January 17th

Finally, the so-so mild weather broke. Quite dramatically so, in an intense flurry of wet snow that exactly coincided with my morning cycle commute. The air filled with fat flakes that looked stereotypically fluffy but stung when they caught me in the eye; still, I was glad to see some real winter weather and enjoyed struggling against adversity. Twenty minutes later I arrived at my destination, soggy but not anything like as soaked as I had been by rain from a similarly well-timed active cold front earlier in the winter. Fortunately, while like most people I see a little rain as an inconvenience, the meteorologist in me loves being out in extreme weather. If it’s going to rain, it may as well be spectacular!

Within what felt like just a few minutes the clouds melted and we were left with one of those perfect bright winter days. After a morning teaching I made it out into the real world of the Whiteknights ‘wilderness’, enjoying sharp air interrupted only by the funk of fox or a whiff of weed smoke, this after all being a university campus. On a brightly lit patch of laurel several blowflies loitered, occasionally taking off to reshuffle leaves before resuming their solar charging.

These are the moments on the very frontier of spring, when the air is still cold and any warmth in the low sun is still barely discernible, but birds know the days are getting longer and seem to ramp up their activity to match. The bright clear calls of long-tailed tits and blue tits in roving flocks matched the freshness of air and sky. Subtly moving among the tit flocks, goldcrests hovered and darted. Sticking to the cover of ivy or evergreen, they are all movement, though perhaps not as restless and lightning-quick as firecrests. When I’ve had a longer run of watching both species together I can almost pick them apart by behaviour alone, but I’m rusty. No reports of firecrest from Whiteknights since November, but the memory of past sightings haunts my watching of many quiet corners of campus and I feel sure I will catch up with one soon.

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January

In the nine days of 2019 so far, I haven’t exchanged New Year greetings with many people who don’t feel the need to qualify ‘Happy New Year’ by using a sarcastic tone of voice or adding a wry ‘ha’. At the dawn of a 12-month period likely to be plagued by yet more endless doom-laden news cycles concerning the forbidden topics of the era (the T word, the B word, looming climate catastrophe), nobody seems to be that optimistic. That’s coupled with an unconnected promise of change in the lives of several friends in the year ahead. For me too, this year guarantees some kind of upheaval. This will be the year my current Teaching Associate post at Reading ends, after six years, to be replaced either by a new position in my current department (under a different line manager, and probably with tweaked but not completely different responsibilities) or a totally new adventure elsewhere. The latter would likely mean a move away from Berkshire, though I feel in no particularly hurry to leave Newbury, where we have slowly been building connections to the community.

Despite January being a demonstrably terrible time for resolutions, among all the uncertainty I’m trying to stay grounded by focussing on the few things that do make me feel optimistic and purposeful. These can be summarised as reading and writing, watching and recording nature, and playing and writing music. These are the things I love to do, yet inexplicably spend too small a proportion of my time on. Aside from the fun of the Goodreads reading challenge, I haven’t set grand year-end targets (though I might have a few in mind – once a lister, always a lister!) but instead will try to mindfully devote time each day to each of these activities. Learning to weave hobbies and habits into the fabric of everyday life. Remembering and relearning, over and over, how to notice nature at every opportunity, considering and reconsidering birds until I work out at last why these other species, these wholly other lives, are so important to mine.

Guest Post: September Country Diary

For the last few months I’ve been writing nothing but boring ol’ science*. Fortunately for those of you with withdrawal symptoms for nature notes from our Newbury garden, my wife Rebecca has stepped into the breach with this country diary style piece. She’s a freelance proofreader and book reviewer with a fabulous book blog – do go and explore the literary delights on offer at bookishbeck.wordpress.com. 

*I sincerely hope it is not actually boring!


Country Diary early Sept. 2018

SIT. sit. SIT. sit. SIT. sit. I was going to keep walking to the summer house to have my tea there, but it seems the gangs of dark bush crickets behind me and across the way are inviting me to stop sooner.

Okay, I’ll sit for a while, just here, on the edge of the garden path. What would you have me see?

When I scale back my own activity to a minimum, I can appreciate how busy the wider life of the back garden is on an early September day. There’s a Crayola seafoam-coloured froghopper on the trailing ivy by my feet. A male blackbird alights on the fence, emits a few chacks of mild alarm with a blackcurrant eye fixed on me, and continues on his way. A young buzzard issues plaintive screeches somewhere overhead, while the fledgling woodpigeons in the neighbours’ grapevine squeal for alimentary attention.

Wasps are gnawing at the fences to either side, a sound that reverberates much more loudly than you might expect given that it comes from the jaws of a two-centimetre insect. They’ve been nibbling at our sheds for months to create papery grey nests, like the one by the tap that’s currently rendering the hosepipe unusable. I join their din by munching on an oaty biscuit as I pick up a collection of short fiction and read a story about a visit to a graveyard.

As vibrant as the garden feels these days, with its abundance of ripe pears and blackberries and the birds flying through by day and hedgehogs snuffling about by night, it’s impossible to forget that winter will be right at autumn’s heels. The bryony that so energetically engulfed the shrubbery in this patch is dying back, its bouncy green coils drying to a crispy brown. I look at the fading tendrils and think of my own silvering hair. Must ageing feel like failure?

Before too many weeks have passed I’ll be bundled up in seven layers, looking out from my study window and marvelling that it was ever warm enough to sit awhile on the garden path.

Rebecca Foster