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Yorkshire Lad: Communion With Nature

"Kingfisher days when the world of nature openend like an oyster, and we peered, probed and prodded what was to us the mysterious squelchy contents of the creations around us...'' Tom Hellawell recalls in extraordinary detail the ways in which lads of his generation came face to face with the natural world.

I regard the days of my early youth as those of discovery, enlightenment and revelation. Kingfisher days when the world of nature opened like an oyster, and we -- myself and like compatriots, that is -- peered, probed and prodded what was to us the mysterious squelchy contents of the creations around us. How else would an oyster be described?

Those were the days of exciting detection to us young’uns. To our parents and elders we were ‘allus grobblin’ in t’ muck’. What did they know about the middle and lower worlds which revealed themselves to the keen eyesight of us muck gobblers?

We knew from adults that Mrs. Watson’s cat would never grow fat because it ate live flies. That was a point to ponder over.

Adults didn’t know it all, though. The dilapidated dry stone walls around the village were bestrewn with spiders’ webs, behind which lurked the ugliest creatures on our side of the Saturday picture screen. Poking and probing dislodged such dwellers from their stony dens, causing us to dance on tippy-toes as they scattered for safety, unless a defensively thrown stone splattered the escapee first.

Lever a half-buried chunk of wall topping-stone from its bed of grass and lo, another world was revealed to our ever-absorbent minds. Woodlice hurried for fresh cover. Centipedes waggled their way towards dark undergrowth. Half-buried worms bored themselves deeper into moist earth in attempts to escape the grasping fingers of inquisitive schoolboys, whilst snails clung limpet fashion to the underside of the stone.

Catch a fly or a moth and fling it onto a spider’s web, then watch the one-sided tussle as the keeper of the lair subdued and trussed the writhing prisoner, which was either left swinging on the web or hauled into the dark recess beyond.

Did our elders know where there was an ant hill? We did. Lift its covering material and watch the panic as the hill’s inhabitants scramble in haste to move their eggs to safety. Better still, find some red ants and introduce them to the black ants. Then watch battle commence. We knew the outcome. The reds always won, but it was fun to watch.

There were plenty of empty two pound jam jars about in our young days, and one such served several purposes. These receptacles were used as jails for captive bees and wasps. With the head of a few daisies and dandelions in the bottom of the jar and the lid punctured with breathing holes, the captives were confined within the glass, which quickly developed an interior curtain of condensation. Stood on a windowsill overnight, the survivors were released the following day, whilst the perished found graves in dustbin or ash pit. End of operation.

In spring the jam jars again resided on windowsills. Black-centred jelly globules filled them, which meant tadpole time. Each day close inspection sought signs of development within the mass. Shrieks of joy heralded the emergence of a leg, a head or a shrinking tail. Full development of young frogs was rare. It was simpler to catch those already formed and confine them to the jar. A stone at the jar’s base allowed the captives to emerge from the water within, and the chase was on once more for flies to feed to the specimens. What happened to the frogs is anyone’s guess, the dustbin or ash pit once more, no doubt.

Young minds seek constant change.

One announcement made in our house at any time of day or night would guarantee immediate action: “We’ve gotten a maase in t’ cellar. Ah’ve seen its muck.”

There was no mystery to the events which followed. I had learned quickly the routine undertaken when such a declaration was made. Father reached under the stone sink and withdrew a mousetrap that gloried in its trade name ‘The Little Nipper’. Bait was produced: bread crust, a morsel of cheese or snippet of bacon rind, anything considered sufficiently enticing to lure the unwelcome lodger into the Nipper’s purposeful embrace.

With trap set to hair-trigger perfection, Father would issue the command, “Leet us a taper an’ open t’ cellar door.” Descent into the gloom then commenced, with trap delicately poised in one hand matched by flaming taper in the other.

Often there then followed a hitch in the proceedings. A heavy step down with one foot by the Great White Hunter caused the trap to spring. Such a shock resulted in the dropping of the taper, which extinguished itself. The result was a mumbled expression from the trapper and a return to base, where a re-enactment of the procedure began.

Why a candle wasn’t used, which could be set down until the trap was prepared in situ I have no idea, and past experience had taught me not to interfere if I didn’t wish to have my ears warmed.

I knew there was part of a society which regularly embarked on bug hunts, spider chases, mouse snaring forays and even on safaris all with far less ado than that which I was to silently observe at home occasioned by one mere mouse. However, the operation would eventually be completed, and the household settled down to whatever business had been in hand prior to the revelation of an unwelcome visitor in the cellar.

Developments within such a scenario could and often did vary from episode to episode. Events were known to occur however when the family sat around the fire in an evening and the house was quiet. A flurry of excitement and action would then be aroused by the statement, “Trap’s gooan off. Ah’ve just ‘eard it! Leet taper an go an’ ‘ev a luk.”

The local theatre in our town received an annual visit from a travelling circus. I am reminded of one act from that show when recalling the dramatic performance of our household’s mousetrap inspection. In the theatre caged lions would sit on painted tubs, whilst across the stage strode the lion tamer. He was equipped with gun belt and holster around his waist. In one hand he flourished a lightweight, bentwood chair, and with his other hand he flailed a long-handled coachman’s whip. Father was less dramatic. He simply held a lighted taper as he bravely descended into the cellar.

Excited and flushed with pride, his return would be triumphal, holding before himself the Little Nipper complete with dead mouse, which bore a look of bewilderment in its black eyes as it lay encumbered by the spring-operated yoke trap bar.

Sighs of relief, oohs and ahs filled the room as the corpse was transported to ash pit, dustbin or fire, to be followed by the instruction, “Set t’ trap ageean. There’ll be its mate sumweer.”

Finally there was the routine which swung into action when, someone, possibly myself, would rush into our house and exclaim, “There’s a slug in t’ drain ‘oil.” Mother would immediately reach for the salt jar, a heavy, fluted grey ceramic pot which at one time had contained Hartley’s jam or marmalade. Its twin held our family’s stock of dripping.

Hastening outdoors, Mother would anoint the offending mollusc with a liberal shower of salt. I would gaze in rapt attention at the chemical reaction occurring before my eyes. A bucket of water removed all traces of the operation. Meanwhile, my eye had caught sight of a dead, unfledged sparrow, outcast from a nest in the house eaves or guttering, looking all head, big-beaked and bulging eyed.

A face to face communion with nature.

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