As a child I always wanted to be a ‘naturalist.’ I pictured myself heading out for long days in the field with a net over my shoulder to catch all things which swam or flew and a hand lens on a strap around my neck to identify rare plants.
Surveying ditches for the Internal Drainage Board might not sound like such a thrilling occupation to some but it allows me to live my childhood dream. So yes, I get odd looks tramping through the undergrowth in a floppy hat and binoculars. So, yes, I am bored of hearing “Going fishing darling?” from ‘funny man’ dog walkers. Yes, yes, I have days where I spend hours fighting my way through thistle jungles and swaying from heat stroke but I also get to places that few other people are allowed to see, field edges, hidden copses, tangly brooks. I see private glimpses of wildlife, a hovering kingfisher, a cormorant, silver bubbled, slipping underwater in search of fish, sky dancing marsh harriers, wildlife with it’s back turned, not expecting to encounter a person out here where few are ever seen.
This is not a gentle stroll along a footpath, they are, as a friend recently said, ‘hard miles.’ but I love being out all day in the countryside, seeing no one and having a purpose. It is a privilege and I never forget it.
On Wednesday I was out on Chislet Marshes, a vast sea of wheat fields winding their way in from the sea, watched over by the eye of Reculver Towers ever present on the horizon. I had walked many miles along the reed fringed Shuart Dyke, testing the water quality, noting the diversity of plants, searching for water voles.
At lunch time I lay with my head on my bag on a wooden bridge covered with lichens and watched the clouds build and swell . Swallows skimmed inches above the water, almost grazing my chest as they crossed the bridge. I contemplated a skinny dip, fancying the prospect of baking myself dry on the sun warmed timbers beneath me, but the water had high nitrate content (I had tested it) and looked none to inviting. I knew from experience that even the loveliest looking streams could hold nasty surprises, having lowed myself into a brook last year I emerged with a leach stuck to my foot merrily sucking my blood.
Besides, I had already been caught in a compromising position once that day. I go slightly feral on the marshes in the summer and forget what normal behaviour is. With no one to be seen for miles I had been having a wee quite out in the open when the seaside train to Whitstable had flashed past. I had quite forgotten about the railway line, hidden in a dip. The driver, and passengers got a vision which might scar them for life. Maybe I was becoming more of a naturist than a naturalist.