To listen to an audio version of ‘Embers’ please press the play button
They appear out of the silence and snow without sound, without any sign of foretelling that I can decipher. Arriving as if by magic, they flare from reefs of pale and brittle reeds like they’d been pulled from a hat, or lance over the furrows and fields in a sudden, windswept whirl. The hen harriers ghost into view like fireflies at night, unseen until they glow so close. These winter months are marked by the wild signature of their flights. Breeding mostly in the far north of Europe, these raptors migrate from the bogs and taiga of their nesting grounds through the autumn to settle in the south until spring. Some winters we’ll see only a few take up the offer of tenure around the wetlands, patrolling the perimeter like lone sentries, but in other years, when fierce, chilling weather pushes the birds farther south, many more will come hurtling out of the cold skies to bracelet the lakes on the wing. But no matter how many pass the season in our midst, they always appear as if out of nowhere, falling out of the silence and snow, out of the weightless, misted air which settles like breath on a windowpane. As if these birds were shaped and gifted out of nothing.
The male hen harrier, or northern harrier as he’s known in North America, entrances me. As much as I marvel at the female that sweeps brown and tawny over the snows, parading the white ring that’s been thrown like a horseshoe around her tail, it’s her counterpart that I await with the excitement of a homecoming. Seeing one waver at the edge of the winter lake, pearl-white and grey with black fingers at the tip of his wings, pulls me deep into a pool of mystery. It took me some years to unravel my fascination for this particular bird, and when I finally did it was after waking to snow that fell densely across the valley. A low smouldering cloud lay draped across the mountains, pillowed above the village. Snow was banked against the dark stone like a frozen lean-to. The fields and slopes spread white into the distance, edged with pewter mist. The day carried the narrowest possible range of colour tones, like a sparse and simple etching. Dark trees were pinned to the bleached mountain ridges, grey haze clouded the sky, and chimney smoke corkscrewed though the drifting snow. They were the common tones of a mountain winter – white, black and grey – and it occurred to me then that the male hen harrier had made them his own. Ghosting over the snowfields strung with skeletal dark trees, the hen harrier appears as an aerial interpretation of the season, a spectral reflection, an amulet worn over the year’s cold, hibernal hours.
But seeing hen harriers haunt the white meadows reminds me that winter is alive, as well. Even amidst snow there are fires, sheltered flames kindled and coaxed from the frozen land, the murmurs of unseen sentience below the surface, locked up in the slowed and shallow breaths of hibernating butterflies and frogs, lizards and fish, all settled beneath or around us as we traverse the stark winter world. Black woodpeckers lower themselves from the high crystal forests to the relative shelter of the valley, their long, haunting cries curling through the chill air like smoke from the village chimneys. A dipper sculls through snow along the river. Moss fills with water to burst like a gleaming emerald meadow, secret lush crops in the cold, fallow fields. I follow the path of a bear leading her cub through the snow, chart the course of their dark foragings over stream and under bough, down the granite track that winds like a river towards the lake. A flock of goldcrests, one of the tiniest birds in Europe, takes up residence for a while in three stunted pines at the foot of the garden, their faint calls like long-forgotten school friends come back to whisper at the back of class. Whatever earthly presence is alive through winter is transfigured, made small by the vast silence of the season or concealed by dormancy, but it’s still there, glowing faintly as embers, or a light far out to sea.
On cloudless mornings after storms there’s a brief, but brilliant, span of time when the snow, a revelation of night’s creaturely happenings, is fired by the rising sun. It clips the mountains at such an angle that every crystal, unique in its tumbling and settled shape, burns with a glittering intensity, a cupped flame inside each one. I watch a harrier gleam like snowlight through the air. It could be winter itself that’s on the move, the white and grey ghost passing though, the ice and snow set to buckle and shift beneath it when it leaves for the north. I listen as the bird sweeps silent over a stone-walled meadow, over the blazing shards of snow, and hear the crackling of the fire to come.
32 thoughts on “Embers”
This is beautiful, haunting. Like you I adore the hen harriers, although they are becoming so rare in northern england these days (only 1 confirmed breeding pair left, I believe!), hunted to near-extinction through the senseless demands of grouse shooting.
I wrote also about marsh harriers, migrants to these parts, in my essay ‘Instar’ that you may have seen. They have that same wild magic about them
My sincere apologies for this extremely late reply. I’ve been struggling with wrist tendonitis for the best part of a month now and it’s slowed down all my work, including replying to comments, which I’m typing with the fingers of my left hand like I was just learning to use the keyboard for the first time!
Your essay ‘Instar’ was one of my favourites from the recent downloadable collection – such a rich and considered sense of place and connection. I’d also like to add that I was thrilled to read a comment the other day that you’re considering publishing these essay in book form. As a great admirer of your writing, that news is music to my ears. Let me know as the process unfolds. I’ll add a bit more regarding hen harriers in my other very late reply, to Pete below. Thanks for the good words, Ian.
A beautifully written essay, Julian; no change there.
To echo Ian’s comment above, I’d recently read that the Hen Harrier population in northern England had been reduced to a solitary confirmed pair, likely due to persecution.
The picture is better in Scotland, but I’m sure persecution goes on and it’s the grouse moors that are the problem. Some of the areas we walk in the Southern Uplands there seems to be a wildlife exclusion zone, so thorough is the trapping and poisoning of any predator that might take the red grouse’s eggs.
I’ve only seen a hen harrier once for sure, a male on the isle of Jura. It was though a wonderfully protracted sighting; we were sitting outside on an autumn evening and he came by, quartering the fields just below us at some length. Magnificent.
Love to you and Joules xx
Thanks for the kind compliment, Pete, and apologies for the very late reply. As I mentioned to Ian in my reply above, I’ve been a one-handed writer of late!
I’ve followed with great dismay the fate of the hen harrier in England and, to a slightly lesser extent, in Scotland. I can’t see how the hen harrier in England won’t be extinct within a matter of years to be honest. Surely the population can’t be viable, even if there exists any cross-border movement of birds. There seems to be a narrative of blame concerning raptors which I come across more and more frequently in my readings; that not only do birds of prey reduce game bird numbers (many of which are wasted anyways) but that they are responsible for the dramatic drop in song birds, insects, small mammals, butterflies. W.H. Auden wrote that a “culture is no better than its woods” and perhaps the same is true for its landscape of wild birds.
On a more positive note, I can clearly imagine that magnificent sighting of yours of a hen harrier quartering the fields in an autumn evening. That sense of wonder and celebration of otherness. That’s the culture I wish to belong to.
Sorry for the late reply, Pete, but looking forward very much to catching up with your own forays soon!
Love from here,
*Always* a pleasure to read you, Julian! Cheers from Key West!
Thanks kindly, Michele, as always!
Lovely, lovely writing. And wonderful to hear your voice. I’ve never tried audio in WordPress. Seems it works well. Thank you for this piece, the glow of winter coals, visions in snow. Nothing but rain here this winter.
Thank you, Cheryl. I’m delighted you enjoyed the post and the recording. Audio works really well on WordPress if you’re ever thinking of adding any to your posts. Drop me a line if you have any questions; I’d be happy to help!
Thanks! I’ve managed to include a link to an interview on my blog, but it’d be cool to add audio. I’ll try it out – your reading was really cool.
Bears in Greece ! Snow in Greece ! Clearly I am ignorant about the country having my head filled only with the knowledge of a fleeting tourist.
Thanks for filling my head with more meaty fare.
Lovely words and images Julian. BTW I listening to you reading the post while I read it and really enjoyed hearing your voice.
Bears, wolves, ice and snow! At least in this part of the country. But our village is 1000 metres above sea level so it’s a real mountain world. It’s about as far away from Greece of the imagination as possible in some respects, but in others it shares much.
I’m so pleased you enjoyed the reading, Sybil, and that the post took you on a tour. It was lovely to read your comment! Many thanks and best wishes from us and the bears!
Beautiful and evocative, as always. Thank you for sharing your gift. The pictures are as artsy as the writing.
Thank you, Verena. Delighted you enjoyed the words and images, and appreciate your kind thoughts. Hope all is well!
I love where you essays take me, Julian. So sensory and familiar, even though you write about a place so very far away. Still, I always leave most impressed by your particular word choices. From ghost to bracelet, these essays are like mini craft lessons. Such a pleasure! Hope you continue to enjoy the winter and the birds.
Thanks ever so much, Emily. A wonderful comment to read, especially as I’m so inspired by your elegant, lyrical posts. It’s like we’ve forged a mutual online craft class! Hope you’re all well!
“as if out of nowhere, falling out of the silence and snow…” just one of many lines that capture a sublime moment poised between mystery and contemplation. As if the observer/reader is pulled into a more expansive world by the arrival of these birds. Wonderful post to read Julian. Thanks.
Thanks, as always, for the perceptive comment about the expansive world. Delighted you enjoyed the post, and appreciate the thoughtfulness.
Beautiful Julian. And how nice to hear your voice again after all these years. Our lovely memories of Prespa came back rightaway! What a pleasure.
And delightful to hear from you, Sandor! It brings back a lot of good memories for me as well, and hopefully we can catch up again some day. Thanks for the lovely comment!
Wonderful as usual, Julian. I love to read along as you read to me. This, in itself, takes me back to childhood – it so rarely happens when you’re an adult – but it helps me to really listen to the words somehow. As others have said Hen Harriers in England are so badly treated by those who supposedly ‘care for the countryside’! If only they saw them the way you do. I love the line ‘The day carried the narrowest possible range of colour tones, like a sparse and simple etching’ – as this is exactly how I see things when the snow’s here. It makes me want to get my black bic biro out and sketch – although time so often has other ideas! Thanks again, x
Thanks, Hilary! Such a lovely comment about the reading – it’s been a while since I recorded one of the posts and will try to do it more often in future, if only to know they bring you such pleasure. Many thanks!!
Yes, the state of the hen harrier in England is awful. Like yesterday, when I saw a female sweeping over the stony mountain slopes, I find it difficult to imagine how anyone doesn’t see the magic and beauty in its existence.
Those particular tones of winter really pull me inside the season. Would love to see what you come up with considering your sketching and drawing talents! Thanks again, J. xo
As always, Julian, it’s wonderful listening to your words describe enchanting moments in the world of nature so beautifully. There is so much going on in winter that most of us miss and I thank you for taking us along as you point out some of the details and mysteries. I especially love the photos of the buildings surrounded by so much white, in the third and fourth pictures. Do your fingers get frozen when you’re out taking pictures? Are you able to warm them up between shots?
Thanks, Barbara! It’s a delight to hear from you and I’m so pleased you enjoyed the post and the reading. My fingers get pretty cold, that’s for sure! But it’s a small price to pay as I love trying to record something of winter’s magic and mystery on film. Though I confess to looking forward to getting home beside the wood stove as well!!
I was transfixed by your words and images… Beautiful… Thank you.
Thank you, Amanda – I’m honoured by your generous words.
Such a richly beautiful piece of writing, Julian. Stunning! I’ve never seen hen harriers (one of my wildlife watching dreams…) and your words carry me into a world of ‘snowlight’ where I feel as if I have truly witnessed first-hand these birds like ‘winter itself on the move’ as they ‘bracelet the lakes.’
I love your phrase ‘These winter months are marked by the wild signature of their flights.’ And this wonderful piece of writing is full of your own signatures – all the very many perfectly captured word-images that deliver the reader into the fullness of the moment and all that echoes from it. I loved how I was sent high on the wing with the hen harriers and into their ‘pool of mystery’ and then earthward with the wonderful surprise of the bear tracks, knitting together the whole experience of the winter landscape. I loved how the hen harriers were an ‘aerial interpretation’ of it all. Your words truly ignite the winter embers into glittering life on my computer screen…
Thank you for such a magical read/ listen – and for the beautiful photos.
It’s been a good winter for seeing hen harriers here, and I was fortunate to see a male and female arching over the fields together a week or so ago. Despite their increasing rarity in the UK, I do hope you get a chance to see one at some time. In think your senses will unfold with the experience and eventually be turned to words.
Thanks ever so much for this charming, and humbling, comment, Melanie. And my deep appreciation for taking the time with these snowy finds of mine!
Reblogged this on Soluciones Inteligentes and commented:
In for my fourth reading and finally stopping to say thank you for the experience. I too, love listening to your reading, while I immerse myself in the images – your word-pictures enriching and populating the welcoming photographs.
I’m always deeply humbled by your lovely words, Cindy. And I’m honoured to think you read this post four times, I really am. Thanks ever so much, as always.
Hope this finds you well!