Over the years I have seen countless signs that our summer place is used even when we are not there, but have seldom met any of the visitors. Some years ago I did sit down by the lake for some hours late one evening, wrapped in rubberised army camouflage netting, torch and binoculars at the ready. The animals were too smart, warned off by the smell. I woke up the next day with a sore back, and the netting ended up at the dump.
Now I have tried a different strategy. Very early one Friday morning towards the end of a wet October I decided to sneak up on the place to find out who was there, and what was going on. Our little cottage is like an island, surrounded by a deep sea of heavy gravel and protected by two creaking wooden gates. Nobody can get close to the cottage without making a noise. I left the car along the dirt road about half a mile from the cottage. It was barely light and the only sound was the breeze from the lake which rustled the yellowing leaves on the tall birch trees. I pulled on my rubber boots and dark green jacket before making for the thick bushes which grew by the side of the road. I treaded carefully, taking my time. If I did meet anyone, which was most unlikely, I planned to say that I was hunting for fungi.
As I approached our site I saw that the cottage was still enveloped in a cobweb of mist, blown in from the lake. No one was in sight as I climbed over the brown four-barred fence, heart beating loudly. I slipped quietly into a compact stand of saplings: oaks, rowans, hawthorns, maples and birches, planted to provide a thick barrier against the road. I squeezed between the trees making for our compost, favourite haunt of a badger. It was hard going. My jacket was dripping wet from the leaves and swirling mist, while the vicious hawthorns clawed at my clothes.
The compost was well hidden behind a tall fir with branches which swept the ground. Good cover for the badger who regularly turned over the compost for us, digging for worms. I slipped through the wet, knee-high grass and found the compost black and freshly turned over. It must have been here last night. Over the years the badgers, rarely seen, have established a network of meandering paths following the contours of the land. We use them too.
Behind the compost the land slopes upwards towards the mountain, an outcrop of smooth polished rock. The mountain towers above a sloping field which makes up most of the site, and then drops steeply thirty feet into the lake. A few years ago the badger tried to dig a den in the shallow soil cover but gave up after a couple of yards, when it came up against the thick root of a pine tree. Now badgers use the mountain as a toilet, digging shallow holes for their blackish droppings, and ploughing up the moss in search of worms and beetles. Apart from the occasional deer or two, who make their beds under the shelter of the fir trees, there are few other signs of life up on the mountain.
Standing by the compost, the mountain blocked my view of the lake, but I could hear heavy waves landing on the sandy shore. Fortunately the wind came in from the South, towards me, dispersing my scent. I stepped carefully, using the badger path which sloped down towards the lower field, skirting the mountain and a giant pine tree. At this early hour I was hoping to see some more signs of animal life. Passing the pine, I had to wade through a large patch of wet ferns, three feet high. Unfortunately I disturbed a male pheasant which had bedded down there for the night. It flew up, screeching loudly to tell any living being within 500 yards that it had been woken up by an intruder, and ran for the nearest tree cover. It frightened the wits out of me and my heart took an extra beat or two.
That put an end to my silent mission. Resigned, I continued along the badger path in the direction of the lake. The path skirted a grassy slope dotted with red spots like a bad case of the measles, windfalls from our only apple tree. Under the nearby oak trees the ground was covered in old acorns, which crackled underfoot as a further alarm signal.
Now I could see the lake and stopped to watch the steaming mist rising from the surface, melted by the rays of the early morning sun. As the mist gradually dispersed, I could see the outline of our blue and white rowing boat on the beach, leaning lazily to one side as though trying to find shelter amongst the tall reeds. It was half-full of brownish rainwater, yellow birch seeds floating on the surface like freckles on a summer face. Along the edge of the shore the strong waves had whipped up large blobs of stiff white foam, like shaving cream waiting for the razor.
It had rained during the night, which made it easier to detect traces of visitors on the shore. Bending down to the sand, I was reminded of Robinson Crusoe’s feelings when he found the print of a foot on his beach many years ago. When he knew he was not alone.
”It happened one day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen on the sand. I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition. I listened, I looked around me, but I could hear nothing, nor see anything; I went up to a rising ground to look farther; I went up the shore and down the shore, but it was all one; I could see no other impression but that one. I went to it again to see if there were any more, and to observe if it might not be my fancy; but there was no room for that, for there was exactly the print of a foot – toes, heel and every part of a foot. How it came thither I knew not, nor could I in the least imagine; but after innumerable fluttering thoughts, like a man perfectly confused and out of myself, I came home to my fortification, not feeling, as we say, the ground I went on, but terrified to the last degree, looking behind me at every two or three steps, mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be man.…
” In my reflections upon the state of my case since I came on shore on this island, I was comparing the happy posture of my affairs in the first years of my habitation here, with the life of anxiety, fear, and care which I had lived ever since I had seen the print of a foot in the sand.”
The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, http://www.gutenberg.org
Our beach also had footprints. The paw marks of the neighbour’s cat were easily identified, a daily visitor who finds the loose sand excellent for burying droppings. It was my job to rake the stuff up and consign it to the nearby bushes.
Despite the early hour, my heart did beat a little faster when I noticed a trail of unfamiliar footprints leading up the beach to a thicket of elms and willows, normally used by shy bathers. The footprints had five clearly defined fingers linked by a web, and claws which left deep marks in the sand. The prints were concentrated to the area below the bushes, and then trailed off into the reeds. Puzzling, until I noticed a couple of fresh branches lying in the water near the shore. Of course it was a beaver, cutting down fresh branches for breakfast, leaving characteristic tooth marks on the stumps.
Over the years I have found many traces of visitors and more permanent residents. In summer a flock of pigeons has come regularly every year to briefly sip water from the shore, hardly leaving any impressions in the sand. The heron who nests in the reeds on the other side of the lake, is much heavier and not in such a hurry. It leaves very distinct triangular footprints, striding around in the shallows on stilt-like legs, looking for frogs and tiddlers.
More dramatic events have taken place on the beach, leaving behind other traces. Early one morning I came upon the neighbour’s cat sitting by the shore, crunching on a two foot long slowworm (a snake-like lizard). The cat scarpered, leaving me to bury the poor headless victim. A slowworm family has lived for many years under a mound of boulders, left over from a pier demolished by winter ice crawling up the shore. The snake lookalikes curl up asleep on the rocks in the sunshine, or can be seen swimming along the shore. Once or twice I have spotted a shallow trail in the sand where they have slithered across the beach, from the water to the safety of the rocks.
My second burial was a deer, or the remains of a deer. First I noticed that tufts of pale brown fur were spread around the site, presumably from when the deer tried to escape. The animal was picked clean, carcass left on a slight rise overlooking the beach, probably where the meal took place. Under some bushes nearby I found the stomach and intestines, still intact. It was a professional job, probably a lynx judging by the marks on the deer’s throat. Neighbours later confirmed that a lynx had been sighted in the area.
Last summer I was down by the shore with the dog, a boxer, who rushes around nose-down, following the myriad of scents left by animals. I noticed a strange pile of white stuff at the water’s edge. Closer inspection showed that a large number of white feathers had been washed up onto the shore, as though from an exploding feather pillow. Nearby under some bushes there was a large pile too, presumably where a goshawk had plucked its prey. There was nothing else, no carcass or other remains. From the amount of feathers I guessed it was a mallard – one of many on the lake. The dog was agitated, running to and fro, nose down in the tall grass. A few minutes later he disappeared into some bushes, tail wagging like a metronome. When I tried to pull him back, he growled. Afraid he had scented a snake or badger, I dragged him out and found he had the remains of a well plucked and stripped male mallard between his teeth. He gave it up, but not without a struggle. I fetched my spade and buried the bird discretely, to stop the dog digging it up again.
Climbing up the slope to the cottage, I noticed a disturbing number of new oak trees sprouting up everywhere. The less wooded parts of the site have become infested with oak plants, perchance due to warmer summers and climate change. I blame our resident squirrel, who violently defends his territory against intruders and spreads acorns around to ensure a sustainable supply of food for future squirrel generations.
On my way back to the car, I realised that that we are just temporary visitors, intruders in the lives of the animals who really inhabit our summer place. An occasional disturbance in their lives, with my only function being to clear up their droppings and bury their dead. Now, mission abandoned, I was longing for some hot tea and a Friday afternoon in the company of Robinson Crusoe.