CREATIVE Marilyn Barlow

NWR Issue 121

Jynx Torquilla

One week was all it took. We had put in an offer. it was accepted and in three months, the smallholding with its trees was ours. By then we had realised there was no bathroom and not much of a kitchen at our new property.

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The accommodation land bordering our boundary to the north was owned by someone who did not live in the area and let the use of his field, mainly to Owen, who had the sheep farm to the west. We shared our west and a short length of the lower north boundary with Owen’s family farm. Here the river made a dog-leg, like the letter Z, the diagonal pulled straight upright.

Our land was divided into four parcels, each with its individual char- acteristics. We had our own poorer, less visited East End and lively West End. Proceeding from the highest point, the back field was the second largest. The front, main or top field was by far the largest, flattest and sunniest. The bottom field was the smallest and steepest, plateauing before dropping down to the river. The fourth parcel, between the back and front fields, held the house, orchard and alley.

A 360-degree clockwise walk around the yard in front of the house, where we parked and saw the wall butterfly for the first time, reveals the following. As one entered the property, left of the south side gate, was a bank and a highly scented tree with acid yellow flowers indicating toxicity, common laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides), that lit up our early spring. Sometimes called golden chain or golden rain, it is a species of the pea family: Fabaceae. We didn’t realise all parts of this plant are poisonous. Further along the bank were native trees and cyclamen beneath; that is where I chose to have the kitchen window.

Our new caravan, its big picture window facing west, was set on the flat ground in front of the small triangular-shaped woods, which we called the ‘orchard’. Apparently, there used to be some fruit trees but by then it had, amongst others, sturdy oak, useful sycamore and ash with its whirligig helicopter seeds, mystical rowan with its red berries, and alder with its colourful male and female catkins and cones. On some trees the ivy grew, giving berries to keep the birds going in winter, espe- cially blackbirds. We put a bird bath in the sun where the birds could dry off afterwards. The blackbird would spread its glossy black wings on the green grass, yellow-rimmed eye half closed, tangerine beak tilted upwards, sun-worshipping.

In winter, a male pheasant in full-colour regalia, bright red face, iri- descent blue-green head with white collar, reddish breast, raw sienna and yellow ochre back and wings and long tail feathers, began coming to the ground between the caravan and the orchard. It soon learned to rec- ognise my call and what time of day we put out food, scattering some on the ground for the pheasant as well as on the table for the smaller birds.


Between the caravan and the north bank of the orchard was an old well, covered with a corrugated metal lid. We discovered that this was now a cesspit for the toilet, not a septic tank as listed, and it would take one hundred years of non-use for it to re-establish as a well. In front of it we made flower beds, where I planted mostly non-native plants contained by stones so they wouldn’t spread: pink and white bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), many-coloured aquilegia, red geum, sky blue ceanothus, red crocosmia, light powder-blue meadow cranesbill and lemon-yellow ama- ryllis. A little further behind the caravan we had a raised herb bed and the predator post. In front of the house we had a line of containers for my roses, blueberry bushes and cosmos.

One very hot dry September, there were ants everywhere, especially in the flower beds near the crocosmia. Perhaps that’s why an unusual bird appeared one day. It had a large head, a shortish, slender bill and long sticky tongue which shot out to lick up the ants. Its feet had two toes pointing forward and two backwards. The tail feathers spread supplely over the stone it stood on, following its contours. Blending in with the grey and brown of the rock, lichen and soil, its body and wings had dark bars on a mottled background, looking like reptile scales.

This bird had a long shape with legs set far back, a barrel chest and a long neck, as though its head should be closer to its shoulders. I knew I had never seen the like of it before. I took photographs as a record and for my partner Tom and I to identify later. It turned out to be a wryneck (Jynx torquilla), one of a distinctive group of small Old World woodpeckers. Jynx gives us the modern word jinx from the wryneck’s long ancient association with hexes and witchcraft, emanating from its odd threat-behaviour. Like a snake, it twists its head and hisses (torquere means to twist). Wrynecks lack powerful bills and the stiff tail feathers that true woodpeckers use as a prop against the trunk when climbing trees. They are, therefore, more likely than their cousins to perch on a horizontal branch rather than an upright trunk. Their beaks are suited to their feeding behaviour as they don’t use them to make holes in trees, but instead find and catch insects in crevices using their sticky tongues. I never saw one again. We kept records of our wildlife for our own use: lists, diaries, Tom’s photographs and my sketches...

Marilyn Barlow was highly commended in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2019 Rheidol Prize for Writing with a Welsh Theme or Setting, and this extract is taken from her entry, ‘The Smallholding I Knew’. She lives in New Quay, Ceredigion.


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