August 10, 2014

A brief encounter

After weeks of hot weather in London I come to Dorset and it rains. It does this most years while I'm housesitting and writing here, so it shouldn't come as a surprise: August's weather is often unsettled. We think of it as high summer, but really everything is falling back: the grass is thatched with yellow, the trees' leaves look dull and tired and the swifts have gone.

It was the tail-end of Hurricane Bertha that brought the bad weather, and, forewarned, I brought the three baby chickens in my care indoors for the night. Only a few weeks old, they've only ever spent a couple of nights outside and still seem far too small to cope with a storm. The big hens sat it out in their coop, and when I opened the door this morning, the rain still lashing down, they seemed in no hurry to come out.

Once the rain had eased I took the dog I'm looking after for a walk along Shreen Water. There was nobody else out: the clouds were still louring, the roads running with water and empty of cars. The sound of church bells blew intermittently over the fields, but apart from the odd crow and woodpigeon, nothing stirred. And that's perhaps why I got my first sighting here of an animal I knew had been spotted in the area, but in five years of visiting I'd never seen: the water vole.

Decimated by mink that originally escaped from fur farms, water voles have all but disappeared from many of the country's rivers. Utterly charming, with round faces and a busy demeanour, I look out for them every August when I'm here. Wild encounters can't be willed, though – which is part of their magic. And as I crouched on the riverbank in the wet grass, smiling in delight as a distant chestnut shape arrowed back and forth through the water, I felt as though I had been given something so much more real, more meaningful, than an hour-long, high-definition documentary on these fascinating little animals could ever be.

And this is what worries me about our interactions with nature these days: so often we replace experience with information, feelings with facts. In making wildlife a spectacle, we distance ourselves from it; in making nature something we visit, we remove it from our everyday lives. Natural history programmes are wonderful, don't get me wrong: but if we raise children to believe that wildness is only something we encounter on a screen, we will have done them – and our environment – a very grave disservice.