#PatchChat: Between Stubbled Wheat Fields and the Railway


Rancid and prolapsed blackberries hang limp amongst the swathes of wilted nettles. My patch along the old railway line is certainly undergoing a significant change. It’s autumn now, I suppose, and there is an undeniable air of tiredness to the place: the 9am sunlight is paler than it was this time in August, and its warmth has yet to dry the thick blades of grass along the trail.

With its cropped grass path alongside the railway embankment to my left, and acres of open farmland to my right, my regular walks through this place have given me the opportunity to escape the pressures of working life, finding solace in the corridors between flat expanses of oil-seed rape and wheat. As I step out into the open from within an archway of hawthorn and elder, two juvenile foxes spot me and freeze for a moment. They’d been playing in the rape stubble in a vast field unchanged since my last visit, save for a heavier yellow tinge to what stems and leaves remain in the soil. The pups are a thick rust colour, even darker around their mouths and paws. I stay as still as I can, hoping they’ll forget me and carry on, but they turn and dart into the reeds of the drainage ditch and the copse beyond.

I walk on, my shoes and socks already soaked from the wet grass. Looking down, I’m surprised to see quite so much life around my trainers. Rather than the intense buzzing of flies and bees from the summer months, the bedewed grasses swarm silently with crane flies, lurching and bumbling with seemingly little interest in direction. Dotted along my route, a number of large brown slugs make their way to safety before the sun grows high enough to dry them out, and I count at least thirty pockets of webbing hung with moisture, forming the homes and livelihoods of spiders in the still-shaded patches.

To the song of a robin, somewhere near the brick train bridge, I look up at the sky for several moments, watching it slowly define itself as the sun burns off any residual cloud cover, unveiling a canvas of electric blue slashed with vapour trails.

Much further down, an off-road truck turns in the middle of the field then stops near a tree marking the boundary between path and farmland. I walk towards the two men that climb out, seeing them set up decoys to lure-in unsuspecting wood pigeons. Before reaching the two stuffed birds rotating on a revolving iron bar, and the six other decoys scattered around the spinning mechanism, the truck wheelspins out across the field, leaving only the gunman perched in his hide beneath the horse chestnut. I wish him a good morning without slowing my pace, and despite his orange foam earplugs and look of severe concentration, he politely returns the gesture.

Fields stretch out on either side for miles, the railway dissecting the landscape with brutal indifference to the daily plights playing-out beyond its tracks.

By 10am the sun is a lot warmer, and the drying grass, nettles, brambles and thistles along the stone embankment seem electrified with the sound of crickets. Their incessant calls pause for a second or two as my shadow passes over them, but soon return once I am out of sight.

Having crossed the track and walked down to the turn in the river, I pass an elderly gentleman in a shirt and corduroys. I ask him if he’s seen anything.

‘What, you mean wildlife?’

‘Yes,’ I say, unsure what else he could conceivably think I was referring to given my general appearance, location, and binoculars hanging from my neck.

He says he hasn’t seen a lot, but that a kingfisher and a heron used to frequent this slightly wider section of the watercourse that runs all year round underneath the rusted iron bridge.

Alone again, I sit in the same spot as last time and read for a while. As the creatures around me grow accustomed to my presence, I lift my gaze from the pages to see a grey heron passing overhead. Probably the same one as last time. I think that perhaps I’ve deterred it from landing. Moving my head very slowly, I watch greenfinches busy in the hawthorns and rosehips just back from the steep banks. A small mouse or vole appears to watch me from beneath a fallen leaf before returning to a safer spot within the sharply-thorned undergrowth. I remain crosslegged until my feet start to feel numb. When I stand, a pied wagtail undulates through the air to the safety of an ash tree. I put my book away, taking several long gulps of water, and hear the distant mewing of a buzzard without being able to see it.

This stretch of the walk is bleak, especially now all the crops have been harvested. The landscape – regimented monocultures in all directions – looks more devoid of life than ever. But there is hope: the corridors along which I pass continue to surprise me. The assemblage of life there may only extend as high as my knees as I traipse through, avoiding half-dug rabbit holes and nettles which have managed to retain some semblance of a sting, but it is life nonetheless. Confetti-like butterflies float past at eye level, eventually giving way to small dragonflies which flit and zip with a low hum: some alone, others already interlocked in preparation for the laying of eggs. Their site is a large puddle that sits between two hedges. The water is clear, but the rich brown mud retains the recent imprint of a tractor tyre. One pair of dragonflies hover close to the surface, with, I presume, the female thrusting her abdomen into the water. I watch for a while. Several pairs move in the peripheries of the puddle, some crash landing into the dry cut wheat stems that pop and crackle in the warmth of the sun.

I reach the end of the field, having trudged up through the last of the still-damp grass towards the concrete road. Pausing in the shade of a young cluster of beech, I am warned-off by a blue tit perched on the branch of a single rowan tree, already weighted with lush red clusters of berries. I try to translate the rapid whir of its wings into language but fail. Cooling, and resting there away from the sun’s rays, I write in my notebook that I’ve been surprised by the abundance of life in my patch at this time of year, and write that I was lucky to have found it. Perhaps people such as the farmer, the old man, or the camouflaged shooter see this place differently, and freight it with a different purpose or value in the world. But it pleases me to have exercised my perception, intuitively learning when and where to sit quietly, but also in my keenness to see things – not just for their size or rarity – but for their abundance and tenacity living their lives only an inch from the ground.

Amidst the metered pup-pup of a distant shotgun I hear an aerial mewing once again. I look beyond the courtyard of a derelict farmhouse to see a buzzard circling clockwise, up high out over the railway. It continues to ride whatever updraft it has found and I continue to walk. I smile. I imagine my next cup of tea and a long soak in the bath. I’ll need both to mull over what I’ve seen this morning. Then later, when it’s nearly dark, I’ll sit down to write about the lives lived between stubbled wheat fields and the railway.
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Writing about people and the environment, from the New Forest in Hampshire and the University of Nottingham. Social: @markranger01

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