27th March, 2010. Late afternoon. The sky is full of blown clouds. I climb over a field-gate to visit one of the oldest inhabitants of the village – an ash tree that lives in a pasture, all alone, in front of my house. I have no way of knowing for certain, but, judging by its girth, it must be 200 years old or more. Like many ash trees round here it has lost its head completely (possibly pollarded in the past?). One side of its massive trunk is black and spongy, half-rotted away, and its base is a hollowed-out cave just big enough to crawl into on a wet and windy night. Yet it supports great boughs of healthy wood that have grown into a new crown. Its silver roots shoulder the ground like outcrops of polished rock, or a pod of dolphins breaking water. I fear the first great storm will bring it crashing down.
A buzzard quarters the south fields, not high, perhaps 50 feet, then 100 feet, stalls against the steady breeze, then turns and surfs fast on the rushing wave of air, passing directly overhead. I am looking straight up, neck bent back, and nearly lose my balance. It has a gap in its flaring tail, missing feathers, and a conspicuous, large brown patch on its left-side underwing. I should be able to recognise it again. It is only when we begin to know them as individuals that wild creatures become our companions, our fellow travellers.
I walk the bank of Beck Brook, scanning the water for signs of life, hoping to catch again a glimpse of eel. But in 500 yards I see nothing – no fish, no eels, no voles, no insects, nothing. There are various types of water plants swaying in the gentle flow, but no visible creatures. I find this puzzling. Many of the winter-fallow fields have been ploughed and harrowed this past week, transforming silver stubble into smooth, raked, seed-tilth the colour of ochre. But along each edge of these fields is a strip of stunted grass, of a strange chemical colour, red and orange. My first thought is of herbicide, weed-killer. If so, how much is washing into the brook?
Evening presses in as a light shower unlocks the earth’s scents. I cut westwards towards the A14, then north, then east to Long Stanton. The fields too are empty today. In 4 miles I see only pheasants, partridges, rooks and wood pigeons – though rabbits are with me all the way. Night falls fast, and the last straggling rooks lurch back to base camp.