I went for a walk in the woods. Did I just hear you say “Oh, hold the front page” with a heavyish hint of irony in your voice?
It’s true that it would be an unusual day where I don’t go for a walk in the woods, or at least go for a walk that involves woodland at some point. So not a source of captivating news then?
That rather depends on your idea of what makes news. The Salmond/Sturgeon stooshie (which is not easy to say, I have just discovered) is certainly newsworthy up to a point, and just wait, someone will start calling it Stooshiegate any day now.
The point in question is the one where a great deal of British journalism disgraces itself by abandoning fact in pursuit of a troubling species of vitriolic commentary that is symptomatic of a profound and institutionalised distaste for Scottish nationalism.
For such journalists, Stooshiegate is the excuse they have been looking for. Off with Nicola Sturgeon’s head. How dare those pesky Scots find her popular?
Perhaps the UK budget is more your thing? Five billion to save the High Street and how we pay for it? Is that the overriding priority of the UK Government, and therefore most important thing in the news? Rather than, say, five billion to save the environment? I only ask because as a society we can get along a lot better without healthy High Streets than we can without a healthy environment.
The never-ending fall-out from Brexit? Here’s a good one: Edinburgh Zoo wants to breed giraffes. I don’t think there is anything wrong with helping giraffes. But we should do it where the giraffes live, not on the side of Corstorphine Hill, which is where the zoo lives.
On the other hand, when I went for a walk in the woods, I discovered that the frogs are back, which is more significant than it might sound if you are preoccupied by Sturgeon-Salmond-Brexit-Budget-High Street-Giraffes.
Last year there were none at all in my neck of the woods. Their non-appearance is a small symbol of an unhealthy environment. The non-appearance of a species as ubiquitous as frogs that emerge from something like hibernation in their millions is a major event.
They normally devour billions of insects, and the frogs themselves are a food source for all manner of creatures from herons and badgers to foxes and (much to my surprise the day I saw it happen) merlins.
But suddenly, the ditch running down the side of the forest track where I walked started snoring. It is not a loud noise, but as the day was windless and the forest almost silent, it was particularly conspicuous.
It came from a small, grassy pool in the bottom of the ditch, one side of which was smothered in frogspawn.
I watched from a distance with binoculars; the surface and the first few inches of water beneath it frothed with frogs. I counted 10, there could have been twice as many.
As soon as I moved to the top of the bank and took a couple of steps down towards the pool, all was silent. Every frog sank in a single mass convulsion. Seconds later, there were seven pairs of eyes watching me from the surface.
I walked on about 50 yards, stopped, waited. It took three minutes for the droning to resume.
“Hold the front page,” I said to no-one at all, “the frogs are back”.
There is always more to it than frogs
I wandered on, for a walk in the woods is a multi-faceted news bulletin. There is always more to it than frogs.
Sometimes, in the case of this wood, it’s red squirrels, sometimes foxes, sometimes pine martens, sometimes a marauding party of siskins, sometimes a daytime conversation between tawny owls, sometimes, sometimes…
And then there was a far-off bird call, a few high-pitched semi-quavers, rising towards the end, then silenced. It lasted 10 seconds.
The phrase “stopped me in my tracks” literally describes its effect. I froze. I thought:
“Do that again.” Just to be sure, to be sure beyond a shadow of a doubt, I wanted to hear it again.
And while I waited I said (again to no-one),
“Hold the front page again, just in case.”
When an early arrival evokes 40 years of memories
It took five more minutes. Five minutes in which I moved nothing at all. All I did was scrutinise silence. Then it came. Eight notes, same as before, in slightly rising pairs of semi-quavers. No question, none at all, for all that it’s a month early.
It could, of course, be a traveller to Scandinavia and the wood just happened to be on its path at the right time. That happens sometimes.
My head crowded with 40-something years worth of memories from the Cairngorms forests of Rothiemurchus and Abernethy, to the Insh Marshes to Loch Awe and the Loch of the Lowes; to the years of all-night vigils by a wee tent to protect a tree-top eyrie near the Lake of Menteith, the female rising on the nest at sunrise to shake a bright cascade of dew from her wings.
Hold the front page. The osprey is back.