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1 January 2017

In the woods, a brush with hope

Hope and terror on a winter walk.

By Helen Macdonald

I have just emerged from two days in bed with a bad cold and my ears are still singing. For most of the day, I’ve been slumped in front of the TV. Brexit, Le Pen, Trump. I cannot bear it any more. So I set out for a late-afternoon walk across Home Farm, near Alton in Hampshire, one of the biggest native woodland creation projects in southern Britain.

The late-afternoon sky is burred and feathered with jet contrails and mats of ­cirrus, and everything around me hangs burnished and motionless, the clay of the far fields precisely the same gold as the leaves
of hedgerow oaks.

I knew this place when it was mostly fields of winter wheat. Back in the 1990s, the Woodland Trust bought it and laid out plans for new copses and meadows. You could buy a sapling here to commemorate someone you loved. My mother and aunt did just that. Somewhere here is an oak tree for my grandmother. I don’t know where it is. I’ve not thought of her for a long time, but I’m thinking of her now: her upright carriage and dark-dyed hair, the asparagus ferns and begonias arranged about her little house, the little pewter model of the Atomium in Brussels and a carved wooden music box on her mantelpiece.

I walk onward up the hill. Nothing around me moves. It’s as if I’m walking through a photograph. Six months ago, this field was a riot of life and noise: tree pipits, swallows, cuckoos, skylark song pouring down, clouds of meadow brown butterflies. But now no birds sing and the silence is palpable. Sound carries differently in winter, when the air and ground are frozen and there are no leaves on the trees to soften and complicate its waves. All the separate sounds I hear seem isolated and discrete, far from the cluttered mess of song and wind of spring. The whine of a glider through cold and sinking air. Passing traffic on the A339. Off-roaders two farms away. A woman calling her dog, a tiny voice across the hillside. Toby! Toby! Come on! I hear shotguns, too, and think about my grandmother running her restaurant in Aldershot during the war. I’m worried as hell that war will come again. Walking towards one of the stands of old woodland here, I am gripped by fear: this wintry hush is reminding me of all the
silenced people in the world, of a political environment in which difference is to be feared or met with contempt.

There are clumps of male-ferns and sparse stems of dog’s mercury inside the wood. Ten steps in, there’s a pale form at my feet, a pristine dead wood pigeon with wings half-open and head buried in leaves. Pigeons die all the time, but this one pulls at my sense of gloom. I stare at it for a while, turn it over to regard its frozen, contorted face. I came out here to feel better about the world. It hasn’t worked.

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Then my ears catch on the thinnest of sounds, a thready, high-pitched see see see see, and without thinking I turn towards it and start walking. Fifty yards further on, I find them. Relief prickles down my spine. Around me, flitting between hazel stems, high oak twigs and a single teenage yew, is a host of birds. I count 11 of them, all small and enormously busy. It’s a foraging flock.

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Insectivorous, arboreal birds of many different species club together in winter to move through woods, searching for food. Here’s a treecreeper hitching its way crabwise around and up an oak trunk, its curved-tweezer beak picking spiders from fissures in the bark. Two salmon-and-blue nuthatches on the same trunk, heading downwards with all the swashbuckling panache that a small bird can possess. Great tits, one hacking decisively at something in its foot that might be a hazelnut. Blue tits. A little chorus of long-tailed tits. And two goldcrests: fifty grams each of privet-berry eyes and hair-thin toes and feathers the colour of winter moss, picking small arthropods from the undersides of freeze-dried hazel leaves.

Banding together like this allows individuals from diverse species to forage more efficiently. But it brings other benefits, too. The number of birds in the flock reduces the likelihood that any one member will fall prey to marauding predators, and because of the increased vigilance of many pairs of eyes, an approaching threat can often be spotted before it’s too late.

And right then, as if to prove this theory, there’s a flash like a hole punched through the chorus of high-pitched alarm calls at precisely the frequency that makes their source hard to locate. A broad barred wing, a side-slip, a tearing through air. I don’t see the sparrowhawk’s eyes, or its face, just the terror, and the vacancy left after its passing. I stand there, breath torn out of me, waiting, and after a minute of silence and stillness, the birds resume their woodland gleaning. I count them. Still 11.

At times like these, you look for hope around you. Just the tiniest amount can help. Sometimes you find it in other people. Sometimes you find it in books. Sometimes you can, if you try hard, find it within ­yourself. But I have found it, this darkening afternoon, in the winter solidarity of a small band of birds.

Helen Macdonald is the author of “H Is for Hawk” (Vintage) and the recently reissued “Falcon” (Reaktion Books)

This article appears in the 13 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016