The clear blue sky and sunshine demand that I leave the house and when I get on my bike I find myself peddling downhill, towards the railway tracks that divide the city from the watery world of the River and the Nature Reserve. It is a steampunk world of flooded gravel pits and made-up land. All watched over by the cooling towers of the coal-fired power station that belch out invented clouds. It is a world stripped bare, cut open and constantly filling back up again.
I cross the tracks at the level crossing, head through the Village and take a right just past the Visitor Centre. I’m heading for my favourite bird watching spot, but before I reach it I notice a new path I’ve never seen before and decide to try it out. The path runs along a narrow strip of land that separates two stretches of flooded gravel pit. Here everything ekes out its allotment, reclaiming water from land and land from water.
The path has high, sloping banks and one of the banks is strewn with beer cans and plastic bottles. Out on the water a platform of green corrugated iron and broken pipes sits, half-submerged. The path ends at a circular stump of land that is separated from the land on the other side by a narrow channel of water. I drop my bike down and take my water bottle from my bag. As I’m swigging from it I see the grey bird stood on the opposite shore.
I get out my binoculars and watch it, noting the dark grey and white-tipped feathers, white undertail coverts and pink beak. Out comes the bird guide. I’m worried somehow it will know I am stalking it, trying to find out its name, and will fly away, but the goose – I know it must be some kind of goose – remains still. The bird guide tells me it is a Greylag. It shouldn’t really matter what its name is, but as I crouch down in the grass, getting as close as I dare, I say the name in my head. Greylag, Greylag, Greylag. I rehearse seeing one when I’m going for a walk with a friend. Oh, that’s a Greylag, I say casually.
With my binoculars to my eyes and my elbows resting on my knees, I watch the goose. I wait for it to move, but the goose’s black eye is trained on me, the stranger. The eye is surrounded by a pink ring, but the more I watch it the more the varied shades of its eyering become apparent. There is pink but there are also steaks of orange and the colours begin to dance and blend around the unbending black of the Greylag’s eye. Under its gaze I start to feel porous, friable, and weak. All around me the watery landscape is cracking under the weight of the sun and seems to ring out, I am here. A loud flock of swans flies overhead, but still the Greylag remains unmoved. Still, its eye questions me.
For many minutes we remain like this – the Greylag and I – until eventually my legs start to feel stiff and the sun begins to burn my thighs. As I straighten up, I notice a man with a pair of binoculars around his neck approaching along the narrow strip of land. I decide it’s time to move on. As the birder and I pass each other on the path I consider stopping to tell him about the Greylag, but I worry he will think Greylags are small fry, so I cycle on.
That day I spot a roost of Cormorants that have painted their island of trees with layers of guano, making their homes look like stunted birch trees. I see two Great Necked Grebes fending off a noisy Canada Goose with their necks outstretched and their orange ruffs puffed out. I notice dozens of Small Tortoiseshell butterflies, heralding spring. But nothing impresses me like the Greylag Goose and its eye, staring back at me. For days afterwards I see it, until the hours spent by the gravel pits and the entire arc of sunlight, water, and land has been distilled down to that one point. All watched over by a smouldering ring of pink and orange embers.