Monday, January 26, 2009

the story of the beech marten

The photos are a scanned photo of the courtyard after renovation and an aeial shot of the house
Sunday afternoon and I went for a walk. Now that there’s not so much snow, well not so deep anyway, I went up to see how much activity there was at the badger sett. At one time there were 7 or 8 holes open at any one time and we’ve seen up to a dozen badgers out at one time, now however just one sett seems to be open. I don’t know whether this is just because of the snow or whether the numbers have actually declined. I suppose I’ll find out when the snow has gone. There are not as many tracks as normal either. There are tracks of other animals everywhere. Mostly deer and boar but a hare, some beech marten, foxes of course, and something about marten size I didn’t recognize which drags its tail. Possibly though it was just a marten sinking in the fresh snow thus dragging its tail and now the sun has melted the detail. It’s good to walk on the snow, despite the waist high drifts. There are dozens and dozens of huge trees down, so many that some areas are now off limits and at one point I fell between two buried trees up to my neck in drifted snow. It must have been quite odd to see someone standing alone in a snow hole in the middle of a huge wood alternately swearing and laughing his head off. It took me ages to get out.

While I was out I passed behind Sparea, our ex-house and because of the downed trees I passed through the courtyard to get onto the path back towards the Vignassa. Just in front of the woodshed there were marten droppings and marten tracks, quite a few, leading to the house. This made me smile and remember:


When I first bought the house, I still lived in Turin and used to come up Friday night and go back early Monday morning. The house which was half an hour up a hill in the middle of the woods had no heating except for a small wood stove, no electricity and no running water so to keep warm I lived in the kitchen and cooked on a fire in the courtyard. Like most old houses here in the valley each room is a separate entity and there are no connecting doors between rooms. On the ground floor there was a goat byre, on the next ground floor, one terrace up, there was what I called the kitchen though there was nothing kitcheney about it, and on the top floor there was what was to become the bedroom reached by a ladder from the outside. There were no locks on any of the doors except the kitchen and I used string and a stick to tie them closed. A bit of rope passes through a hole in the door and is tied to the center of a large stick. You pull the door closed with the stick and twist it so the cord tightens and then you turn it horizontally so that the stick braces against the wall. Simple but effective.

One Friday evening the neighbours invited me to dinner. It was September if I remember correctly and extremely cold and crisp with no moon at all. I arrived when it was still light though and sitting round the small table eating and drinking wine there seemed to be no hurry. When dinner was over and coffees and grappa drunk and it was time to go my neighbour accompanied me to the gate. It had of course got dark by then, the crispyness had gone and it had become the foggiest night I think I have ever seen. My neighour asked me if I needed a torch but I declined showing him mine and switching it on to test it. Going was a horrible feeling and one I remember really well even after 15 years. Coming from the total lonely chaos of Turin to the warmth and light and companionship of my neighbours’ house and suddenly finding myself in the cold and dark and fog with the closing of a door was a tad unnerving. Just outside the house there are three paths to choose from and of course not seeing anything at all I took the wrong turning and got lost in the fog. It took me ages to retrace my steps with no reference points at all and just my sense of direction to help me. When I did eventually find the path at some points I had to kneel down and shine the light along the ground to see if there was actually a path. A torch does very little in the fog in the dark. It is only a walk of a quarter of an hour if that but it seemed like ages always wondering if I was still on the path or following some deer path deeper into the woods. I know how goldilocks felt. At a certain point I heard the trickle of water and knew exactly where I was, halfway between the neighbour’s house and my house. At that point of course the torch started to fade rapidly. Knowing that opening the door to the kitchen was going to be a problem with no light as the keyhole was difficult enough to find in daylight I switched it off and literally groped my way up the steep track to the house. When I reached the house the torch after an initial moment of brightness faded to a tiny orange glow and I just managed to find the keyhole in time before it went altogether.

There was absolutely no difference in the darkness inside the house to outside. It was like being blind. Once in the house there was a lighter and a candle on the table. I accidentally knocked the candle onto the floor and it rolled under the wardrobe. Groping about under a wardrobe in pitch darkness in a house populated by mice and dormice and creepy crawlies and stuff is not pleasant even to an animal lover and the imagination runs riot but I soon found it and climbed into my sleeping bag leaving the candle on for a bit of comfort.

Sometime during the night with the candle burning low I was woken by what sounded like someone lightly climbing into the room above me. I am a light sleeper so knew I was not dreaming and anyway the person began to softly walk about; definite human steps as if someone was pacing up and down thinking. It’s difficult to know what to do in this sort of situation. Do you flee or do you challenge or do you turn over and go back to sleep and ignore the problem? How did he get in anyway? Well I crept out of bed, got my billhook and quietly, ever so quietly opened the door. I had a candle lantern which I used when I needed to see outside so I lit that and gingerly, and I mean gingerly, I am no hero, climbed up the ladder onto the balcony. I grabbed the stick holding the door closed and slowly, very slowly I turned to release the door holding the billhook in my mouth like a pirate. Whoever it was had to come through this door to get out. So holding the lantern in my left hand and kicking the door open with my right foot I shouted for the person to come out waving the billhook menacingly and threatening to cut bits off them. There was a worrying moment of silence when I was fully prepared to be attacked but instead, like a cannon ball out of a cannon, something small and furry and suspiciously like a beech marten shot out of the door, bounced off my shoulder and leapt into the darkness. I aged considerably and had to sit down.

There was a loft above the room and when I bought the house there was a ladder leading up to the loft. The trap door opening did not have a trap door. The marten had been using the room as a toilet for years judging by the large piles of droppings and I first thought it came in through the window which I had blocked off hoping to keep it out. Marten scats are not the pleasantest things to have around. And without thinking I had also removed the ladder up to the loft. Obviously it didn’t come in the window but down the ladder and tonight it had jumped down into the room and could not get back up again. It’s bouncing around sounded just like someone walking about.

So we all lived together for months, marten, mice, dormice and some bats, quite peaceably until I started renovating the place and it went off of its own accord. So today I was happy to know that it or one of its relations had returned and slowly the house will also return to the wilds that I teased it out from to turn it into a home.

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