It is half past seven in the evening as I open the back door, pull on my wellingtons and step out to work in the garden. I climb the steps up the terraces that ascend steeply from the back door up to the lawn, and go into the summerhouse to peruse the list of jobs I have pinned to the wall. I choose to reclaim the circle of stones that border the bonfire pit from invading grasses.
Twilight is my favourite time of day to garden, and this is my favourite time of year to garden at twilight. In a month or so the emergence of midges from their pupal stage will make gardening at this time of day a feat of masochistic endurance, but for now I can enjoy the gloaming unmolested. The sky is perfectly clear, the air still and cool. The evening chorus of robins and blackbirds echoes in the oak woodland behind the garden.
I open the shed, unhook a couple of different weeding tools and a rake, and walk across the lawn to the bonfire pit. It is in the centre of a small grass glade, defined by an outer ring of stones. On one side of this ring there is a bed of woodland plants; snowdrops, bluebells, wild garlic, hellebores, and honeysuckle scrambling up a holly. Beside this holly is a hazel I coppiced three years ago, its new stems browsed by the roe deer which pass through the garden. On the other side of the glade there is a once-massive goat willow arching out of a stone wall, now pollarded to just above head height, and an untidy stack of oak logs ensnared in honeysuckle, bracken and ground elder.
A woodpigeon’s wings whistle over my head as I uncover last year’s charcoal from under a pile of oak logs that I sawed up late last year when I got my new saw horse. I kneel down and set to work hooking and pulling the tenacious grasses out from between the stones, and heap my harvest into the middle of the pit.
While my eyes are down on the ground I try and aurally appreciate the landscape beyond the garden. The air is so still that sounds from up and down the valley – a dog barking, the ‘jacks’ of a flock of jackdaws high above Foster’s Stone, a train sounding its horn somewhere up the valley – are close and clear. I am also, having heard my first one of the spring a few nights ago, listening for the ‘chit’ call of a male woodcock patrolling its woodland territory. The possibility of hearing it is precluded for a period by a wren in the holly behind me, repeatedly and insistently trumpeting its improbably loud trill. When it finally desists, my attention turns to the song of a blackbird up in one of the towering oaks on the bank above me. A small phrase within its song sounds remarkably like the first winding up of the curlew’s bubbling call that has, just in the last few days, started pouring down from Edge End Moor. Has the blackbird just added this phrase to its song now it has started hearing it since the curlews returned from their winter in the estuaries?
By the time I am three quarters around the stone circle, the evening is darker and quieter. Three gardens to the west a still winter-skeletal birch is etched in charcoal against the pale grey-blue-lemon-orange-pink sky. The great tits, wrens and song thrushes have fallen silent, as have about half of the blackbirds and robins. The cooling air is permeated by the heady spring scent of wild garlic.
I stand up to stretch, and look out over the top of the rhododendron hedge that borders the lawn, out across the ridge tiles of the roofs of my terrace and over the broad crown of the flowering willow on the village green. Beyond all these, across on the other side of the valley, a light is on at Callis Wood Farm, the only dwelling on the densely wooded mile of valley side that faces us. Birches and oaks press against its pastures on all sides, eagerly waiting for the time that they are abandoned. Above the wooded skyline, the lights of Jupiter and Sirius bleed into a fine gauze of cirrus. A bat passes between these lights, dipping and turning above the lawn. I strain to hear its audible buzzes, but it has been many years since that register was lost to me.
I kneel back down to finish the last three stones and complete the circle. I scoop the pile of matted roots and earth into a green garden sack, hoist it over my shoulder and walk back across the lawn and then up the 22 stone steps that take me to the top corner of our garden, where we haul all its excess fecundity. I go back to the bonfire ring and stamp around the stones to secure the ones my digging has disturbed, then I get the rake and tidy around the edges, and finally stack some oak logs around a heart of kindling ready for the first bonfire of the season.
The last of the blackbirds and robins – the first and last to sing – have finally quietened. In the valley bottom, 250 feet away and 100 feet below me, I can hear the River Calder. I debate with myself whether I can call the last of the sun’s afterglow any other colour than green, and conclude that I cannot. Perhaps this strange impression has been created by the looking down at the dark earth for so long. I pick up the rake, weeding tools and sack and take them back to the summerhouse to lock up. Before heading down the steps to the house I listen one last time for the woodcock. It is a forlorn listen, for by now it must be safely at roost in the bird-silent woods.