Falling prey to the owl’s charms
John Lewis-stempel welcomes the last of his lambs and watches the barn owl on its deadly hunting expedition
On a starlit April night, John Lewis-stempel welcomes the last of his lambs and witnesses a ghostly apparition in the shape of a barn owl on a silent, but deadly, hunting expedition
INEED some lamb colostrum, so drive over to Countrywide in Ledbury. Other agricultural merchants are closer, but I want an excuse to drop in at Dymock in the Vale of Leadon for my annual Edward Thomas pilgrimage. Thomas lived on and off at Dymock from 1914 to 1915, where a sort of poets’ colony had been founded. Robert Frost and Rupert Brooke were also members.
The countryside around Dymock is hardly unknown to me; I was brought up in the same neck of the Gloucestershire-herefordshire border and my grandparents farmed on the kindly, overlooking Woolhope hills. Dymock is how you think of England: rolling meadows, hangars of trees, trotting silver streams, red telephone boxes, deep lanes and thatched abodes.
A century ago, Lt Edward Thomas, Royal Garrison Artillery, was killed in the battle of Arras. He died for Dymock and English scenes like it. When war came on August 4, 1914, Thomas and Frost were sitting on an orchard stile near Little Iddens, Frost’s black-and-white cottage on the lane from Ludstock to Dymock. Thomas was no jingo; he refused to hate Germans or grow ‘hot’ with patriotic ardour for Englishmen. He was also 36 and exempt from military service.
‘An owl, finally and irrevocably, convinced him to do his bit for King and Countryside’
So why did he volunteer to fight? He loved the Dymock landscape and that love imposed a duty of protection: ‘In April here I had heard, among apple trees in flower, not the first cuckoo but the first abundance of day-long-calling cuckoos; here the first nightingale’s song… All I can tell is, it seemed to me that either I had never loved England, or I had loved it foolishly, aesthetically, like a slave, not having realized that it was not mine unless I were willing and prepared to die rather than leave it as Belgian women and old men and children had left their country.’
If Thomas were with me today as I tread ‘Poets’ Path II’ (there is a burgeoning Dymock Poets tourist business) he would have wept a little. Hedges have been grubbed out since 1914 to make bigger fields; if you squint, in the way you do at a pixelated picture, you can make out the shadowlines in the earth where the old hedges used to stand. Grass glows false with nitrogen-induced verdancy. A distant silver pool turns out to be polytunnels. But then, we have to eat and it’s easy to become maudlin about the destruction of the British countryside.
I think about Thomas a lot tonight, as I sit under the stars, on the last night of lambing, my back against a straw-bale sheep shelter. Under my legs, the spring grass inflates, so I’m cushioned and com-
fortable. Warm too, in the starlight, the south breeze and the wraparound smell of sheep’s wool. There’s plenty of idle time; the last five ewes to birth are old stagers and hormonally synchronised, so the lambs plop out without me doing the Herriot thing. But, once you’re awake at 3am, sleep is nigh impossible until, strangely, it’s dawn and time to wake.
I try to read the code of the stars; I can only manage to join the dots for the major constellations. The windows in a cottage over by St Weonards suddenly light up and glitter madly. Someone on an early shift? A baby waking up?
From the paddock, I can see May Hill on the south horizon, backlit by the smear of orange street lamps in Gloucester. May Hill is where Thomas and Frost rambled to on their ‘talks-walking’.
Thomas was never decisive. Frost’s globally renowned poem The Road Not Taken is less an existential statement, more a joke about Thomas’s endless havering in all things. Although Thomas realised the necessity of fighting for England’s fields, woods and streams, he was nonetheless molested by irresolution. An owl, finally and irrevocably, convinced him to do his bit for King and Countryside:
All of the night was quite barred out except An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry Shaken out long and clear upon the hill, No merry note, nor cause of merriment, But one telling me plain what I escaped And others could not, that night, as in I went. And salted was my food, and my repose, Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice Speaking for all who lay under the stars, Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.
This was no poet’s posing. Thomas was so connected to Nature that he considered his true countrymen to be the birds. Or the trees. When someone queried the meaning of his poem Aspens, about a stand of the trees beside a village crossroads, he replied: ‘I am the aspen.’
It’s while I’m looking at the dark dome of May Hill, with its distinctive nipple of pines, that the ghost comes to the paddock. Back and forth, the white spectre floats. Only when the barn owl is almost over me can I see its soft wings stroking the night into complicit silence. His head hangs down, an inverted satellite dish seeking signals from the rough grass a yard below.
On his fourth traverse of the paddock, the owl flutters, then drops; the trailing legs, which had previously seemed a lazy afterthought, extend forward into telescopic pincers. In the immense pale quiet, I hear the death of the vole: a semi-quaver of wail as it recognises its anciently ordained fate, that the talons of archaeopteryx will someday puncture its back.
The sheep start up an indignant crowd roar at the interloper who has landed among them. With the alien inscrutability of its kind, the owl stares at the sheep, dismisses them and throws back its head to gobble the vole.
I understand the owl’s message. It’s still countryside worth fighting for.
John Lewis-stempel is the 2016 British Society of Magazine Editors Columnist of the Year (Specialist Interest & Business Brand). He is also the author of the ‘Sunday Times’ bestseller ‘The Running Hare’ and ‘Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field’, which won the 2015 Thwaites Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing
‘I understand the owl’s message. It’s still countryside worth fighting for’