Country diary: my baby and I move through different landscapes

Airedale, West Yorkshire: My six-week-old daughter still can’t see very well, but her sense of smell is fierce, and we can both hear the magpies, which are everywhere

She’s only six weeks old but I’m sure she can smell the smothering perfume of the rosebay willowherb that crowds the lake edge. A new baby’s senses develop lopsidedly, out-of-sync: our daughter’s eyesight is still finding focus – she can’t see the wood pigeons bombing across the pale dishwater sky, framed by the edges of her pram – but her sense of smell is fierce. This unfamiliar air, for her, must be rich in plant odour. The greenery everywhere is dense, weighty and dull-looking: rangy flowers of fodder radish; milk-white gramophone trumpets of bindweed; teasel-heads, deliciously crisp and sharp; young rowans bowed by the weight of their October berry-crops; reed beds top-heavy with feathery flowers. Elders flash their pale underleaves in the stiff breeze.

We grownups can’t smell much of anything over the willowherb – but I see a redwing, skipping in flight like a stone spun across pond water, in the middle distance, and a jay bounding up from the side of the path, a little cameo of peach, blue and black against the army green. We and our daughter move through quite different landscapes.

Her hearing is good. Mine isn’t bad, but it’s getting worse. We can both hear the cock pheasant fussing in the meadow, and the magpies, which are everywhere – more than the nursery rhyme accounts for (I get to “Nine’s the devil”, and have to stop). It’s the time of year when the young magpies split from their parents’ territories. An odd thought, when you’re wheeling a six-week-old. Young birds all around us are finding their feet, flexing their wings, testing their range as their first winter looms: angular charcoal wing-edges single out the young black-headed gulls amid the yawping crowd on the water; a gawky immature heron perches on top of the untenanted sand-martin bank.

We cross the river – we all smell the murky odour of the slow water; then we all hear a sharp “chee”, twice repeated, and a kingfisher comes rocketing upstream, brilliant even in this dull light. The sound, too, is brilliant, hard as stone, keen-edged. Our daughter will have heard it more sharply than I did. I don’t suppose it’ll stay with her, but it’ll stay with me.


Richard Smyth

The GuardianTramp

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