Sand

WEEK FIVE has been a constant on-and-off rain, rain and more rain with icy blasts and driving crossways winds. It has not been the most conducive for outings into the woods, I have to say. I have had to be content to wait, sometimes for hours for the rains and winds to pass before I could get outside. Rain has been teaching me how to be patient and how to trust that ‘even this shall pass’.

Yesterday, there came a break in the weather however, with the forecast saying that the day would be clear, so I took my chance to have a really good walk. Looking out of the window in the morning the light was yellow, hanging under heavy orange clouds, it looked like a martian landscape and the day had such a strange feeling to it as I set out. I have only seen yellow days like this in the valley a few times in fifteen years, always at this time of year. 

I stayed on the pistes. The snow off-piste was heavy and wet, still too deep to be able to wade through safely. Everywhere was destroyed; after days of rain and storms, the normally pristine surface had debris all over it, with torrents of water running down from the surrounding hills under the snow, which was disintegrating under foot. I waded through sugary slush with avalanches rumbling all around me. There was a whiff in the air through the yellow that winter had lost its hold on the land.  

Every dawn for a week now the birds have becoming more vocal; novice thrushes repeating their half-finished refrains over and over again, still unsure but getting stronger and more confident by the day, as if they are trying to get their practice in before the more seasoned adults take up their stands in the treetops. It will be a while before the black redstart returns from Africa, his presence signalling the start of the new season with his lilting and curdling call – the soundtrack to my summer. That time still seems so far away as I plod out into the yellow-tinted landscape, all deconstructed white.

I see activity along the banks next the river and keep stopping for long periods of time to watch the busyness; long-tailed tits, squeaking their way through the bare branches of the alders and ashes sprouting up along the riverbank, finding titbits and morsels of seed as they go, content to completely ignore me standing underneath them. Further along, two coal tits dart around, chasing each other with their sharp pips echoing in my ears. I stand for twenty minutes as they wheel away and then come back to look me straight in the eye only a few feet from me, “Who are you? Why are you standing watching us like this?” They ask, then, “Watch us! See what fun we are having!” They joyously shout at me, shout at each other, shout at everything in the heat of the chase, nimbly flying from one branch to the other around their small territory; circling back again and again. For many moments I am there with them, feeling into their tiny bodies, delighting that there is at last a crack to winter, sensing the joy it brings them, even if just for a day.

Whilst the tits enjoy the heat of the chase within the moment in the trees next to me, there seems to be an uneasiness with the larger birds: crows cawing slowly as they pass along the valley, blackbirds fussing in the brush, jays warily on the move, spotted nutcrackers and black woodpeckers becoming more unsettled and vocal minute by minute. Perhaps it has something to do with this yellowness.

As I walk back home, I see the snow all around me has taken on the appearance of lemon meringue pie; a strange crusting forming all over it now, mixed in with the scattered seeds, branches, moss and other debris that litters its surface. What is this? I think it must be pollen. Some days in early spring we have yellow patches under certain trees but it never makes the air turn this colour, never unsettles the traveling birds like this. And so, I come back to the house and as I walk to the bird feeders, I pass my car – dark red – and I see it is covered with sand; thick drifts of deep golden silt deposited all over it, across the windows, in every notch of bodywork, along the wing-mirror, in the windscreen wipers and around the trimmings. I wipe some off and feel that gritty wetness between my fingers.

Later, I hear from friends further down the valley and they say it has blown in from the Sahara; I picture it coming in a huge wave, higher than even the bearded vultures fly, carried all that way from the heat and dryness of the deserts, picking up moisture as it comes, blown perhaps from the pyramids themselves across to Algeria on exotic winter trade winds, over Spain and into France, dumping its golden cargo against the great barrier of the Alps. Perhaps this wind is the one that will also bring the redstart as he flies relentless to find our garden again, to sing out his territory every morning, to mate and tend his young, to spend the last days of summer lazily catching flies from his chimney vantage point before he leaves again. I feel him coming even now, as the winter slowly cracks open into spring, all those miles and miles, winging on favourable currents, holing up when storms force him to wait up. Flying over familiar landmarks: sand banks, meandering coasts and wide estuaries, rocky promontories and deep forests, finally reaching these high mountains.

I will wait patiently for his very first call from my garden, willing him to come, praying for his safety. You choose me, this very place my dear friend, to spend your summer here and for that, I will always be grateful.