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Woodland paths and earthly remains

Walking the perimeter of my local woods it’s easy to miss the subtle downshift in the soundscape from the rushing vehicular hiss of the motorway to the hushed shadows that break to open pasture. It is on this open facing side of the woods that badgers have chosen to excavate their burrows amongst the coarse local stone that slowly emerges in the autumn once the summer greens begin their retreat. The path narrows for a short distance over uneven ground, forcing the rambler to concentrate momentarily on their feet, before the trail opens again onto level ground and a wonderful sweeping view of surrounding farmland and up monument hill in the nearby park.

The badger setts mark this mid-way point of my circumnavigation of the woods and the natural splendour on display it’s hard to fault their aesthetic and architectural choices. For a time, I took to stopping here during the early summer to shoot long exposures of the rising wheat fields that roll like a choppy sea down to the dual carriageway. A long heatwave had burnished everything to a roughly textured gold, which I imagined would translate into an ocean of shades and subtle contrasts once expressed in black and white film. As I was scrambling about with my camera a woman passed by, followed closely behind by a playful Labrador. She was talking loudly on her mobile phone and seemed surprised to see me and I must admit her sudden, unexpected appearance did momentarily shatter the pastoral idyll.

Her phone was held below her chin in a horizontal fashion that I’ve seen employed by other people for reasons I struggle to understand. Have I been using my phone incorrectly all this time? Is it meant to be set to the speaker option so that everyone in the immediate vicinity can partake in your private conversation? Unless this is to overcome some obscure medical condition it all seems rather needless and ignorant if you ask me. The woods are not a quiet place, but they are a good place to be quiet. For this reason, I do somewhat resent the presence of other people intruding into my private contemplative bubble. A word I recently encountered refers to this as “aloneness”, of being alone with oneself without feeling lonely, happily introverted as it were, which makes a lot of sense to me. Even submarines occasionally need to surface to take on supplies and replenish the oxygen supply, and I like to think of the experience of aloneness operating in much the same way, topping off your stores of resilience before plunging back into the world. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot my pastimes require a certain amount of aloneness – painting, photography, woodworking, writing and so on. But there you go.

Having taken the long exposure photographs I took a closer look at the badger setts. For only the third time in my life I discovered a badged skull, presumably unearthed during a spring clean of the inner sleeping chambers and left to bleach on the spoil heap. The first and therefore most memorable one was found on a day hike with my parents organised by the Natural History Society sometime back in the early 90s. I remember my father showing me the intricate hinge connecting the lower jaw to skull – an actual hinge - explaining in reverential terms that it this mechanical quality that helps to give the badger its impressive bite. As a boy he had collected animal skulls that he found in hedgerows and even as a grown man would still stop to shake out the rotting contents of old bottles and glass jars discarded on country walks in the hope of finding the earthly remains of some forgotten rodent after its unfortunate owner had become trapped. We were forever finding rabbit skulls on these walks, with their distinctive buck teeth and massive eye sockets. “All the better to see you with!” he would joke as I carefully carried it home to display rather morbidly on my windowsill. I still have the badger skull, which now occupies on a shelf above my desk.

Encountering an uninhabited skull again on my turn around the local woods I decided to leave it alone, not wishing the disturb the sett nor deprive another wanderer of an interesting encounter with the dead, choosing instead to snap a photograph.



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