Saturday, August 12, 2006

Leave The City Behind ...

If, like me, you live in the sprawling mass of a city, then you’ll appreciate that communing with nature is a privilege and, sadly, not a regular occurrence. The city is a dirty, noisy place where rats hold court in the sewers below, cockroaches plague most apartments, sparrows cough their way through the dawn chorus and the majority of pigeons are missing all or part of a foot.

Given any chance to open my wings and take in a good lungful of fresh air and I jump at the opportunity - first in the queue. This summer (if you could call it that), I was lucky enough to go cockle hunting on a beach in Normandy and spend 15 minutes alone with a wild beast in the Yonne region.

Two hours drive westerly, and Normandy is at your feet. A coastal region, lapped by the English Channel and famous for cider, the hard-hitting liqueur Calvados, the landing beaches of Operation Overlord and the mouth of the river Seine. The three of us were staying with relatives between the Bobo town of Deauville and celebrity-free Cabourg. The deserted morning beach is ideal for exercising racehorses and is a mere 5 minutes ‘à pied’ from the house, allowing for easy trips down to the waterfront - one of our party was 71 years old, another 5.

Decyphering a detailed timetable, we looked for the retreating tide and set off with a plastic bag, hand rakes and an appetite. There are points where the receding water leaves large-ish pools and slight lips in the sand. As the water heads out, cockles previously feeding in the shallows, are not taken along for the ride, but burrow a matter of inches below the sand. It is on these gentle upper slopes that we scratched and dug for half an hour.

A harvest of 60 firmly closed ‘coques’ in the bag and we turned towards the kitchen. Lunch was gloriously simple. Spaghetti and cockles, a drop of garlic and a bottle of chilled Rosé. Once the spaghetti was ready, it was drained and the washed cockles added to the pan. The heat gently cooks and opens the creatures, revealing their orange/white flesh. Every last morcel in that pan was finished off and it had to be the meal of the year.

A few days later, we waved a salty goodbye to the sea and headed inland for a 5-hour trip to the Yonne region. Situated south-east of the capital, the Yonne is farming heaven. Wide open spaces are the order of the day, where cattle, sunflowers, wheat and rape seed abound. The roads in this part of the country are usually taken up by tractors and their cargo of extraordinary farming implements. Our goal was a house on the outskirts of village, near the town of Charny. The population is in it’s low 100’s and the nearest neighbour is 1km away. Sheer bliss for those seeking solitudem an escpae after the constant roar of the city.

It is there, in the middle of nowhere, that I get the best sleep. ‘Driving them home’ for hours at an end and still have the need of an afternoon nap. When at home you habitually get 6 hours sleep a night, this is a revelation.

On at least one morning out there, I like to get up early and watch the sunrise from under the shelter of a tree on the edge a particular field. I can happily sit here for hours, listening and watching the birds, follow a family of hares going about their morning rituals and watch a pair of Hen Harriers as they circle above the fields eyeing their prey. If you’re luckt (very very lucky), you may well catch sight of a deer - or three - as they make their daily trip from the woodland behind, through the gardens and down into the lower wood where they spend their daylight hours.

At 06h30 I made my way out to my favourite tree, obligatory camera and 400mm lens in hand. The sun was slipping over the horizon, a light orange glow touching the outer reaches of the puffy clouds. The dawn was set off nicely with a mist of diamond quality. Long stalks, plants and grass sparkled in the early light. Settling down on a soft cushion of ivy, I sat for the next 45 minutes ... and it was perfect.

By chance I looked to my left and it was then my heart stopped - well, almost. Along a ridge by a felled tree, a deer (species unknown) was nosing it’s way through the grass. Occasionally lifting it’s head for a safety check and a look around, it was no more than 6 meters (20 feet) away but as the wind was blowing against me, the animal had no idea I was there.

With the viewfinder to my right eye, I took a shot. On hearing the shutter click, the deer looked over in my direction but didn’t seem startled. I took another shot. Again, he looked over. He walked down the ridge and made for a gap in the field directly in front of me.

He paraded up and down, from left to right, looking towards my shelter, sniffing the air around him. Every time I pressed the shutter, he stared in my direction. He took a few paces towards me, bent down to look under the branches of the tree, then backed off and peered sideways at me. All the time I was snapping away.

My introduction with this fascinating animal came to a close when he suddenly got spooked and went leaping and barking into the wood below. In all, I’d rattled off 56 shots with the ‘file info’ in the camera telling me that the first image was taken at 07h21 and the last at 07h36 - he’d stayed with me for a full 15 minutes.

It certainly didn’t feel like a quarter of an hour and was one of those moments that was over all too quickly.



Anonymous Cat said...

Beautiful photos Stu, beautiful photos.

You should think about turning pro ;-)

Saturday, August 12, 2006 12:03:00 pm  

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