Crack! A stick snaps a little distance to my right. Too big a snap for a small animal. Probably deer-sized, I estimate. I wonder how close I can get to the originator before being detected in the wood’s growing afternoon gloom. I creep away from the muddy path, through snagging brambles and naked hazel. I have advanced 15 meters towards the target when I feel a stick give under my foot and an inevitable, and similar, “crack” resonates through the still hush. Instantly, three young roe deer start from cover 20 meters away; I watch them through, and between, thickets of interwoven hazel and birch as they make their unswerving getaway with a stiff, springing gallop.
My tracking skills are good enough to know how rudimentary they are. As a young lad I would, entranced, read Jim Corbett’s accounts of years spent pursuing man-eating leopards and tigers in the forests of India. Marvelling at how his corporeal self was absorbed into the forest. The meaning of every rustle, crack, bird call and grunt so familiar and significant that they keyed directly into his nervous system, and into that of the cat that was sometimes his quarry, sometimes his hunter, often both.
Field skills in Northamptonshire are rarely likely to be lifesaving, but, for me at least, a constant glow of satisfaction arises from each stage of the building cycle of questioning, investigating, researching and understanding the natural world around me.
The previous day I had organised a Christmas treasure hunt for the children of local villages. To unpick the clues they had to seek out a huge holm oak, a big yew, a beech and a key-laden ash. I was surprised that only one of the 16 children (yes, my son) could name any of the trees correctly, although I hope that consequently the other children had added a tree or two to their memory banks.
Fermyn today is grey: grey sky, grey mud, grey bark. The soggiest, limpest, winter wood you can imagine. Then, at the last, the sun sets and paints the western heavens a gorgeous and delightful cerise.
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