He had still to see a ring ouzel for the year and he had twice tried for one this week and been unlucky. There had been three or four seen at Morston, so he went there. It was a long trip but he knew the place and it was easy to get to. He walked down to the quay, past the sign that warns drivers to be careful of the children and the animals, to the National Trust car park. You can get a boat trip to see the seals at the Point from there, twice a day. He had done that, on several occasions. The footpath is part of Peddars Way, a Roman road, or something older. A cool, dry day in the late autumn. His sense of where the value lay in what he had set himself to do in that place meant that he couldn't really care for all of the convenient organization and that made him think that his tastes were fastidious and exacting. Certainly, it was an easy place to get to, but he didn’t want to go there and settle for not very much. And he found the ring ouzels had gone.
He saw another birdwatcher he recognized. A very tall rather fat man of his own age or younger, bearded, baseball cap and sunglasses resting on the peak of the cap. He had been looking for a Radde’s warbler, almost certainly, that had been seen there the day before. Large numbers of Siberian birds had been on the coast this last week. That had gone as well. He didn’t speak to him.
Up on the path he looked over the fields away from the salt marsh. The bright green fields looked empty and hygienic, empty of ring ouzels, although full of themselves. Behind him the path broadened into a swathe of rutted mud where the purslane of the marsh started. Shapeless and shabby mud like a building site, a wreck of a place. The day had already slipped one arm into a coat of austerity and disappointment. He walked on to the west, towards Stiffkey, Warham Greens and Holkham.
The path became difficult in places; where the stream crossed it he couldn't readily see his way through its toils of shallow runnels and gullies without getting his feet wet. He threaded a path until he got to a place where he could proceed if he gave a little leap. He hesitated there, then he jumped the few feet and landed without incident and thought it might have been many years since the last time he had done such a simple child-like thing. A couple on the path behind him turned back.
Several people were walking east, always at least in a couple, and he said hello to all of them. One elderly man with a stiff grey beard like a bottle brush was carrying a red clipboard that probably had a map on it. The man stopped and looked out over the marsh and said to his friend, a woman in colourful clothes, ‘Oh look at that. That’s marvellous.’ Or, perhaps, ‘That’s wonderful.’ Admiration anyway.
He had been on this path the day before and had walked back towards Morston from the west, but had not walked this far. On a hill he saw the filigree of four tall leafless trees against a sky of two or three kinds of silver and grey.
He saw a female marsh harrier a long way out across the purslane and glasswort. A large, chocolate-coloured bird with a yellow cap. Holding its wings in the characteristic shallow dihedral. It was distant but it seemed to have a vivid green patch on its shoulder. A wing tag? Did they tag marsh harriers? No, they didn’t. That was the normal yellow shoulder patch made to look green in some unexpected light.
He received a message. Seven or more ring ouzels at the west end of Holkham pines. That was too far to walk now, but he could have gone there just as easily as to Morston that morning had he known about this earlier. That’s where his Morston ouzels were, possibly.
He got to the finger post at Stiffkey where he knew he could walk back to the road if he wanted to. The post was garlanded with lost items, a child’s pink hoodie, one sandal. Relics of family holidays, the opposite of buying a souvenir. These things had been there the day before. No one was coming back for them.
He was getting towards Garden Drove, where he had looked for, waited for really, another Radde’s warbler the day before. He had stood with a few other people spread in a line on the rough grass along the margin of a large prairie field and stared into the hedge that bordered the path down to the marsh. The hedge was half a mile long, maybe longer, and was a well-known place to go to see migrant birds. The field had been manured, so the air had a shitty tang to it. He hadn’t seen the Radde’s warbler, that rare, discreet, difficult bird. Usually to be found when it gave its sharp call, which it did infrequently.
He hadn’t seen it. There had been a moment of excitement when someone had said he had seen a small bird move low through the brambles and scrub. He had seen that too. It had looked like a robin to him. It had been a robin.
What had been the best things about yesterday? A late barn swallow. He might actually have seen a ring ouzel, flying past the end of the path. It had had an odd flight, not like a blackbird, with its wings folded back, parallel to its body. A hint of a white bib? But that could have been fantasy. It had been gone too quickly. He had been on the path then and the hedge grew up thick on either side and made a tunnel. The bird had flown high past the mouth of the tunnel. And there had been a lot of thrushes about. Chehov said that whoever had seen the migrating of the thrushes in autumn, watched how they floated in flocks over the village on bright cool days will never be a real townsman, and will have a yearning for freedom to the day of his death. Though Chehov also said that living in the country was just laziness, monasticism without good works. The countryside, the ‘middle of nowhere’, to many people. Some allowance might need to be made for the differences between Norfolk and Russia in this regard.
The best thing had been the goldcrests. They had fluttered boldly around the ivy, careless of his presence. Uncannily small with that bright yellow crown stripe, hovering like humming-birds, like fat moths. The unblinking beads of their eyes black against their white lores. He had thought, ‘I shall write about these birds, and make these comparisons, in a letter to my mother,’ telling her what he had done that week. What adventures he had had.
He could have walked now back to that field. People were seeing the Radde’s warbler still today, every two or three hours, for less than a minute in all likelihood. He didn’t want to. He could feel himself giving up on the day, losing heart. It had been a mistake to come here, a waste of a free day, it had depended on too little.
He decided that he would sit on a fallen tree, long fallen and barkless now, stripped over the years by that salt air, and read his book. There were anonymous little spiders on the tree and some fungus that had dried and gone as hard as the wood itself. Actually, it had been at this point that he had seen the marsh harrier. Also, he had originally looked for the Radde’s warbler, for a long time, not on Garden Drove, where it was, almost certainly, but along an adjacent path, which he had thought was Garden Drove and where the bird was not, quite probably, and it was on that path that he had watched the goldcrests. Over the long acres of the endless purslane and glasswort, called samphire by some, he could see the neat blue buildings of the old lifeboat station, in fact on the Point, on the other side of the river, which was wide there, almost the sea. A merciful quiet, now and then.
He was reading Richard Ford’s collection of Chehov’s stories, just twenty of them. In truth, he was about to read it. He was reading Ford’s introduction, starting it now. He sat on the fallen tree and read. What Ford said was not at all satisfactory to him. He said that he had not selected the twenty to represent Chehov’s range of story writing, the genres or sub-genres that Chehov had gone in for, but had simply chosen twenty stories that had seemed excellent to him. That did not appear to be true. He also said that Chehov’s stories were still straightforwardly modern to us now, that they could be published in the New Yorker without notes or context and they would read as new. That was definitely not true. Ford was saying this was true because he wanted it to be so, for some reason. That was like seeing a blackbird and saying it was a ring ouzel. Worst of all was his tribute to Chehov’s subtlety. He described Chehov as subtle and sophisticated, which of course he is, but he didn’t describe or explain that sophistication, he just wrote something high-sounding and subtle himself and let that stand as an emblem of Chehov’s qualities, tedious equivalents for them. And Ford isn’t really subtle, just complicated.
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