It was, in Thoreau’s lovely phrase, the afternoon of the year. The hills slumbered under the wide blue sky, looking more like Tuscany than Dorset, alternately suntanned and bleached. Shorn of their wool, the skinny sheep stood camouflaged against the tinder-dry hayfield, like raised patchwork on a white-on-white bedspread. On the next hill, the black cattle looked like they’d been printed on the pale grass using woodblocks and Indian ink.
All activity around Kingcombe seemed to have slowed, or ceased altogether. The bees stumbled around at ground level, looking more dazed than busy. The swifts and martins that last month blazed around the barn eaves, using the air as a whetstone for their wingtips, had vanished as though they were never there. Every single butterfly looked like a Meadow Brown: even Red Admirals and Peacocks were mottled and liver-spotted, prematurely aged by the relentless heat. The only streak of colour was down in the valley where bright blue damselflies shot through the air like splinters from a shattered pane of stained-glass across the low waters of the Hooke.
Whenever I’d been there before, the fields, woods and meadows of Kingcombe had been alive with birdsong. The warble of finches, the screech of swifts and martins, the sarcastic laughter of ravens. Now, only the five-note refrain of the occasional woodpigeon mourned the absent rain, and crickets shivered their legs together in answer to the rattle of dried seed-heads.
In Sanskrit there are two terms for the paused breath – the emptiness at the end of the exhale before you breathe in is called ‘bāhya kumbhaka’ and the fullness at the end of an in-breath before you sigh it all out is called ‘antar kumbhaka’, literally the empty pot and the full pot. Wandering through the still, hot fields this August, it felt not just like nature was taking a siesta during the year’s afternoon, but that it had stopped altogether, as a pendulum is suspended, briefly motionless, at the height of its swing. After the energetic, oxygenated, excited flurry of activity in spring, and the lush, ripening fullness of summer we had arrived at the peak, with no more space to breathe, nowhere left to go, but slowly, inexorably outward and downward – the half-year-long sigh emptying out the pot to the crisp, frozen, death-like stillness of mid-winter.
As I stood for a moment in the season’s antar kumbhaka, I realised that far from being universal, the metaphor really depends where you are. It is the privilege of the deciduous North. In India, by contrast, the year’s shape is dictated by the towering presence of the monsoon, and when it arrives, it is cataclysmic, ecstatic. The seasons there are solid and distinct with sharp edges: and when they collide, they really break.
There’s nothing the British enjoy more than a good old moan about the weather, but this year they’ve been thwarted by a long, unbroken spell of hot, dry weather that has left the ground fissured and split apart like cracked heels. I poked the earth around the fence posts and the cracks were wide as my finger and at least as deep. It seemed like mere water would not be enough, that the earth needed slathering in some kind of intensive moisturizer.
It’s the kind of weather that calls you to the seaside. It’s no wonder that the holiday traffic bypasses Kingcombe and continues on down, either to Chesil Beach, Portland Bill and along to the Purbeck peninsula to the east, or westwards to Lyme Regis and into Devon. This month, I had my family with me, so instead of driving straight to Kingcombe, we headed to the nearest bit of coastline to the Wildlife Trust Centre. It was the perfect day for a swim, and the shingly beach at Burton Bradstock was full of people with the same idea. I joined my sixteen-year-old son and seventy-eight-year-old mother to cool off in the delicious salty swell of the English Channel.
We stayed at the Kingcombe Centre, my parents in a neat twin bedroom in the main house, my son and his father in the quaint little shepherd’s wagon in the orchard, and me in a one-person tent on the ground outside. Few people realise that the Wildlife Trust does bed-and-breakfast here for holiday-makers, within a few miles of the coast, and at a fraction of the cost of the more popular seaside hotels. Fewer courses run during the school holidays, so accommodation is almost always available, and – as my family agreed – it is a delightful, peaceful place to stay. We built a campfire that night, and went to bed salty, sanded, tanned and smoked.
I woke before dawn to the soft patter of rain on the nylon sheeting of my tent. I unzipped the flaps and lay in my warm sleeping bag, as the earth drank in the moisture and released its pent-up secret scents. A skein of high, sweet birdsong threaded its way through the beaded air – it sounded like a wren, but not the trilling, confident, territory-marking bird of spring woodland and hedgerow. A tentative, almost wary warble, that made me wonder if it were a wren at all, until there – it hopped into view – its tail pointing like a needle towards the morning star.