Fall­ing prey to the owl’s charms

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Il­lus­tra­tions by Philip Ban­nis­ter John Lewis-stem­pel

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’

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