Along these paths and boardwalks I marched out many a black-dog day: many a foul, lost, black dog day, four small children in tow. You may have seen me there. 2004. I was the one with the double buggy, spilling sippy cups and baby wipes from an over stuffed nappy bag, pleading with my ten year old to stop chasing the ducks and come out of the mud.
During these days I mostly wanted to stay in the house, except that the house was too full of mess I needed to clear up and tinies who needed my attention. I was feeling so bad about how things had become that I didn’t really want to go out where people could see. I hadn’t yet learnt that it’s OK to say you’re not coping or that you feel sad or that being a mum had turned out very different from what you expected.
The penned in wildfowl and insulated hides all situated on the edge of a perfectly managed stretch of flood ground were just enough wide open space for me and I was enjoying wind and sky and trees and grass in a new and liberating way. Mildly agoraphobic and inclined to tiny panic attacks I felt safe in this space. I never named these symptoms as I name them now: I call them now for what they are and know they are mainly behind me.
2004. I let them out of the buggy and they all scrambled off onto the stepping stones in the shallow muddy water just far enough apart to ensure someone will fall in again today. I learnt to let them step their toddler size strides in shiny wellies and well worn pumps. I let them jostle and fight for space on the barely wide enough slabs. In this pool, carved out for coots and moorhens, Hawaiian geese and marbled teal my children practiced finding their way across tricky terrain. And only I knew that the worst that can happen is a washing machine full of muddy clothes and a few scrapes and bruises. Nothing that a bubble bath and bedtime story won’t cure.
Some parts of my life caved in on themselves and I found myself in a very small space on the inside of my own head. I could only cope with the great big world broken into small pieces. I could only cope with the brokeness of my own world one shattered fragment at a time. We walked together along the path and through each gate where whole continents unfolded before us: Europe, Asia, Oceania, South America, North America, The Arctic, Antartica and Africa, their tundra and dessert, mudflats and swamps, salt-marsh, fresh-marsh, rivers and streams, contained and curated in 400 acres of beautiful wetland surrounded by a high fence. A very small window on a very big world.
Out on the edges of the well tended reserve I spent Saturday mornings quietly alone. With binoculars, a note book and a flask of coffee. Eaves-dropping on conversations from seasoned twitchers and consulting my Collins guide I learnt the names of the birds and the places they had been. Armchair journeys, I travelled outside of my own mind’s eye. I had spent too long inside my head and it had not been a good place for me. The picture windows looked out on 2000 whooper swans each autumn. By day and night they flew above my house to feed on the salt marsh by the sea. I flung open the windows of my house to listen to them call. I dreamed of the lonely places they had seen, said the names aloud like a rhyme: Hudson Bay, Alaska, Greenland, Baffin Island, Svalbard, Siberia, The Laptev Sea. Each of their stories written in the fabric of creation and the flap of a wing where a bird is born and already knows the land and oceans it must traverse each spring to reach its breeding ground, the place to which it must winter away from the arctic cold.
Before we leave we must visit the snow geese. A most romantic bird. Six hundred thousands greater snow geese breed on Canada’s north eastern islands and migrate south each autumn to their wintering grounds along the Atlantic coast. Six million lesser snow geese breed across the arctic and when summer ends they travel south to spend their winter in Delaware, California and Mexico. They fly at heights of 30,000 feet, a 3000 miles journey along known and narrow flyways never stopping to rest.
2004. Little hands reach out and let a beak peck a grain or two before they snatch it away in fright. I’m not sure who is more afraid the toddler or the goose. These particular birds fly nowhere in particular, they let us bring them corn. Their clipped wings taking them in small circles of flight barely above the head of my oldest child. They keep their feathers clean, they know that all year they will be fed. In spring if they lay their brood will be watched, monitored, recorded, protected from predators and delighted over by visitors.
Today. No more clipped wings. I’m looking over wild open place without fear. The small place within my own head long ago abandoned I gaze out on the still horizon, the great panorama of reed beds and newly ploughed fields. In a short twelve weeks the birds will return filling the skies with a call that sounds like freedom and joy. And once again I’ll fling open my bedroom window and listen to the sound of swans.