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{ 19 } 12.  DISTURBING HINTS OF SPRING A long time ago, many a journey was a kind of pilgrimage. It was not just about the sacred mountain, but about being in each place along the way. The arrival at the end would be the end. The wind would roar, rain fall, the buds become a little greener. Govinda wrote, “There is no more need for any armour.” Add a stone to the cairns stacked by those who passed by too. The days grew longer. One morning the sky flared molten lava, the low clouds streaked and prominent, drawing the eye, inviting travel. Dawn lit the valley with the limitless blue of hope. The river surged higher, the fields drenched and undrained. There was lightness on the land. More rain was due. The body changes on a long journey. Hunger, feeling the cold, desire for comfort given up. Itch and insect bite, bruise and aching joint. Sometimes feet are blistered, each step painful. Yet one step follows another. Wind tore in. Rain was wrought from air, Water spilled from rivers. The Somerset levels were flooded, For weeks. Storms crushed the coast, A railway line washed away. The house was cold and quite dark on arrival home. The power was out, a bare evening beckoned. The camping stove sat on the cold cooker, candle in saucer, jacket on. Later an unexpected electronic ping, and there was light. The boiler clumped into action, pipes ticking. Quiet fell more rain, pattering on glass. A rook cawed, the pen scratching on paper. MARCH { 20 }     The East Country Up the valley at Rushbanks Farm, six roe deer pushed from valley-floor spinney by the rising river were grazing in the meadow. Farmer Garth Bates stopped to talk about deer and cattle, the wood never flooded before. It was disturbing. He and the other family farmers of the valley have gathered up animal feed to drive west to the Levels. Cattle cannot come back: no one dares let TB jump east. Those farmers must sell, the prices on the floor. The rain dashed in again. The valley was a swamp, trees wandering out into new lakes. The power failed again. No wonder the company boss moved quickly out of the village. In the garden a pencil cypress had tipped too far, and would come down. The log fire glowed, the only source of inside heat. The tree fell under the ceaseless saw. A robin hopped up, a meter away, then inches. It tipped its head, one way then the other. Feathers were ruffled in the wind. Planing buzzards called. There was moss to scratch away from lawn, invasive wild garlic to clear from daffodil and crocus. Pulling weeds, soaking up rare sun. Autumn leaves had covered beds all winter, now were raked in piles. The soil warmed. It was a time for watching, to note each plant and bird. Flocks of tit and goldfinch were at the feeders. Robins have learned to hover inside a blur of wings, and swoop away. A woodpecker laughed. After all the work and aches, it was a time for simply sitting in the sun and reading. Now came a honeybee, and another. Two years ago, there were none all year. Many midge swarmed, a ladybird crawled across the page. An owl hooted, in the full flush of daylight, Unhinged by hints of spring. After the rain came mist, razored away by morning sun. The garden was singing. Above were vocal buzzards. Come north, swift and swallow, there is much for you already. Last week, a sparrowhawk dashed across the garden, swerving fast, and was gone. The next day, driving down the valley: two more sparrowhawks perched on posts, and a peregrine flashed fast over field. The land had come alive. 5 13.  THE BEACH CROWS The east wind tore up the Thames, the estuary gone to sickly green. White horses raced wildly at the city. Boats were tight on anchor chains, waiting out the storm. On this side was Southend’s iron pier, if vertical, higher than Britain’s tallest { 21 }     March mountain. It was closed, again, a careless captain, said the press, but hard to miss. Planners built the pier for paddle steamers and those caged in city smogs: in the late 1940s, 7 million summer visitors walked the red carpet. They drank down their hard-won wages, the town prospered. Now the promenade was abandoned, the beach empty. Music leaked from amusement arcade, where the house always wins, flickering light...


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