Suffolk Love and The Unpredictable

The UnpredictedDSC_0207

The goddess Fortune be praised (on her toothed wheel

I have been mincemeat these several years)

Last night, for a whole night, the unpredictable

Lay in my arms, in a tender and unquiet rest –

(I perceived the irrelevance of my former fears)

Lay, and then departed. I rose and walked the streets

Where a whitsuntide wind blew fresh, and blackbirds

Incontestably sang, and the people were beautiful.

John Heath Stubbs (1918-2006)

DSC_0169I often say I don’t feel I really belong anywhere, that I moved around too much as a child to learn to grow more than the shallowest of roots, but it’s not quite true. I spent seven very formative years in the Suffolk countryside. As a lonesome rather swotty ( and spotty ) adolescent, landscape became my companion and my obsession: the fields around my parents home near Clare that I tried and tried to paint, the Suffolk coast from Snape to Southwold, the Brecks, the saltmarsh sweep between Blakney and Cley in North Norfolk – I fell in love with them as only a dreamy teen can. This week, I’ve been back, wandering the Waveney near Beccles and the beaches, marshes and woods from Southwold and Westleton. I’m in love all over again.

I think what beguiles me so much about these landscapes is the combination of their lived-in-ness and their wildness. They are so human and so used. Farmed fields, boats on the river, criss crosses of paths and tractor tracks, horses and cows, gates and fences. Look at a map and every copse, lane, and field is named, known, noticed – even if not by the humans who live there now; once those names carried a meaning and symbolised a strong emotional and practical connection. The names remind me that we all were once tied to the land by the tightest bonds of necessity.

DSC_0178The wildness is there too: marsh, reedbed, ponds and rivers, islands of woodland and rushy fields, but it’s hidden in the linearity, not visible from a distance, and only there when you come upon it. Unexpectedly.

Thursday 23rd April 

Lost along the Waveney at dusk. This is when the wild expects humans to be tidied away indoors, and you can slip inside it as if passing through the spirit portal to Tir Na Nog – the land of other, the land of dream, and magic and imagination. Within sound of roads and sight of houses I felt I had passed into that secret, wild and distant place. Exactly the feeling I so adored when I roamed the ditches and hedgerows near my parents’ house. Two hares ran through the new wheat, their ears just above the green, their backs loping, like athletes just out of bed and still not warmed up. The difference between hares and rabbits is always breathtaking, shocking almost. Their movement is dangerous, unfettered even at their slowest pace. So not the homely, fluffy bounce of a bunny. Closer to the river, where the soil was velvet cake mix, lapwings zip-zipped, flashing the white undersides to their wings and a snipe jumped up and jinked away. A chinese water deer splashed through a marsh, caught by an illogical loop of dyke. And then, in the last, high, gold light a marsh harrier gleamed out, bronze, low over the ranks of reeds and then soaring high to scold me. Louche, languid, impossibly elegant and effortless – like a beautiful talent, too gorgeous to be bothered to exert itself.

 Monday 27th

RSPB Reserve, Minsmere. As a teen, I used to hate the fact that I had to be in hides, along paths, with people. Now, I found rather liked the sharing, the overheard expertise -and the reverse. I got very excited! Avocets everywhere, as always looking like someone trying to bale a boat with a teaspoon. A mobile carpet of dunlin with their dear little black tummies. A party of tufted ducks, their eyes luminous in the fierce white light of a pin-bright spring day. I found myself marching from hide to hide, eager for the next experience, my heart racing just as it did when I was 12. At noon, the epitome of the unexpected – a pair of otters gamboling in the water, not 200 m from where I sat in a hide with twenty other not especially silent watchers. I watched them through my binoculars, rolling in the water, the light shooting and sparking, emphasizing their liquid curves and catching the droplets on their whiskers. My heart suddenly squeezed and my eyes filled. I sat wiping my tears and trying to analyze what this feeling was: hope. It was hope. Hope for the wild, daily so squashed, so shattered by everything that humans do, and don’t do. But here were otters, with an audience and a back drop of a nuclear power station, and hope had flown up, joyful, jinking like a snipe into the blue, to say we might not ruin everything, it might just be ok.

DSC_0204Monday 27th Dusk

I walked out over the footbridge from Southwold Harbour to Walberswick marsh and turned north up the river. An island of purple cloud dispersed the atomic tangerine of the sunset down onto the river, staining the whole luscious curve upstream, raspberry. In the field below the pig farm, a hare limped along, more than 500m from me but still aware of my presence and wary. I stopped watching in case she was a jenny, going to give here leverets their brief suckle. A pair of shelduck peeped anxiously at my approach, paddling about on the mud, turned metallic apricot in the sunset. A curlew stepped out in front of them, like a lead actor upstaging the supporting cast. Once again I got that feeling of having passed through into a secret world, but now I was out of place, noticed, making the residents self conscious. I turned back, and stood behind the fence on the other side of the bridge, scanning the fields and the reeds. By chance, I ran my binoculars along the fence at the bottom of the dyke. A pearly heart-face looked right at me, eyes dark as space, through the intervening tangle of twigs.A barn owl, a female by the look of her, with a biscuit-coloured scatter across her white breast.  I was all too visibly human, outlined against the sky but tried the old trick anyway, ‘kissing’ my palm noisily to generate the high squeaks that to a barn owl signal ‘Vole Dinner Is Served’. She looked my way, but unconvinced took off. Barn owl flight is miraculous, the words float, glide, soar just don’t do enough to describe its other worldly quality. It seems to completely defy all normal laws and require a new vocabulary. Perhaps other langugeas have better words, but in the meantime: flap, flutter, float; up a little, down, glide, is what she did. I tracked her all the way from the footbridge, down to a gate at the end of the field next to the car park for Walberswick beach, with the rooves of houses behind, little sheds, house lights coming on. Then back, with the rigging of the yachts and fishing boats in my binocular’s field along with that wild, white owl, more silent than breath. All her beauty and wildness was magnified by the proximity to the gear and doings of humans.

Wednesday 29th

Now I’m back in Wales. Looking at the hills, thinking about the difference between them and the flat I’ve just come from.  It’s the surprise of the those linear, layered East Anglican landscapes that gets into my soul. They are undpredictable. You come upon wildness suddenly because a flat landscape keeps it secrets until the last moment. Everything is unpredicted there, until you arrive at it and it flies up like a spell. 


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