Storm Eric blew through our woods, leaving the fields around ivy strewn and covered in leaves swept up from the woodland floor. The children’s half term was ushered in by rain and cold wind. Frustration at the lack of space inside and being wet and cold outside was beginning to make us all grumpy, but then the sun came out and suddenly, everything changed. The wood felt warm on our visits, the sun was hot enough for us to take off jumpers, hats, coats, leaving them draped over tree branches and bushes like brightly coloured flags. It was inviting to cook outdoors again, live the whole day in the fresh air. We spent a loud few days getting back into the swing of things, clearing away the disarray winter had brought to the base camp and storage shed, enjoying seeing the sun again. And, we built the long waited for toilet shed with minimal damage to the children and ourselves. So when half term ended, there was no relief felt by anyone.
Coming up to the wood without the children is a completely different experience to when they are with me. This morning, as I set off, I am filled with the lonely feeling I get when everyone goes back to school. I miss them all. But there is no getting away from the fact that they are loud. When I come to the wood alone I am less likely to scare things away and more able to notice the things that are here. Even just walking through the field on the way to the wood is different. Instead of chatter (or arguing), I hear the deafening bleating of the mother sheep calling to their lambs. Instead of the lambs running as they did last week, they stay and I get quite close to them. They are lovely little things, leaping high into the air for the sheer fun of it, or furiously wagging their tails as they feed, one each side of the ewe.
Once inside the wood, I have time to stop, time to notice the faint smell of garlic at the wood edge and see the thin, curled leaf spires of the wild garlic pushing through the leaf litter. There is a lot of bird song. I have time to spot the tuneful mistle thrush and watch blue tits and great tits bobbing about in the tree tops. There are two little blue tits sitting side by side on a branch. They seemed content to be in each other’s company, their blue caps vivid and joyful in the sunshine. As I watch, they set of to follow each other in a cat-and-mouse game through the twigs.
As I walk, I smell warm earth, damp and rich. The leaves left from the autumn have crisped and are thin, like paper. They look different from when they first fell – weathered, greyer, less substantial. At the side of the path, primrose leaves are showing, lush and deep green.
Instead of lighting the stove in the cosy shed, I throw open the door and let in the feeling of spring. I brush the floor and wipe down my desk, shake spiders out into the sunshine. I wash dusty plates and mugs, give the window a clean. In no time at all, my kettle is whistling on the Gaz stove and I decide today is a teapot sort of day – no teabag chucked hurriedly in a mug for me this morning. With all airing and the crockery drip-drying in the warmth, I sit down with my tea on a plank in the sun and begin to type.
As I write I become aware of a noise, a periodic rustling in the leaf litter. I look about under the nearby yew – I assume it is a blackbird or thrush searching for edible treats under leaves – but I see nothing so I carry on. After a while the sound begins again, and now it’s getting closer. I look once more for the bird but instead I hear the rustle and see leaves move and fall, apparently on their own. ‘Mouse,’ I think, and wait for the next movement. Nothing happens but as I stare at the place I think this mouse is hiding, I begin to make out two eyes peering at me over the leaf litter. Two eyes on top of a head, mostly hidden. I look round for my binoculars to take a closer look, but the moment I take my eyes off the noise-maker’s hiding place, it is lost. Whoever it is in the leaves is marvellously camouflaged; I will have to wait for them to make the next move.
I sit waiting, but the creature remains invisible. It must have known I was watching though; as soon as I go back to my work, the rustle begins again. I pretend to look at a tree while watching the leaf litter out of the corner of my eye. This time I see movement and creature. It is a frog. I get up slowly and go to look. The frog, sitting on the autumns leaves, looks slightly incongruous to me, though why I should not be expecting to encounter a frog wandering through the wood I’m not sure. I’ve seen them in the wood pile at base camp and they have to get there somehow. It is a beautifully smart and healthy looking frog. I notice the fantastically slender front toes, the clear sharp eyes bulbously staring at me. The frog’s colours are perfect for blending into its surroundings; the beautiful green on its sides merges with the moss on the wood floor, its legs are nattily striped in brown and yellow, and its back and front legs are mottled in the same. I watch its progress for a long time before going back to my typing, and I stop to check how it’s doing from time to time. As I sit in the sun, the frog gradually hops its way past me, climbing over tree roots, fallen branches and rocks like an enthusiastic cadet on an assault course, hurling itself at each new obstacle without hesitation. It moves on past the Cosy Shed, eventually disappearing out of view and then earshot. I’d like to have followed it to find out where it was going, but it is time for me to head home.
I leave with time so I don’t need to rush. I see a buzzard being mobbed over the wood and catch a glimpse of the hare – the first time this year. It runs off, but stops before I lose sight of it. I hope, perhaps, it is getting used to me a little. I see a shield bug, ladybirds running over leaves, the odd bee buzzing past and, as I leave the wood, I catch the smell of a fox. Then just as I am reaching the car, I see my first butterfly of the year – a red admiral. What a journey that little form has made to be here, returning from Africa in time for our spring. I watch it fly higher, up over the trees, and I realise this is the beginning. I feel a ripple of excitement. The wood is reawakening from its winter sleep.