Burning stubble and a dose of reality
Dungeness August 1979
The farmers are burning the stubble in the fields, the failing light magnifying the intensity of the flames against the deep mauve and orange sky. Vast palls of smoke hang in the still air. We are outside the gates of the ARC pit, opposite Boulderwall Farm, bewitched by the farming activity taking place beyond Lydd Airport. Our mission tonight is to erect mist nets on the sand bowl at the back of ARC in the hope of catching waders for ringing. During the day a fine selection of wader species have been observed here, peak numbers coinciding with high tide, when feeding birds are driven off of Lade Sands.
After setting the nets in darkness, aided only by torchlight - there is a new moon - we retreat to the sand banks that have been created by the industrial machinery now motionless nearby. The air we breathe still has the warmth and smell of the faded day and on it hangs the call of waders as they return to the sand bowl from where we have recently disturbed them. I can identify Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Knot, Greenshank and Redshank. We settle down, sitting on top of coats or rucksacks. Sound carries great distances over the shingle and between our spells of whispered conversation we can hear the farm machinery in the burning fields even though they are several miles away. Each net round is producing birds, mainly Dunlin and Ringed Plovers but also a few Knot and even a couple of Curlew Sandpipers. It’s turning into a good nights ringing.
When things start to quieten down I lie out on the sand and stare up into the sky, vast and black, splattered with stars. There is no cataract of a cities orange glow to obscure these celestial bodies. I’m swallowed up in its emptiness and feel tiny, insignificant, humbled. A meteor tears across the firmament, then another. Goosebumps. I’m mesmerised by the whole scene before me. A feeling of wonderment is coupled with awe. In this astronomically induced high that I’m experiencing anything seems possible. As each meteor tails across the heavens another ‘hit’ arrives. I have to be prised from the sand to go and take the nets in. The day’s warmth has gone and been replaced by the chill of the early hours. Back at the observatory, my sleeping bag beckons.
If it’s quiet bird-wise and there are enough of us staying at the observatory we sometimes play football on the grass in front of the cottages. Our makeshift pitch straddles the road and car park, but traffic rarely interrupts the game. On this particular afternoon we’ve got a good turn-out, including one of Keith Redshaw’s dogs that chases the ball manically and survives more than one full-bloodied tackle.
An attack breaks down and the opposition ‘rush-goalie’ punts the ball high into the air. As I position myself underneath it, eyes focused on the spinning ball, my thoughts involuntarily turn to my imminent return to art college. The lucidity of these thoughts are surprisingly strong. I’m aware that the current life of ease I’m leading is about to finish. My recent summer's of idleness will be replaced by employment and responsibilities… things will never be so easy and uncomplicated again. As these negative, but possibly true vibes crowd my mind, I remain totally focused on the ball that is still hanging in the air, seemingly defying gravity.
My period of introspection is ended when my forehead finally connects with the ball and play continues. I can honestly say that as I’ve headed that ball something deep inside me has changed. The carefree part of my character has taken a reality check and responded by retreating. Is it still buried away somewhere?