autumnwalk70

October 29th, 2010. Pre-breakfast, 2 hours. I walk out into a dim, mild morning. The wind is up, blowing steadily from the south-west, and the leaves are coming down. Windfall. Pavements and paths are strewn with yellow hearts and orange lozenges. The wind has stirred the birds and a swirl of jackdaws and rooks, a hundred strong, are romping and roiling in the turmoil, climbing and plunging, surfing the airwaves, purling round and round against the pink south-eastern sky. The tall poplars by the brook howl with wind-music. I go north up the misguided-busway, still bus-less, a year overdue and who knows how many millions over-budget. A steady stream of gulls, in ones and twos and small parties, meanders southwards, flying low, labouring against the buffeting wind. This evening they’ll fly back north again, fast and easy with the wind behind them. A flight of ducks, necks outstretched and muttering quietly, passes rapidly over towards the east then veers round to land up ahead, gliding in smoothly on outstretched wings then all stalling suddenly with a flurry of wing-beats before gently setting down in the grass. A lovely sight. I soon catch up with them. They are sixteen mallard, sitting together in pairs, the females petite and polite next to their magnificent mates. Are these the ducklings I saw in late spring, scattered up and down the brook, now come together, fully-grown? They just sit there, all facing into the wind, not feeding or preening, just sitting it seems.

I turn onto the stony track of Wilson’s Drove. The wind drops. There is colour once more in the land, the trees turning in earnest over the last couple of days, in tune with the first of the frosts. Field maple and sycamore, blackthorn and wild plum, linden and poplar, beech and birch are all now mottled yellow and gold, amber and orange, mustard, copper, brick-red, rufous, russet and rust, each to their own and beyond description. Mineral colours, matching the smooth brown fields all around, combed to perfection. A hedgerow sycamore, tall and proud, has cast a perfect half-moon of lemon yellow shards at its feet, on its north-eastern side, opposite the wind. Homeward, along Cuckoo Lane, muddy still. A covey of red-legged partridges whirs low over the earth, a cock pheasant torpedoes out of a hedge in high protestation, the flick of a hawk-wing sends me reeling again. Small, green crabs still hang from a bush, crisp and sharp at first bite, then furring my mouth. Fifty migrating fieldfares, undulating in flight, flash their grey rumps in passing. Down now though the farmyard at Lamb’s Cross, negotiating puddles and tractor-churned mud. A shorthorn bull with curly woolly coat, heavy and knee-deep in mud, shows the whites of his eyes. The radio still plays to an empty barn.

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walk69

October 24th, 2010. Late afternoon, again. A bright cold day, with high cirrus and even one or two piles of cumulus in an autumn-blue sky. I take the long muddy track past the spent strawberry tunnels – half a square mile of plastic slowly deteriorating, muffled snatches of Slavic from the last lonely workers within – and across the green weed-field beyond, one of the few to have lain fallow all through the year. A family’s out walking, the small boy behind pushing his bike through the grass – it’s rare to see anyone venturing out off the roads or paths. The big lapwing field is now down to rape, striped with seedlings. This western side of the village is bathed in the wash of A14 traffic but it’s open and I can walk in the last of the sun, now just a finger or two above the horizon.

Skirting the deserted golf course I strike south towards Girton, perched on its slightest of ridges. From this direction you can see why it was settled, just a few vital feet off the fen. A strip of sown borage between the verge and the field is still in striking blue flower. I disturb a kestrel from its post in a hawthorn and it quietly flips over the hedgerow into the golf course. A hundred yards further up, I unnerve it again, and this time it flies low and slow across the sweep of brown field in front, barely two feet above ground, sharp-winged in the light, eventually settling into the earth itself, looking small and insignificant in the clod. It defecates forcefully, ejecting a hot squirt of mouse and small bird, then flies up to its watch in the hawthorn once more. But the fields are otherwise utterly empty. It is only on the closely-mown turf of the driving range, just below Girton, that I see a few birds. A handful of fieldfares and redwings, last seen in mid-March, and a scattering of active black-and white wagtails. Migrants, taking a break. Among them a resident green woodpecker, its black mask gazing at the sky, red nape and olive-green back lit by the lowering sun.

I pass through the churchyard at Girton as a single tolling calls the villagers to evensong. Feral pigeons, white and grey, huddle on the shutters of the squat stone tower. The church is white and lit within, as empty as the fields. In the recreation ground only a teenage girl sits still and solemn on a swing. I cut through the ‘community woodland’, with paths and benches set in an impenetrable thicket of ash saplings, and set off along a very muddy and slippery ‘permissive footpath’, between wire fences, across the fields towards Histon. A woman and her dog pass hurriedly by. Nothing moves in the fields. Over in the west, the far horizon is a Chinese landscape of castles on forested mountains set between deep plunging valleys. The sky behind is softly layered in a spectrum of colours – deep orange merging up into yellow, then into green, then into indigo blue. Dusk soon overtakes me and the light is sucked from the land. It is a long three miles back home without the company of light or landscape or creatures, but I pick up on the concrete strips of the guided-busway, which will guide me, if not buses, back home. In the east, not high above the heave of the earth, a more-or-less full moon appears, bright but tiny, a mere farthing in the darkness. I hear only the sound of my breathing and tread of my feet. I become aware of a vague shape in front, a figure approaching, a man in fact, who soon emerges round-faced and stocky, of oriental extraction, beside me, and without breaking stride we exchange a ‘gd’evening’ and pass on, each fading back into our separate black nights as if we had never existed.

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grebewalk68

October 19th, 2010. Late afternoon. Cold, grey and damp. The sky is uniformly overcast, except at the lit edges of the world where cloud-shapes take form, rimming the pale horizon. It’s autumn. Days of wind and rain have dislodged leaves which now lay brown and black and wet on the ground. Trees are turning – the sycamores burnt orange, field maples pale yellow, limes browning at the edges, while the silver birches have shed most of their foliage. The sky is alive with autumn migrants.

In the village I meet Bob the thatcher, bespectacled and beaming, in spite of the weather. He and his mate are repairing the roof of a cottage and have already put up a new ridge, the crowning glory of the thatcher’s art. Some of the decayed thatch is reed and some of it is straw, and has to be replaced like with like. He’s only been thatching for five and a half years and it takes five years to pick up the basics he reckons. Still, they’ve done a beautiful job. It will last 50 years. They’re booked up till next August, all over East Anglia. The techniques, tools, materials and artistry have not changed for several thousand years, except now the reed is imported from Eastern Europe and China whereas before it was local.

I set out for the big open fields on the western side of the village, where the winds sweep through unchecked. My hands are soon chilled, my nose running. But there are birds about. Following Rose’s directions, I soon find the buzzard’s nest in one of a pair of small, lonesome ash-trees, an untidy pile of sticks in a flimsy fork not fifteen feet above ground. It hardly looks big enough to accommodate a fully-grown buzzard and offspring. But it must be the place. I can see why a buzzard would nest here. It is about as far away from any road or track or footpath that a bird could find round here, almost completely undisturbed I would think, except three or four times a year when the farmer comes to sow or reap or plough, cocooned and remote in his tractor. Within one hundred yards I find four pools of feathers – pigeon kills. And then, further off, the slow brown weight of a buzzard lifts into the air, beats its great wings three or four times, then glides, beats again three or four times, and glides again, and settles into a hedgerow tree. I follow. It’s soon on the wing again, and joined by its mate. A pair of buzzards! They don’t fly far, and soon perch, four feet apart, in the bare branches of a dead tree overlooking the empty fields…hunched shapes, tawny against the evening. I approach across the open, just to see how close I can get. Not far. Within two hundred yards, one of the pair sails off, effortlessly, winging low over a field, scattering pigeons and starlings by the hundred. The other sits still, unmoved.

Parties of gulls, slim-winged and fleet, fly north in untidy formation, ten, twenty, fifty at a time. Underneath them, flying south-west and low, thrushes and larks, unidentifiable, pass by in successive small flocks. The autumn migration is on. The big fields here are in stubble still, unploughed, perfect for stop-overs. Far away, at least two hundred lapwings sit in a field amongst rooks and pigeons and seagulls. I approach along a field-track to see what else is aground. All of a sudden, the lapwings rise as one, four hundred black and white wings (at this distance) beating slowly upwards. I fear I have been incautious and spooked them. And then a small dark hawk-shadow passes through them, like an arrow, low and intent, focused on what I don’t know. It disappears in a flurry of birds. It was not me after all, but the thought of a hawk that set off the lapwings.

I am on my way home when a strange goings-on catches my eye. I am passing along the edge of the horse pastures and notice five ponies together, noses down, following a tumbling, whitish, indistinct shape that is, with difficulty, trying to escape their attentions. I take it for a large cat, perhaps. The creature, and the ponies, reach the edge of the field not far from where I am standing. The ponies stretch their necks through the railings, uncommonly curious. What could it be that has so mesmerized them? I have never seen horses behave in this way. And then I see what it is. Crouched in the grasses and brambles beyond the railings, on the edge of an overgrown ditch, is a large bird, grey and white, with a long powerful bill, lungeing fiercely at the snuffling muzzles. The bird struggles to get away, pushing through the tangled growth with difficulty, probably injured. That would explain its strange tumbling gait across the pasture – it can’t fly. It settles, half-hidden in the ditch and I get a closer look. It is a great crested grebe, perhaps 18 inches long, an immature adult, with grey back, white neck and face, long straight pinkish bill, and a distinctive dark head-crest, parted in the middle to form two stylish tufts. Being immature, and outside the breeding season, it lacks the handsome chestnut ruff of the species. This is the first great crested grebe I’ve seen here, and being a water bird it could only have come from the forbidden lake on the old airfield, half a mile away. What is it doing here, and how was it injured? Its story though will never be told. My impulse is to catch it and hold it, but it is inaccessible from my side of the ditch without considerable effort and it would try to escape from me anyway, making its injury worse. Besides, it would not hesitate to take out my eye with its dagger. Reluctantly, I leave it. A fox will eat grebe tonight. Perhaps I’ll come back in the morning and see how it (or the fox) has fared.

Postscript: I did in fact return next morning but there was no sign of the bird, not a feather…

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walk67

October 16th, 2010. Three hours. Late afternoon. It’s bright, clear and cold. A light breeze out of the north has driven the clouds over the city to the south, unveiling the sun, though I still need a jersey and jacket, a cap and scarf to keep warm. I meet Rose, walking her collie. She gives me her news. The buzzards on the west side of the village are still there, having nested this year. One day in August she counted eight water voles in the ditch that runs from Histon, before they cut and cleared it. In the brook, the six crayfish are down to two, both males she thinks (the two I saw back in August?), the females apparently gone. And she’s seen goldcrests by the rec. I have little to offer in return… three juvenile swans, that’s about it. A lifetime of walking these fields has opened her eye as well as her heart.

I set out for the scrubland and woods below Histon. On either side, the rich brown ploughland is studded with gulls, shining white in the lowering sun. I haven’t seen so many since winter. The clear weather has brought out the dogs too, and their walkers. Fifty feet above the scrub a kestrel quivers in the clear air, in front of a pale three-quarters moon. A gang of long-tailed tits works through the bushes, always busy and sociable. There are still some late blackberries on the brambles, but small, soft and insipid. Not so the acorns, fresh-fallen and green. I crack one underfoot and it releases its plump, moist, ivory seed, as sweet and fresh as a brazilnut.

Colonies of mushrooms have hatched from the deep, all very localised. In a grassy field the white flaky cylinders of Shaggy Inkcaps unfurl into black-fringed bells on very tall stems. True to their name, their spores have been found in the ink of medieval manuscripts. In the litter of a plantation outside the village, Wood Mushrooms abound at all stages of growth, the newly-emerged as tight and white as golf-balls. Very good to eat apparently …but the fungal world is full of deception… caution is called for. The more open areas in the scrubland are strewn with Milkcaps of a kind, with wavy orange caps slick with mucous. Once you accustom your eye to these strange and beautiful creatures they’re all over the place at this time of year.

I have discovered what I think is an active badgers’ sett. It is on the side of a hollow in the middle of a small circle of woodland, betrayed by conspicuous yellow sand that has been excavated from the tunnels and strewn round the entrances. I enter the wood as silently as possible. The soft, damp ground muffles my footfall. I take up my position, well-hidden, some 80 yards from the sett. I wait. And wait. There’s no movement, no sound, no shuffling shape. It’s now so dark in the wood that I can barely see anyway. Losing patience, I go to inspect the sett at close quarters. It seems that someone’s been at them. The sand is patterned with bootprints and a great log has been thrust down one of the entrances, effectively blocking it. Kids or vigilantes? As far as I know there are no cattle within range so there should be no persecution.

I emerge from the night of the wood into dusk. On the western horizon a strip of pale orange and yellow cloud reflects an inglorious sunset. Trees are silhouetted black against a green ocean of sky. A few late flocks of seagulls head north, high and silent. I set off home through a deserted and soundless landscape. Long-gone are the dog-walkers. But where are the birds, where are all the creatures? All is still, all is quiet. Only the water in the ditch, trickling through a culvert under a bridge, is alive. The great rookery at Westwick is utterly silent, as if abandoned, and even the parkland below the big house has been emptied of sheep. Dusk falls fast at this time of year. It’s soon quite dark, in spite of a now bright-shining bitten-off moon. As I near the village I catch the smell of someone else’s supper. Slabs of yellow light fall through uncurtained windows. Somewhere far off, a dog barks.

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swanwalk66

October 13th, 2001 – the first time I’ve been out in this poor patch of England for six long weeks. Poor because it has been largely deprived of its natural wealth – its variety, complexity, fecundity, wildness – and reduced to something considerably meaner and less productive, or so it seems to me. Still, as I have discovered over the year, there are remnants of glory even here, unveiled on occasion, when you least expect them, though perhaps not today.

I walk fast for five miles, up the no-through road to Longstanton, along the green ways and droves to Rampton, through the village, then upstream along the high bank of New Cut/Beck Brook to the medieval trackway called Cuckoo Lane which takes me over the only rise in the district and down through Lamb’s Cross farm to the Cottenham-Oakington road and back home – a route I’ve taken many times before of course, all on road or track. No furtive fence-hopping or field-creeping today, no bush-whacking, ditch-leaping or tree-climbing today, no idleness, recklessness, no derring-do.

It is a dull, overcast day, dry and cold. It has, evidently, been somewhat wet this past month. Pastures and meadows carry a lush pelt of green, growth having outpaced the grazers. In places the track is still muddy and puddled. Water in the open ditches is hidden under a loose skin of algae, electric green with nitrogen run-off. In the brook it lies milky and still. Apart from the cold, not much has changed. Only the horse-chestnuts, diseased, have turned and shed most of their leaves prematurely. From afar they autumn the green with orange and bronze. On the ground their leaves lie curled and brown and gather in drifts. Field maples are beginning to yellow. Haws have softened and coloured a deep wine-red, while the flask-shaped hips remain firm and crimson, awaiting the frost. Most of the elderberries are spent – I have missed their harvest. On the verges the occasional white yarrow and a few yellow hawkbits, dandelion-like, are still in flower. In the hedgerows the late-flowering ivy has finally opened its yellow-green globes, unleashing a strange, potent musk.

A herd of two dozen geese (Canadas) crop the turf in the old airfield, all facing the same way, long black necks arched to the ground. I nearly fall over a diseased rabbit, drunk and disoriented on myxamatosis, its bulging skull visible under a thin membrane of skin. I look around for a weapon with which to despatch it but it creeps away out of reach. Later I come across an injured wood pigeon, broken-winged, but such is its fear of humans that it beats frantically through the hedge to escape my kind clutches, and I leave it be to avoid further distress. It will probably not last out the day. A handful of goldfinches, with red, black and white face-masks and bright yellow wing-flashes, is flung up into the air, like a magic trick. A kestrel beats over, long-tailed, and then, in an adjacent field, another hovers above the brown earth before sliding away on the slope of the air.

All the arable here, in the lower part of the district, has been ploughed and harrowed and worked to a more or less fine tilth, ready for sowing. The sight of bare soil, beautifully combed and even and smooth, wrapped round the land, fills me with a strange delight. I think because only thus, cleared of crop and cleaned, do we see what a truly wondrous creation it is. Only thus is its glory revealed, as a living, breathing organism, and its potential unearthed. The soil hereabouts varies subtly from adjacent field to field, and sometimes within fields – from rich chestnut brown through to a yellowish ochreous tan and a paler, more greyish khaki – not though the black fenny soils that lie a few miles to the  north. The grey shapes of wood pigeons hunch in the ploughland, amongst them a single, pure white dove. Spurning the comfort and predictability of some suburban dovecote, it has decided, or been persuaded, to go native. There is much activity in the fields today – farmers dismount from their 4 x 4s and kick a clod or two, great yellow sacks of seed, like giant punch-bags, are hoisted by tractors into hoppers, machinery is trundled and dragged across the land. Only the fields by Rampton Drift which bore barley this year have already been sown, with rape, now six inches high and here and there precociously flowering.

On my way back along the high bank of New Cut that channels Beck Brook towards Rampton, three silent shapes sit on the stream. They are juvenile Mute swans, the size of large geese, with smoky grey plumage blotched white. Black tear-tracks curve down from their eyes to the base of their pale beaks. There’s no sign of the adults. They show some momentary interest but are unperturbed by my presence and continue bobbing for black strands of weed on the bed of the stream. Now swans are commonplace, I know, especially on the larger rivers and waterways, but this is the first time I’ve seen them on our little Beck Brook. So I sit down and watch them awhile. They are surely the most placid of birds.

Further along, walking up Cuckoo Lane, I am alerted by the unmistakable cry of a bird of prey. A hundred yards away, two shapes dash and duck and jink through the air just above the ground, a couple of feet apart. A wood pigeon is being hunted down by a hawk or falcon of sorts. I get a two-second glimpse, that’s all, before they are hidden by trees. But in those two seconds a door is opened and wildness floods the world. My heart races. Then all reverts to normality. I don’t know the outcome. But surely a kestrel, the most common bird of prey in these parts, would not take a pigeon. It must have been a larger hawk of some kind, though I have only seen snatches of what I take to be sparrowhawks. The thought that this might be a peregrine will keep me out and about till the end of the year.

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crayfishwalk65

August 31st, 2010. A two-hour stroll round the village bounds before sunset. The evening is dry, sunny and still, and after a wet and windy month all the more so. Only the faintest patterns and tracings of high cirrus cloud marble the pale blueness of sky. Gone are the dry acres, parched lawns and cracked ground of summer. The land is once again green. The gently rollicking pastures dip and rise under a close new turf. Verges and banks have sprung a thick crop of grass, field ditches filled, fulfilled, now falling, foliage washed clean, though there are very few flowers out at this time of year: amongst them, the flat off-white heads of yarrow, sometimes pink, the little two-toned yellow toadflax, the mealy, grey-green couscous balls of fat hen, and the clear yellow sprays of Canadian goldenrod, a garden escape; also, well into their season and still flowering, the lipped orchid-like mouths of the white dead-nettle, in whorls up the stem, the five purple-veined pink petals of the common mallow, and up the ravaged guided-busway still a few white campions and the last yellow flowers on the great spikes of mullein, with downy leaves as soft as lambs’ ears.

In the flat open paddocks to the west of the village a mixed party of wagtails flits nimbly about the horses’ hooves and blowing muzzles, picking off invisible insects disturbed by the great animals as they slowly tread forward, step by step, grazing green blades. I have hardly seen any of these ground-hugging birds this year. The five British species are difficult to identify, with summer and winter, and adult and juvenile variations in plumage. These are mostly, I think, grey wagtails, the first I’ve seen, with lemon yellow underparts, though they could be summer visiting yellow wagtails, or both. Amongst them is a solitary pied wagtail, or it could be a juvenile yellow. Who knows? What pleases me though is the way these slim, delicate creatures and towering muscled horses, unlikely companions, move forward together, at ease and as one.

Beck Brook is a respectable stream once again, knee-deep in water. Peering over the edge of a footbridge, a slow, jerky movement on the bottom catches my eye. And there it is, surely the weirdest creature in these parts – a crayfish, lumbering through the brickbats, lumps of concrete, bits of iron pipe and odd bicycle wheel that litter the muddy bed of our brook at this point. I had been told there were crayfish here, and I must have stared into this very same bit of water fifty times this year and never caught a glimpse of one. It is uniformly brown with a sheen of green, like the mud around it, with no distinguishing markings, about 6 or 7 inches long – a primordial iron-plated bulldozer with two enormous grabbing claws. The bulging eyes on top of its head, long black antennae waving around, multiple legs, segmented body and strange, blunt, fan-shaped tail-plate are grotesquely alien by any standard. This is probably the American Signal Crayfish (with bright red undersides to the claws, which I cannot see) that has almost wiped out our smaller native White-clawed Crayfish. I spot another, some six feet away from the first, but this one is missing a claw and about two-thirds of one antenna – a heron perhaps, or mugged by another male? It seems none the worse for wear. I toy with the idea of catching these two and having them for supper, if indeed they are Americans (the native English is protected) but, as hungry as I am, they are pretty repellent and ‘er indoors would be less than pleased with my foraging.

From a distance, the trees on the northern edge of Histon have taken on a bronzed, autumnal tint. But these are horse-chestnuts, their leaves curled and riddled and burnt with disease, prematurely aged by blight and the leaf-miner moth. It is the same everywhere now – you can pick out the horse-chestnuts from a mile away. Much of the wheat has been harvested (though still some stands), leaving great stretches of stubble studded with rolls of straw the size of small cars. Agricultural machinery grinds and trundles in a far field, and the village roads are busy with tractors. All this noise and activity however doesn’t disturb the smooth, mind-stopping tranquility of a late summer’s evening. Swallows still weave and loop through the air, a small flock of goldfinches dive into a hedge one after another, and a single grey heron lopes off into the pale lilac sky. Yet all is utterly still.

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hedgeharvestwalk64

20th August 2010, the tenth day of Ramadan. Windy days draw me out, and today is such a day. It is fine and dry with a strong warm wind coming out of the west – a kite-flying day, if I had one. At any one time a thousand separate clouds, equidistant from each other, all at the same height above ground, and all more or less the same size and shape, process steadily across a huge sky. Above them are stationery schools of mackerel clouds and gorgeous swirls of cirrus set in deep luminous blue. Between the running cloud-islands the sun pools down on the land, polishing every surface. The wind ebbs and surges, bowing the smaller trees and churning through the copses and woods. From a distance it really does sound like the sea.

The fine weather has brought out the heavy machinery. In the distance a tractor is dragging a disc harrow, slowly and systematically painting the dull earth a uniform rich cinnamon-brown and trailing a wake of white gulls. How do they know? How do they know that the earth will be opened today? Only very occasionally this summer have I seen gulls passing by, and then just in ones and twos. Now two dozen have materialized out of nowhere. Perhaps they smell it. The air is saturated with the odour of freshly-turned earth.

Butterflies are about again, after the wet weeks – mostly Large Whites though I come across one rather battered Painted Lady, orange and black with white-spotted wing-tips, the only one of this species I’ve seen this year. Migrating from the Middle East and North Africa they sometimes mass in their millions across Britain. Not so this year, not here. But today dragonflies abound. I see them everywhere, near and far from water. They glide effortlessly, it seems, without wing movement, until, against the light, you see their four transparent gossamer wings a-quivering at the very edge of perception.

I come across two dead rabbits, fairly fresh still and whole, with no obvious cause of demise. Then, on three separate occasions, a rabbit blunders towards me, blind and disoriented, eyes puffed, red, oozing puss. Myxomatosis. There is no known cure for this deliberately-introduced plague, first observed in laboratory rabbits (surprise, surprise), except long-term genetic resistance. Death takes, on average, 14 days.

On a happier note I discover another section of the old medieval track hedged with wild plum bushes laden with fruit – round red cherry plums, oval orange-yellow mirabelles and ox-blood red bullaces. For me these wild plums have been a real discovery this year – far superior to any supermarket plum, delicious raw or stewed, and abundant across the district. I pick several kilos of sweet cherry plums and mirabelles and throw in a few handfuls of sloes for bite, to be savoured later at fast-breaking time.

the startling blueness of sloes, fruit of the blackthorn

There are few birds about, except woodpigeons who seem to relish the wind, and a party of some dozen wittering swallows who ply back and forth over a bean-field. I sit by a field-gate and watch them for ten minutes or so. They swoop low along the edge of the field, in the shelter of a hedge, and when they reach the gate opening and the brunt of the wind they flick upwards and over, twisting back for the home run, all the while making small noises. When I stand up they fly within a few feet of my head.

I walk home with a bag of wild plums at my wrist, an exhilarating wind in my face, and the world all around me in motion.

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