Ah, the summer heat; the world displays at its best. There is no other season that epitomises joy and a sense of living such as the summer.
A skylark hovers, mid twitter, some sixty or seventy feet high in the air, a mere dot, before diving back to terra firma at break neck speed. Roe deer casually graze, seemingly oblivious to my presence, although still at a safely respectable distance. A barn owl hunts openly over the land looking for his next furry meal.
I stand in the shade of the mighty willow engulfed by his protective mantle. The now olive green limbs stretch out further into the passing stream. I follow the lines of catkins who march steadily down to the lapping water below. It is here, lying motionless, that an optimum predator lies in wait: a pike. Like the willow itself the pike holds an almost mythical standing in England’s wild folklore. It sits and waits, eyes seeing all and mouth ready to sample the view. How many of the streams minnows and sticklebacks meet their doom in-between this voracious predators teeth, I suppose I will never know, but I would think it very many. The willows gently moving, trailing limbs provide the perfect camouflage for the perfect predator. It is a reminder to me that in nature even the summer, a time of life and exuberance, can be a time of swift death.
This summer is a hot one. It is a time for outdoor activities followed by cooling drinks. An ideal time for that most English of sports: cricket. The sound of leather on willow evokes memories of long days; days of childhood innocence; days of white trousers stained with verdant green knees. In these modern times of computers and mobile phones there will never be anything to replace the willow cricket bat. It’s not just the aesthetic pleasure derived from holding a bit of God’s own creation in your hands, but the dreams, memories and smiles that are party to smacking a boundary with that lovely willow wood.
Dreaming of such times, I stand once more looking up at my resplendent, old friend. I wonder how many of his fellows have donated of their limbs to make a game of cricket possible. I hope the willow itself can take at least some heart from the pleasure its sacrifice has given the likes of me.
Several weeks pass by. I find myself too hot; too clammy and agitated to bring myself to the stream and the meadows it dissects. It is only once the heavens break and a storm of a magnitude I have rarely witnessed descends upon the landscape, that I feel the inexorable pull of my favourite place. Applying a layer of waterproof clothing that would rival a penguin for water repellence; overcoat, hat and finally pulling my gore-tex trousers over my wellingtons, I am ready to venture forth.
The heat doesn’t take long to take effect. By the time that I reach the pasture I am already soaking wet, both outside and inside my clothing. I squelch through the long grass, each strand hung heavy with a necklace of raindrops. Until finally, rising above the neighbouring landscape, standing elegantly like a massive green umbrella, the willow waits for me. Framed by the storm like a hero of greek legend, a Hercules of gentle proportions, the willow sways in the summer storm. Each blast of wind blowing a myriad tiny droplets from its frame. It appears to shake, not from anger, but from a desire to release the water upon its body back to the flowers and grass at its base that have needed refreshment for so long. Is it my imagination or is the willow a shepherd, carefully protecting and tending for the lesser fauna it watches over. I wish that I had such a being to look after me.
I hurry to close the distance between us and dive within the protection of the willow’s leafy canopy, the need to get out from the lashing rain overwhelms me. Finding the shelter I desire, I proceed to remove and empty the water from my overflowing boots using the willow’s sturdy, gnarled trunk as support. It is then that I notice, miracle-like, that I am not alone. I stand amidst the waters from the overflowing stream. Unable to contain the copiously vast amounts of extra water the stream has belched forth its guts; weeds, sticks and fish, mill haphazardly around my legs. If I hadn’t have been here, I wouldn’t have believed it! Even more remarkably, minnows, sticklebacks and pike appear to have struck a temporary truce in a desperate attempt to re-navigate their way back to the main waters of the stream.
I feel an unbridled need to help my aquatic friends find their way home. Stripping off my jacket and laying it across the ground in front of me, I try to corral the fish back towards the stream’s main channel.
It takes time, but eventually I manage to gently return the vast majority of my new friends back to where they belong. I stagger, stiff-backed, out from under the willow’s leaves and plod my way slowly home. A lightning crack a final farewell to this most strange of events.
The next morning, I return back across the saturated fields to the willow and his sodden domain. Catkins lay strewn about his rooted feet and leaves lie flat to the branches as though pasted there. The whole land shimmers in a hazy steam as the sun’s rays burn back down on the landscape. The mists add to the mystical aura that the whole area holds.
Wiping aside the overhanging branches, I step back within the willow’s folds. The water that only yesterday had lapped at my knees, has all but receded away. Barely a sign of the previous days onslaught of rainwater exits. The stream still appears full but otherwise back within the constraints of its low banks. I squelch about searching for something, but I am not totally sure what! Then I see it: a single, small fish. Deserted by his friends, unlucky enough to have been left stranded high and dry upon a piece of raised earth, he lies lost, alone, dead. Sandwiched between a patch of daises and a clump of dandelions, he resembles a lost soldier on the battlefield. If only I could have done more for him? If only he had stayed with his fellows, he wouldn’t have had to die. Even one lost life is too many. For the second time in recent memory I feel like I’ve failed someone, but more importantly I feel again like I’ve failed myself. I turn and leave the summer behind.