A lifelong journey with nature: part one

Roy Mitchell starts to describe a lifelong journey with nature, along with some notes from this year’s nature diary.

One of my earliest memories is of a feeling of comfort, being warm and safe. Even today nearly 69 years after my birth this memory or feeling is evoked by the sound of the breeze gently (or even not so gently) rustling through the leaves and branches of trees. For the full feeling of the memory to appear it helps if I am also resting in the sun, a little sheltered from the breeze and feeling warmed, but principally it is the natural sound of the wind in the trees which is my comforter.

I have through reflective exercises placed that early memory to being wrapped up as a baby and being put out in my pram (to get some fresh air I presume) in the garden next to the small wood adjacent to the house. I do not have a memory of birdsong or any other stimulant from that time but this memory marks, I think, my first awareness of the natural world around me. I am forever grateful that I experienced it as safe and comforting. It set the tone for all that has followed in my journey with nature.

From birth, my first home along with my very young mother – but not my Father who was overseas doing National Service – was with my maternal grandparents at their dairy farm on the side of a not so high hill just south of Aberdeen. Its situation was decidedly country, surrounded mostly by meadows in which the cows grazed and also a few arable fields to provide winter feed for the cattle.

The farm was called Broad Greens. The small farmhouse was right in the middle of the farm well away from roads and traffic, not that there was so much in those days. It was for me a world on its own in my early years. Next door was my great grandfather’s farm called Loch End (with no loch in sight). My early and mid childhood was spent roaming and exploring these farms and surrounding woodlands and experiencing the rhythm of the seasons as time and life marched on in what was a green landscape in spring summer and autumn, often white in winter.

Broad Greens Farm – watercolour by Vanessa Mitchell

As well as seasonal rhythms there were daily rhythms to life. My grandfather rising and going out very early to milk the cows and returning for breakfast with us in the farmhouse kitchen at about 0830. Breakfast in my early years was always porridge and bacon and eggs, although later breakfast cereals came to dominate, I expect because of their convenience. Chickens had to be let out from the chicken house which was a big wooden hut, I think on wheels and with boxes with lids attached all around it. It was in these ‘nesting boxes’ that the eggs were laid and from which any broody hens had to be turfed out. The eggs were collected every morning and some grain and water dispensers filled for the chickens who were free to roam the extensive farm yard and small adjacent woodland during the day. I was allowed to help with egg collecting and grain feeding.

Getting the grain from the stone grain store was an exercise in itself. I was taught to arm myself with a handful of pebbles before opening the door to the grain store. The pebbles were necessary to throw at the many rats that were helping themselves to the grain so that you could safely fill your bucket. There were plenty of semi feral cats about the farm whose job it was to control the rodent population but every now and then pest control had to be called in to keep the number of rodents in check. This harsh reality was but one of many in the farms ecology, and to my young mind it introduced the idea of balance within ecosystems the importance of which seems to become ever greater in our journeying and relationship with nature.

I was also allowed to help with or at least witness all the other daily rituals and jobs of looking after animals and the land. I used to feed the young calves buckets of milk and feel their rough tongues and their strong suck as they licked and sucked at my hand. I helped gather the cows from the fields for the afternoon milking, driving (or rather following them) to the milking parlour where they sorted themselves out and entered the dairy of their own accord in what I later learnt was a hierarchical order.

The milking parlour was modern, not so very different from today, although smaller in scale I expect. The cows processed through going to their stall where they enjoyed cowcake as they were milked by machine. Just occasionally some cows were known as “difficult”, always trying to kick off the milking suckers. Most of the over 70 cows had names. I came to realise they were personalities; not just cows but living beings with likes and dislikes of their own. Some I knew to steer clear of, whilst others were welcoming of me.

The farm dogs were not pets but working dogs, not allowed in the house but kept in kennels at night. They were supposed to help in gathering the cattle and it is true that they would run about behind the cattle but in truth usually it was enough to open the field gate and shout ‘come away in’ and the cows would make their way towards you. The farm dogs’ principal use I think was as company to my grandfather as he went about the farm during the day, and also as an early warning system of visitors approaching the house. Their barking was loud but just that, they were not fierce and would welcome a bit of petting and comforting.

A ritual at dusk each day was for the men of the farm (including little me when I could walk) to stand on the edge of the wood at the side of the farmhouse. From here you had a grand view looking down at the twinkling lights of Aberdeen coming on as darkness descended, the Buchan plain spreading out around Aberdeen, the sea beyond and the sky. At this time of day the idea was to try and gauge tomorrow’s weather. ‘Red sky at night shepherds delight, red sky in the morning shepherds warning’. The prospect for the next day’s weather was discussed but I think it was just an excuse for the men (and often women) to enjoy the magnificent view.

It was from this vantage point that I later became aware of the Milky Way (and other stars) in the night sky, the phenomena of shooting stars and the Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen (aurora borealis) wonders of nature which expanded my horizons to the natural world beyond our Planet.

Extracts from Roy’s nature diary for last year

12 January 2020 – A walk along the road at Animal Hospital (a name my late wife and I gave to a favourite place which is a large dairy farm near Chew Valley lake. They used to separate cows who were a bit lame or due to deliver calves into a small area of common land next to the farm; hence Animal Hospital). My first snowdrops of the year seen along the way and then in a field two little egrets roosting in a tree and down below a grey heron standing (as they do) stock still. A lovely tableau on this winter’s day which is bright if cold. A solitary deer grazing high on the hill.

1 Feb 2020 – a lovely walk at Folly Farm Nature reserve, climbing the hill above the orchard and wood. Sheep seem to have the spring fever in them. The sun was out and the sheep were periodically running as a flock up and down the field jumping now and then like playful lambs although they are all full grown. Sighting of a buzzard and a kestrel while on the hill. They coped easily with the blustery wind.

8 Feb 2020 – Closing the bay window curtains this evening I happened to look up the road to the east and there saw the full moon rising. A wonderful and majestic sight which lifted my heart. A pebble to place in my pocket so as to help recall the experience later. I later established it was a Supermoon event which occurs only three times a year. What luck for me to witness it rising.

to be continued…

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