“PROFITING FROM UNPROFITABLE LAND”
Two days after our encounter with the barn owl along ‘Melton Mains’, I ventured out again for a late afternoon walk. The weather had changed, snow melted and still dank greyness had returned. As I made my way from dyke to pond and beyond to the river no barn owl appeared. The only ‘whites’ on show were but spots in the gloom; the wing patches of nine gadwall ducks perched at the pond’s edge and the chest of a wading dipper, bobbing above the tumbling water below Green bridge.
My route the following, equally grey day was downstream. There a larger expanse of “unprofitable land” has emerged. This follows a scheme to control the unruly wandering Bowmont river with its tendency to ‘braid’ and flood the adjoining haugh. Fences have been erected around 100 yards from each river bank. Within these zones shrubs and trees have been planted amongst the mounds of gravel deposited by the seasonal river spates. With cattle and sheep incursions prevented, a rewinding has begun. My rough survey last summer revealed that 30 different flowers and shrubs had colonised the areas. Now in January their remnants speared upwards amidst the dark green broom and gorse. I clambered up a mound of gravel to get a better view of this re-emerged wildness and was rewarded. Three hundred yards away a speck of white appeared. Sure enough it was a barn owl out on its daily foray. Deep slow wing beats criss-crossing “these roughs……private, thorny, stuffed with the year’s seeds”,(1) brought the bird towards me. I became a statue and watched the bird approach, its white round face, black slit eyes looming ever larger until the last moment when it spotted me and flapped away with a sideways farewell glance. Breathtaking.
Dusk on the following day saw me on owl watch again. For an hour no telling sign of creamy white emerged from the grey. Back at the bridge I cast a backward glance towards the ‘rough’. There it was gliding towards me over the dried grasses, the creamy white of its plumage a reflection of the ground below. A dip of the wings took it to a fence post perch at the edge of the sere and pallid tussocks. Motionless, except for the deliberate swivelling of the head allowed the otherwise motionless bird to scan all before through jet black almond shaped eyes. We watched until the descending darkness enveloped the bird.
Having thus profited deeply from the “vigorous” life forms of this “unprofitable land” (1) the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins rang louder than ever:
“Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet”
1. Holden M. from the poem “Pieces of Unprofitable Land
2. Hopkins G M. from the poem ‘Inversnaid’.