I haven’t written for a while, and when I open my notebook the pages stare blankly at me. I flick back through the seasons, find myself sitting barefoot on the picnic bench eating an ice lolly and watching butterflies and a stray racing pigeon blown off course into the garden. Summer feels long ago and far in the future – but each day a little closer, and snowdrops promise that green spring will be with us soon.
It has been a long winter, though perhaps no longer than any other. Still, it feels as though it has pinched and frosted us along with the bulbs in their cold blanket of earth. They send out green shoots now but I am slow to join them in emerging.
There have been thoughts to untangle, all wound and knotted and twisted and tied into an unthinkable fankle. It is slow work, picking at these knots and loops, and it is hard to see the end of it. The pieces have frayed and slipped from my fingers, and how long is this bloody piece of string anyway? I think of seabirds caught up and trussed in fishing line, of the Lindisfarne seal caught in a net.
But today the sun shines, the air is full of spring and the bright-breasted birds are singing, and I set off – with notebook, pen, and a packet of crisps – to walk up the hill along the walled forest edge. The day is warm and I don’t wear a coat, but wear two jumpers and a burgundy bobble hat borrowed from my sister. I am seeking hawfinches in the tall hornbeams. They are rare and I’ve never seen one, but they are found here and have apparently migrated this year in record numbers. I look up their call online, find a site with recordings from Spain and Switzerland and Germany and wonder whether hawfinches have accents. Their call sounds metallic, like a knife being sharpened. I think I would recognise it again.
The sun is warm on my face, the sky a ridiculous shade of blue. A soaring buzzard draws high circles up above me. I spot great tits flitting between trees with bold plumage and quick movements. I am looking high into the treetops, hoping for hawfinches, when I see a small bird with a long tail – and another, and a third, fourth, fifth. A family of long tailed tits are feeding in the tree above me – so I sit back against the slope of the hill, look upwards through the lattice of tree branches and observe with delight. They are sweet, neat, agile birds of black, white and dusky pink, who rejoice in the unlikely name of bumbarrels. Sometimes upside down, sometimes right way up, they are busy hunting for insects. They chat while they work – rattles and trills – until one suggests moving on, and they leave as a group, dipping through the trees.
I sit there a while longer, breathe in the smells of grass and earth and growing things. It feels like spring, or the promise of spring. A glimpse of goldcrest up above, tiny and fluttering, is found then lost. I lower my gaze and watch a small, pale-browed wren darting in and out of cracks in the lichened wall. Somehow, these tiny birds have made it through another winter.
A distant pheasant call, and then a whistle – I turn, hand raised to shield my eyes from the sun. A black Labrador bounds joyously into view, two humans in tow – then further up the hill – then out of sight. The wren has disappeared.
I unfurl my limbs and rise to my feet. My jeans are damp from sitting on the ground. I stretch my legs and walk steeply up along the wall to the top of the hill. The view stretches for miles – snow capped mountains, rolling green hills and everywhere dry stone dykes stretched along the hills like backbones. I wonder how many weeks and months were spent carrying stones up these hills, building borders and corseting the land. I imagine the slumbering earth stirring, stones tumbling and scattering and shoots bursting through the earth. But all is peaceful – white clouds against blue sky, white sheep against green land.
I eat my crisps, lick the salt and crumbs from my fingers. Stand for a while against the wall here, looking down at the world shrunk down to a scale model of itself. There is a robin on the gate post, watching me out of one bright eye. And somehow, the knotted tangle of my thoughts has shifted. They have slipped into neat coils, and suddenly I am free to step outside their bindings – a miracle of time and tears and sun and breeze.
I walk across the green grass down towards the castle. The sun is shining and somewhere in the high hornbeams I might just see a hawfinch.