the toilet at the back of the huts lived a frog with her egg sac.

At the edge of the grounds stood a little wooden house on stilts like a bird table. It contained a jar and a stick of incense. I was told that it was a spirit house, put there by the local Bunong people who believe the forest is sacred and full of spirits.

* * *

Our days started early, 6am. We trekked into the bamboo forest to cut transects, hacking our way with machetes, marking our route with pink ribbons and clambering over occasional tree roots as we thrashed through the sharp, spiny undergrowth. Old bamboo trunks would splinter and break, spilling viscous black liquid over us. The forest crunched and oozed with decay. And there were leeches everywhere, keen for moisture and a taste of blood. Like everything else here they awaited the rains. Discomfort also came with minute stinging flies that tormented us as we carried out the tasks of the day; Caroline taking our GPS coordinates while I made notes and took compass readings.

The air was so humid it was like wading through honey. Afternoon and silence rolled out along the road ahead as I wandered back. Sometimes a bird of prey would perch on a twisted dead tree, waiting. It would launch itself languidly into the air as I drew nearer, the heat heavy on its shoulders. The road seemed to breathe out a haze, the forest to swell. There were few sounds, just the fumblings of a few birds in the undergrowth. Perhaps a kingfisher would flap across the road ahead in flashes of brown and white. Come evening the pools beside the road would come alive with croaking frogs, but by day the swamp just quivered with their subtle, hidden movements.

The forest looked so different from the outside, so dense when we were in it. I wanted to enter it quietly, to immerse myself in its complexity. But I was a visitor, laden with equipment, there to measure, map and record what I saw.

Later I would make lists of the wildlife I had seen – purple heron, green billed malkoba, white browed fantail…

Each evening Caroline and I would sit on the blue verandah and listen to the moaning forest, wondering when the rains would arrive. We would spray our boots and socks with cockroach repellent in the hope of warding off the leeches. Then our guide from the local Bunong tribe would appear, machete in hand.

“Sous-dey,” he would say awkwardly and then smile; he was learning Khmer too. We would set off in search of Dok gle, the Bunong word for loris.

Sometimes evidence of forest elephants halted progress. If we came upon dung, our guide would assess how fresh it was and which way the animal was travelling – fresh dung saw us turn back. Elephants would charge the white light of our hand torch.

One night we ventured out along a different trail. We had to hurry to keep up with the guide and when he stopped suddenly we ran into the back of him. A coiled snake lay on the path, fresh green as an apple. We set off again a little more vigilant, stopping once more beneath a tangle of branches. A sleeping bird the size of a pigeon, sat rock still, feet locked to a branch above our heads. I thought if I reached up I could pluck this little bird, so innocent, so vulnerable. We saw him the next night and the night after that in the same place, on the same branch.

On our night searches fire-flies lit up the vegetation like Christmas lights. I could just make out the silhouettes of the trees against the star-filled sky. The lorises were proving elusive, but we sometimes saw a forest civet high up in a tree, eyes gleaming gold, or the occasional mouse deer, a faint presence amongst the ground vegetation, eyes shining like the emerald blue-green of an inland sea, a forest in a cave.

Black drongo, greater coucal, common palm civet, fluorescent fungi…

Every morning I did my washing and hung it out to dry on a washing line that fenced an area of rough wasteland strewn with giant logs, relics of the days of logging in the area. Caroline decided that it would be interesting to carry out a small mammal survey there, a project we could undertake during daylight hours. So we baited traps and laid them out among the logs in a random arrangement and first the traps yielded a house mouse and then an unknown mouse. I was going to release it but Caroline decided to keep it as a specimen to be properly identified in case it was new for the area. She swung the bag containing the mouse around before hitting it on the stone step. The coldness of the act disturbed me and lingered in my mind.

Great spotted eagle owl, flying squirrel, unknown mouse, unease…

Our nocturnal searches continued. We ventured further out, to our guide’s village where he had seen Dok gle. Beside the forest on the way to the village I noticed another spirit house and wanted to check it out but feared being left behind. No one else seemed to notice it. I told myself to keep focused on the project and followed the others through the huts where the villagers were gathered around the flickering blue light of a television screen. I wanted to slip away from the throng, melt into the forest and tread by moonlight, firefly light.

* * *

As the days and nights passed we slipped further into a nocturnal rhythm. Night stirred me from my diurnal, mammal rest. The darkness was civet smooth, peopled with eyes, peopled with forest spirits. Caroline showed me photos of lorises on sale in the marketplace, dead lorises strapped to wooden crosses as though crucified, shrunken skin and bones, small fragments of forest sold as traditional remedies. In one photo a loris was hiding its face in its loris hands, too much the world. Somehow I felt I understood its need to hide.

Measuring tape, lamps, batteries, pink markers, GPS…

I was becoming weary. Every evening I took to wandering the road westward alone, beyond our pink markers, beyond where the road curved, and looking back I could no longer see the station.

One evening I walked further to the river and stood on the bridge. My mind swam with unwelcome thoughts about the research and the fate of the forest and its animals, about how we treat animals as objects to be studied, sold, toyed with, tortured or eaten.

The river said nothing. It stretched wide, a gaping mouth in a permanent yawn, speechless. Beige river, gently, silently shifting the world. A monkey of the same beige stood in amongst the shadows of a riverside tree like a sentry, a presence hardly there. He was a glimpse of another life so like my own, two eyes of the forest looking out from behind a screen of leaves. Who is behind the screen? Who belongs? He was a macaque, dull brown and unremarkable, not used to humans. Like the langurs he stood watching me before vanishing into the forest shadows.

I could have drunk the night through my eyes. Then, after three weeks of searching and out on a new trail, high up in the branches there was a glimpse of eyes like flickering coals. Then they vanished. Tapetum red? Orange? I stared with disbelief. Then we saw her, reaching out her soft limbs along the branch, first one limb and then another, moving swiftly as the night folded her into the darkness. We swung our head lamps across the canopy and picked out another loris in the dim red light. I felt a mixture of excitement, joy and relief; they were small and far off but we had found what we’d been searching for.

* * *

After finding the lorises I felt different. The scientific scaffolding and academic framework in my mind began to crumble. My mind jangled with technical words – transect, taxonomy, triangulation – that had distanced me from the forest. The measurements, the cataloguing, the lists – the dry scientific books and papers now seemed less important. Perhaps it was enough for me just to be there, to experience the forest and not worry about the research. Perhaps that was enough.

Thich Naht Han, the Buddhist monk, says there is no separate self, that we are all interconnected. “When we want to understand something, we cannot just stand outside and observe it. We have to enter deeply into it and be one with it to really understand.” I needed to connect, to relate to nature in a way beyond that of my analytical mind, to somehow lose myself in it. I wondered how the Bunong people felt about the forest that was sacred to them. They were in the forest and the forest was in them. Then I thought of the lorises and their plight. Would they become another species labelled, examined, monitored – all for their own good? I began to feel the weariness of failure. I realised that scientific research was not for me.

But it wasn’t failure, more a transitional moment, a crossing over.

The following evening I wandered the quiet cambered road that wound through the forest. An open truck hurried past full of people and plastic sheeting for the rain that was due. Overdue. I closed my eyes to the sun, orange gold.

* * *

The next day the rains came. Water thundered down on the metal roof of our hut and cascaded on to the dry earth below. Gazing up at the mauve shadows I filled my cup from the water that fell off the corrugated roof, drank, and looked out at the forest, vibrant, mysterious and steaming beneath a nebulous sky. Soon it would be time for me to leave. I made my way along the road hoping to catch a glimpse of the langurs one last time. About me I saw kingfishers, hawks, mushrooming canopies, layer behind layer, tier upon tier of greens in the after-rain glow of a setting sun. I walked past the danger sign and the dead gnarled tree to where the langurs often gathered. They were not to be seen and the tree was empty, but the forest sang with life and mystery. Things would have to be as they were for now.

A Seasonal Serenade

A Seasonal Serenade was first published on the South Downs Farmland Bird Initiative blog on 18th January 2018.

There are highlights to every walk and my transect for the SDFBI is no exception. On a May morning I walk the path beside Lag Wood just south of Hassocks to reach the start point of my transect square at an old red bridge. At this time in spring the path is fringed with greater stitchwort, herb robert and a profusion of cow parsley while the wood rings with the songs of great tits and song thrushes. When I reach the bridge, I cross over it to the edge of Bonny’s Wood and Clayton Burial Ground. Each year, I linger here expectantly and I’m usually not disappointed. From deep in the vegetation at the edge of the wood a beautiful, melodic song bursts forth, the song of a nightingale. It is a delight to be serenaded.

Doing bird survey

Bonny’s Wood is private. From the footpath, I can see mature oaks, hazel and field maple along with plenty of hawthorn, holly and honeysuckle; vegetation cover that nightingales need. The wood is described as an ancient semi-natural woodland and has been managed sensitively and traditionally in a similar way to Butcher’s Wood – owned by The Woodland Trust – and Lag Wood nearby. Together they create a mosaic of woodland and fields that benefits wildlife.

A male nightingale will sing both at night – as its name suggests – and early in the day to proclaim a territory. He will sing at night to attract a female returning on her nocturnal migration from southern West Africa. When she arrives and has laid eggs he will continue to sing by day but no longer by night and he’ll reduce his whistle songs. Nightingales tend to return to the same nest site each year.

As I continue walking the transect, past the burial ground and into sheep fields and farmland, I often encounter a yellowhammer or two hearing their little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese song before I see the bright yellow of heads as they sit on top of the hawthorn hedges singing. I might glimpse a whitethroat flitting in and out of cover or hope to see a few swallows twittering over the farm buildings. Overhead a buzzard may circle on the rising thermals as the heat of the day increases. On into a pocket of woodland there is a strong chance I’ll hear or see chiff-chaffs, robins, treecreepers, nuthatches along with thrushes, tits, sparrows, corvids and tits. Out of the wood again there will always be gulls high over the fields and the odd pheasant strutting along a field boundary.

yellowhammers in hedgerow

It is always a pleasure to walk the transect, but the highlight for me is hearing the nightingale song. I shall be sad if I fail to hear one on my SDFBI transect walk this year as I know they are in decline.

Dawn Chorus in the City

This piece, Dawn Chorus in the City, first appeared on the City Creatures blog in 2017.

It’s 6:25 am and I can’t sleep. A faint twittering is audible so I get up to investigate. I open the living room window at the back of the flat and gaze into the night. A fleece of low mist hangs between layers of deep blue. Jupiter, bright and bold, sits above the star Spica in the southern sky. It’s cold, but not that cold for February in Brighton, and very still. I make myself a cup of tea and climb out on to the balcony where I sit and look westwards over the sleeping city.

Dawn from my Balcony
Dawn from my Balcony

The darkness is textured with song; the night is singing. I pick out the notes of a blackbird coming from the garden below, churring and melodic with a flourish of rusty nails. Blackbirds are one of the first songsters of the dawn chorus. Up early to feed on worms that have come to the surface at night, they sing while they wait for enough light to forage.

I settle, wrapped in my dressing-gown, and start to notice the cooing of woodpigeons several doors down. Somewhere closer, the syrupy song of a robin starts up. I think of a red cherry liqueur poured from an ornate bottle, sweet and intoxicating.

Blackbirds, robins, woodpigeons, wrens—there’s a certain order to when the birds start singing. Thrushes, blackbirds, and robins are usually the first, beginning some forty minutes before sunrise.

Blackbird
Blackbird

There’s a pair of blackbirds living in our garden and the garden next door. Both gardens are a little neglected and ours has a group of ivy-clad sycamores, ash, and damson trees at the end, which could be described as a miniature wood. This wood hosts an understory of elder bushes and is overgrown with cleavers and nettles in spring. I’ve found children’s bikes and beer bottles among the piles of builder’s rubble. Somewhere in the confusion of sprawling vegetation lives a family of foxes. I’ve watched them sunbathing on mild, sunny days this winter and heard squabbling cubs and the vixen howling at night. It’s the time of year when she’ll kick out her youngsters to fend for themselves. There’s no sound of the foxes now. They are probably out in the streets, skulking around the bins somewhere.

The chasm darkness of the garden draws me in. The inky blue of night has faded to a purple-grey and the layer of mist has dispersed. I can now make out a fringe of snowdrops at the tree line where the mini-wood begins. If I lean forwards, I can see the gibbous moon, a precariously tipped cup, and below it the red light of the i360, Brighton’s latest tourist attraction,162 metres high.

On the hillside, a mile away to the west, tiers of Edwardian houses sit like keys on a keyboard, bright buttons of light. With the orange glow of streetlights, the scene glimmers like the illuminated controls of a cockpit ready for take off. A train, punctuated with glowing carriages, snakes its way steadily out of the city into the early hours. Commuter traffic hums in the distance.

My eyes adjust to the grayscale gloom. The shadows turn to soot blue, maroon, deep bronze, and purple. The branches of the ash tree look dull russet in this early light, the dawn’s subdued pallet. I hear the blackbird’s metallic notes, snip snip snip, as it snips the dark thread of night.

From the top of a beech tree in the park, beyond the gardens, a song thrush sings his churring soliloquy. He has a persistent, enquiring tone, as though he’s eager to converse. Poignant phrase after poignant phrase. A magpie nearby interjects with a guttural clack-clack-clack every now and again; the sound of snapping scissors or machine gun fire. The “clackle” moves as the bird swoops restlessly from one side of the garden to the other. I crane to catch a glimpse of its white feathers in the gloom.

At the back of the lawn is a half-dead sycamore festooned with lichen. I casually refer to it as “the Magpie’s Tree” because a pair of magpies built a nest in its crown last year. The nest is noticeable in February with the tree free of leaves. I often see the pair hanging about it, perhaps with the view to nesting there again. The tree’s branches are often a perch for collared doves and occasionally a few goldfinches alight in its top-most branches. Flocks of starlings chatter their twisted songs there before passing on.

Magpie Nest
Magpie Nest

Herring gulls float over like ghosts, heading north from their roost sites to feed on fields and the rubbish tip at the edge of the city. Jab jab jab. Jab jab jab. Some circle and scold with brash yar yar yars. Later they’ll fill the morning with their harsh cries; they’re already seeking nest sites on the red-tiled roof tops of Victorian houses.

Birds may sing at any time of day, but they sing most often in the early morning and at dusk, taking their cue from the change in light. Sounds travel further when it is quiet and still. Male birds sing to attract a mate and to proclaim their territories. Each bird has its own unique variation of song that can be identified by other birds. Singing together allows them to get to know their neighbours and learn of any new birds in the vicinity.

I am reminded of the solar eclipse of 1999, when I stood in a field in northern France. The earth fell into a mini-night as the moon bit into the sun and the sky darkened. I remember the quiet as the few minutes of night endured and all the birds ceased singing. When the sun’s rays returned it was like a quickened dawn and the birds started up a “day-dawn chorus” with a few tentative twitterings.

Here in the garden, the sun is gathering strength. Jupiter has disappeared, absorbed into a flat, pink sky.

A wren contact-calls, tac tac tac. Another wren breaks into a shrill song two doors down. Now a chirrup chirrup chirrup–the chiseled phrases of a song thrush.

Another train heads out of the city—a striped coral snake. This time bright flares spark from the line.

It’s 7:00am and the moan of traffic becomes keener. I can hear a bus rumbling down the hill beyond the other side of the house. A new song starts up close by, a scratchy, fluty, bubbling song. The seesaw song spills out into the ascending dawn. Rolled and tossed in the half-light, it belongs to a blackcap. I imagine him skulking in the elder bushes with his little black skullcap and pulsating throat, unseen even in daylight. Blackcaps feed on insects and spiders in spring. Now they will take any berries they can find, when it’s light enough to forage. In the lowest layer of sound, the woodpigeons’ comforting coos are a constant.

Blackcap
Blackcap

The feral pigeons will be on the move soon. They hang out a few doors down where the walls are covered in pigeon spikes and bird droppings.

The blackcap’s song is louder now and more persistent; he pauses between songs to listen to his neighbours. At this hour, the mosaic of territories mapped by song overlays our world of boxes and barriers, our buildings, cars and gardens like a tremulous quilt. Outwards across the city it extends, a twinkling resplendent constellation of songs.

Churr churr churr
clackle clackle
snip snip snip
Churr churr churr
churr churr churr chirrup churr

Hearing birdsong is refreshing. There’s also something a little subversive and liberating about being up before dawn, when others are still asleep. It is a pleasure to sit song-washed and soothed in the cool dawn air, immersed in a wildlife phenomenon that is often so peripheral to our lives. Hearing the birds greeting the dawn and each other, I think of how I will soon greet my own neighbours. We are all—like the birds—woven into the vibrant fabric of the city.

I return to the bedroom and open the curtains. In the east, a gilt sky burns behind the chimney pots.

Night Birds

This piece, Night Birds, first appeared on Caught by the River in 2016.

I have in my hand a talisman, the small gently hooked bill of a Manx shearwater, bleached white by the sun. I found it on the small island of Skokholm, off the coast of Pembrokeshire, among the carcasses strewn archaeopteryx-like over the bare ground. The shearwaters were the victims of gulls, caught while returning to their burrows. To see these elusive birds – and storm petrels, their smaller cousins – you must venture out in the dead of night.

Skokholm Coast
Skokholm Coast

Skokholm is an island reserve, important for seabirds and other wildlife. It is about a mile long and half a mile wide and is owned by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. Two wardens live on the island for most of the year and in Summer it is possible to stay as a visitor.

On a July evening with night encroaching we gathered outside the cottages. Richard, one of the wardens, was taking us in search of the night birds of the island. A cool blue settled, I could see far into the dusk, gradations of blue ascending to a littoral of stars. It was warm, balmy and still. About me I could make out our group of sixteen people. We were advised to keep our torches turned off to save our night vision. The crescent moon hung like a shimmering horn in the west. It would drop low before they came ashore; they are birds of blanket darkness.

Storm petrels are the smaller of the two, one weighs no more than a dozen pennies and would fit like a purse in the palm of your hand. They breed in the rocky cliffs of Skokholm, home to a fifth of Europe’s population. Manx shearwaters have burrows further inland, also returning under the cover of darkness. Coming ashore they must survive the onslaught of hungry gulls. The area littered with their carcasses in the middle of the island, we named “the killing fields”.

Dead Manx Shearwater
Dead Manx Shearwater

Our party set off along the track through this open area of bracken. At Quarry Point we turned our torches on. The path was friable, slippery underfoot and white painted stones marked the route. I put out my hand to steady myself on an overhang of old red sandstone dusted with lichen the colour of turmeric. I found a seat among the rocks, a sort of rock sofa that looked as though it had been deliberately carved for watching the scene below. It felt comfortable and intimate on our perch on the quarry side, the bowl of darkness below like a stage-set, washed gently by a rolling tide. On a knuckle of rock to the South the lighthouse blinked white and red.

Skokholm Quarry
Skokholm Quarry

Richard told us once again to turn out our lights and stay quiet. We sat in silence and listened. Storm petrels have a strange call we were told; imagine a fairy coughing, a faint, throaty sound. I could hear many sounds – hums, groans and whispers, the cliff side shifting a little, stirring to life as the night drew on. Stars brightened and the constellation of Scorpio rose in the southern sky. Richard swept his search-light over the rocks. We waited. Then a few small birds – like night swallows or bats – fluttered nervously through the beam, white rumps flashing. They disappeared into dark crevices in the rock face. So quiet, so unobtrusive; there was no growling or coughing, no sound I could identify as a “fairy cough”.

Folklore has it that they are the souls of dead sailors, sea captains who mistreated their crew now doomed to haunt the seas forever. English speaking sailors in the nineteenth century called them Mother Carey’s Chickens. Mother Carey was the sea, cruel and threatening. To me they are timid, ethereal creatures, wanderers of the oceans; banished to the hours of darkness on land.

A soft salt breeze wafted in off the sea.

More birds fluttered into the cliffs like restless thoughts. The night was now a heavy blackness. We waited a while longer before ascending out of the quarry and heading back to the cottages. I lingered at the back of the group and turned off my torch through the killing fields. Then the eerie cackle of manx shearwaters become audible all around. Haunting and plaintive, the sound of a surreal night. Beneath our feet, a subterranean world of burrows. Overhead, black bird shapes eclipsed the stars then came to earth with a thud about us, some in the bracken, some on the path. I accidentally stumbled into one. It fluttered clumsily over my feet. I turned on my torch and it cowered and fumbled, a dazed, oily bird in the beam like a furry slipper. Then it stumbled apologetically into a bed of sea campion and bracken to find its burrow. As I made my way back the tail of the milky way bridged the sky in a cascade of stars.

A Fragment of Forest

This piece, A Fragment of Forest, first appeared in Earthlines magazine in July 2014.

The ceiba tree, tall and straight. Its steel-grey trunk towers high above the fringes and humid darkness of the forest and fingers spidery branches, furred with epiphytes, into the sky. This sacred tree, the Central World Tree or Yaaxchl of the Maya, links the many planes of heaven and earth. Souls of the dead ascend the mythical ceiba to dwell in heaven in its branches. Some believe the tree harbours deities. Bats hideout in the roots and feed on the ceiba’s aromatic flowers at night; a living link to the underworld. Eagles roost in the branches, wedded to the celestial realm. The ceiba stands majestic and alone like a guard. We pass by and enter the forest on a path towards its heart.

Ceiba Tree
Ceiba Tree

Listen.

Late afternoon and the rainforest orchestra is resonant, a million jaws and claws at work in wood, cellulose, leaf and bark. Monkey, toucan, nut, seed. Drip tip, toxin, thorn, sap. Something tips the ambience to its edge as sharp as saw, as fragile as uncertainty. I gaze at the intricate ganglia of roots to shoots tangled overhead in a cross-hatch of angles and tensions, the ribcage of entwined lianas, the silhouetted canopy etched into a be-slumbering sky. Greens of every shade pervade, emerald, olive, lime, jade with purples and reds, the stained tips of bromeliads, the brilliance of a heliconia flower. Sounds cascade, the many voices of the forest suffuse this “place of voices” so named by the Itza Maya. Rustlings, buzzings, whirrings, sawings – a dense metabolism at work, the workings of a forest alchemy. We pass through seams of sound, wander beneath the leafy garments of trees hung out, wrung out, leant over and swaying with the buoyant bodies of epiphyte, fern and palm. The dark smells of earth hang in the early evening air. Background murmurings are punctuated by the bubbling calls of birds returning unseen to roost and then by the brash rustle and thrash of spider monkeys brachiating along their highways in the tree tops. I am entranced.

We are at large in the world of Tikal in El Peten, Guatemala. It is a place of expectation and hesitation, a place of layers, mystery, but also danger. Some tourists were mugged here last month and one is warned to be wary when walking alone. I carry with me an unease that began when I first arrived in the country. Beneath the veneer of tourism babble, weeds of corruption and violence grow rank. But the ruins of Tikal echo with a deeper voice. This evening, I am very slightly on edge, hesitant, but relieved to be away from the tourist throng of crowds and buses, and excited to be once again close to nature.

It is the intricate nature of rainforests that appeals to me, the vibrancy, the puzzle and the living, breathing life. To glimpse the unexpected, a lizard darting here, a squabble of birds flecking their colours in the branches there; surprising a boa constrictor in a contortion of roots and having to inch ones way past. Even the discomfort has its place, the sweat bees and mosquitoes, the humidity and heat are all part of the experience.

Tikal is a deserted Mayan city state which fell into decline over a thousand years ago. At the peak of its prominence, grand temples, palaces, causeways and stelae were built and the land was deforested and used intensively for agriculture. The Maya created pyramids and carved stelae to represent sacred mountains and trees. Around 950AD, after the civilization collapsed quite suddenly, probably due to drought, the city fell into ruin and was eventually reclaimed by rainforest. It was never forgotten though, and by the 1850s was rediscovered and documented by archaeologists. Now it is a destination for thousands of visitors each year from all over the world. However there are some Mayan descendants who will not visit at all, believing that the spirits of their ancestors roam the ruins.

An agouti pricks its way across the path, hesitates beside a puddle then disappears into a tangle of darkness.

Walking along a causeway we come upon leaf cutter ants carrying their clipped green cargo along miniature highways. Lines of bobbing ants ascend and descend trees on cleanly swept trails, trails that radiate from the underground cities where they compost and tend their gardens. The causeway becomes filled with pink light, the evening pregnant now with the potential of night. After a few minutes I hear a noise, more like a vibration than something audible, coming from my left. It is like feline purring, a soft tinnitus, another sound in this place of voices. A fragment of the forest’s heart splinters off and a tiny hummingbird comes into view unlocked from its own chasm of sound, beating within its own silent bubble.

A coil of memory, recalling a poem by D. H. Lawrence, spools out in my mind,

‘Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.’

The bird hangs needle sharp, chest out, suspended in a brief blur of wings, threading the air. No brilliance here, more like a moth it hovers, patiently in the half light. But, there’s something misplaced, unravelled, something lost and found in the single, graceful poise of this tiny bird fluttering like an off key note against some invisible membrane.

I feel privileged to be caught in a moment with this bird. When the Sun seeks the Moon, says Mayan legend, it becomes a hummingbird. I feel like the moon, feel as though the bird has a message from another world just for me. The moment passes and the White Bellied Emerald is gone, disappeared into the gloom.

The trees thin and I glimpse ruins between their trunks, temples of stone lifted up, clothed in pelts of damp moss, sung with the lament of age, each a hunched beast, shoulders above the heads of forest trees. The Great Plaza opens out, grand in its grey garb and flanked by undergrowth and a mottling of trees; figs, cercropias and milk trees festooned with orchids and bromeliads. I feel reverent and circle each temple, clambering steps to sit and watch the scene as evening hangs expectantly. The stones, pock-marked and patterned with grey lichen, are losing the warmth of the day. In the trees, pendulous basket-like nests sway at the ends of branches that rustle with the comings and goings of Montezuma’s Oropendula birds, all liquid melodic calls and flashes of brilliant yellow tail feathers as the colony tries to settle for the night.

Temple at Tikal
Temple at Tikal

As the light dims we leave the Plaza and wander away from the path towards a temple glade, following sounds deep as thunder, the plaintive, rasping bellow from the male of a troupe of howler monkeys traversing the canopy. They are loud lords of the forest, calling at dawn and dusk with voices that can be heard for miles around. Soon I see seven black howlers looping limb by limb through the branches overhead, their long prehensile tails wrapped snake-like around branches as they pause to feed on leaves or fruit. We listen and watch quietly from a distance. They feed noisily, food debris raining down to the forest floor, in a typical domestic scene. Howler monkeys are vegetarian, active by day and at home in the treetops beneath the roof of the sky. Come nightfall, when they have finished feeding and the males have quietened their twilight howls, they will sleep on a bed of leafy branches, males, females and babies all in a peaceful group together.

Monkeys live above humans, close to the “heavens” in the trees and for this reason they are seen as a kind of sacred people by the Maya. There are monkey deities associated with dance, music, writing and sculpture. According to the sixteenth century Popol Vuh creation myth, there were once two brothers, Hunbatz and Hunchouen, who were talented dancers and artists. But they were envious of their younger brothers, the Hero Twins, who defeated the gods of darkness and death. One day, Hunbatz and Hunchouen took the twins into the forest to hunt birds, with the intention of harming them. They climbed a tree, but the tree sensed their evil intentions and began to grow. It grew up so tall that Hunbatz and Hunchouen could not get down. As they struggled in the branches their loin cloths came loose and turned into tails; they both became monkeys, one a spider monkey, the other a howler monkey. The Hero Twins watched from below as the monkeys shook the tree raining debris down. They were so alarmed that they ran to fetch their grandmother and returned with a flute and drum to calm the agitated monkeys. Hunbatz and Hunchouen became entranced by the music, descended from the trees and began to dance. The Hero Twins and their grandmother laughed in amusement at their dancing antics. This made the monkeys feel humiliated so they climbed back up to the treetops to escape the laughter, and live there to this day. The Maya act out this myth at festivals during which men dress, dance and make mischief. It reminds them not to act immorally or harbour malice.

The deep bellow of the male howler monkey sounds like a call of grief. Their voice, melancholic eyes and languid gait have led to them to be associated with the underworld, the realm of the dead. We are intrigued by their similarity to us, we see something of ourselves in them with their range of emotions, their intelligence, compassion and bonding. Many people are grief-stricken to see a monkey killed, it is like a child dying.

I remember a few years ago in some other forest place, I would walk out along the dirt road to wait for monkeys at dusk to appear out of the forest. Usually they came, Black Shanked Douc langurs, to rest high up in some tall tree before nightfall, holding dominion over the forest. There was something in the way they boldly looked at me, not staring just looking, with their blue-grey faces and curious knowing eyes, that made me feel a humble sense of kinship.

Listen.

The mood has changed at the temple glade. There is a clamour and black branches are sent into confusion as a dispute breaks out between the dark shapes of the troupe. A monkey chaos unfolds above, surprising us with its violence and aggression. I hold my breath and we step back as the dispute escalates. Suddenly one of the troupe falls and hits the forest floor with a thud just in front of us. The impact breaks the fabric between the wild and human world. We find ourselves involved. A monkey has fallen like a banished god; but there is no music, dancing or laughter.

Conflicting emotions arise in me. My instinct is to go to help, but apprehension holds me back. Here is a wild animal and wildness is unpredictable. The monkey lies motionless on the forest floor. Is it badly hurt by the fall? Is it dead? What could have happened up there to cause this? Howler monkeys are naturally peaceful animals and disputes are rare and quickly resolved. I wrestle with the question of whether to intervene or whether to allow nature to take it’s course.

Decisions are made and we call a guard, who comes to the glade. As he approaches the monkey it stirs and we see that it is not alone; a black ball of fur, a baby, lies helpless in the leaf litter. The guard takes control. He picks up the baby, which hangs limply in his arms, and carries it away. Clearly shaken, the young female monkey slinks off into the undergrowth to deal with her wounded self and her loss. She disappears before we know what to say. So we say nothing, and our pause hangs open like a wound of silence ringing around the forest walls.

A Fragment of Forest
A Fragment of Forest

I feel uneasy. When is it wrong to intervene with all our human ways of fixing things?

We have to leave, so we head away reluctantly with our uncertainties and sadness. We talk a bit as we hurry back, then walk in silence through the forest as the day shift winds down and the night crew tunes up to take over. We tread the limestone causeway, worn to a shine with centuries of use, the forest voices humming with a persistent rhythm from the inky gloom around us; a chorus of frogs, crickets, cicadas and other anonymous singers crackling the darkness. If we could see the sounds, they would glisten like a sky of stars.

It is dusk when we pass the old ceiba, reaching its one arm high up into the night, holding it’s place within the many tiers of things. The guards shut the gates, the murmur of sounds like a restless river continues to lap at the forest edge as we are shut out of this other world of the wild, wild garden. In darkness we find our palapa and settle into our hammocks as the night folds over the forest in velvet calm.

We never find out what happened to either of the monkeys, the mother who slunk off or the baby taken briskly away by the forest guard. We enquire at the reserve information point the next day and contact a local wildlife rescue organisation by phone and email. There is no information. We wait to hear but no news comes.

I feel a sense of belonging, an archaic memory, when visiting places once civilized but now reclaimed by the wild, now held by the forest within its layers of memory. We pass through places and make tenuous relationships with them, experience brief encounters, glimpse fragments of a much bigger picture. There is much, much more. We are guests, it seems, in another world, a natural world, just passing through.