The beginning

Outdoor Living

PRECIOUS CARGO Bright-blue dunnocks’ eggs cradled in a soft, mossy bowl lined with sheep’s wool and horsehair.


Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

The man held his son shoulder high, to allow him a glimpse of four blue gems. Never had the lad seen such colour, except in the sky and maybe in his mother’s eyes. When he reached toward the nest his father put him down, took him by the hand and led him away, allowing the anxious hedge accentor the chance to return to her precious clutch.
“Hedge sparrow,” said the man in response to the boys question. “Dunnock, we calls ’em.”
The two sat at the gate and looked back to the tangle of bramble and thorn wherein was that soft, mossy bowl with its lining of sheep’s wool and horsehair.
“You listen now, he’ll be out to sing in a minute or two. Then you’ll see ’im.”
Sure enough, the male dunnock sprang from the bushes to alight on a low-hanging branch and let out a short burst of song, which was repeated twice before the bird slipped back out of sight.
“Why’s he singing?”
“He’s telling his friends there’s a nest there, with eggs within, so they knows to stay away. You know what mums are like with their babies. They don’t like to be disturbed.”
The boy thought of his own mother and the babe at her breast, and gave a sombre nod.
“Why are the eggs blue?”
“They’re blue so the parents know they’re theirs. If one was red, what would they think?”
The boy’s eyes opened wide in the wonder of vague comprehension, as a round, crisp-edged cloud shut out the April sun and a sudden chill accompanied a shadow of drizzling rain.
“April showers.” said the man as he pulled the boy close.
“I know. Mum said. April showers make spring flowers.” He rhymed it off.
As the cloud rolled by the sun returned and everything sprang into sharp relief. Colours were suddenly vibrant and the warm, comforting aroma of damp earth and new vegetation filled the late afternoon. The boy inhaled deeply through his nostrils, until his chest could take no more. “Why does it smell like that?” he wanted to know.
“That smell,” said the man, “that’s the smell of life. You’ll remember that all your days and when you’re as old as your granny, why, you’ll still not forget.”
The two of them ambled slowly up the steep meadow, toward the small farmstead that was home. A twist of smoke climbed steadily from the chimney, rising high before becoming lost in the branches of the tall oaks. At the top of the rise were wildflowers; the new beginning of red clover, bright dandelion suns, pale violets with their heart-shaped leaves, and more. The boy stopped and leaned forward with his hands on his bare knees, to watch the first of the year’s butterflies, an orange tip, lift from one cuckoo flower to another.
“Why’s it orange?”
His father was perplexed. He didn’t rightly know. “If it wasn’t orange, we’d get it mixed up with the others. They’ve got colours like we’ve got names.” He kneeled beside his young son. “Look Johnny, there’s things we can eat here.” He picked a handful of leaves, then as an afterthought a small bunch of flowers, which he pressed into Johnny’s hand.
The early spring evening closed quickly in and the light was beginning to fade when the two of them went into the warmth of the kitchen, where the boy’s mother clutched her crying newborn with one arm and pushed hair from her face with her free hand.
The boy offered his few flowers.
“Oh, not now,” she said, even as she saw his disappointment. “Look, put them in a cup of water.”
He did as he was bidden and sat with them before him, studying the form of each one. Even then he knew he would never understand it all. Why are flowers soft? He was afraid to ask, for fear his mother would be vexed or even laugh. They all came from the ground. How could so many pretty things come from brown dirt?
As the thrush set up his evensong outside the door the babe was quiet for a change. As his parents sat close, talking in low voices and touching hands, the budding naturalist ran the back of a forefinger over green and gold, lost in a moment of rare perfection. That night he dreamed of the dunnock’s nest and a world filled with flowers.
My father had been right. I never did forget.