Of Martens and Men

Updated: Oct 20, 2019

The mystery of the foam rubber litter under the car bonnet was solved by the man at the garage. He had seen this many times before. “Kuna in the engine”, he said.

Kuna is the Czech name for the Beech marten, Martes foina, (a relative of the Pine marten). Yes, we had Beech martens living in the car engine. I was by now used to the idea of these animals inhabiting the attic. They do a certain amount of damage there, but they also hunt mice. And we have a mouse population that could easily rewild a large, mouse-denuded Hebridean island.

But car engines? I asked how and why, and the answers were so obvious that I felt stupid, the only kid in class who didn’t know how fond martens were of car engines. They access from underneath, and they go there because it’s warm. Duh.

New study. Spot the banjo.

This reminded me of the Wood mice we imported into the country from England. The rodents had made their home in a box in the garage, ignominiously evicted when we were sorting out the mess prior to emigration. They cowered for a few seconds, unreasonably cute, and then fled to the shadows. A few days later, on a weekend jaunt in the car, we noticed that the area north of Oxford had disappeared from the map book, delicately nibbled by little rodent teeth. It was a work of art – a horizontal nibbling of just that one page (the one on which the book had been left open), rather than an omnivorous vertical chewing of several.

Safely parked in the Czech Republic, we found fresh mouse poos on one of the seats. Our Wood mice had eloped with us.

The garage man warned us that the Beech martens made themselves at home by chewing through wires, and that many road accidents could be attributed to martens in the engine. One of the less well known tick boxes on the annual MOT. If we all die in a mysterious road accident, show the coroner this blog post.


The summer – and indeed the back end of the spring – were lost to us this year, due to circumstances I have neither the heart nor consent to go into now. Late summer and early autumn have been the first stages of healing; although things will never be the same again. Something died on an emotional level, and beneath our stoicism I fear there is only more of the same.

But time will no doubt do what time always does. Washes, erodes, fades, transmutes, reframes. Forgets.

I’ll be doing a lot of the transmuting and forgetting in my new study. Early Victorian green paint, dark wood furniture, a Queen Anne chair, John Gould bird prints on the wall, wilfully old fashioned writing desk, library shelves with a stained glass frontage and more decorative carving than is strictly legal these days. And a lovely German wall clock from the 1920s, whose hourly bongs are already the heartbeat of my working day (albeit the heartbeat of a hibernating reptile).

Time, old school

From my windows I have a view down the garden and up the hillside. The seasons live in this view. Its trails of chimney coal-smoke look misleadingly benign, lending a pleasing turn-of-the-previous-century detail to the scene. Only the thick electricity cables offend the eye. There are only half a dozen vapour trails a day, though, so no airbrushing is needed when filming your low-budget Thomas Hardy novel adaptation here. Goats and chickens in the road come for free, and there’s hardly any traffic other than hurrying tractors, dashing by in a diesel-belch of embarrassment on account of not being heavy horses or oxen, and thus shattering the Hardyesque illusion.

So, in modelling my workroom on a Victorian vicar’s study, I’m actually dragging the village into some kind of modernity. My nearest and dearest thought the insistence on an oil lamp was taking it too far. But I don’t care. As long as I hide the Bluetooth speaker and ignore the laptop that sits on the antique desk like a time-traveller’s hoax, the illusion affords me a lovely healing space.

My love of tea and ornithology only grows as the years pass. Forsaking alcohol for four months seems to have increased my thirst for the Anglo-Irish milky brew. I tell myself it’s packed with antioxidants, (ignoring the fact that it’s also packed with pesticides, comes with all kinds of environmental and fair trade issues, goads me with caffeine, and tans my hide from the inside out), and I swear that it does, indeed, make most things better, when they've gone bad. Not all things; but most.

After a night of rain the village was looking very autumnal. Shades of brown and red, and yellows on the apple trees in the garden. Blue and Great tits prodded at lichen-gloved twigs and damp bark. A Black redstart, looking as magnificent as he ever would in his brief life, perched on a metal pole three metres from my window. He bobbed, flicked his tail, regarded me with an obsidian eye, light winking from it like an inverted pupil. Then he flew – not further away, but up to the eaves, to lethally taunt the spiders and ladybirds bedded there against the cold.

Autumn-proper manifested in a sudden winged invasion. Out-of-season Linnets, Siskins leached of their summer greens, Tree sparrows like city-smart versions of their commoner cousins, and a few stray Chaffinches and Greenfinches caught up in the seed-hungry maelstrom. Not tending the garden properly this year turned out to be a good move: the finch flock (for want of a better term) guzzled the leavings of the otherwise dead forest of weeds like kids with too many buckets of popcorn.

At this time of year finches and buntings all start to look the same. The Linnet’s pink flushes are flushed away to a bland bunting conformity (and you find yourself studying pictures of Twite in your bird guide, temporarily convinced that these are not Linnets at all; you may even get a rush of blood to the head and revisit the Snow bunting page). The Siskin is left with its speckly stripes, but on a faded surface like a pool table that has succumbed to the bleaching effects of sunshine and spilled beer.

One Linnet left the weed forest and flitted to the topmost twigs of the highest apple tree. It perched, tired of the seed rush. A Sparrowhawk came from nowhere – as they always do – and plucked the feathered fruit without sound or fuss. It was gone in a second, and the 30-strong finch flock was tossed up by the shockwave of the moment and thrown across three gardens in the wake of the hawk.

Autumn had been eaten. Winter next.

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