The ecologist sat at his desk in the early hours, stifling a yawn with his woollen sleeve. Steam rose lazily from a mug perched haphazardly on a faded coaster. It had once shown a photograph of a badger cub, but the surface had been undone by years of use. He sat in this position almost daily, countless mugs leaving their indelible mark on young brock’s face. He was tired today.
He’d bought the house twelve years ago, and for twelve years the green leather-topped desk had sat facing the window. On a clear day he could see beyond the wooded valley all the way to the estuary, but a shroud of morning mist enveloped the outside world today. The mist didn’t trouble the shorebirds that gathered in their thousands on the shingle banks at this time of year, their keening calls echoing eerily through the murk. The shrill alarm cry of the redshank, sentinel of the marsh, carried furthest, warning of danger and easily identified from his seat at the window. The flight call of the curlew was his favourite, a joyous burble quite unlike anything else. On rare occasions the dawn had rewarded him with the sad lament of the greenshank, but not this dawn.
The garish clock, inherited from his mother, chimed five as he finished the last of the tea, an elixir for his weary bones. He hated the clock, but sentiment stopped him from selling it. Sitting at his desk in the early morning was a regular occurrence, and he was often at his most productive when the day was new. These days he found little joy in the scientific reports he wrote, bound as they were by such tedious constructs as accuracy and rigour. A linguist’s heart beat within him. He tried to stifle it, but each report that he wrote betrayed evidence of tiny rebellions, brief flashes of florid prose amid the sterile listing of facts. Crepuscular. Moribund. Gravid. He felt excited pangs of electricity in his fingertips as he typed the words.
Sitting at the desk at this time usually followed a night spent chasing bats and stumbling around woodland and fields in the half-light of dawn. It was a strange job. Today was different though. He’d been asked to write an article for the local field club magazine, a chance to reminisce on his most memorable encounters with nature. The opportunity to write, to really write, exhilarated him.
A career spent recording wildlife had given him no shortage of source material. He’d kept notebooks since childhood, jotter and stubby pencil ever present in the map pocket of his waterproof coat. Lists, sketches and musings, memories of treasure found and lost. Almost two decades of study committed to paper. He rarely studied the notebooks these days. They told of his greatest triumphs, but so many of them were tinged with sadness. Sadness at lost friends with whom he shared so many experiences, and sadness at his own unstoppable march from his youth. Aching knees were a constant reminder that he was no longer the proud specimen of his formative years, and he reflected on this often. A tough childhood had instilled in him a strong sense of pessimism, particularly regarding his own mortality, but he had made peace with this part of himself long ago. He was slowing down, but it no longer kept him awake at night.
He wrote, frantically. Melancholic thoughts were pushed aside, as half-remembered fragments from sun bleached pages were made real in his memory. For the briefest of moments he lived them again, committing each to print in as much detail as he could recall. He described the rare seabird seen from the charted boat, the first encounter with an osprey, and the day that the toads moved into the pond that he helped to dig. He wrote about the bat roost, the largest known in the county until the youngsters had arrived on the scene with their modern kit and enthusiasm. He wrote at length about natterjack toads, clockwork sprites on the moonlit dunes.
The sun reached its zenith, and still he wrote. A thought had slowly materialised throughout the morning, and it startled him. He had realised that during a career spent actively seeking encounters with nature, it was the chance sightings that truly inspired him. Every encounter with flora and fauna gave him pleasure, but it was the occasions where luck and coincidence collided that truly delighted him. The more he wrote, the more these casual meetings came to the fore. His heart beat faster as he recalled the unexpected badger amid the fruit trees, the sudden goshawk over a barren hillside, the stoat in ermine amid the rushes and the day that a fox appeared where a seal should have been. His first otter had been an accident, spotted frolicking near the seashore off the west coast of Scotland. This wasn’t his favourite memory though. His favourite memory had occurred in the very house in which he was feverishly writing, two years past. An elephant hawk moth had alighted on his bedroom curtains, causing a yelp of excitement. In the rush to find his camera the moth had spooked and flown out of the open window, leaving only a smear of chalky beige powder on cornflower blue fabric. He’d never seen anything more beautiful than the moth, and he thought about it every day.
It was approaching dusk when his typing slowed, the article nearly finished. It had been a day of self-reflection and creativity, and the ecologist was proud of his work. He was especially pleased to have used some of his favourite words. Viviparous. Vespertine. Petrichor. More pangs of excited electricity. His awakening about the joy of chance encounters had inspired him. He had known for some time that working with the thing he loved had made him take it for granted, and had dulled the sheer joy he got from the natural world. Today was the day that he resolved to spend more time immersed in nature, recapturing the exhilaration he felt as a young man experiencing wilderness for the first time. Starlight glinted off the ebbing tide of the estuary, an elegiac chorus rising from thousands of tiny souls clustered above the shoreline. He’d buy a new notebook in the morning.