AN EVENING IN JULY
Nearly twenty years ago on a perfectly still and sun dripped evening, I walked with a neighbour into the hills nearby. Many times I have explored this memory; replaying it clearly in my mind like watching an old film. A moment preserved, in which fields before me were bathed in gold and the ground beneath my feet erupting in uneven tussocks. Across gentle slopes my friend and I marched with excited purpose, before arriving at a small copse of sycamore and oak. Situated on a steep south facing slope, one sitting at the top would look down through mature woodland, skirted neatly below by an ambling stream. Together we took our place and waited. I felt my breath caged within my chest and daring not to make a sound, I peered over the edge into another world. Every leaf and head of grass fringed in pure and delicious sunlight. And on an evening in July, a badger raised its nose to sniff the summer air. Perhaps he paused to decipher the peculiar human scents intruding on his woodland abode – in any case, he decided not to mind. One badger nose preluded three more, and all of a sudden, dusk stillness was broken by snuffling and scraping and the intoxicating tumbling of badger mischief.
Recently I began to contemplate this experience more and more frequently – carefully trying to pick out the route we had walked all those years ago. My elderly neighbour had not returned to her badgers since that night; a friendship stolen by frailty and a secret bestowed to a child. A child who grew up to become a naturalist, now constantly wondering about the badgers of her homeland. And then one evening without really thinking about it, I knew the hour to return had arrived. The day growing old. The path unmarked but the way somehow obvious. I pulled up my car along a narrow back road, feeling for familiarity, I entered an adjacent barley field and stepped back in time. Like greeting an old friend the land yielded and I headed back into the hills on an almost identical summer evening. Feet on tussock again. Over a gate and under a broken fence. As before, hares loped up the field ahead to observe thoughtfully from higher ground (I’ve long suspected they possess some godly wisdom, not entrusted to us mere humans.) And there in the distance - badger wood sitting patiently intact on its southerly slope. Nearly two decades on, I took the place of my seven year old self and waited.
I was so transfixed on the entrance to the sett that the graceless trundling of a badger almost ploughing into my left side took me somewhat by alarm. Poor thing! To be left in peace for nearly two decades. I’m sure the last thing a happily contented badger expects to find is a human being planted directly on its path. Indeed, he looked entirely flabbergasted – if such an emotion can be assigned to a badger. I held my breath again. They were still here; safe in this ancient sett, carved into a hillside many moons ago by knowing badger paws. Two more sleek snouts appeared for an hour of unashamedly noisy rooting through undergrowth and satisfying behind-ear-scratches. A moment re-lived; I savoured it until finally each badger in turn crossed the stream and headed off for an evening of foraging. A fox arrived. Bats flitted. Sunlight seeping through the canopy gradually melted away into the earth; concluding what was again, a very magical evening.
So the badgers departed for their nightly wanderings. And I was left with that strange nostalgia, which somehow feels reassuring yet simultaneously uncomfortable in being presented with how much one has grown. Throughout my life, I have been blessed enough to have several such intimate encounters with British fauna. And they are by far the most important and treasured milestones on this journey of mine. Perhaps the moral of this ramble is to always dedicate your time to experiences, rather than things. Time spent in pursuit of the material world might entertain you for a day – but an hour spent in nature will entrance you for a lifetime.
Events like these are as much imprints in our memory as they are vital components in the construction of our character. My life’s passion is for insects – but I know its endurance can be somewhat contributed to an old encounter with one monochrome faced, bucket pawed, digger of worms.
I am beyond relief, that in this time of persecution, pesticides and progress; I have found at least one small fragment of countryside, utterly unchanged.