Saturday, September 21, 2013

Rare Red Squirrels And Other Wildlife

I've been absent for a while... resting up before the University terms begin, researching.
And looking at red squirrels.
In between interviews last week, Offsprog One and myself went to a small garden on a hillside in Perthshire that was planted with  a huge variety of trees and mountain plants, all clinging to a steep hill that fell downwards from a smallish stately home.
We got there early, before the tourists, and a gardener was wandering around with a large sack full of what turned out to be nuts. She told us she was feeding the squirrels and if we sat quietly underneath a huge, corky-barked redwood, we might see some.
We sat and tried not to rustle. We could hear layers of birdsong from clouds of little birds- bullfinches, coal tits, wrens, pigeons: almost rainforest-like. A highland rainwood, perhaps: it was much too small to be called a forest. Gummy-nosed cows lined the fence, looking for attention.
We sat.
Out of the corner of my eye, a tiny reddish-brown animal streaked from one bush to the next, behind us; then it streaked closer and in less than a second it was up on the wooden platform and had snatched a nut. It was tiny and rusty and it looked at us out of one huge eye as it held the nut in its paws and chewed at lightning speed.
We shouldn't have moved to get our cameras. It bolted off into the undergrowth and the little birds swooped down to peck at the debris left behind.
We waited longer but no-one else came along so we picked our way through the woods, stopping to look at eccentric fungi and seed pods. I thought I saw a big-guy squirrel whizz past under a rhododendron but I couldn't be sure.
The woods were magical; giant frail looking purple croci were in flower and tropaeolum festooned the shrubs with dripping red flowers.
At the end of the walk we came upon an elderly couple who appeared to be leaving. I went out to the car park to collect more film for my camera (it was an analogue day). They were banging car doors and opening the boot, and were being completely ignored by three red squirrels who were sitting gobbling nuts from a box on a platform next to the car park.
I had no film in the camera and at that point my ever-unreliable iPhone (cheers, Mackintosh!) declined to allow me to use its camera. I think Offsprog One got some photos; they ran off into the ferns and we climbed into the car, gobsmacked at seeing so many of them in one sitting.
As we drove down the road, a small squirrel was burying a nut in the grass. It jumped up and ran down the road at a hundred miles an hour, legs jabbing out sideways as it ran, before finally disappearing into a copse.
And then I almost ran over a partridge on my right while trying not to run over three partridges on my left. They were crossing the road to enter a furrowed field, where a line of about fifteen partridges stood in their greige uniforms, necks outstretched and silly beaks aloft, showing us how good they were at lining up.

It was almost like entering a parallel universe where red squirrels are not rare. You can imagine them hiding from humans and snickering into their little fur hands as humans try to find them.
We were ready for anything after that. Little cinema restored and running in Aberfeldy? Check! Small press and tweed shop run by Irish musician? Check! Fallen tree with boulders grasped in its desperate roots? Check!
So now on Saturday night I sit working as I do on many Saturday nights. Teaching begins next week. London normality floods in to replace a beautifully warm summer punctuated with conferences, writing, music, drawing, research and a short but lovely holiday with Martin. I have moved an Offsprog from one house to another and suffered the familiar groaning muscles; taken the other away for a few days. I have had a gruesome operation on my jaw and accompanied McMum on a similar excursion.
Life is returning to the urban, but I have made new friends and now believe that red squirrels are the new fairies at the bottom of the garden.

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