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{ 1 } 1. THE WINTER HESITATION Ah. Long ago, winter was dark and always cold. These days the east country sighed silence. There was not a natural sound. A neighbor’s boiler leaked a condensation cloud, a blinking plane gassed high above. There were neither dogs nor barking deer. The birds had flown, or were dead. Jupiter was bright on the dome of night sky. By Cassiopeia flowed two shooting stars, a streak of silver, a short golden tear of the fabric. Underfoot crunched frozen snow. The raw night heaved hard, beating at walls. It had been warm. In new terra-cotta, four Japanese maples were potted. Months will pass before they leaf. The clutter by shed and oil tank was now neat, all the while the slow black rooks cawing and spinning on the gray canvas of cloud. Down here songbirds were winning territories, yet it was not spring. In afternoon dusk, there were branches of apple and pear to prune. From the saw and the sweat, logs appeared. It was a simple business. They will season a year. It was much work for a modest pile. At the far end of the garden, a spotted woodpecker thrummed. Still there was a hesitation on the land. It was a time for calling. At Ronald Blythe’s, upriver on the Wormingford side, we talked over tea. The cat shed white hair, the yeoman’s house creaking in the cold. It will be Benjamin Britten’s one-hundredth anniversary: Ronnie had written of his time by the sea. It will be the coastal floods’ sixtieth too, at the end of the month. As another dreaming darkness fell, we came to talk of poet laureates of the past, and Ronnie handed on a tall walking stick made and given by John Masefield. At home, somewhere on shelves was “Sea Fever” and rhythms of lonely sea and sky, ways long passed and much forgotten. Across oceans, Australia burned, trees flaming under scalding skies. Here pressure dropped, winter gathered up, winds rushed from afar. There were atmospheric roars of disapproval. Shrub and tree shook and took fright. Low cloud departed, the mercury fell to minus 10 o C. The sun rose into a blinding blue sky, the land JANUARY { 2 }     The East Country briefly bright. Silent cold froze small birds, encouraged cats, soured dreams. On the farms, it was days for ditching and hedging; in former times for cutting reed and catching pike and eel. The Christmas tree had been stripped of decoration. It was discarded, its time was over. The honeysuckle sprouted tiny leaves, the lawn gone to moss. The kids were back in London, out much with friends. From deep in the country, you easily forget the city appeal. A reminder: winter is winter, not the beginning or end, it happens every year. Yet in the grip of cold, still the gaze is drawn upward, the dream for longer days and laughing in the sun. More snow fell, strangely from the south. Plant pots were rimed with white. Still the emails kept coming, though the fields were icy and roads impassable. And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over. John Masefield, 1878–1967 5 2. ONE GLOSSY IBIS AND MANY TICKS Out on the salt marsh was a tropical bird. The glossy ibis was on the scrape, probing pools with curved bill. The flood tide swallowed sinuous creeks, rising so far that Geedon was gone under glassy miles of sky. The burgundy bird fed on. A flock of avocet glittered on cold Colne River, disappearing as they shivered, whirling white over ranked shield duck. On two marsh posts were hard-eyed peregrine. There will be panic and plucking, before long. Far away at Mersea Island, Where a marsh rector wrote of wetland drama, A yacht swung at anchor, Facing now the curling current. In minutes marsh grass and sea lavender reappeared. Such tidings: Winter ibis, avocet back, the tide on the ebb, The economy in debt. Not long ago, locals looked on muck and marsh as a larder, even as mosquito bit. All was eaten, winkle and oyster, rabbit and deer, samphire pickled, flounder found by barefoot children, mushroom from the flats. In modern times, such { 3 }     January hunting and gathering has almost gone, ruined by cheap chicken; then recession sparked a poaching revival. In those days, birds were snagged in herring nets staked on...


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