‘You won’t get phone reception out here,’ he said, cradling the rifle under one arm and resting his other hand over the barrel. He wore green overalls and wellington boots, with a dirty shirt underneath. Grey stubble covered his cheeks and chin and his dark eyes glistened in the fading light.
‘I’m just trying to take some photos of the sunset,’ I said.
There was a pause as he thought about that.
‘Some people ask me what I do.’ He began to move the rifle in his hands. ‘Do you know what I tell them?’
‘What do you tell them?’
He brought the gun up into position, the sight trained on some imagined prey on the horizon. ‘I tell them I’m a fourth generation pest controller and this is my office.’ He pretended to fire, adjusting his stance for the unshot round. ‘Where no body wants to be, seeing things that no body wants to see.’
‘Cool,’ I said as we walked, hoping that very soon he’d stop behind a hedge rather than continue to walk uninvited by my side.
‘I know where all the animals are around these parts,’ he continued. ‘Badgers, owls, foxes…’
‘Cool,’ I said again. There was a beat of silence as he seemed to weigh something in his mind.
I wished him a good evening and quickened my pace across the brick railway bridge. I turned to see him nodding silently, one hand raised level in reply, his gaze already forward to his chosen spot beside the barn.
It was hard to shake the thought of being shot, alone, in the dark, on the outskirts of farmland and an old steam railway. For that reason, I walked quicker than I’d intended, and for quite some distance until I finally stopped to eat and drink by the bend in the watercourse.
The decision to visit my patch was a last minute one, settled as I drove home from work towards what would surely be an incredible sunset, on a balmy evening as October began. After running into the local shop to buy a snack and a bottle of water, I drove down the lane as far as I could towards my usual walk. I kicked off my shoes and slipped into my boots at the back of the car, wrapped myself in my birding jacket and arranged the contents of my pockets: phone, wallet, keys, bread, apple, water.
After my encounter, I did the thirty minute walk to the bend in twenty. I sat in the cropped grass and watched the sky. The silhouette of the heron was visible in the water under the bridge, the same place I always see it. The surface of the water was electric tigerprint with dark shadows of the riverbank crossing the reflection of the sky. After finishing my water I lay with my head back, watching the slowly morphing clouds, and the fading light of the day’s sun dropping slowly behind the curvature of the earth as if trying to resist the pull of some unseen hand.
A buzzard, somewhere out in the halflight, made one last mewing call. A blackbird and then a robin, restless perhaps at my presence, produced agitated song from the hedgerow behind me – their large eyes in comparison to their body allowing another thirty minutes of activity before settling for the night.
All else seemed quiet. Not even the water running through the reeds in the channel could be heard. No other song. The sky grew darker as what pale light remained in the west was overcome by the dark astral depths of night. A faint amber glow hovered low in the far distance around the main road, the occasional motorbike or truck heard only when the breeze shifted. An intensely bright star shone above me for a moment, moving steadily south followed by the faint drone of jetengines, distorted by clouds and air into a reassuring rhythm like the wash of a stoney beach.
Rested, and calm once more, I continued my walk: away from what stubble remained alongside the railway, cutting back through freshly ploughed fields and back to town. Two tractors were parked facing one another at the edge of the byway, illuminated by the wan light of the moon. The long, straight walk up the track to the concrete road seemed to last forever in the dark, unaided by visual cues on which to base my progress. I tried to stay alert for hares or badgers out in the fields beside me, but instead I heard mice or voles or shrews a hundred times in the low scrub as I trudged clumsily in my boots. Three crows left an oak tree as I passed beneath it, flying low out to a safer roost. Bedewed grasses and wilted nettles glistened white in the place where dragonflies had mated some weeks ago.
At the road the overhead cables buzzed ominously against a phosphorescent sky. I lay in the road. My eyes passed up and down the nearest pylons willing the silhouette of some night time hunter to appear there but none did.
The country park was dark and yet unquiet. Out beyond the lake a man shouted over and over the name of his dog, and emerging from the willow and birch there in the distance the pale Vs of flashlights swiping from side to side. I sat on one of the park benches and looked at the sky again. More stars were visible now it was truly dark and I wondered what wildlife I’d missed. What had gone unseen around me in the night? Despite being out for several hours with no distractions save for residual thoughts of a grizzly shootout in the pitchblack, I had seen and heard very little. Not that it ever particularly wanes, but it is with thoughts such as these that my reverence for the natural world is palpably restored. With one leg crossed over the other and my elbows resting on the back of the bench, I smiled to myself thinking of the resilience of animals in the darkened hedgerows and moonlit expanses of stubbled crops. Despite my best efforts and willingness to look and listen with great intensity, they eluded me. If I needed a good dose of humility this was it.
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