Hit the road, muntjac

Foulden Common, Norfolk, March 2012

I walk the road from Oxborough, scanning the verges for unusual flowers. At times I am rewarded by small blasts of sweet violet, little white flowers which have been used down the centuries for their perfume and act as indicators of ancient woodland, particularly here in eastern England. But there’s no woodland anymore, just these elliptical patches of tiny flowers showing what might once have been here. The sudden end of the farmland is marked by a Scot’s pine, its bark fissured by wire that’s now part of the tree’s anatomy. Foulden Common opens up, a field of dry grass and mole hills, a wintry wood of birch and oak. A hare scarpers.

I sit beneath an oak tree riddled with dead branches and living lichens, a reedbed and crack willow behind me. Immediately I’m alerted to a large animal amongst the reeds, its fur dark brown, it turns its head towards me and disappears. I’m looking out at the fields, divided from the common by a fence and wire. Pheasants are calling back and forth from the wood behind me, its metallic call reverberating, to the field ahead. Gunshots boom, deep and bassy with a final, rippling crack, the pheasant screaming in the wake of the artillery. Overhead, military jets run drills from a nearby airbase and I am reminded of accounts of the Iraq war by civilians, the terrifying sound which hinted at what was to come. It takes over everything: the rooks and woodpigeons fly off in the distance, the robin singing in the scrub is silenced, a red breast moving, beak opening and closing as it sings into the machine’s roar. But it doesn’t last and the occasional gunshots resume, the soothing song of a yellowhammer coming over and over underneath. The release from the barrage makes me want to sleep, like being released from a grip, the yellow bunting luring me further with its repeated phrase, and so I give in.

I wake and the boredom has lessened, the endless trudge of hedgerow and arable land is distant, the lack of people is not so peculiar now. I feel the quiet throb of lichens, the bark against my back and the sun touching my face, the black eyes of an animal which thinks I’m still sleeping, a small, dog-like mammal with a head like a wood mouse. We hold eye-contact and it dithers, moving behind the collapsed willow and into the reeds. And then it begins. A volley of harsh, bark-like shouts fired from the cover – is it going to attack? The voice is intense, hostile. It’s unnerving. ‘Alright,’ I shout. ‘Alright!’ I put my camera and map away and head back to the road, the monotony of walking returns. The muntjac has shifted me from the Common.

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