Sand and Stars

The late evening sun is almost touching the horizon as they walk together on the beach. Fingertips entwined, leaving two fleeting lines of footprints in the soft caramel sand, the sinuous, lazy amble of two souls with infinite time and no destination. The act of sharing time and space is the only thing that matters.

They pick their way along the strand line, negotiating the thin band of natural jetsam carried to land by the encroaching tide. He watches her skip nimbly over a warped piece of sun-bleached driftwood, and thinks that he could exist for millennia and not find anyone more perfect. The sunlight makes her rich auburn hair gleam like burnished gold, a stark contrast to near-translucent porcelain skin. Her face is a poet’s dream, deep green eyes and a crooked, knowing smile framing a flawless button nose, faint freckles her reward for a day spent under the sun. She thinks her freckles are ugly, but they make his heart sing.

The sun dips below the horizon as a distant lighthouse oscillates slowly, warning ships of the perilous rocky outcrops obscured by the waves at high tide. The brilliant white beam appears to glimmer as the flow of photons refracts through droplets of spray, creating ephemeral rainbows that they alone can see. They stop and sit together on the sand, watching the amaranth sky fade to black as the fleet of distant fishing boats become scattered points of light.

His dopamine flooded mind is acutely aware of his surroundings, and he pays abnormal attention to the sand beneath his hands and feet. He scoops up a fistful and lets the grains slowly fall through his fingers, tiny fragments of ancient life. He tries and fails to imagine how many grains of sand there are in the world, but he knows that the number is unimaginably huge. A fitting metaphor for the way he feels about her.

She pays no attention to the sand, instead gazing up into the darkening sky. She has been fascinated by the night sky since she was young, and as the stars slowly reveal themselves she is able to identify familiar constellations. She speaks the names of the galaxies, stars and planets out loud, her imagination travelling uncountable light years deep into endless space. She struggles to comprehend the vastness of the universe, but she thinks that her love for him might be comparatively vast.

They lay together on the warm sand, not touching but close enough to be aware of each other’s every subtle movement. Caught between the sand and the stars they marvel at the unlikeliness of their two souls sharing the same microscopic fragment of spacetime, and at the near impossibility of finding each other in the unending eons that stretch eternally before and after that moment. Like Andromeda and the Milky Way, destined to collide since the dawn of time.

The sudden realisation of the impossibility of it all. That might just be what love is.

Sampo

The lake was her refuge, the place that she came when she wanted to be alone. Recently she had wanted to be alone often.

Her family, like many other Finnish families, owned a summer cabin that was used as a weekend retreat on hot summer weekends, a welcome break from their busy lives in the small city of Kuopio. The cabin was nestled amid pine and birch on the southeastern bank of Hirvijärvi, a modest lake about an hour’s drive to the west of the city. Hirvijärvi meant ‘moose lake’, referring to the huge, subarctic deer that made their home in the area. Rather aptly she had once seen a moose swimming across the lake, impressive head and mighty antlers held proudly above the surface as strong legs worked frantically, unseen.

Although the summer exodus from the cities was tradition, their cabin had seen little use in the past three years. Her parents had always had a turbulent relationship, a product of two hard upbringings creating two equally combustible characters, but they had always loved each other fiercely. Things seemed different in the past few years, however, with the eruptions of anger becoming more frequent and protracted. She suspected that something must have happened to cause this change, but she was too scared to ask. Asking led to talking, and talking made unspoken things real. She preferred not to know, so she increasingly chose solitude.

As an only child solitude was no stranger. She found it comforting, and lately she had chosen to spend her solitary time at the family cabin away from the verbal sparring at home. This spring was the first time she had ever ventured to the cabin alone. At seventeen she was still a year away from being old enough to drive, however the key to her freedom had arrived in the form of an inherited moped from a recently departed great uncle. The moped, named Tunturi after a Lappish mountain, was far from perfect, having grown tired and sluggish from many years of use. It’s two-stroke engine buzzed and gargled, spitting out thick puffs of rich, acrid smoke, but it hadn’t let her down yet. It didn’t need to be fast or quiet, the moped was her freedom from the disquiet of home life and she adored it.

She had ridden to the lake early that morning, arriving when the mist still clung to the surface of the water and dewdrops glistened on the rushy margins. The sun would burn the mist away before nine, but until then she sat at the edge of the water, basking in the ethereal beauty. Her mind invented shapes and figures in the swirling vapour, heroes and villains playing out tales from the Kalevala. She saw brave Väinämöinen battling Joukahainen, saw the hunt for the swan of Tuonela, and saw the first kantele being forged from the jawbone of a monstrous pike. If she concentrated hard enough she could almost hear the soft bell-like tones of the kantele, a lilting soundtrack to her rampant imaginings. She had been taught about the great epic poem of her people from a very young age. Many of her friends found the tales unspeakably dull, but she had always enjoyed the stories that the teachers told. As a child she imagined herself as the brave hero, but recently she found kinship with beautiful, tragic Aino. The drowned maid frequently stalked her dreams.

As the mist faded her mind turned to more practical matters. She walked slowly to the cabin, a fifty yard trudge through damp, coarse grass. Her shoes were soaked with dew by the time she arrived at the tatty wooden door, the key sticking slightly in the lock after years without care. A firm tug separated the swollen door from it’s tight wooden frame, and it swung slowly outwards with a protracted creak. The interior of the cabin was basic yet functional, and everything was arranged just as she had left it three weeks before. Nobody had entered the cabin since her previous visit, which meant that the small stash of firewood that she had stowed in a wicker basket had remained untouched. Sometimes she was impressed by just how organised she could be when she put her mind to it. Sometimes. Slipping the rucksack from her back she unzipped a side pocket, rummaging inside for the tools needed to create fire. The cabin used to have a gas burner which was a far more practical means of heating water and food, but the gas hadn’t been replenished for years. She didn’t mind though, making fire in the wood burner was an enjoyable challenge. She lay the tools on a small folding table, and pulled two slender birch logs from the basket. Birch burned much better than pine, which was filled with sap and filled the cabin with acrid smoke unless fully dried. Her first task was to prepare kindling to start the fire, which she did by using her puukko to shave thin strips of bark from the lengths of birch. The puukko, a small yet functional knife carried by most Finns as a rite of passage, was the perfect tool for the job, creating paper thin strips of dry, curled wood that practically begged to be consumed by the flames. Whereas her father would have gamely tried to ignite the tinder with a flint and steel, she found the quick strike of a match to be far more efficient. The warmth radiating from the burner soon filled every corner of the cabin, and a pot of water quickly came to the boil and was transformed into thick, strong coffee. She sat at the foot of a steel-framed camp bed and gnawed on a piece of tough rye bread, a local delicacy, as the hot liquid poured life into her tired bones.

The woodland surrounding the cabin was dissected by a nexus of narrow pathways, some of which were the remnants of old byways through the more ancient parts of the forest. These paths, created by ancient foresters, reminded her of the old caminos that they had walked during the Mediterranean holidays of her childhood. She knew relatively few of the vast array of paths with any degree of confidence, but had learned a couple of circular hiking routes that began and ended in the woodland to the rear of the cabin. It was the second, slightly easier of these routes that she chose for a mid-afternoon stroll. This particular path took her alternatively through bands of mature and young birch and pine, eventually depositing her in an area of recently felled forest where heather and bilberry flourished and woodlark sang joyously. She had walked this route the preceding autumn, and had stumbled on a rich harvest of mushrooms, bilberries and lingonberries, but it was too early in the year for such treasure to be available. The bilberries were beginning to appear, but were still tiny and bitter compared to the luscious indigo orbs they would become. Come August and September a frantic race would begin, as locals fought to harvest the natural bounty before it could succumb to the hungry mouths of deer, mice and songbirds that shared the woodland floor. Autumn in Finland was a particularly wonderful time for rustic cuisine, with seasonal mushrooms and berries providing perfect accompaniment to fresh grouse, salmon and venison. She could almost taste it.

She eventually came to an area of swamp, all rush and willow and reedmace. This was the place where the cloudberries grew, although few people could stand the mosquitos long enough to pick them. Cloudberries made a particularly delicious jam that reminder her of her maternal grandmother, five years dead but still remembered vividly. Alongside the swamp was the remnant of a lofty larch that had succumbed to the weather and now lay fallen and broken. The larch was a waypoint, reminding her to take the left hand path that looped back to the lakeside. This path almost entirely passed through old pine forest, dominated by vast specimens that had long avoided chainsaw and axe. The narrow, sinuous pathway wove between the trees, showing no evidence of having been straightened by man. She liked how the path deferred to the trees, rather than the other way round. A rich green carpet of mosses cushioned her steps and silenced her movement, the eerie quiet broken only by sporadic birdsong and the distant jackhammer bursts of a woodpecker, carving holes into the soft bodies of the birches at the woodland edge.

The shimmering surface of the lake was visible through the trees when a scent hit her, sharp and acidic like spoiled wine. She traced the smell to the edge of the path, where a large mound of pine straw and birch twigs confirmed her suspicion. Wood ants. The ants were swarming over their nest, clearly agitated and spraying a cloud of formic acid into the still air. She eventually spotted the source of their annoyance, in the still form of a decomposing adder half buried in the nest. She had seen adders occasionally in the forest, but never anything like this. She watched the ants milling around the olive form, almost entirely camouflaged against the dry plant matter from which the nest had been meticulously engineered. She couldn’t fathom how the snake had ended up in this situation, and wondered whether it had entered the nest of its own accord or had been found by the ants and dragged inside as a chance source of protein. Either option made her shudder, and she hastened back to the cabin before her empathy for the snake became too much to bear.

It was only when viewing the cabin with fresh eyes that she realised how disheveled it had become, and how much maintenance would be needed to ensure that it remained habitable. The once vibrant russet paint had become faded and patchy, and the shallow felted roof was ragged and no longer kept all of the rainwater out. She had resolved to make repairs to the cabin herself, but this afternoon’s task was somewhat less challenging. The windows were thick with dust and grime, and she set about filling a metal bucket with soap and water. After an hour’s toil she stood back to admire her work, smiling contentedly at the obvious improvement. Her grandmother’s homemade Marimekko curtains were clearly visible through the revitalised glass, cheerful red and yellow flowers vivid against a bright white backdrop. That was more than enough hard work for one day.

Afternoon became evening, and the girl washed the plates of her evening meal in a small stream that trickled into the lake just south of the cabin. The sun sat low in the western sky, reflecting off the lake surface as she prepared for a brief evening swim. Many Finns would end the day with a spell in the sauna followed by a short dip in the lake, but her cabin had no sauna so the lake would have to suffice. She hadn’t seen anyone else all day, and she felt no sense of shyness and she left her clothes in a pile at the shore and slowly waded into the cool water. Ducking her head below the surface with a gasp, she briefly allowed the water to claim her before breaking the surface and swimming thirty yards out into open blue. She felt free as she swam confidently, enjoying the sensation of movement against her bare skin. After ten invigorating minutes she emerged and wrapped herself in a rough towel, drying her alabaster skin next to the dying embers of her cookfire.

As the day drew to a close the girl sat outside the cabin, watching the sky slowly change colour over the water. She wasn’t quite far enough north to experience true midnight sun, but night was still mercilessly brief in these parts. She sipped from a ‘borrowed’ bottle of Koskenkorva vodka as the horizon cycled through hues of tangerine and magenta, and reflected on a day well spent. She would ride the Tunturi slowly home in the morning, but today had been the respite she needed. She felt energised and able to withstand the hardships of family life once more, and she knew that she could withstand the challenges that lay ahead, as long as she kept reconnecting with the nature that she loved. Her eyelids grew heavy, and she drifted off to sleep filled with thoughts of Sampo, the magical artefact from the tales of Kalevala that bought untold good fortune. The lake was her Sampo, her well of succour and solace. An owl called from the forest as she slept peacefully beneath the stars.

Suburban Sightings

I bought my house just over three years ago. At first glance it’s nothing special, a standard 1980s semi in the suburbs of south Birmingham, but the bricks and mortar aren’t the reason I live here. Not even close. I knew from the first time I viewed the house that it oozed potential, although unlike many prospective buyers I wasn’t thinking about the opportunity for renovation and profit. I was excited by the potential for wildlife encounters, and the reality has surpassed even my most optimistic expectations.

There is a theory about the existence of life on earth that describes the ‘Goldilocks zone’. This theory posits that the conditions that allow complex life to exist are due to the earth being far enough from the sun that it is not prohibitively hot (hello Mercury!), and yet not so distant from the sun that water and other key elements can only exist as ice (hi Uranus!). On a much smaller scale, I think my house exists in a Goldilocks zone of its own. It’s the perfect distance between the concrete jungle of the city to the north and the open countryside to the south, and is located at the confluence of a number of really interesting habitats. These include an extensive allotment site abutting the back garden, a large nature reserve of woodland, grassland and open water within a hundred metres, and wooded canal and river corridors within easy walking distance. It sounds obvious, but the opportunity for adventure increases exponentially when the right conditions are present.

To borrow an iconic piece of dialogue from an iconic film, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe”. I’m not referring to attack ships off the shoulder of Orion though. I’m talking about something much more exciting that that. Allow me to describe a few observations made from within the confines of my house and garden, you’ll see what I mean.

Let’s start with the most exciting encounter of all. After about six months of living here it became very obvious that we had a regular guest that delighted in digging a series of small holes in the lawn. Our first suspicion was one of the numerous grey squirrels that loiter within a large mature oak tree just beyond the hawthorn hedgerow that marks the edge of our back garden. These plump beasts certainly spent a lot of time in the back garden teasing various members of the local cat population, and they’re famed for their tendency to bury nuts and acorns. The squirrels were prime suspects until a particularly extreme instance of lawn remodelling that was clearly beyond the abilities of our grey friends from across the Atlantic. Either we had a mutant squirrel the size of a Labrador, or the culprit was someone else entirely. I decided to solve the mystery once and for all by installing a trail camera on the patio to capture the vandal in the act. Imagine my surprise and delight when our nocturnal gardener was revealed to be a large, hungry badger. Much to the chagrin of my partner I actively encouraged the badger to return, enticing it into the garden with a feast of peanuts and new potatoes. This had two main outcomes. Firstly, I was able to capture some remarkable footage of the badger (imaginatively nicknamed Badgie) feeding and running amok in the shrub beds. Secondly, I managed to whip the badger into a peanut-fuelled frenzy that resulted in most of the flowers in the garden being uprooted and ‘rearranged’. Needless to say this wasn’t well received, and I was advised to stop encouraging the badger with immediate effect. I haven’t seen any evidence of the badger for a few months now, but I’d like to think it’s still out their somewhere embarking on a spree of garden-based terror.

The badger certainly isn’t the only mammal that shares our little postage stamp of suburban space. Foxes are regular visitors to the garden and have created a number of access points from the allotments to the north. So far all of my encounters have been with adults, but I always keep my eyes open for cubs. Despite their undeserved reputation as vermin, a fox cub is one of the most sublime and beautiful things you could ever hope to see. I’ll find one soon. Aside from the foxes and squirrels a host of small mammals call the garden home. We were briefly joined by a brown rat that lived beneath the shed and foraged vegetable scraps from the compost, however this particular guest soon relocated when security around the compost heap was increased to Fort Knox proportions. House mice and field voles have also been seen sporadically, as have small numbers of bats that regularly forage back and forth along the back gardens of my house and the neighbouring dwellings. I’ve only ever recorded two bat species in the garden, common and soprano pipistrelle, however there are a few other species that could feasibly occur. The bats have recently taken to depositing droppings on my car, which I believe they’re doing on purpose. No hedgehogs yet, but I live in hope.

Mammals are just one facet of the broad array of life that I share my home with. Birds are one of the most visible and enjoyable species groups, and I’ve been fortunate enough to see some very interesting species within and above the garden. Perhaps the most impressive bird sighting occurred last summer when I observed a peregrine falcon circling lazily above the house, easily avoiding the unwanted attention of two rather irritated black-headed gulls. The peregrine, the fastest animal in the world no less, remained overhead for five minutes or so before flying purposefully away to the south, most likely in search of a meal. This iconic species has been one of the real nature conservation success stories of the past few years, and birds are now found breeding in almost all towns and cities in the UK. Birmingham and its surrounds are blessed with several pairs, and long may their success continue. Other birds of prey recorded from the garden include the buzzard, kestrel and my favourite of all, the sparrowhawk. Sparrowhawks are impressive and fascinating, and are extraordinarily efficient hunters of small songbirds. Nothing moves quite like a sparrowhawk, which is why they are most often witnessed in the garden as a brief flash of brown as they appear from behind a garden fence and plunge into the crowds of small passerines within our short section of hedge. They do everything with panache and at great speed, which is probably what makes them so exciting. A further species that I’m exceptionally lucky to share space with is the tawny owl that breeds annually within the nature reserve area to the south. During the summer months, when laying in bed with the windows open to escape the stifling heat, we are often rewarded with the distinctive calls of female and juvenile owls, which seem to move from tree to tree to the rear of the house. Male owls are heard less frequently, however this week I had a stunning encounter whilst leaving for work at around 3am. A male owl was sat on the tv aerial of an adjacent house, calling loudly and not fearing my presence at all. We were equals, equally fascinated by one another. These are the experiences I live for.

Aside from the raptors the garden has rewarded me with sightings of herons and egrets, ravens and cormorants. Within the garden itself the hedgerow is well used by house sparrows and blue tits, with the latter species having bred within a nestbox fixed to the shed for the past two years. Sights of starlings, thrushes and corvids are commonplace, and this year a pair of magpies successfully bred in the big oak. Interestingly I’ve never seen many finches in the garden at all, indicating that the assemblage of untidy shrubs offers little appeal to this family of seed eaters.

Reptiles and amphibians are often overlooked when considering garden species, but I’ve been lucky enough to find both. I must admit to cheating slightly by claiming reptiles as a garden species, however I have seen slow-worms on the unmanaged front lawn of a house about 50 metres away, and I’m certain that they occur in the adjacent allotment site. Reptiles are generally quite sparse in the Birmingham area, so I was delighted to find them. I’m determined to lure them into the garden at some point! Common frogs and common toads occasionally turn up in the shrub beds despite the absence of any ponds within 100 metres or more. They often seem to want to head toward the road, and I’m regularly picking them up, turning them around and popping them through the hedge into the allotments, but they probably just turn back and begin their quest anew, driven by the instinct to return to a pond long since destroyed by the house builders. Every year I promise to dig a small pond in the back garden, and so far it hasn’t come to pass. Perhaps this year is the year.

I’m not much of a gardener, which is useful because untidy gardens are often the most interesting ones. I have, however, planted a few shrubs and sown some wildflower seed in a bid to lure pollinating insects to the garden. After a slow start last year it’s starting to show some promise, and I’ve already been rewarded with a good selection of butterflies, day-flying moths and bees. The secret is to try to plant things that flower at different times, so that the insects have something to feed on from spring through to autumn. I’ve also installed a small ‘bug hotel’ that is attached to the side of the shed and provides refuge for solitary bees and wasps. A lot of people either ignore or actively dislike invertebrates, however I think they are endlessly diverse and intriguing. They’re also incredibly important, playing a vital role in our ecosystem by pollinating plants, decomposing organic material and oxygenating the soil. I’m no expert, and I’ve resolved to learn more about this collective of weird and wonderful species, but they certainly deserve our respect.

Overall I feel very fortunate to share such a tiny space with so much diverse and brilliant life. It’s sometimes easy to forget that humankind is just another species, albeit an astoundingly influential one that has shaped the earth according to its needs. We are part of nature, and nature is part of us. Next time you’re in the garden, look around you. You might just find something exciting. You might even meet Badgie.

Why not?

Why not let your lawn grow long?
The bees would be elated.
A meadow born from tidy turf,
With the weekly mow abated.

Why not let your lawn grow long?
The results might be surprising.
Clovers, hawkbits and buttercups,
A wildflower uprising.

Why not let your lawn grow long?
And let the grass climb high.
Who knows which species may appear,
Amid the fescue and the rye.

Why not let your lawn grow long?
And create some habitat.
Nectar for insects and tussocks for voles,
Giving shelter from the cat.

Why not let your lawn grow long?
Especially in the summer.
We can sit out on the patio,
And count flowers of every colour.

Why not let your lawn grow long?
I really think we should.
An act of green rebellion,
Within every neighbourhood.

So why not let your lawn grow long?