A Living Landscape

The scene is so peaceful it is like standing in a painting brought to life, animated by the fresh swish-swoosh wash of the winds. Early Autumn winds, still gentle, as if only in training for later on. The winds cast patterns of organised wrinkles across the lacquered surface of the river, which is swollen with rain from a previous incarnation. 

The water’s glossiness offers hints of reflectivity. Roughly rendered branch-shapes of drooping Crack willow sacrifice a slender, lanceolate leaf every now and again, to be carried away like cargo on the currents. Impressionistic daubs of thick, neat clusters of still-upstanding rushes and sedges at the river’s margins. A small bird fidgeting between stems within a mass of rushes, its same repeated shape visible and then invisible, like something hidden inside this composition which only certain eyes can see.  It is a question mark. An incongruity, in this very English-seeming late-year scene. Perhaps one of the summer’s warblers? A reed warbler, maybe – a migrant bird which forms its tiny bowl-like nest using the plant’s stems as support struts – and which, travelling from as far inland as here – should surely be making its way by now towards its wintering grounds? Its gargantuan return journey spanning the distances of far vaster canvases than this miniscule scene. Over Southern Europe’s shifting, dustier hues, across a wash of desert, and eventually to Africa, with its cliched ochres and reds.

The sky, above this pond-sized meander-bend, grading from a foreground of water and grazing land punctuated distantly by sheep, on into stands of woodland, eventually backed by the series of whale-like humps which make up the long spinal scarp of the Chiltern hills on the far horizon, is cornflower-blue on this rinsed-clean day. In the upper part of the background, dozens of classic cumulus are caught mid-drift.

I stand on the ‘third’ bank at this broad juncture where the river splits into two channels. My eyes move automatically towards a willow tree close by which flickers with varied birdlife.  Inside, I feel as excited as the birds appear to be, yet must remain as still as if I was just a drawing of myself, in my desire to observe the tree’s goings-on yet not disturb a single bird from its activities.

A chiffchaff is singing its sweet two-note confection. Chifchaff chifchaff. As I hear it doing every March, when the birds usually arrive locally. Some may already be here – over-wintering, as chiffchaffs increasingly do now, in our milder Winter climates. Nonetheless, this feels like an oddly vivacious moment, a little pause within this long slow decay-time that stretches out between late Summer and late Autumn, a moment reminiscent of Spring. Perhaps this bird too will overwinter in England, perhaps it will remain close by. Perhaps it will leave yet. And even though I know most birds will sing at times throughout the year, in differing modes and when opportunity allows, the chiffchaff seems to have some special and particular power over my sense of seasonal compass.

The willow leaves, still mostly green, are lent a soft gleam by sunlight falling over the canopy. But clutches of leaves here and there are yellow and rusted with brown, like over-ripe banana skins. 

Even in my statue-like composure, my mind is still working, and I guess at the birds’ interest in the tree: insects, or maybe tiny mites. These are invisible to my eyes, at least without some form of magnification, these scraps of chitin and wing and antennae whose habitats are leaf and bark and which only acute avian vision seems capable of seeing. Another hidden element.

Blue tits call and here’s a troupe of long-tailed tits engaged in their collective of call and answer like tiny silver bells being rung, and there’s a robin’s wistful melodrama and perhaps even another, even more unexpected bird. Another summer warbler. It is a willow warbler, perhaps, which is vocalizing.

Or perhaps not. It could, instead, be another chiffchaff – their songs are distinctive but their calls barely so. The willow warbler’s name fits the tree though not only this tree.

If this is a painting it is now fully alive. The leaf warblers in their drabber tree-shades and the blue tits with their plumages like old-fashioned tea-china, all searching busily through the canopy with needle-fine skills.

In each one’s miniature elegance the tree is not just an English riparian willow but something more Japanese and ‘just so’. Cherry-blossom delicate.

Though across the water, jackdaws pass overhead in a flinty-voiced, exuberant rabble.

Spring seems to haunt Autumn in almost-equinoctial days and sudden conspicuous bursts of life on warm blue days and suggestions, hints of what’s to come, later, in another season, another picture. I dream of Spring all year. Even when it’s finally here. There is no season quite as special nor as fleeting.

On the water, seven willow leaves in a gradient of sizes move off in alternative directions, shifted out by frazzling surface-currents like family members dividing themselves off into different lives. To the back of the river, where riverbank shades out into floodplain meadow, there are thickets of grass and nettle, and teasel and hogweed represented in tall, sculptural forms – physically imposing seed-heads which also act as perfect feeding stations for finches in Winter.  

I could stay here all day, the one human being in this composition, observing all these images of natural life. No, not images. This may look like a set but is real, lives being lived, precisely, specifically. Like the patterns on the water driven by the movements of the wind. It would be easy to stay here. I’m so still I’ve just become part of the scene. No threat to anything.

But I can’t, of course. However beautiful that would be, it would not be as good as going home now, and remembering this short episode, this brief composition of time and activity and stillness, whenever I want to. Summoning it to mind like a picture, like a photograph. Only I’ll remember it was more than that.