Marshland is my favourite habitat. I am a marsh-dweller at heart, instinctively drawn to any sodden, wind-whipped, wind-flattened place of wild song. It’s the mystery of marshes that I love—the fact that even the smallest patch of boggy ground always feels wild, and that these places retain a thrilling sense of impenetrability and threat. It’s for those reasons too that I love the secretive snipe most of all marsh birds. The intricacies and varieties of snipe crypsis are a beautiful embodiment of its environment.
It is simultaneously easy and difficult to see a snipe up close, because they hide in plain sight. When you do see one, and see it well, you can appreciate just how brilliantly the bird’s plumage mimics fenny colour and substance. The full spectrum of bog browns is there in the stippled stub, sedgy striations and loamy sod of each feather, which in the aggregate gives the impression that the bird constructs a piece of marsh right there in front of you. Snipe are the very stuff of their habitat (or, which is the same thing, their habitat is the stuff of snipe), so the trick to finding one in the field is to carefully examine the wet edges of promising territory and hope that some tiny part of it materialises as snipe; or, conversely, start from the premise that everything you’re scrutinising is snipe until it gives itself up as mud and grass.
Even the noises snipe make seem determined to give away as little as possible. If you accidentally disturb snipe from the ground, they burst up at the last second from your feet, uttering a quiet ‘snick’ or ‘sneck’ which to me is somewhere between a kiss and the sharp tear of cloth, as though the bird has just ripped up from the grubby fabric of soil itself.
Snipe are camouflage masters, but, remarkably enough, they appear in several of our place-names. You’d think that their bog-drab understatement would rule them out of any criteria for useful place-marking. But there they are in places such as Snitterfield, Snydale, Snitemore and Snite. In the last of these it seems that literally just the Old English name for the bird was enough, the place itself invoked for early medieval folk by those mysterious marsh-keepers divining earth’s sub-secrets with their twitching bills like priests at solemn rituals.
On this exceptionally, unseasonably warm day in October (it’s 22 degrees Celsius), I saw two swallows flicking and swooping out to sea. It’s not unusual to see swallows at this end of October, even into November, but it feels more and more like a farewell as autumn wears on. There are other signs of its progress towards winter: gathering, clattering woodpigeons in stubble fields; seeping redwings overhead at night; brent geese gargling in estuarine creeks. There is a handover of birds going on, a seasonal changing of the guard. The seasons, their passing and weathers, never feel certain or predictable anymore though, and I can’t help feeling on days like today that much of what once passed for seasonal certainty (in an echo of the uneasy sentinel relief in the opening scene to Hamlet) now betokens some strange eruption. Something rotten in the state of the world.
The disruptions and anxieties of climate change notwithstanding, the coming and goings of migratory birds through the seasons have always been, and still are, important to our connections and responses to our immediate environments, determining and shaping not just our sense of the seasons, but our sense of the places in which we experience these seasons. A friend and colleague, Nick Acheson, has written of the ‘gap’ that is left, physically and emotionally, when hirundines leave his home turf at summer’s end. Likewise, Charles Foster, an avowed swift aficionado, has written of the funk he suffers when his favourite bird leaves for Africa in August. He makes every attempt to ‘avoid that sudden sickening emptiness’, to reduce the ‘desolation and despair’ (The Screaming Sky, 2021). Without swifts, Foster’s street in Oxford is devoid in some sense, and the ‘sky has no form, no structure. Its beams have been removed’. The fabric of place, of the very air we breathe, is rent in pieces, disintegrates into nothing.
No wonder then that people might once have dreamed about preserving that essence of summer place, or may have been so stubbornly attached to die-hard myths about some species sleeping out winter at the bottom of ponds: a small wick sputtering through the dark cold months, a flame aglow in the benthic gloom. That’s a myth to believe in, to keep alight.
Surely, this is the idea inspiring the Wise Men of Gotham‘s foolish and unsuccessful efforts to ‘pen’ a cuckoo in a shrub for perpetuity (it’s a popular ritual—there are ancient cuckoo pens all over the country). At the root of that legend is the powerful conviction that a cuckoo’s voice, suddenly sounding to our great anticipation one April day from the back-end of winter, and just as suddenly ceasing in mid-summer, is somehow spring itself. It is the genesis of the season, and the breath of its invocation calls forth warm and generous life. To prevent cuckoos, swifts or swallows leaving in mid-summer would be to somehow capture and distil aestival substance, to be shelved alongside jars and flagons of summer’s golden yield, as though the matter of the birds themselves–fission of light, energy, song–is that of the long-day moment of our year. The very idea pinpoints the most life-affirming, life-full moment of a place, calls it out, and then keeps it tight, clutched in a fist close to the praying heart. That prayer becomes more precious and more fraught every year.
So, finally, here is Part 2 of my owl series, which I promised back in February when I posted Part 1, again taken from a chapter of my current book project. In a recent event with Jeremy Mynott and Mary Colwell on ‘birds and place’, I read from this extract, so now seems an appropriate moment to deliver. If you’re interested in viewing that online conversation, details are here and the recording is here.Part 3 to follow!
My memories of my daughter’s first moments cannot be separated from owl encounters. An owl shook its song from the forest fringes of the hospital car park the night she was born. A votive. She arrived in January, in the winter I began writing this book, and in the first months of her tiny life she was companion to my work. That owl pervades my memories of her first days, transfers one time and place upon another so that I can no longer separate sensation and occasion: frost-cold and owl-shriek, slumber-warmth at the lamp-lit desk. Islay slept like a dormouse in a sling at my chest, attended my thoughts, absorbed my mutterings, snuffled to the rhythms of my typing. Mostly, our time was the night. She kept irregular hours, as babies do, adjusting from her own turning in the womb’s sphere to this big earth’s revolutions. When she roused and cried in the very late or very early hours, when feeding would not soothe her down, we went out.
I grew to love those moments. They were a time of knowing newly, of re-knowing. Re-knowing places I knew well by daylight. It began as nothing more than practical resort. A new father learning the trade. I drove circuits round the town, taking care to keep gear shifts smooth and the engine purring low, glancing at her in my rear-view mirror, checking, checking. Often it did the trick; the steady motion and hum sent Islay to sleep like rocking. Sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes it was all distraction: brand new astonishment at the world’s wonder.
Before long I was venturing farther afield, out to the country lanes—old lanes that were once drove tracks into the heart of the Weald. Many are narrow, deep and wooded. Some are true holloways; others are bordered by steep banks that give the same subterranean impression. The trees on either side meet above the road, forming vaulting arches in places where grand oaks or beeches stand tall and thick as cathedral columns. In summer the colour and light are magnificent in these grand green aisles. At night, the glaring beams of car lamps collapse this perspective to a low, cavernous highway, distorting the curvature of branches and their multiplying shadows to a mine shaft or a burrow in which the trees become their own fibrous, tangled roots.
Those drives became something like ritual to me, the first lucid intimacies in a father and daughter’s lives together, slipping into the accomplice dark. Mother and the town abed and we alone shared the owlish night.
I wasn’t looking for owls on those night drives with Islay, not to start with anyway. The first one was so suddenly there and gone I doubted I’d seen it at all. My headlights projected a sliding dome of light across the road ahead, the edges dissolving quickly again to untainted black the second we passed by. Momentarily, where the lights cleaved darkness, there was the phantom of an owl.
It was a thing so briefly present it seemed to know its own uncanny timing for suspense. I braked, already some way past before I could fully register what I thought I’d seen. Islay slept on. I put the car in reverse and crept back twenty yards or so, to a point I guessed was previous to the manifestation. I drove forwards again, this time at walking pace, eyes on the ceiling of branches. With full beams I could see directly above me, straining through the windscreen, though only for the second at which I passed any particular point. It was raining; soft, fine rain that steamed on the hot bonnet. If it was an owl, it would surely have gone by now? But then, there it was—a tawny, luminous in the light. My first right-here, in-front-of-my-eyes, unquestionably visible tawny owl. It didn’t move. I thought of the stuffed old thing in a glass dome that watches down on drinkers in the local pub. I dipped the lights immediately and turned off the engine. The bird was dimmer, in shadow, but I didn’t want to dazzle it and the softer light revealed its plumage subtleties better anyhow. I was surprised at its apparent indifference to what had just happened; all that roaring bright commotion hadn’t startled it to flight. In all the hours of darkness, night after night, perhaps the birds grow accustomed to cars passing through their territories and the strange moments of artificial daylight.
It’s the eyes that strike you most. Tawny owls’ eyes don’t have the aquiline force of other owls—sharp black pupils on fierce orange or yellow. If you could look a tawny owl right in the eye (not advisable; they can take yours right out), you’d see the same subtle browns of their plumage. From any distance though, those eyes are all black. Docile and ponderous as cows’ eyes. Fearsome and unpredictable as a white shark’s. For J. A. Baker, in his startling stand-off with a tawny owl in The Peregrine, his vivid, precisely observed description rests finally upon the bird’s eyes; the plumage and body are reduced to the eyes’ ‘baleful’ glare. ‘Only the eyes lived on.’ In the monochromatic shades of night, sharpened to high contrasts by the glare of intrusive light, a tawny owl’s huge eyes are sunless planets. Or nothing at all—just vacant sockets, two gaping bores, as though someone blew the night clean through the back of its skull. Darkness pours.
I looked over my shoulder to Islay. She was awake and looked at me. She couldn’t see what I saw, but she was there at least. The owl continued its vigilant stare for prey, shifting its position on the branch, focusing intensely on disturbances in the verge that we could never hear, adjusting its head by minute degrees to shift the acoustic balance. I drove on and left it to the night.
Its body was gone, knawed and drenched clean to bone, the spine looping the rib cage like a tail. The wings, though, the neck and the head were as though untouched by anything. Turned on its front, so that the remaining feathers of its back hid the shock of plundered corpse, you might think it had died only hours ago. Even in this state, it was beautiful. A barnacle goose’s plumage is the perfection of monochrome, every shade between purest white and purest black in there somewhere—the extremes of the spectrum boldly contrasted in piebald parts, and intricate gradations of the subtlest silvers and greys stippled and striped and suffused.
This bird is a victim of this winter’s bird flu outbreak. Here on the border of England and Scotland, the wintering site for all of Svalbard’s breeding population of barnacle geese, nearly half of the 40,000+ birds that call these grassy marshes on both sides of the Solway Firth home have perished.
I’m with Brian Hodgson today, who has worked on the Rockcliffe marshes for forty years and known them intimately since he was a child. There can be few people who know these geese better, and in all that time he’s never seen anything like this. ‘There are fewer dead birds about now, but back in November, you just walked among them, thousands of them. It only takes 24 hours from catching the virus. The sick birds just sit, and then die. These geese are everything that is adventurous about a wild place, and to see them like that is just so sad’.
At Brian’s instructions, I look up from the dead bird at our feet to see its colours and patterns mirrored at large far out on the marsh. ‘Geese as far as you can see from one side to the other.’ That’s no exaggeration, even with the losses this year. I scan round slowly with my binoculars; as far as I can twist myself from left to ride, the skein of barnacle geese like a seam of dawn light lifts and falls with the tides. They are not like murmurations of knot, which turn so that the whole wader body shifts colour as one. Rather, the effect of these geese on mass is caused by every individual registering itself distinct in the many. Each bird glints like mica in granite, or quartz in dark igneous rock.
I pick up a wing feather from the goose below me that has worked free. It is at once thrilling and disheartening to hold. It is dull and inert, detached from its purpose as from the bird, useless and earthbound as me. But to have it in hand is also to connect yourself with some residual flight magic, the miracle it should have performed only days from now all the way to the top of the world.
‘Any time soon, they’ll be off,’ Brian says. ‘One evening, the birds will lift as one, spiral higher and higher. It’s quite something to see and hear. They’ll do that evening after evening, and then one night, that’s it. They’re gone.’
The True Sounds of Night, Part 2 will be here soon, but I wanted to take seasonal advantage of today’s post before the moment is lost.
I heard my first chiffchaff of the year today. Small as this occurrence might seem, small my nod of recognition, small as the bird is itself, it is a triumph of the still-early year. The chiffchaff is one of our very earliest spring arrivals, arriving from the Saharan south in mid-March when the land here is still winter-dim, so there is a glorious sense in which its bright notes carry a little of the warmth and light yet to come. Its plumage conveys something of this spring promise: a dusky, suffuse dun, but with the subtlest, emerging hint of mossy green—a small brightening.
The chiffchaff’s song is only two notes. Actually, it’s often three, sung like a small child determinedly chanting its first numbers, but it’s two that have been remembered in its mimetic name: chiff chaff, chiff chaff, chiff chaff … To be sure, it is monotonous. It has nothing of the blackcap’s variety and sweetness, nor the wood warbler’s silvery, tremulous splendour. But it is the most spring-like of all to me; unquestionably defiant, definite, delivered with such unfaltering and vital energy. The chiffchaff hammers those metallic notes on the anvil of its own syrinx. Translated into poetry, they are spondees, each one equally emphatic with no room for lesser syllables. CHIFF CHAFF CHIFF CHAFF CHIFF CHAFF …
The name feels old, but is recorded no earlier than Gilbert White’s famous references to the bird. Very early English people must surely have had a name for this spring chimer, but if they did it fell out of use, or lives on secretly in some county dialect word for this little leaf sprite (perhaps even chiffchaff itself, the local Hampshire name that White obviously inherited?)
Strangely, the bird doesn’t have the same popularised status as other, more celebrated summer migrants. It ought to, though, and ought to be better known—this bird that arrives well before most others, declaring its gladdening presence right across the land with such hopeful insistence and never letting up.
It’s been far too long since I posted. Nearly two years of juggling writing a book (which is still very much in the early stages!) and bringing up two young children has meant I’ve got very lazy about finding time to post blog entries as well. It is a resolution this year to try and get back to form. So, here’s my first effort of 2022.
At the beginning of this year my family and I moved house, after over a decade living in Cranbrook. Various circumstances forced the move and the speed with which it all happened, and my wife and I found (still find) ourselves caught between novel excitement for a new-build house in Headcorn (also Kent) and the wrench away from a sixteenth-century, old-beamed cottage in Cranbrook that we had come to love very much. We have both felt the detachment from all that history. We had never imagined ourselves living in a new-build, for the very reason that we both feel deeply attached to places that are steeped in the past.
There was, however, a moment of serendipity when we turned up to view the Headcorn house(and subsequently put down a reservation fee that very morning). The new estate was just off Ulcombe Road. Ulcombe is a village just north of Headcorn that I had come to know very well through many trips for the book I am currently writing. It means ‘the owl’s valley’. Moving from Cranbrook, ‘the cranes’ brook’, to another bird place, just when I’m writing a book about birds and place, was an omen I couldn’t ignore!
What follows is the first in a short sequence of posts on my explorations in and around the village of Ulcombe, searching for tawny owls and pondering the night.The sequence is adapted from an owl chapter in my book.
In November, when the trees were nearly bare, I drove in the pre-dawn hours through tree-tunnel lanes, seeking the sound of owls and owls’ true landscape. Darkness. At no particular point, I pulled up right in the road, turned the ignition off and got out. I leant on the bonnet while the car blinked and cooled to silence. In these narrow Kentish lanes with high banks and tree-roofs, far from big towns and hidden from scattered rural habitations, the dark feels absolute. Scudding cloud doubled the dark—no moonlight, no stars.
It’s a point easily overlooked, but our experiences of night are not the same as our ancestors’. The changes to our night sky, in fact, are so recent and rapid that it’s no exaggeration to say that up to the nineteenth century—the twentieth century even—it was a simple condition of people’s lives that night was dark; that it was distinctly divided from the day; that this cycle, by and large, determined rhythms; and that darkness could only be dissipated by the moon or the shadowy flicker of firelight. The differences with modern experiences are probably more apparent now in the twenty-first century (which has never known a time without intensive, global industrialisation) than has ever been the case in human history. In our own times, light pollution violates the solar pattern so aggressively that only the most rural or unpeopled parts of our country are spared the star-blinding sky glow. Urban lights right across the West can be seen from space (if you take a Google look at the planet it’s not so much night’s space-blackness you see across half the globe but the astonishing light show illuminating that blackness).
It’s a startling realisation. When we speak of ‘dark’ now, it is infected by these dazzling intrusions. The word itself, though, is rooted in a purer, different understanding that traces back through Middle English derk to Old English deorc and back further to a proto *derkaz past. Medieval folk, speaking pre-modern English, had various other words for ‘dark’ and ‘darkness’ too, such as þeostre (THAY-os-tre). As a term in our once richer nocturnal lexis, þeostre could not have encompassed the industrial twilight that now passes for night in our metropolises and conurbations.
Þeostreness–real dark–intensifies nocturnal sounds. Devoid of the distractions and diminishments of anthropogenic light noise, it sharpens sounds’ presence and clarity, and, too, our senses to hear, feel, them. That morning, hoping for an owl in dark about as dark as I could find in south-east England, I got to thinking about how that sort of darkness must have genuinely affected they way that people living in past ages heard and understood owls. Owls must have seemed, were, intensely, the ‘first true sound of night’, as J. A. Baker, author of The Peregrine, memorably puts it. For him, an owl’s ‘dark release of song’ made ‘dusk bristle[ ] … like the fur of a cat’. I love that. Conveyed through blurred senses in Baker’s description, an owl’s sound is an animate shaping force.
I drove on, deeper into the lanes and the owls’ realm. There was still time yet, still time for the last true sounds of night.
The frost today was so full and white and stiff with sharp glistenings it was like snow had fallen. The cold mist, which hung with us all day, made the air so thickly and densely grey—every fine degree of grey—it was as though I might weigh it, turn it in the hand.
I took the lanes south of the town into the frozen woods and meadows, then into the gills, following one brook into the ancient shaws that have survived down the centuries in the High Weald. In spring this place bursts with oak-green light, shimmers with bluebells, luminous with wood anemones and heady wild garlic. All that colour and life was yet to come.
The ‘gills’ define the Kentish Weald—a network of streams cutting through steep, wooded valleys. They made this landscape so difficult to farm thousands of years ago that many of the shaws, fortunately, have never been unwooded. Down in the gill the world is double enclosed beneath beneath hoary trees and beneath mist. I was glad to be alone in the old land and all that silent stillness.
Suddenly, above me, a winter tit flock—then all around, and that little spot was immediately alive with small-bird movement. A great tit oiled its rusty hinge. Blue tits snickered and tee-heed. Long-tailed tits were restless, feeding, feeding, branch to branch, tree to tree, attending to nothing but the roving imperative of simple survival.
Everything about these birds is smallness—the upside-down deftness; butterfly buoyancy; finicky feeding in slender tips of tree tops; song all peep and scold and titter; mouse-scurry of mouse-birds. The long-tailed tits are smallest; dainty, downy and whiskered. They seem light as one of their own tiny feathers, and their aerial song is so delicate it is as though the birds’ tiny frames are transfigured into their own tiny fairy notes. The Old English word for the family (from which we derive ‘titmouse’, though the two words are unrelated) is mase: ‘little or tiny thing’. ‘Tit’, incidentally, means the same thing, so titmice are ‘small-small things’.
Winter smallness defined that moment for me. Not just the birds, but the secrecy down there under winter-thin trees in the valley nook. My sense of place was the slow, clear run of a brook and little birds in search of little food for little whirring bodies.
On a weekend in March before these lockdown days, I went walking high on the Sussex hills in search of loneliness. I would have no chance again for months.
The South Downs escarpment above Fulking running east to the Devil’s Dyke has the grandeur of mountains. The chalk buckles into steep glacial vales. When the wind blows (always it seems) it cuts cold and sharp straight over the north edge. There is no protection.
I’d come for solitude twice over. Right up here in the keening wind, just a little south of the ridge, off the track and along a scattered line of gorse, there are remains of a deserted medieval hamlet. The folding land creates a shallow coombe but it’s hard to imagine why anyone might choose to make a living in such a location, so far above other settlements snug in the down’s foot-slopes. Perching (Perchinges in Domesday) was once a small but thriving community though, with a well and a mill, toughing it out in downland traditions.
Site and remains of Perching medieval village, looking north. (Image: Geograph, Simon Carey)
Perhaps this hardship finally made life up here impossible. Or perhaps, like many of England’s 3000 or so ‘lost’ villages, it was left suddenly to the wind when the Great Plague devastated the population in the fourteenth century. The pandemic of an age; a pancosmic pestilence from God for our great ills. For what might God scourge us now?
Perching in Domesday Book (1086). The spelling here implies Old English -ingas suffix, meaning ‘descendants or people of’ a particular person. (Image: Open Domesday.)
Back on the escarpment I turned at the right moment to see a lone red kite alongside me soar over the precipice. They are the most exhilarating creatures of freedom, managing economy with such supreme ease, forked tails figuring the air like compass points. I thought of how often and for how long we’ve envied birds this. In the indoor weeks to follow, I thought of kites, knowing intensely the ‘clay that clutches my each step to the ankle’ while the kite ‘Effortlessly at height hangs … steady as a hallucination in the streaming air’ (Ted Hughes, ‘The Hawk in the Rain’).
It flashed across the marsh, once and momentary—a lighthouse beacon, the sudden flare of sunlight on angled glass, like accidental morse code. We waited in silence, sure we’d seen something, though doubtful enough to put it down to ghostly illusion. A trick of the light.
There! Again. A brilliant whiteness materialised instantly from itself. It swelled and diminished all at once, pulsed itself along the horizon, a good two miles from where we stood on the sea wall with the North Sea to our backs. This was no ghost, but miracle nonetheless: a mercurial flock of knot, one thousand strong, joined by dunlin and grey plover, spiralling, dilating, compressing, flexing, pouring down and through the estuary.
Knot massing on the shingle. Image: Tom Mason/Daily Mail.
Knots are not the only birds that fly in this mesmerising, synchronised fashion. Starlings are best known for this phenomenon known as a murmuration. That species can gather in millions, filling the sky with borealis transformations. But, for my money, knot are the most spectacular. You don’t get starling numbers, but they add to those virtuoso shifts in shape and size a constant change in colour. The flock appears suddenly, as though from an icy fracture in the winter sky, so intensely white it blazes even against bright, clear morning, but then all those bodies and wings turn as one and they are suddenly silver, then as suddenly again, black, and back through to white, until there is an exact angle when a precise shade in the wintry spectrum somehow dissolves the flock entirely, and you lose them.
Observing knot like this is an exercise in metaphor. Your mind races for comparison, a way to conceptualise what you see: smoke, blizzard, writhing eel, multiplying cells, double helix, bait ball—the centre generating outwards while consuming itself inwards with predator rapacity. To witness this spectacle of disintegrating wholeness is to perceive the world newly and to know it more marvellous.
The Essex marshes at dawn, two hours before the knot spectacle occurred.
This morning, five days after the solstice, the year tipping into the next and turning to light and length, we went out. Two days of indoors indulgence made us keen for outdoor winter solemnity–for the plash of drenched paths and water-logged fields; for the sting of rain and the bite of wind to invigorate indolent, fireside senses. In the event, the rain ceased. We went out to still winter blue and clear air.
Woods Mill is a small Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve near Steyning. This morning its woodlands and meadows were sodden and deep with dark, drenched earth. Its waterways were true winter burns, saturated and flowing fast. We embraced the wet and the mud, and my daughter sought the best puddles in new wellies, a bright red waterproof suit, and a novelty pair of binoculars.
My daughter is old enough now–just shy of two years–to take attentive, independent interest in the natural world. We have always encouraged a connection whenever and wherever we can, but now there is added joy in her personal discovery. She knows an impressive number of species’ names, and currently delights in showing us each morning the ‘incy wincy’ spider who inhabits a cobwebbed corner, or the hibernating ladybird who suddenly appeared on our living room lampshade.
In one dell we paused to fuel her energy and enthusiasm with squares of chocolate. Crumbs of hazelnuts fell on the boardwalk as I snapped the slab into pieces. Immediately a robin came beneath our feet, deftly and briskly picking at every tiny morsel, nimbly withdrawing to a fence post just feet away. We crumbled more to entice it back and instantly it came, closer, closer. I held out my hand. Cautiously, then boldly, it flew to my palm, snatched what it could, went back to its post. We repeated the routine, and again and again it came and came.
Islay knows the ‘robin bird’. We often listen to one singing at the top of a bare sycamore at the end of our tiny garden. But this was an astonishing new moment for her–sudden, unexpected–that brought a wild creature right into her little, growing sphere.
In the end, the encounter may have meant more to me than to Islay, but I knew it meant so much because of her. She will not remember, but perhaps it has changed her world nonetheless–a small but remarkable moment shaping her perceptions. I felt fully and newly this morning the thrill of a parent who knows how vital are such moments spent with and in the natural world.
We left the robin feeding, joined by another. With its back to me, the soft browns of its plumage were near indistinguishable from the dull wood and bramble and sedge of its surroundings. When it flicked round to face me, its breast blazed–sudden, unexpected–in the sullen landscape, the colour of low winter sun or the smouldering embers that accompany our dark nights indoors.