From the fields
Heading out with a gun in search of one for the pot on a dank November day, John Lewis-stempel lets a pheasant get away, but bags a plump pigeon
John Lewis-stempel heads out on a dank November day in search of one for the pot
ITHINK the thing I like most about November is the feel of the trigger against finger, metal against flesh, which is a sort of metaphor for the first month of winter—cold meeting heat. I was out this morning with the Baikal .410. It’s my children’s shotgun, but it’s light to carry and has the allure of the illicit. The .410 is the poacher’s gun, particularly in the folding version, hidden beneath a long coat, or, in the case of Tom, the village milkman when I was a child in the 1970s, under the vinyl seat of the van for a passing pot at a pheasant. In Herefordshire, we call this a proper drive-by shooting.
The rain was thick this morning; it began as the sort of dollopy rain that collects on top of the cap before trickling down the back of the neck slowly. Like sweat. Not even the collar of my Barbour Beaufort, buttoned tight, kept the rain out. On the contrary, the collar was a funnel that directed the rain down my spine, so I was soaked to the bone.
The earth ached with sullen cold. I didn’t take the dog. Even the dense coat of a black labrador is permeable to such downpouring and, besides, there are times when you want to be melancholically alone in the element of rain.
First off, I skirted around a half acre of millet we have down as a conservation crop. My every footprint pressed into the earth: a mould that filled instantly with blancmange-pink water. A solitary, bedraggled cock pheasant stumbled out of the bowed stalks. For a moment, the pheasant loomed blurrily in the deluge, copper-brilliant, then the rain obliterated him away. I didn’t pull the trigger, although I wanted his warm flesh.
The onset of winter is when one craves meat. The country festival of St Martin, celebrated on November 11, was when the cattle were slaughtered for ‘Martinmas beef’. We humans, just like the animals, need to put on fat for winter. The poet Edmund Spenser conceived November as Glutton in The Faerie Queene, ‘grosse and fat,/as fed with lard, and that right well might seeme’. The old people of the isles knew the need for slaughter in November; the Anglo-saxon name for November was blotmonap, ‘blood month’.
Anyway, I resiled from shooting the pheasant due to the pity of it. He was too wet to flee and I knew him and his bold, white collar. All the summer long, he had lived in my fields and copse, amusing me with his mincing Ming Emperor arrogance. The rain—and this seemed impossible— became heavier, pulsating towards me in vertical, drenching curtains. I gasped, fishstyle for breath. There was no view. No Garway Hill. No Black Mountains. No May Hill. All gone, as if they had never been. Drops of rain blurred the windscreen of my eyes and lashes are less than wipers.
Head down, I butted into the rain, instinctively hunching my shoulders, bending almost hag-double. Rain makes geriatrics of us all. Want to know your future? Venture into a deluge. The shape you assume then is the shape of your end days.
On autopilot, I slid-sloshed down the bank meadow, towards the brook. The Baikal, held horizontal and low, was comforting, like holding the hand of a sister.
On the flat land before the brook, where all the water of the last week had congregated, drowned worms, in dead white Ss, floated in the circular hoof marks of the cows, miniature pools an inch deep. The cows themselves had long been driven to higher ground.
The rain beat on the weakening shield of my jacket. The brook thrashed around, as it tried to contain the excess of water. Then, an instinct, some brief but true connection to the essence of everything, made me raise my eyes towards the swimmy black skeletons of the bankside alders. Two lightning flashes in the murk: the wing bars of a woodpigeon banking.
I spun and took the shot. The safety was already off (no poacher, not even on his own land, keeps the safety catch on) and a 3in magnum cartridge loaded. Nine times out of 10, I would have missed a woodpigeon turning at high speed, agile as a sparrowhawk (in flight, the woodie loses dumpiness), but on this bleak morning, the bird came down. The report of the gun was swallowed in the noise of the rain, and the surf of the brook. Only a nano-second puff of orange at the barrel tip was evidence I’d fired. I hurried to the downed bird, before the rain could disfigure the corpse. On its back, the pigeon clawed for sky it would never sail again. Just as the musician is delighted by the single plucked string as well as the big sound of the orchestra’s bowed violins, the naturalist in winter finds beauty in small things. I never before that moment saw, really saw, the woodpigeon’s prettiness, the slenderness of its neck and the rose-china blush of its soft breast. And I remembered how its sweet lowing makes a summer’s evening. It’s not the devil that lives in the detail, it’s the divine. Of course, someone will complain that no bird lover should kill birds. However, I farm for wildlife. Cannot wildlife provide me with a meal? Is that not fair? Or at least a decent bargain with Nature? These were some of my thoughts this morning, on a walk in the rain.
Twice crowned victor of the Wainwright Prize for nature writing, for ‘Where Poppies Blow’ (2017) and ‘Meadowland’ (2015), John Lewis-stempel is the 2016 British Society of Magazine Editors Columnist of the Year
‘A solitary, bedraggled cock pheasant stumbled out of the bowed stalks’