I am curled into the bole of a birch tree, listening to the rain. Overhead, the wind soars in the tree tops like a rumour of the sea, heard in the distance beyond the curve of the land. A clatter of wood pigeons spills from one of the trees, grey silhouettes against a greyer sky. I flushed two deer as I walked through the wood, their white tails bobbing through the trees, and I am now alert to every snap and rustle in the undergrowth. It is dry here, beneath the overhanging limb of this tree, and the dense moss is soft beneath my elbow. Time stills as the evening gathers.
I leave the wood and walk back across a field of bog and sedge, the small young shoots of irises and horsetails emerging from the rank-smelling water. Snipe burst from the sedge in twos and threes. I watch them as they scatter across the bog, twisting from wing to wing in flight, teetering out of balance like a child learning to ride a bicycle. The sky is thickening to dusk, and a plume of jackdaws rises from the trees, heading for their evening roost. For a moment, I am completely here, completely happy, shin-deep in boggy water with a smurr of rain coating the side of my face.
A mile from my home, this tiny nature reserve, this eighteen acres of damp, peaty land, is my barometer for the changing seasons. The relationships we develop with local nature sites are complex, fluid. There are places that become somehow special to us, not necessarily because they are unique or exceptional, but perhaps because we know them so well, in all moods and weathers, in morning and evening light, in winter gales and summer rain. These places are our touchstones, our reminder that all is well in the natural world. They may be small, they may be unimportant as sites of national interest, but they are the green lungs of our modern lives. These are the untamed margins of the land, the periphery of our vision, the places we carry with us in our minds.
I think of the writer and mountaineer W.H. Murray, who wrote most of Mountaineering in Scotland whilst in a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy, drafted on sheets of rough toilet paper. I imagine him stretched on his hard mattress at night, tracing in his mind the ridges and corries of his native mountains, like a man in exile remembering the body of his lover, the curve of the bones beneath the skin. Memory of the land is like a remembered passion, a memory in the body rather than the mind; the feel and the texture of our local wild places, some sense of their smells and sounds. When I am in some foreign city, stifling in an airless hotel room, I remember the soft peaty earth of my local moss, the driving rain on my face. I carry it with me like a pebble to turn in my hands, my fingers remembering the touch of damp earth like an annunciation.