English Winter by Tor Falcon

The wind blew through the dead grass. It hissed. The empty wood tossed and moaned in its winter sleep. Crows watched. Cows stood wet and staring in the dark light. And then the teal came. Corkscrewing, jinxing, twisting and rolling; they arrived in their hundreds. Making the lake their own, they set up a chorus of pipping caroling, celebrating life in the midst of our suspended torpor. Each high-pitched call is answered by a tiny yellow flame opening on a gorse bush. They’re singing colour into the world. Coiled like a spring, this choir of wary little singers disperse through the trees at the slightest movement. Leaving an empty lake and an unbearable silence, I keep my distance. Rejoicing in the uplifting winter song of the northern teal.


I am in a grove of small ghosts. Pale in sunlight, blinking in the rain and invisible at dusk, these young trees almost disappear in the winter. Soulless beings, purple grey, and floating. They freeze in my warm stare, vaguely giving the impression of rootedness. I turn my back and they continue their undead pacing. Playing a phantom game of grandmother’s footsteps. Little bruised spectres, completely empty. Smudged by the howl of the wind. Dissolved by frost. Their tenure on earth is still undecided. These little woody mirages, keeping their fragile vigil for spring fill me with such hope that I almost believe anything is possible.


I spend more time in star and moonlight than I do in the sunlight at the moment. I’m almost translucent. Is that faint ethereal glow radiating from me? Silvery moonbeams have been slowly percolating into my brain. Every strange stumbling twilight experience points inexorably towards lunacy. I’m living in the night but I’m not part of it. I see things by not looking at them. Shapes seen in the corner of my eye vanish when I look directly at them. My two dogs, with their superior night vision and sense of smell, give in to their inner wolf and abandon themselves to the hunt. I stand powerless and listen to the chase, first the loud silence, then the chaotic footsteps, then panting, squeals, crashes and splashes. It’s as unnerving as a sound track from the Jurassic era. And I weep at the extraordinary call of the tawny owl. Bawdy and blood-curdling. A tawny owl is a killer with a sense of humour. He is the master of nocturnal murder with a compulsion for confession. He entrances and terrifies by turns, reminding me of my utter helplessness in the dark.


As the cows slowly make their way across the field, my dogs warily inch closer to me. By the time the cows have arrived the dogs are tightly wound round me. Tails and feet spilling awkwardly over my paper and pencils. We have become a three headed, six legged creature. Three pairs of eyes covering every angle. One part warm bliss, two parts nerves, we wait while the cows blow and burp and breathe over us. Eventually they’ll tire and begin to drift away, all except one who will remain, standing right in front of us. Much as I adore the closeness of my dogs and even the company of the cows, there’s a limit to my patience when I’m in the middle of a drawing. And the best way I’ve found of getting rid of a cow, is to start drawing it. There’s something about the intense gaze of human eyes that unsettles animals. Imagine, you’re used to losing yourself in the vague, soft depths of your fellow bovines’ dreamy brown eyes, when suddenly you’re caught in the glare of a pair of human eyes. Small and white. Utterly alien. Horrible. But don’t think that just staring will do. No, you have really look at the cow. Notice the position of the ear in relation to the eye. Look at the length of each eyelash…. And the cow will move uncomfortably… Plot the angle between a nostril and the outer edge of the eye…. He’ll be really twitchy by now….One more look, and he’ll be off, keen to get back to the safety of the middle distance. Proof of the fast, effectiveness of this remedy can be seen in the scrappiness of my little drawing.


Two pin pricks of pink were the only colour in the cheeks of the new year. Now, nearly a month on, January’s cold face is suffused with a dull rainbow of pinks. The low sun feebly bathes the young year in muted warmth. Slumbering trees are being tickled into a million nuances of brown pink. Soft light is gently bruising alder catkins purple and pink. Dead grass squirms out of my grasp, a completely unknowable pink. The lake faintly glistens like great granny’s tattered lamé dress at the back of my cupboard. Collared doves sweetly fly through their wedding vows, grey pink and already in love. Rosy diamonds silently dripping through their nuptial bower. And in all this suppressed colour, the dogwood throbs magenta. A violent tangle of dark red stems ignited by the weak sun into a maddening frenzy of crimson and alizarin.


The unwelcome arm of the Arctic has been extended to Europe this week. Almost imperceptible at first, its touch now feels like a hammer blow. It’s freezing fingers leave nowhere unexplored. It turns liquid solid. Sunlight, which yesterday was broken into a million dancing fragments on the agitated lake, is today flatly absorbed by an opaque covering of ice. Soil, usually so yielding, is stiff with rigormortis. Woodcock, snipe, rooks have all had to go in search of softer ground. The teal have gone too. Cows don’t move from the hay. Calves lying up next to it are liberally covered in its faint warmth by the messy eating of their mothers. Barn owls hunt all day. A heron is the only creature shouting his protest in the biting silence. Dogs curl up in ever tighter balls. And then a mass of bullfinches appear in an empty hedge, as unexpected as ripe tomatoes.


I love maps. Ordinance Survey maps, crinkled with contour lines. Ancient maps in museums with obligatory sea monster. Road maps with branches of Ikea marked. I have maps in my head too. Maps of places I know, full of colours and shapes. And maps of places I don’t know but I’ve imagined.

On Sunday morning the snow had laid two new maps over the top of this familiar place. First was a map of every branch on every tree, no twig too small to be included. Everything given equal importance. Nothing in front, nothing behind. Just laid out flat for your eye to travel along. No need ever to end your journey. And the second map is a map of footprints. Each violet mark, part of a ghostly tale from the past, however recent. The meandering rabbit in search of grass, huge back feet in front, front feet behind. The neat pads of a fox, striking out straight across the field, in search of rabbits. The sharp slots of muntjac that slice the snow as they tuck in tight to the bramble bushes. And the slow, splayed toes of a pheasant. You can see his discomfort from the aimless circle he’s trodden. And two otters whose snowy footprints on the ice are surely dancing. But best of all are the minuscule bird feet, hardly a scratch really, with the even fainter print of a wing nearby. And I begin to wonder…. did the snow make contact with that wing in the air and did it fall to the ground as a ready made wing print?…. But I’m getting cold and I decide to walk home, backwards, just to confuse any trackers who come along after me!



After graduating from the Norwich School of Art, Tor Falcon married a forester and moved to a tangled stream side slice of land in the headwaters of the River Yare. Looking intensely at one location, so riotously bursting with life, heightens the contrast with sterile farmland around. Perhaps Tor’s generation of poets, artists, and writers inspired by the English landscape are in fact beginning to write its epitaph.