Country diary: ‘Uh-whah. Uh-whah,’ gasps the mystery noise maker

Derek Niemann
·2 min read

All through the night, rain had swept in on a strong southerly. Daybreak brought the stillness of mist and a slap in the face. Banks of fog lingered over the open fields, even though a stiff breeze whistled at them to disperse. It smacked my cheeks, chasing through the wood to my left, stirring up a gossip in the leaves. As its speed rose and fell almost imperceptibly, the buffeting wind created speech-like modulations among the trees, hissed swells of indignation giving way to low-level grumbles and then rising again in crescendos of fury. As always, I half-imagined animal spirits inhabiting these great pulses of sound.

I think it was when I reached the kissing gate at the foot of the heath that I first heard the heavy breathing. “Uh-whah.” My first reaction – a what? After I’d listened to three or four gasps, panted with mechanical regularity, I grasped their tone and character – short, sharp, shallow intakes, followed instantly by explosive exhalations of the kind that drops both shoulders.

Where was the creature that made them? Its breaths were all-pervading, as if they emanated from the sky itself. But they were not overpowering, for they spoke of marking time rather than threatening attack. I crossed the heath, tracing horse hoofprints in the sand, casting glances over the low bobbles of heather, conjuring a beast out of the mist.

I was simply playing with fear, for I had realised very quickly that the regularity of these breaths betrayed them as mechanical. A fox coughs, a badger sighs, a roe buck turns its head and muffles its sound. Every animal has irregularities in its beat.

In perhaps a decade since it had set its feet on the ground, a quarter of a mile out to the east at the top of the ridge, I had never once heard the giant throw its voice as far as this heath. The wind had shifted direction, bringing a rare blow off the ridge. And now, standing at the far side, looking up the slope, I saw pale, bright arms rise above a wall of mist. The blades of the turbine scythed through the air and it spoke again. “Uh-whah. Uh-whah.”