Dr Paul Evans FEA, nature writer,
Guardian Country Diarist, poet,
broadcaster, journalist, senior lecturer in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Country diary: a toad dressed to a-wooing go
Wenlock Edge, Shropshire: Toads can control their skin tone and this soft yellowishness showed it was ready to ‘a-wooing go’
How could a purse / squeeze under the rickety door and sit, / full of satisfaction, in a man’s house?” wrote the poet Norman MacCaig in Toad. This toad, a soft yellow-brown and ornamentally purse-like, had come through the back door somehow and was squatting defiantly on quarry tiles. It was seeking asylum from an extraordinarily brilliant morning, unfamiliar heat and ultraviolet light that the weather forecast said was moderate but to toadskin was extreme radiation. It did not seem full of satisfaction to me but then Bufo bufo’s narrowing eyes with horizontal pupils and that broad enigmatic smile may be mistaken for smugness.
The place in the toad’s head that myth says contains a jewel is hidden by an inscrutable mask that is somewhere between divine and reprobate. The bulging paratoid glands on its head, the warty skin excrescences that secrete toxins, and the sumo stance, all suggest repulsion but its soft yellowishness is the colour of fading daffs, with hints of celandine, primrose, agate and potting sand. Toads can control their skin tone and this was being dressed to “a-wooing go”.
Perhaps the toad was migrating back at night to its natal pond and, in the absence of any seductive croaking, wandered awkwardly around a party that hadn’t started yet, hesitating until it had to take cover from the fierce morning light. As MacCaig did, I picked the toad up in “my purse hand”, and put it down next to the pond. There was a very green, duckweedy silence to the water and a line across the surface that may have been drawn by a grass snake.
All around, the April song was filled with dunnock, chaffinch, blackcap and chiffchaff finding their rhythm. Queen bumblebees crashed through the air, investigating holes, bundling through open windows and getting evicted. The air was fizzing with courtship, with all its rules and codes and the making of spaces for instincts to create the next wave of life. The toad seemed reluctant to submit to any amphibious impulses and, with dignity, the sage walked way from the water and under the shed, “a tiny radiance in a dark place”.
Lune Estuary, Lancaster.
Photograph by Maria Nunzia @Varvera
Country diary: avian pipers at the gates of dawn
Lune Estuary, Lancaster: Some oystercatchers piped the first bars of their call and then, as if a signal that dawn had broken, a curlew summoned sunrise
It was becoming light, but not light yet. Water, salt marsh, sky: these were names for things that did not exist in the dark before dawn. Then the glim of something, maybe a moon-piece, as befits the Lune, made its way in to where it was possible to look but not go. There was the cold, face-wash quiet of the air and the slight rub of dry sedge trodden on the road. There was frost, if that smells of silver. A spectral breath returned inside after exhalation, setting the mind afloat. There was a slow opening in the east and then the nets of river fog filled with gold.
As shoals of light swam through the air, the river and the land floated in banded layers of colour, none of which lasted longer than a few seconds. This was a weightless landscape, at liberty and so insubstantial that any ripple could disperse any or all parts of it to drift away in different directions. As the sky blued into being, a bow of geese flew northward and a jack snipe lifted from somewhere indefinable between marsh and water, jinking bat-like out of and back into the mist. Far off, some oystercatchers piped the first bars of their call and then, as if a signal that dawn had broken, a curlew summoned sunrise, its song a weir of keening but without grief.
The morning opened everything up: the reed and sedge thatch scattered across the road from the last high tide; huddles of plastic flotsam in the bank; an upturned armchair on the marsh; junk thrown out of the back of a van; a trickling spring through ash roots; smoking chimneys, towers, turbines; rooks investigating the mystery of how this was not quite the world as they left it last night.
The day was full of daytime things and journeys that returned us 134 miles to Wenlock Edge, where the dusk began to settle. Walking in the woods I found a fragment of blue shell in my pocket that I’d picked up on the Lune Estuary that morning. I put it in the fork of a hawthorn, a gift brought back from the sea. Through the silhouettes of trees, the fields purpled and blackbirds let their last songs trail into echo as a golden light, strange and wonderful from behind the hills, swept across the woods.
Letters the Guardian 6 April 2018
Country diary: a landscape reshaped by molehills
Wenlock Edge, Shropshire: The moles’ unlicensed mining and despoliation sends farmers, greenkeepers and gardeners mad
The last snow lasted a few days but felt like weeks. It vanished in an instant: one spring-like afternoon it felt as if a conjurer had whipped away the tablecloth leaving everything standing.
What had changed, and radically so, was the table. It was as if the ground under the snow had been through a strange transformation and some charm had been working invisibly, resurfacing the countryside. Sheep stared with beatific expressions at earthworks that had appeared around them. In the snow and bitter wind, the sheep had been in a trance and, woken by the vernal equinox, beheld the results of what Jack Kerouac described in The Scripture of the Golden Eternity as “Roaring dreams take place in a perfect still mind.” However, the roaring dreams were not those of sheep but belonged to underground minds of the workers John Clare called mouldiwarps, or “The Mole”, as a gamekeeper of my acquaintance would whisper murderously...
Country diary: the dance of the snow devils
Watching snow devils rise, dance and vanish in the field, as if they were beings composed of moonlight, was strangely compelling.
It was really parky. For the past few days there had been intermittent snow showers, slow-motion flakes drifting without direction that settled into a sugaring. These were separated, like the flick of a switch, by moments of dazzling sunshine and blue skies but bone cold, nothing thawed. There was a storm coming and sheep folded themselves into the lee of tall trees as the wind picked up; redwings left the fields and leaves blew about like lost birds. At first the air was quiet except for the growl of a chainsaw and disconsolate tutting from 30 jackdaws in the high branches facing into the breeze. They were watching, too...
Country diary: cock of the bird table
Wenlock Edge, Shropshire: The chaffinch’s chest is dawn-lit, his head grey, the heraldry of his flash-feathers signalling the breeding season to come
For a brief moment, a cock chaffinch owns the world: a handful of seeds on a metre-square of concrete at the cold end of February. Watch the fighter’s forward shuffle, pushing towards the ropes of his entitlement; the eye-contact with invisible opponents. In a scattering of wild bird food, harvested somewhere else, bagged for the supermarket and broadcast here to rekindle a bond between person and bird, he asserts his antique right to gleanings...
Country diary: a preserved horse chestnut seems a ruin among ruins
Wenlock Edge, Shropshire: Planted to enhance the landscape around a medieval monastery, this tree has been saved from natural disintegration through pruning and lopping.
he big old horse chestnut at Wenlock Priory has been pruned. I expect it’s to do with reducing the great limbs of its crown to prevent the tree falling apart in gales. The amputations have an odd symmetry and, although the idea is for new growth to reshape the tree, it looks now like a ruin among the ruins of the medieval monastery. There may be five centuries between the destruction of the priory following its dissolution in 1540 and the pruning of the tree this winter but they seem so similar, as if made of the same strange fabric...
Country diary: new snow lay on wings of fungi
Wenlock Edge, Shropshire: The one-step-forward-two-steps-back dance between winter and spring had time yet but many of the animals and plants had not
Overnight snow left anonymous gifts. Frost and a chill wind through the trees hardened what remained of the snowfall as the weather moved on, to leave a scattering of unopened envelopes. Snow on fungi: there was something very symbolic about these two kinds of ephemeral structures. The Armilaria fungi living in the rotten stump of a tree may have been what killed it. The fruiting bodies of russet flesh that bloomed from fibrous mycelium, forming a circuit between tree cells and a kind of organic afterlife in the soil, were now holding a frozen package of snow...
Country diary: birds heard but not seen in this glowing glade
Wenlock Edge, Shropshire: The sounds of blue tits, great tits and long-tailed tits were sharp and clear like the clinking of a bag of marbles.
The glade filled with sunlight. It settled like physical stuff, a dusting of the inner circle and its enclosing trees with emerald snow. The green was made by sunlight on moss, on thorn branches, and across the flat ground with mossy stones and the first bristles of dog’s mercury pushing through. Outside the circle was a dark thicket of ash and hazel against an opal January sky. Much of the surrounding scrub had been downed by recent snow and gales. Last night a nameless storm came screaming as if the sky was being shoved through a letterbox. Today, shriven and clear, a new place was emerging from the wreckage...
Like water, plastic migrates to the sea and we know now how terrible that is so congratulations to all those involved in the Lune Estuary plastic clean-up at Lancaster for taking so much harm out of circulation.
Paperback launch of Herbaceous Published 1st February 2018 (UK).
Herbaceous is the paperback edition of Little Toller’s first monograph. Paul Evans’ book is gardening with words – an work of audacious botany and poetic vision which asks us to look anew at our relationship with plants and celebrates their power to nourish the human spirit.
To purchase the book
Country Diary 2018
Radio 4 & 3 broadcasts
Seasonal Images by Maria Nunzia @Varvera
Llangollen Railway is primarily a steam hauled Heritage Railway Line starting at Llangollen Station, located beside the Dee River Bridge, in Llangollen Town, the journey continues for 10 miles upstream, following the River Dee to the town of Corwen. The Dee is classed as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its entire length.
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