The therapeutic benefits of a trip to RSPB Mersehead

A frenzied Friday late shift in the Emergency Department that I couldn’t switch off from until 2am. A fitful sleep and missing my alarm and a weekend plan that fell through at the last minute, leaving me sat in bed staring ahead into an empty day that I didn’t want to spend alone.

There’s only one thing to feed the soul on days like these: a cycle ride to the coast.

I step out into a sharp drop in temperature. There’s a weather front coming in from the north and the daffodils that line the road – only recently having revealed the yellow of their cyclops heads – are bowed in dismay. They’ve made their move prematurely. I just took my ice tyres off yesterday and understand their disappointment. Nonetheless it’s dry and the cloud cover is almost complete.

The cold air gores at my bones on the first small descent down my road, shocks me like a jump into cold water. Was it the right decision to leave the house today? Should I have sent that stroke patient home last night, or kept him in? The woodland to my left and right stares back blankly and dead; it’s not dead, it’s dormant, but looks dead, or like it’s been asleep for years, perhaps under a spell that can only be broken by extreme hope or a Chosen One.

My destination is Mersehead RSPB reserve, a vast vista of soft sand not far from Southerness on the Solway Firth. I make my way via Lochfoot to Beeswing, noting a group of greylag geese feeding on a pasture that looks like all the others. Wherever you look in Dumfriesshire there’s pasture stretching in every fucking direction: grass so uniform and bland and luminous green it wouldn’t look out of place on a HD TV showing premiership football. Countryside kept neat and tidy.

The man with the head injury had been waiting for two hours before I got to assess him. He was pressuring me to green-light him to go home to his hungry dogs. Why didn’t he feed them before he left instead of taking it out on me? Did I assess him less thoroughly because he was pushing me to let him away? Will he be OK at home on his own?

I have to pedal a short stretch of the A711 and am pleasantly surprised by how little traffic there is. Most people will have decided to stay in from the cold, I reckon. I take a left turn up a steep hill that I last climbed as part of a holiday before we’d moved here. It’s a nice memory, and the hill feels easier; perhaps I got fitter since. The road becomes wilder and more beautiful, threads through land that seems at times forsaken, with barely a farm or building in sight. Trees, younger ones, seem more alive here, strong saplings of evergreen, and more occupied, with trills and squawks from camouflaged birds in unidentified boughs.

The road is mostly downhill now, heading coastward. I take the turn into the reserve, a long, flat driveway lined with reeds through which I get my first furtive glimpses of a company of barnacle geese. They barely register my un-stealthy movements, unlike a small squad of roe deer who graze in the next field that my presence sends gallivanting off into the distance twerking conspicuous white rumps.

I lock my bike and head off on foot. The grey sky in front is tinged faintly with pink and yellow. It will be a subdued sunset over Dumfriesshire tonight. My feet feel awkward moving noisily on the loose gravel in boots that are warm but ill-fitting. The look of confusion on the husband’s face when I told him the neurosurgeon had not accepted his wife for transfer to their unit, even though she was young and healthy but had blood in her head and had become unsteady on her feet. All the consultant colleagues that pestered me to get a better decision, playing piggy-in-the-middle, for all their superiority not deigning to help me out and call the specialist themselves. Did I say the right words in the most emotive way? Could I have advocated for my patient differently?

The trees here are ancient again, grimacing with contorted branches and stripped of much of their bark. Lichen clings on where the bark remains. A crumble of bracket fungus sits at the base of a tree by an information sign that reminds us that rot is an important part of nature’s recycling system. Suddenly the barnacles are moving to roost, and I hear their coordinated jabbering before I see the flocks move across the merse in a few smooth sweeps before rising overhead with a whoosh of beating wings in an arrowhead formation, communicating to each other all the time. And I’m glad I waited until dusk to arrive at the merse, even though the temperature is colder; it’s a time of wildlife on the move, from their feeding grounds to their nocturnal hiding places.

Eventually I reach softness underfoot. Kicking up waves of sand feels cathartic. I wish it was warm enough to feel it between my toes. Feeling the coastal air, my breathing deepens and slows and I am filled with gratitude and peace, overwhelmed with pent-up emotion. I sit in the dunes awhile watching tiny waders forage meticulously using the last of the silvery light reflected off pools in the sand for the sustenance to get them through another difficult night. All these nature services: the fresh, cold air, the magical late light, the polite calls of waders strung out along the wash, the waves that are constantly giving and taking away, spreading nutrients, regenerating the landscape; all these services, free to anyone who cares to find them, and more glorious than any reproduction.

The blades of the offshore wind farm tick around silently and almost imperceptibly on the horizon.

I head back to the reserve, past the sparse remains of a dead bird, unidentifiable by the bones and wing feathers left. I like collecting animal bones but remember not to touch this one – bird flu is bad this year and a human girl in Cambodia just died of it. Gazing onto the bare skull of a patient who fell and cut her head last night – an embarrassment of smooth, shiny bright purple-white aponeurosis, never meant to be exposed, with a large flap of skin and fat and blood-matted hair that I’m stapling back into place. The lady is stoical and takes the staples with no complaint while her son and daughter-in-law look on, wincing and looking progressively more peaky. Afterwards the patient beams with gratitude through eager, youthful eyes that burn from her frail face almost as brightly as her impossibly pearly dentures.

Then a man rushed into the department, writhing in pain. He can barely talk and his heart is racing on the monitor screen, the alarm is blaring. It’s hard to share a room with that kind of pain. A decisive cannula, a quick shot of IV morphine, a painkiller pushed into the rectum, the chaos subsides, the heart rate comes back to normal.

The information board on the way out tells us what a conservation success the barnacle geese have been on the Solway – the population were decimated to less than 300 after the World War years by human appetites that couldn’t learn to share with theirs. Now, following nature-friendly farming efforts, the numbers overwintering here exceed 40,000. They will be heading back to Svalbard soon, but I’m glad for the cold snap that should keep them here a little longer.

The darkness descends quickly on my way home. The trees bristle with the chatter of daytime birds gone to roost – swapping bedtime stories, I like to imagine – and nocturnal species, like the woodcock, bat-like but large, just springing into life before my bike light, then out into the ether of darkness that envelops my road on both sides. Familiar routes metamorphose in the dark. The sweet putrefaction of fresh-slurried farmland intensifies against my nostrils as sight diminishes.

We are nature, but we are working against nature. Time is running out for nature. I feel grateful for days like these when I can go and experience what we have before it disappears.

Saturday 6 March, 2023

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