10 September 2009

Maverick alone

Bob Johnson, Delilah and Miranda before the last-named was left on her own

Miranda’s life in our midst had a difficult start. She was mistrustful of people, to the point that she would baulk at approaching humans even at feeding time. You had to drop the grain on the ground hoping that the other hens would have their fill before the last morsel had gone. Moreover, she was the victim of bullying among her three peers. María’s days were over when Miranda arrived, but the remaining two - Bob Johnson and Delilah - showed Miranda no kindness at the onset. Pecking was merciless, particularly when the unfortunate newcomer ventured near the feeder. We were worried about her prospects of survival. 
What an irony, therefore, that Miranda should now be our only surviving hen. I cannot remember the exact circumstances of the last two birds’ demise, except for the lack of evidence that the fox had played any part in it. I can vouch for the peaceful death of Bob Johnson and María since I personally gave them humane burial in our north field. More recently, Delilah was seen puffed up and not herself for weeks before her eventual disappearance. Had the fox been involved we would most likely have found a trail of feathers in the place of Delilah’s apprehension, but no feathers were seen. Only the surprising fact that, before our eyes, the hen community had been reduced to the lone presence of Miranda. 
She cuts a dignified figure going about her daily business of scraping for food around the hen court. She doesn’t venture into the fields anymore, as she once did as part of a trio. She doesn’t trespass into our garden either. But conversely she is more confident with humans now, and she doesn’t hesitate to run towards one of us when food is being proffered. And, of course, she stubbornly adheres to her unhenly habit of sleeping in her nest, rather than on the perch, a most annoying practice she introduced when she joined the group. Every night when I shut the henhouse the ritual must include opening the back door and ordering Miranda on the perch and, if she doesn’t obey, which is most times, nudging her in the right direction. 
Does she feel any sense of bereavement? Is loneliness an issue for a hen? I haven’t read enough to know if her species counts among the social animals who need companionship in order to survive. But this one is certainly surviving and, if it’s not too cruel towards the deceased to say so, she is thriving. 

31 August 2009

Bales of hay

Bales of hay, not on my field. Below, right, The Farmer taking them away.

The inclement weather forced The Farmer to return a second time to turn the grass he had previously cut and turned once. I did not observe the work, but the result struck me as artistic. The grass, quite dry by now, lay in a dishevelled rumple and you could almost see its joy for all the air that was now able to go through it. The field was a blow-dried landscape of lovingly tousled cuttings; to stride on it was to experience a tufted softness that even Fluffy seemed aware of, as the caution of his first steps showed.

Only two days later the baler came around. Childcare duties prevented me from leaving the house to watch the process. But when I came out that night the field was transformed. Underfoot was the hard ground again, something not experienced for many months, and, at irregular intervals, there stood these monuments of compressed grass. They have the shape of squat cylinders, more or less as wide as they are high, so it is debatable whether it is right to say that they are standing when part of their curvature – rather than one of their flat ends – is touching the ground. Or should one say that they are lying on their side? Whatever the correct terminology, the hay bales were imposing. They only came to the height of my chest, but, as you knew if you tried to push one to roll it over, they were very heavy. None yielded an inch to my push.

The night was dark and, ever fond of natural light, I was not switching the torch on unless it was necessary. You could feel that you were about to hit a bale from an intensification of the darkness at a couple of feet’s distance. It may possibly have been an aural phenomenon too, the sound of your steps reflecting…no, the bales’ surface was much too rough for sound reflection. Sound absorption was more likely; a deadening of the sound of your steps forewarning you of impending contact with a bale of hay.

The following nights were not quite so dark, and you could make out the bales’ silhouettes against the background of the cloudy sky. Their random placement around the field seemed less random each night, till their positions became fixed in the mind as a purposeful configuration. Without a doubt they had presence. They looked innocent enough in daytime, but in the dark their latent power unfurled. They were the sentinels of the night.

It was sad when, a few days later, The Farmer came to take them away. It had been during their sojourn on my field that a photo camera had seemed a pressing need, but by the time I did something about it the bales were gone.

25 August 2009

Falstone Show

Following his fall from grace at last year’s show – when I had to fumble frantically for the poo bag in front of the dog judges and circled by a mortifyingly sympathetic audience – Fluffy was not allowed back to Falstone Show this time.

Instead I took the family. There was no shortage of things for the children to eat (sausage sandwiches from Dunterley Farm), to watch (dogs, sheep, tractors, people) and to play on (bouncy castle!). And they even happened on youngsters they knew from their infuriatingly extensive social circle. The bar was not unduly undersupplied either, and it was my pleasure to see W there chatting to old farmer friends, and I hope a wordless wave from a distance was enough to signal this approval. The day did not smile on W for much longer, but that is not for me to expand on; suffice it to say his plight broke my heart.

Once more I delighted in the seriousness with which the participants take their dogs – a relatively easy thing to do now that I did not have my Bouvier nemesis with me – and the splendid coiffure displayed by the sheep, betraying long nights spent by their owners washing, combing and possibly, dare I say it, dyeing.

A surprising number of acquaintances turned out to take their photography seriously. AB, for example, had bought an impressive-looking Canon SLR which she was taking on its first outing. Some others I vaguely recognised were also sporting equipment of sufficiently professional aspect to make me envious. But I must not underestimate the humble compact Samsung I have just acquired. The dramatic beauty of where I live and the momentousness of my children’s lives at this time made me think enough is enough: to borrow a camera at every portrayable opportunity hampers spontaneity; I must have a camera again. And who knows, even this Northumbrian Diary might benefit from a little more graphic content.

Falstone Show’s Committee has a new chairman. Although the old one in his time did a splendid job too, I have to salute the impeccable choreography last Saturday. Friendly, well-trained stewards guided you with a strong hand to your parking space, even telling you what motoring manoeuvres to perform to get into it. The food and the drink stayed plentiful all the time, and the whole configuration worked like a well-oiled machine. Well done N.

Bellingham, watch yourself this Saturday.

23 August 2009

More on the cascade of lights

Thanks to Bella for the suggestion that the cascade of lights may have been a meteor shower. She rightly points out that there has been activity around this time and, sure enough, even a superficial search reveals that around 12 August was the expected peak time for Perseids.

What I saw on 10 August was rather less dramatic, gentler and more sparse than any of the spectacular pictures to be seen, for example, on Google Images under either Perseids of Meteor Shower. On the other hand, none of those images shows the tunnel shape and the relative stillness I found so intriguing on the Northumbrian sky. But these are probably minor divergences compared with the very satisfying fact that a plausible explanation has been found.

16 August 2009

Horse or pony

The new resident across the road displays all the characteristics of a horse, including the size, but I am told he is a pony. Somebody will have to explain to me the finer points of equine differentiation; for the time being I call him indistinctly horse or pony when I greet him.

Unlike the long-standing local dwellers of his species, he keeps his own counsel, avoiding contact with man or dog when we pass by and staying so still in his hut that you have to look carefully to believe he has not been taken away. We haven’t yet brought him one of our apples, but his behaviour to date is such that I am not sure he will trust us enough to accept it.

For a horse, or pony, he also boasts an uncommonly varied wardrobe. The mesh mask he wears most days would look sinister on him if he were not such a reclusive character. I take it to be a protection against biting insects. In this fluctuating weather, he reacts swiftly to temperature changes and on wetter days more often than not he is seen with a coat on first thing in the morning. His handlers must be early risers and quiet workers.

10 August 2009

No answers

No answers means either nobody reads this blog or nobody knows about the cascade of lights. I would believe that I imagined it if K had not seen it too. Never mind.

The Farmer came around a few days ago, knight in shining tractor, to perform the annual shearing of our field. I meant to be courteous when I shut the gates after him, forgetting that he always returns a day or two later to turn the grass. He did that too, but last night the rain started again, putting an unwelcome spanner in the works of hay-making.

Fluffy and the girls have enjoyed being able to circle the field again, as we had been prevented from doing by uncontrolled growth.

08 August 2009

A cascade of lights

Last night I reported on the impossibility of feeling fear before the beauty of the Northumbrian night. Well, tonight I did experience something akin to fear, albeit mixed with fascination.

The glow was brighter than last night, casting a supernatural heat over everything. The new pony across the road, a misanthrope during the day, was out in the quiet night, munching grass. Fluffy and I walked up the hill, and on the way back something caught my attention on the left, from what I take to be a northwesterly direction. At first sight it looked like a tunnel made up of lights in the sky, very much like stars but a little brighter and redder, moving diagonally down and left towards the horizon. Immediately the trees obscured my vision on that side and I felt impelled to walk faster past the trees so I could make sure I had really seen what I thought I had seen.

Past the trees, the tunnel had dispersed into a line, a casually curving procession of stars still progressing down in the same general direction. By the time I reached home most of the component lights had gone, presumably behind the horizon; there were only a few visible, perhaps ten of them, but enough for K to come out and see them and to agree that it was a most extraordinary phenomenon. A few minutes later all the lights had gone, leaving only the usual stars in their places, only a lot more visible in what is perhaps the most luminous night sky I have ever seen.

Does anybody know what those lights were?

07 August 2009

That moon again

Tonight the moon is so bright that you can feel your pupils contracting when you look at it. Its reflection on the field magnifies the glow, making you almost screw your face at the brightness. If you stand with your back to it, you can see your shadow cutting a distinct contour on the silver-coated grass. You could read in this light, if the type were large enough.

The Farmer's dogs are barking with unease and midnight is not far off. Perfect setting to conjure up the stories of werewolves used to scare the children into staying still in bed when I was small back in Montero. Except that this is the North Tyne, and Fluffy is sauntering ahead of me, stopping to sniff into every molehill and pouncing heroically on the source of every ruffle in the grass, real or imaginary.

And the house, at other times a forbidding shadow, tonight stands ignited with the glow of this impossibly fiery moon, like cosmic water sent to bathe the two youngsters sleeping inside.

To feel scared would demand more imagination than I can muster right now.

26 June 2009

Douglas in the rain

I came back in the evening after a day spent at the office, dealing with the frustrations of a computer malfunction rather than productive work.

Fluffy leapt out the moment he was allowed, darting off in pursuit of something unseen. I then took him up the road, avoiding the field which is now impassable. The day's copious rain had left a heavy pall hanging over the evening, and a coating of little sad diamonds on the leaves. The slightest shake would cause a little replica of the earlier downpours.

On the way back down the road a dark marauder intercepted me, staring with his ominous green eyes. It was Douglas the cat, wanting nothing more than a friendly stroke to mark this chance encounter. After two or three such expressions of friendship, he went on his way to meet the night's adventures. I came home.

24 June 2009


W was here today. As an erstwhile forester and farmer around these parts, when asked he knew exactly the identity of the bloodthirsty assassin that had marred my grass cutting yesterday: horsefly, known around here as cleg.

23 June 2009

Field traffic

Contrary to the forecasts, today was sunny and sultry, easily the warmest day I remember in these parts. Even the rooms downstairs welcomed you in short sleeves, which, believe me, for a Bolivian in Northumberland is a novel experience. But not right now any longer, for as midnight approaches I have had to switch back to reality and the central heating.

One conspicuous absence today was the cuckoo, so audible on previous days with its unbelievably perfect-pitched ostinato. His performances had marked our summer evenings with the most poetic punctuality. I never caught sight of him, but he sounded as if he was always perched on the same tree by the river. But not today. Too hot for him, presumably?

The field, luxuriant with vegetation, has been pretty to look at, but impassable for all but the most committed, namely Fluffy and I. I had been wanting to cut a path around the field for months, but other priorities had always prevailed, until recently the grass became so long that no walking child could join me and The Fluff. The unwonted weather made me think I could venture out with the strimmer and the kids, so the older one could see me toiling to restore her transit for daily walks. Toil I certainly did, and was almost eaten alive by the flying hordes of whatever it is that eats humans this time of the year - it looked too large and it hurt too much to be midges. But I had underestimated the overgrowth; my efforts over several hours made little more than a dent, not even opening a path as far as the river. My older offspring will have to wait. It will take not hours, but days to make the field accessible again. And perhaps not my strimmer, but The Farmer’s tractor.

19 April 2009

First of the summer

Today has been a miracle of a day. The sun shone with a brightness that defied belief; indeed, it still does at half past seven in the evening. After a family lunch at Wark's Battlesteads Hotel - a very well cooked carvery - we came home and sat by the river. When it was time to feed the baby, I left the rest of the family on its riverside idyl and came to the house. The impulse seized me to hear my own music, something I very rarely do. I found the recording of shapeshift from Mystical Dances and subjected the poor infant to it twice over its dinner. Whatever the baby thought, I was surprised at the effect it caused on me. It was invigorating.

I badly need this piece performed more widely. I also need to realise more projects. Family is all very well, university is all very well, but I need to compose and to hear my music performed to feel alive. This has always been the absolute priority, and yet somehow it is proving elusive.