(29 September 1999) When I moved from London to the country, it never occurred to me that I would end up writing a nature column. And that is precisely what has happened to me. I have not ended up writing a nature column. I cannot even envisage writing such a thing, because nature changes far too slowly to supply material for an ever-changing column, and I can see that if I did write a regular nature column I would quickly be reduced to telling people the swallows hadn't left yet, or the mushrooms were quite good this year.
Also, when I wander through the country, my mind tends to be elsewhere, and I can come home having had a good walk without having noticed anything in particular. Not a good basis for a nature column.
This has all changed since the arrival of the dog. A year ago my wife and I decided that having a dog would give our 11-year-old son a focus of responsibility. Meaning, he would take it for walks, etc. The plan went seriously wrong, as we could easily have predicted, and now my wife and I take the dog for walks. My wife tends to take him for a walk in the morning, me in the evening, which has led to an extraordinary explosion in the observation of nature.
It works like this. My wife comes home after rambling up hill and down dale and says, "Guess what I saw this morning? A huge puffball!" I am suitably impressed – indeed, we even had part of the puffball for breakfast later on – but it means that I now have to observe something as good to throw at her.
For instance, the other day I was cycling home along the canal from Bradford-on-Avon when I heard a commotion behind me, a splashing, barking and shouting. I turned round to see what it was and found that a deer had been chased by a dog out of the woods, had jumped into the canal and was being pursued in the water. It was a nasty-looking dog with a muzzle hanging off its jaw, and all deer, as everyone knows, look nice, so I had no hesitation in throwing stones at the dog until I had driven it off and allowed the deer to escape.
A few points for that, you would think. And my wife was impressed. But a few days later she came back from a walk and said: "Guess what I saw this morning?" Birds, I guessed. She is good on birds. She was the first to spot cormorants in our valley, and she usually hears the buzzards before I do (they make a baby-like crying sound) and she can tell swallows from swifts at 1,000 yards. Indeed it was a bird, but it was a bird she had never seen before.
"A water bird," she said, "down by Dundas Aqueduct, in the river. It was a big, long-necked bird and it was wrestling with an eel. A couple of swans were looking on curiously, but this bird was thrashing around with the eel, and I've never seen anything like it before."
At this point I usually let her get all the bird books down and leave her to it. She did. Half an hour later came the cry: "It can only have been a black-throated diver!"
Black-throated diver, indeed. I have never heard of such a thing. But there it is in the book, and she got a few points for that, until the other day I was out on the local river Avon in a rowing boat picking blackberries (there are some great local blackberries only accessible by water) and my eye was caught by a flash and I turned round, and a kingfisher had landed on the boat next to me! Well, kingfishers are not uncommon round here, but they are very shy, and to have one sharing a boat with you, even for a few seconds, is impressive. It flew to a nearby tree and fished from there, or rather dive-bombed into the water from there, for a good five minutes, until I went home to claim my points for the sighting ...
This harmless competitiveness has gone on all summer (I found some wild gentians the other day, which I was rather impressed by, but my wife hasn't seen them yet, so they are still pending) and I was telling my daughter about it last week on the phone. She was in north London at the time, where she lives.
"Talking about nature, Dad," she said, "we've got foxes living in our garden. One of them came into the bedroom the other night."
A fox in the bedroom!
That scores more points than anything I've ever seen. And the dratted woman doesn't even live in the country!
Sometimes I'm glad I don't write a nature column.