Dusk has fallen like ash. Moonless, the estuary buoys no silver. Oystercatcher, curlew, offer feathers suggested only by call
Shapes that once were hawthorn move and grow.
It is cold, a thin cold that curls fingers inwards and alerts you to the physicality of breathing. Holm oak and holly filter wind according to the structure of their leaves, gaunt reeds by the Humber shake their raffia manes.
Frost is starting to dust the last of the brambles, the wind drops, we exhale into hands as water laps. New sounds emerge; rustle of vole, coughed suggestion of fox.
We are invisible, but as our eyes become owl-accustomed to the dark constellations reveal themselves slowly.
Night Watch, Humber Bank by Vienna Forrester
Illustration by Lea Gudrich (https://www.leagudrich.com)
The small white flowers burst from the damp crevice in the rock like an explosion of starlight, spilling from their hiding place with wild abandon and bobbing their heads excitedly in the sea breeze. In the late afternoon sun, the firm, green buds beneath the flowerheads seemed to glow from within. Mel Ridley leaned against the cliff face and rubbed one of the heart-shaped leaves between her fingers. Surprisingly succulent. The girl produced a cheap plastic magnifying glass from her coat pocket and examined the hairless stems, her bright, hazel eyes taking note of each and every detail. She adjusted her wire-rimmed glasses, leaning in for a closer look at the petals. She’d seen this plant before, but where? Mel flipped to a new page in her notebook and began to sketch, making sure to capture the paddle shape of the four petals on each flower and the way the leaves curled upward where they connected to the stem. What was she missing? Puzzled, she took a step back and glanced up at the crumbling clifftop.
Scurvy grass, of course! She’d identified patches of it growing on top of the cliff last spring, so the flowers she was looking at now must have sprung from seeds that rolled into the crevice last summer. Just to be sure, she pinched off a leaf and gingerly placed it on her tongue. An acrid flavour filled her mouth. Pah! That was scurvy grass, alright. Cochlearia officinalis, she titled her drawing, and then, just for the sake of good science, she wrote down her one observation: very bitter.
Mel turned and resumed her walk along the beach, savouring the soft, shushing sounds of the waves. The wind caught in her hair and teased the chestnut strands that curled out from beneath her knitted stocking cap. It was March in South Shields, and she’d be lucky if the temperature reached nine degrees. Still, Mel walked barefoot, enjoying the feeling of the coarse, pale sand beneath her feet. Her progress was slow – no need to be speedy when there were so many wee plants and shells to sketch. She’d brought a burlap bag along for collecting things. Mel took whatever the ocean had to offer, rubbish and riches alike: iron-banded rocks, battered plastic take-out lids, sea-softened glass of the palest blue, shredded bin bags, empty shells bleached white by summers past.
As she poked at a pile of seaweed with a stick, a flash of white overhead caught her attention. Mel scrambled for her binoculars – the binoculars she’d worked fifteen extra hours at the café to earn – as a flock of common ringed plovers settled down on the beach. Mel watched the birds scurry anxiously across the sand, calling to each other in low whistles: toolip!
One of the plovers was particularly nervous, skittering out of the way when a fly buzzed too close to her head. Mel laughed. You’re almost as anxious as I am! The plover found a new spot on the beach and began to stamp her foot on the ground. Mel had often observed seagulls tapping their feet to imitate the sound of rain, tricking worms and other tasty invertebrates into crawling up to the surface. So this rain dance must be a thing with plovers as well!
Wait, what was that? She thought she’d spotted something shiny on the plover’s foot. Mel fiddled with the binocular focus and dared to take a few steps forward. Yes, there it was. A tiny red band around the plover’s leg. There were numbers on it, too, though she couldn’t make them out from this distance.
A particularly fearsome wave sent the plover backpedaling away from the water, bumbling into a rock in her hasty retreat. Mel laughed again, setting her binoculars down.
“You’re a special bird,” she said aloud. “I think I’ll call you Penelope.”
Mel raised the binoculars to look at her bird again, but Penelope was gone. Vanished in a whirl of grey and white feathers.
About the author: Ella Shively is an undergraduate studying natural resources and writing at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, USA. You can find her online at
About today’s featured poet: Vienna Forrester writes poetry inspired by the natural world and finds that the coast in particular provides a rich source of inspiration. She likes to write en plein air, immersed in her surroundings. In 2019, she completed her Master of Research: The Wild Self: An Exploration of Writing in Nature and she is currently pursuing a poetry PhD at the University of Hull.
About this chapter’s illustrator: Born in 1987, Lea Gudrich studied Fine Arts in Rouen (FR), Trier (GER) and Krakow (PL). Her work is shaped by the highly intriguing combination of delicate ink drawings with bold, abstract acrylic backgrounds. Her works are a continuous exploration of ambivalence: fascination and deterrence, light and darkness, feeling fear and facing it. Lea’s mystical paintings allure the viewer only to confront them with existential questions about transience. Often depicting animals, the artist creates magical worlds in which a sense of dread is present behind the visually inviting surface. https://leagudrich.com/