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Changing the pace of my life


Staff member
Mar 19, 2024
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The storm from the north-west has blown in overnight and as I sit at the upstairs window having a second coffee, the tall birch and alder trees in my close view are bending to the wind. Everywhere the loose leaves of autumn are being rearranged – see there was no need to sweep them up after all. This morning, I’m reading a book about darkness, dark nights and starry skies and I’ve learnt a new word at my age. Solastalgia – and I know exactly what it means. It’s when I walk up the road and find no lapwings breeding in the ‘lapwing field’, which lost that icon of spring beauty some years ago. It’s why I never want to return to the high tops of the Cairngorms, for I remember my first visits in the early 1960s when on a weekday I never saw a single person just the joy of watching dotterel, ptarmigan and snow buntings. Now I’m told there are dozens of people, many with free ranging dogs or even electric mountain bikes. I think I’ll start using the word – solastalgia – my family and friends will think I’ve become erudite.

I can never read too long in the morning, for Millie lying at my feet soon reminds me that it’s time for a morning walk. I grab my fleece, this morning a woolly hat, and my boots and we’re ready. Nowadays I’m never sure how far I can walk – sometimes it’s really easy, like when I was younger, and I’ll decide that we will walk the longer route up the hill and through the forest, and then back down. But other days I just don’t have the puff – and I have to stop and turn round well before the hill. My doc tells me I have atrial flutter. But today I’m feeling great, and because of the wind, I decide, and Millie follows, to go down the river side because the bracken has died and blown over by the storm, and one of our favourite walks is once again possible.

Millie is a black flatcoat retriever who thinks her duty in life is to give the local pheasants extra flying lessons to strengthen their wings. Then she’s back beside me when we walk on under the magnificent great gnarled beech trees, scuffling through the leaves and the fallen twigs. I always give thanks to those Victorian foresters who planted tiny trees many decades ago. But this morning I wanted to look at a big spruce tree which I think might provide a lofty top for building an osprey nest, a replacement for a nest that was blown out last winter. We stand at the base and look up; it’s like a stepladder of horizontal branches and I know that when younger I could be at the very top in minutes but now at my age, close to 84, I know that it’s not possible. And as I watch Millie looking up and thinking that I’m also looking for squirrels, for it irks her when she hears them scrabbling round the bark completely out of range. The tree is now out of my range as well and I’ve calmly accepted that I’m no longer a tree climber, but then I enjoy having several friends who are great tree climbers. They now build the nests, ring the eagles and ospreys, and I know my place watching, and sometimes giving advice or encouragement, at the bottom of tree.

We walk on and surprisingly I find a holly tree which has a good display of red berries, in a year when berries are scarce. I collect three sprays for the Christmas table and start to head home. I’ve taken a slightly different route and come to a slippery wet ditch, I hover and hold the holly carefully and then decide to jump across, for ‘goodness’ sake you’re not that old’. Yet when I climb the bank and gather Millie, my back gives me a twinge and I think maybe I should not be jumping ditches at my age. But it’s hard to give up, it’s difficult for me but I am managing to change pace. To change my expectations and adopt a different role; and remember to take my mobile with me if I will keep walking new routes and jumping ditches.

During my life, I always wanted to be out in the field doing things, I thought it would be hard to accept the change but fortunately I have a small team of great ornithologists who can carry on our projects every bit as well as me. Technological advances have made that change of pace for me so much easier; this summer when the team were ringing and satellite tagging the first young white-tailed eagle in England for at least 240 years, they were able to Facetime me and show in real time what they were doing as they were doing it. Wow – we could never have done that when I was young, so although solastalgia worries me, I value the ability to embrace the new.

The other great pace change for me, is that despite some days when I look out and see bright blue skies, I can nowadays sit peacefully in my study to write. I have several books on the stocks at the moment and when I turn to my left and look at the shelves, I see my page-a-day diaries full of stories and information since my teens; and below them field notebook after field notebook full of data to encourage me to write. My wife, Moira, is a much better writer than me and she’s a wonderful editor, though sometimes quite tough, but it’s great to know that my written work will be checked properly before it sees the light of day. It will always be difficult getting older, but I have reached the age when I see, and accept, the value of changing pace so that I can aim for realistic targets for 2024.

Christmas greetings and good wishes for the New Year.

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