By Julian Hoffman:
“Everything beckons us to perceive it,
murmurs at every turn…”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke
Hearing that a pair of eagle owls inhabited a rocky gorge on the plateau, we decided it was worth trying to see them hunting about the cliffs at dusk. First we explored the area in daylight, getting a feel for it before evening. The gorge began at the sea in a small cove where a few fishing boats were dragged up on to the beach and a handful of people swam in the shallows. Our friends couldn’t be tempted into the late September water and so they left us, trousers rolled up to our knees, walking the crystalline edge of the Black Sea. We’d only been in the surf a few minutes when they called us over, hushing us to come quietly to the pool of water they were standing by.
A squacco heron crouched on a stone at the edge of the pool. It was water lit, absorbing the mirrored light until it glowed. The bird’s back was draped in ochre and violet; its breast laced with lemon that bloomed towards the emerald edges of its eyes. It seemed to be the reflected emblem of the day, a distilled essence of light. The green and black lance of its bill was steady, and its eyes unwavering. It appeared to be lost in a trance but was peering for fish in the shallows, as still as the reflecting water. One of us must have shifted our weight, because suddenly it unfolded the white flags of its wings and glided away.
From the sea end of the gorge the valley squeezed itself between high bluffs. The ravine was flooded with reeds, straw-coloured palings staked around pools of open water where the skeletons of dead poplars still stood. We drove up the valley and searched the arid cliff face for caves suitable for eagle owls. The lane slowly narrowed, cordoning us between reeds and brambles, the thorns squealing against the sides of the car.
A purple heron, one of Europe’s rarer birds, appeared unexpectedly ahead of us, where it stood almost a metre high. Robed in brown and purple, it began a slow, patrician walk across the road, elegantly stepping out on the twin stilts of its legs. The heron stopped at a thin grassy verge and lowered its head as if listening. Knifing the blade of its bill towards the seemingly quiet earth, it drew up a rippling snake about a metre in length. With its head clamped in the heron’s bill, the tail of the snake swung free, grazing the road until the heron stood on it, trying to control it with its foot. The snake was stretched taut, pinched between the bayonet bill and the long, clasping toes of its captor as the heron tried to manoeuvre it in such a way as to swallow it whole.
All creatures have hidden energies, compelling them towards life. This explosively instinctive force was suddenly uncorked after the snake somehow came loose from beneath the heron’s foot and was swinging above the road again. The heron began walking with the snake dangling from its beak, but managed a few metres at most before the snake found the heron’s whistle-thin neck with its tail, coiled itself once, and began crushing the bird’s windpipe. The heron shuddered in shock, staggering about on its spindled legs until it dropped the snake from its bill. Although the snake was now completely free, it maintained a tight noose around the bird’s neck, lagging it like a pipe, slowly and methodically choking it. The heron snapped its head and bill back, desperately trying to dislodge the snake, and then slumped face forward to the road, thrashing its wings into the asphalt.
The wingspan of a purple heron can reach a metre and a half in elegant flight; unable to lift towards the sky, the diminished creature began crawling across the road on its quivering wings, taking the spiralled snake with it in the last breaths of its life. The heron strained to take flight, but its flailing wings stayed pinned near the earth. Finally it managed to pull itself off the road, slumping into a patch of grass and weeds where it laid trembling and labouring for breath. The snake was moments away from crushing the last of the bird’s life when it suddenly fell away from its neck and disappeared into the undergrowth. The heron faltered and wheezed as it staggered to its feet, and then took weakly to the air, a purple bruise being spirited away.
This is an extract from the wonderful The Small Heart of Things by Julian Hoffman. Readers of Under a Grey Sky will know how much I like this book, which has been recognised this week by the National Outdoor Book Awards, winning in the category of ‘Natural History Literature’.
Julian has a number of readings coming up in the UK, including the Caught by the River Social Club on the 19th November in London. If you are in, or can get to, the north of England in the next few weeks, Julian will be reading at The Kendal Mountain Festival on the 22nd November and The Book Case in Hebdon Bridge on the 25th November.