Last night and this morning encapsulated everything good, bad and ugly about rural isolation. I spent the evening in the rain with three keen birders hunting firecrests – minute birds with flaming mohicans who only give themselves away through an unimpressive needling song.
In four muddy, sodden hours, we found five singing males (and about 50 very similar goldcrests), which might be 1.5% of the British population. Remarkable though that is – and we heard goshawks shrieking through the evening forest too – the firecrests were so elusive and their songs so faint that by the soggy end of the walk, I was beginning to hear only the siren call of a bottle of Shiraz. Honestly, an imperial eagle could have turned up then and I would have put down the bins and picked up that first glass of red.
One of the birders – let’s call him Ben – stayed over which is dangerous because when I woke up tired, emotional and all talked out the next morning, there were two empty bottles of red on the kitchen table. A mystery. And on a school night, too.
Running late for work with fuzzy edges, Ben and I hopped in the car and shot down the lane – only to be brought up short by the upsetting vision of a tree lying prone across my path. It was a large silver birch, christened the Leaning Tower of Treesa when we’d first noticed it beginning to stagger like a Shiraz-fuddled ent. My wife had called the council to warn them three months earlier but, as it hadn’t actually fallen back then, they refused to tackle it.
It looked horribly difficult – lots of awkward pressure points and a couple of tons of wood hanging in the air. Plus I was going to be late for work, my son late for school.
With my faith in the council tackling this woody crisis diminished, I drove the 200 yards back to the house and packed the chainsaw rig in the boot.
It started pouring with rain. Chainsaw trousers, helmet, gloves, jumper, steel toe-capped boots, raincoat – you get the picture: hot, sweaty and rainy. “I am officially miserable,” I told Ben. I might even die.
The tree was dealt with and I didn’t die – though there were at least two occasions where the saw got stuck (thank goodness for carjacks) and where I feared the looming trunk would fall on me. Logging off took on a horrible new meaning.
Between episodes of helping me drag sawn lengths of trunk off the road, Ben had whipped out his binoculars and was getting the best views of firecrests he’d ever had. I really can’t tell you how pleased I was for him. Really.
When I killed the saw, levered off the ear defenders and wiped the sweaty sawdust from my eyes and ears, I could hear the tiny birds jingling about five feet about my head – but now with a detectable taunting tone it seemed to me. I think the ivy-smothered fallen birch might have been their favourite tree.
No time to change or stand back in satisfaction at a tricky job done. My son went off to school with my wife – he was cross with me because I’d robbed him of an impromptu day at home.
The next train was due shortly, so I ripped off my protective gear and drove with Ben to the station. I was still brushing sawdust out of my hair as I sat down at my desk an hour later than normal.
All I could think of was: “I really really smell.”