Sunday, 13 April 2008

Lac du Der

The desiccated beech leaves crack like breakfast cereal and we stop, taking shallow breaths with our lips parted. The scent of decay and dark fungi jostles closely, but lighter is the lemon-tinged pollen. Now we are still and our breathing has stilled too. The skin above my lip prickles with damp in the fragments of sun, expectantly.

The woods are a morning market for birds, each crying their wares in repetitive four- and five-note tunes, sung simply, over and again. The trees are not yet in full leaf; barely have their buds broken, yet the songs sound distant as they career through the high branches. Tree-creepers with pearl-pink breasts reward our silence by shuttling beak-down or beak-up on the bark. A dynasty of blue tits sweep their family disputes into the bushes nearby. The chaffinches and gold crests are distracted by breakfast and robins throw their voices across clearings while woodpeckers play the glockenspiel of dying trees. We are the only ones to hear it.

The morning advances and the smell of sunshine wins over that of spring floods. Where the trees thin, rays of sunlight have been brought to earth as cowslips; then the cowslips themselves lift and dance around our heads in the bodies of brimstone butterflies. A cream-feathered buzzard dives to the ground a few feet away, close enough to see his prize.

We’re after bigger prey. The mud that is black with leaf mould holds prints well. The smooth, forward-pointing ovals of deer have taken on an inward tilt and a slight point at the front. Wild boar, and in numbers, were thrown into an ecstasy of acorns at this crossing in the paths. But why did one of them leave behind these fringes of black and white bristles, half trampled into the bracken?

A razor of wind cuts our ears, reminding us that today’s sun is coquette. But the wind reaches us only at the water’s edge along with the ghosts of the drowned villages. A bird we don’t recognise flashes its rust coloured tail as it farms the stony beachlets between the cut rocks of the causeway. A heron frowns and takes off with the sound of wave on shingle to find a quieter bay. Cormorants, mallards and grebes ignore us splendidly. Here, the white tumbles of pebbles merge into drifts of wood anemone whose meek blushing bells are slowly gaining confidence and raising their yellow hearts to the sun. Periwinkle flowers so darkly violet in the undergrowth we look at it for several seconds before knowing it is not green. The purple-white of meadowsweet fringes ditches where stagnant water seethes black. A thousand tadpoles have chosen today to hatch and fight their way to oxygen.

Beside a wooden hut, two women spread their pale ample shoulders along the backs of plastic chairs. They are quite content to gossip the day away, but smile still to see us and thank us for stopping. They pour us juice and cook fresh waffles that smell like birthdays and feel like eggshells as I bite through the sugar crust to the warm inside. The owner describes the winter when snow lies thickly and the boars come to dig right at the doors of the hut. Her husband has shot his share of them, she says. In summer and autumn she picks wild strawberries and nuts, blackberries and mushrooms to serve from the kiosk. When she retires next year, while her husband is hunting birds and deer and boar, she will spend all her time gathering food and making jam, and teaching her grandchildren the to profit from the woods.

8th April 2008

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