I trudge over when the kestrel eventually flies off. The air is thick and potent, full of invisible leftovers. It feels like a moment of value, but what is of value here?
The grass glows gold, dry-creaking and frozen. The boot, paw and claw pocked ground is rigid. It is true – that old saying – that as the days lengthen the cold strengthens. Early February and it's become a bit Siberian. In the mornings I crack ice on the pond like creme brûlée and do the same with other more haphazard watering holes we have dotted around the garden. Buckets, cans, flower pots: Mini ponds, bristling with makeshift life. Cracking the ice gives the animals a chance to steal a drink before the holes freeze over again.
In the park, in the thin blue air I am breathless and traipsing, not really walking. My heart rate can't be much above Resting. Walking the lower, out of the way path where only people with nervous dogs go, I leave handfuls of seed on every third or fourth fencepost. There is no sign of anything but the bigger birds: Pigeons, magpies, crows. A jay.
Some days the liquid spirit flows effortlessly through everything and a hapless bystander like myself doesn't have to do much to feel it in his bones. These are good days to be up early, and today is one of those days. Barring the -8℃ wind chill, it feels like the first day of summer: a well-wiped blue sky, white sun, pale air, dry ground. I am elated, a fibrous being pulling apart to be spun and rethreaded through this shimmering tapestry of blues, golds, lichen greens, ash browns silvers.
Rolling over a hilltop, I spot a male kestrel hunched over dead prey on a fencepost. Looks like he's got himself a mouse. Half a mouse. A talon-full of scarlet blood and dark fur. The kestrel jabs its beak in and out like a child dipping liquorice into a sherbet fountain. He is jittery, so much more vulnerable while eating. A jay watches from a branch above, but never makes his move. Earthbound, the birds are about the same length. In flight the kestrel's wingspan is far wider, but in this configuration the jay appears much bigger, towering over the diminutive falcon.
After his meal, the kestrel fluffs his feathers and sits like an old man wrapped in a downy shawl. I trudge over when he eventually flies off. The air is thick and potent, full of invisible leftovers. It feels like a moment of value, but what is of value here? The curtain opens and I pass through.
Two drops of blood like drips of wax are the physical remains. Spirit remains pulse through the air. Two Octobers ago I caught a fish on the island of Mull that twitched with electric life long after it had been brained and left in a bucket. Even after it had been gutted and filleted. Life hangs on, lingering on the clothes of death. At the base of the fencepost, new leaves unfurl from the wintery woodland litter. I notice that I am standing on a badger sett, surrounded by entrances and exits.
A speck of wren catches my attention. He roots around the bottom of a dead tree with his long beak, pulling insects from the moss. King of the Birds, electric ball of life. Constantly moving. Along a branch into a hole. Out again and onwards! A blinking female blackbird – large and coffee-bean brown – that winter has treated well finds cover under a fallen branch. I would paint her by mixing burnt umber, a touch of Prussian blue and some cadmium yellow. Might be close. The two passerines cross paths going about their business. Two robins draw their own paths across the scene, warily, inquisitively tsseeeepp-ing at me.
I spend ten or fifteen minutes behind the curtain, rapt and completely unrolled. When I trudge back, heart enlarged, it's hard not to reflect on the joys of appreciating small things. I was a baptist immersed and submerged, washed clean in the river of the woodland edge. I can't imagine a larger experience providing any more. Yosemite or spinney in my local park, I have all I need within my field of vision, in fractal detail. On a February morning in Bristol, one is slightly easier to access. I think the appreciation of commonplace things and places (proper looking, real attention) can be transcendent.
How does one draw back the curtain, even for ten minutes? The curtain between inattention and attention. Let’s try making a habit of looking. Open minds and low expectations. Luck? A good weather day? Not necessarily. Today they were factors that came together and drew the curtain back. On another day perhaps the ingredients are different. But believing that the small things are worth noticing (are perhaps everything worth noticing) is the key to spending more time between worlds.
So what do I value here? I come for the kestrel and the mouse, for the worm, the soil, the whole bright world.