on 24 December 2016
The garden gate we gaze through is the camera lens of wildlife photographer Stephen de Vere as he ambles through the Oxfordshire countryside. He does this steadily in all four seasons, as he lives in a village in the shire. He’s a professional who has travelled the world with his cameras to find exotic animals, but here in this quiet and peaceful film he’s content to wait among woods and hedgerows for the local wildlife to appear. And, as many other viewers have noted in their reviews, the results are lovely.
De Vere’s voice is calm, patient, low key. He speaks as a person, not as a script reader. There is passion in him, great joy, but he expresses it gently, quietly. He loves the landscapes he moves through — woodland, farmland, countryside — and the the wild things he encounters there, both plants and animals (especially animals). He’s at home on his home patch, content to sit for hours, waiting and watching. Though the film is short, just 50 minutes, it feels much longer (in a good way) because it’s so unhurried. It draws you in.
The animals eventually reveal themselves. They are numerous, especially the rich birdlife: blackbirds, song thrushes, chaff finches, black caps, lapwings, plovers, long-tailed tits, and many more, including migrants from Scandinavia: redwings and bramblings. Other animals too: foxes, squirrels and two species of deer; badgers, hares and voles; frogs, a grass snake and toads. The birds are the most majestic, especially the larger winged raptors, owners of the sky, as we might say of them: red kites, kestrels, sparrow hawks and owls.
The barn owl in particular is most beautiful to gaze at. In flight it barely moves its wings, silently sweeping down toward its prey. At rest it looks wise, as folklore says it does, its large oval face bright white and flat, its eyes keen, its beak modest. The heart-shaped fringe of light-brown feathers around its face is beautiful too, a quirk of nature with endearing symbolism.
Because de Vere is quiet, still, patient, non-threatening, some animals see him but are not bothered. Foxes and deer, in particular, seem unconcerned, lose interest in his inert form. The dramas of everyday life and some of its cycles reveal themselves: the search for food and nourishment, the need for shelter, the marking of territory, nest and burrow building, fighting for dominance or protection, mating and breeding, the rearing of babies and youngsters. The animals are engaged, cautious, alert, as they must be to survive, their surroundings a thing of intimacy to them.
The production is simple, unadorned. No so-called bells and whistles — no background music, no studio sound effects. Instead, natural sounds: de Vere’s voice and footfalls; the wind, rainfall, thunder; splashing water and flapping wings; birdsong, deer calls, croaking frogs and baby barn owls chirping in a farmhouse hay loft. He views the animals as many of us do: as amateurs, ramblers, birders, beauty lovers. The filming is intimate, close-up, individualistic, meaning that individuals can be spotted and identified in some groups.
The seasons provide the changes in the landscapes we pass through. The film begins in early spring, the ground frosty, the air chilly at dawn. Trees start to bud and plants poke through the soil. The earth is waking up, new life coming into it. Soon, with spring in full bloom, insects will be buzzing among the flowers and the young of many wild animals will be born. Summer brings warmth, food and more colour. Youngsters grow quickly, learning new skills from their parents. Autumn brings further bright colour in deciduous woodlands. The chill of the earth returns. The film ends amid winter snow flurries, the landscape white, quiet, still.
Though wildlife is the focus, flora and foliage also adorn every scene: beechwood and plum trees; wild cherries and raspberries; bluebells and yellow archangels; fungi and puffballs.
The plan of de Vere is simple. He’s a camera. The lenses reveal what we see. No overlay of commentary invests meaning in what is seen. We therefore are able to come to our own conclusions. One of mine is this:
If space is provided, if habitats are preserved and maintained, the animals will come, filling up niches, replenishing ecosystems. Nature is resilient, detests a vacuum, is eager and opportunistic. Given room, natural resources become exactly that — natural and resourceful. Nature’s inventiveness is endless, a trait first realised by Darwin, the processes of adaptation and survival largely understood and described by him.
So the lesson here, or one of them, is restraint. Curb our excesses so that nature can have room to live. De Vere doesn’t say so. He lets nature speak for herself, as the subtitle of the film is “A Diary of the English Countryside”. As such, it’s a beautiful, modest but grand story. We needn’t travel to the rainforests of the Amazon or the peaks of Patagonia to find what is important (though these places are special too). We can look in our own back gardens for treasures.
He has also made a film about rivers and river life in Britain (2015). I’m eager to see it now, having watched this beautiful diary of a lovely patch of English countryside. When I think of Oxford I think of wonderful books and great learning at one of the world’s first and finest universities. But there’s great wisdom in the woodlands, streams, ponds and fields of Oxfordshire as well. Stephen de Vere deserves our praise for reminding us of this.