Kirkconnel Flow 24/01/20

Cranberries lie by my feet, in the sodden skin of the bog’s sphagnum moss. I pick one up, rub the moisture from its shiny red skin and eat it. Bitterness bursts into my mouth.

I am accompanying Andy, the reserve officer, on his data-logger rounds of Kirkconnel Flow. We are on top of ten metres of peat that shakes with each step, pooling glossy water around the soles of our wellies in a way that feels like a threat. Kirkconnel Flow is a solid wetland, an uneasy truce between water held stationary like soil and peat that moves like liquid. It feels like one careless step could undo this truce.

It is more productive to walk over the heather, though it is misleading to experience the flow drily walking from heather clump to heather clump. It is called a flow for a reason. Water gurgles around us, the wet ground sucks at our feet. Andy’s data-loggers are recording the water level of the flow. He gets a laptop out of his rucksack, plugs it into the data-logger and kneels in the heather while the technology reveals whether the peatland restoration – their attempt at fixing a leaky bog – has done its work. Whether the flow is full with water again, whether it is flowing with life. And while he looks at the screen, I look around at the warmth of the winter vegetation. The heather is twiggy, bony in its winter bareness. It sits over a layer of dark-green blueberry bushes and light green reindeer moss. Sodden sphagnum is a green in-between. Like the cranberries, it is only through looking down that this world is revealed.

To look up: through the bare heather a wren fidgets, flicking from clump to clump, its tail cocked, its voice irritable, scolding our presence. It is a warmer brown than the heather, but not as warm as the tawny colour of the bog, that I can’t fathom. The brown and green at my feet becomes richer, warmer when seen at distance, not dissimilar to the warm brown of the Scots pine bark that is our horizon. Distantly there are ponds the colour of coffee. But this is not as distant as its possible to see in a peat bog. Peat bogs accrete dead matter that doesn’t decay, instead without oxygen materials are preserved in their state of death. This is to say that peat bogs grow at a measurable rate. One millimetre a year. The ten metres below me has steadily accumulated over the past 10,000 years. And if I was to sink below the surface – which always feels possible on this weird ground – it wouldn’t be long before I was closer to the last ice age than the current day. The wren that flicks through the bones of winter heather, could be only metres from an Irish elk skull.

And it makes me feel weird, like vertigo. Here I become as small, young, and inconsequential as a cranberry in the bog of time.

Caerlaverock 09/01/20

I know the Solway empties like a sink with the plug pulled out. But still it surprises me. When we pulled up, the car windscreen looked south over sea to the frost-glazed fields of Cumbria. We were here for a low-tide bird count but the sea didn’t bother us. We would sit, have lunch, talk, and soon enough the sea would metamorphose to mud and an alternate, avian tide would flow back instead, flocking on the freshly revealed land.

Between bites of my sandwich, I watch a goldcrest shimmy along the blue-green branches of a fir tree, its bill a tweezer, delicately picking out the insect food that I cannot see. It flits away and I turn back to the Solway and the sea is less. There are stones and sandbanks appearing. Against the flow of water, waders fly up the firth. Curlew come first, then oystercatchers, then dunlin. Before they can spread themselves out, while the water still drains away, they bunch together. We give each other directions to the flocks based on radio masts, wind turbines, the modern landmarks of the Cumbrian coast. It is between two masts that I see it first. I see it as a rolling ripple. Dunlin turning silver, grey, white in the sunlight. A flock oscillating. Then a wave of oystercatchers, a ribbon of lapwings.

The thought dawns on me so late that if I were a wader I would be dead. This is not a pre-roost display, a murmuration of convenience, a flaunting of avian skill. This is the motion of fear. Predator. I catch its shape a second later. A familiar shape, a familiar thrill. The peregrine curves up, high above the Solway. It levels out for a second, flying onwards. Then it flips.

It drops like an anchor. Like gravity with anger. The hunger of speed. An action as quick as a flash and it is within the flock. More oscillation, shivering shapes of waders. Within a beat the peregrine is up again. Then down. Tearing through the flock, sifting out the weak, the ill, the slow of thought or fear. It finds nothing.

It exits high, heading further up the firth, panic spread in a handful of seconds.

I first saw a peregrine stoop over the Tesco carpark in Dunblane, almost a decade ago. Since then, I have never seen a peregrine kill another bird. But every year I see one come close, to the point where I am in no doubt that I will witness it in the next few years. I have no idea how I will feel in that moment. If my sympathy lies in the thrill of the chase, or with the life lost. Or with the knowledge that nature will just go on, regardless of my thoughts and feelings.

In the White Mountains

Yannis says, “The locals here are crazy. They have vendettas like the Italians. These farmers –

He takes his hand from the steering wheel and waves it at a ruin.

– had a bomb go off under their house. Crazy.”

He slows down as we pass. Concrete ripped and twisted, walls at wrong angles, metal torn, window frames caved in. And my mind runs in reverse down the tangle of dusty Cretan back roads to the roadside shrine shop on the edge of Chania. Piles of plastic Jesuses, and tiny terracotta chapels, sweating under the holy fire of the Mediterranean summer. These shrines, when bought, are returned to their native habitat, beside the verges of these winding roads. They are like punctuation, hyphens joining chapel to chapel, a network of white-walled, red-tiled roofs in the middle of the countryside. I don’t know if these shrines and chapels were placed here due to a fear of life, or a fear of death, or just a fear of the local driving. Or, as Yannis airily mentions, the darker side to life that can lurk in paradises.

But I stick to what I know. We are far south enough for the Land Rover stereo to blast us with Libyan radio stations. The road rises beyond the Omalos plateau, leaving the flat bowl ringed by shark’s teeth peaks. Yannis knows the route beyond the tarmac. He threads the Land Rover between boulders at the beginning of a rubble track, hairpin turning its way up into the heart of the Lefka Ori: the White Mountains. The lower slopes are grey and green: limestone and mountain herbs, thyme and ironwort, scattered olive and oleander bushes. 

And I stick to what I feel, which is that altitude works like time. It changes things. It makes you feel weird until you acclimatise to minutes that stretch into days; the hairpins that gradually raise you from 1,000 to 1,200, 1,400 metres up, ears popping with the pressure, the light-headedness that comes like a taste of alcohol. Like time, altitude is slow and then you’re almost there: with three griffon vultures circling over the nearest ridge line, one sailing low over the vehicle, a dark presence that seems larger than should be possible, a bird the same width as the Land Rover. It moves without effort. It has a surprising buoyancy for something so large, like a kite on a string circling in the breeze. It casts a black shadow over the grey road. A reminder of the way of all flesh – and what happens after. 

As we get higher time gets slower, until, like my mind on the plateau it begins to run backwards. It dials down the heat and takes you back to a fortnight or further back, when the flower bloomings were just beginning. At sea level the only sound in the bushes is the incessant chirruping of Italian* sparrows and the cicadas. The heat there has stifled everything. Up here – back in time – there is still life to be found. 

We get out of the car at the top. 1,600 metres high. Higher than the vultures still languidly soaring, describing the thermals, the invisible lift of the warm air off the mountain ridges that form the sides of the beginning of the Samarian gorge. There is sea visible to the north and south of us and patches of snow still clinging to the creases of the higher peaks. I expected nothing here but the ubiquitous ringing of goat bells and the stark sunlight and the circling of birds of prey. Instead, above the vultures, there are butterflies. A constant stream, all heading north-west over the mountain ridge. Painted ladies, on their migration that defies logic and reason, a flight subject only to the pull of their biology, that will lead them fluttering over sea and mountain from North Africa to North Europe. We spend half an hour on the mountain ridge with the butterflies that are higher than vultures. Hundreds pass. Thousands will.

*Ornithological note: Italian sparrow, Passer italiae, is the species which the sparrows of Crete most resemble, despite apparently not being taxonomically Italian sparrows. Neither house or Spanish sparrow is found on the island.

The New Website

Two sentences I am still getting used to: I have written a book. It is being launched this week. It seemed the ideal time to turn my tatty old blog into a shiny new website, to take my mind away from the trepidation of the launch. I have included a selection of my best old posts from the lasts six years (on birds, place, books and the one about football), created a new page about my book, and hopefully with the contact page it is a better way to get in touch with me as well.

The Invention of Disappointment (July, 2018)

Where were you at 9pm, the 30th June 1998? I was six, allowed to stay up late for the first time and bouncing on the damask sofa in the first house I remember living in.
There are some things you don’t know when you are six: that Argentina means “silver coast”, that we had fought a war sixteen years earlier, or that there’s a place in France called Saint-Etienne that you might one day visit. I’d just discovered who Diego Maradonna was, earlier in the day and I was outraged.

There are some things you shouldn’t know when you are six: anger, confusion, the fallibility of adults. David Beckham was my hero and here he was, sent off for lightly brushing Diego Simeone’s calf with his boot. David Batty’s missed penalty in the shootout seems merely incidental. I had a tantrum.

Where were you on the morning of 21st June 2002? I was in the school hall, watching my heroes half the world away. Watching as if in slow motion, Ronaldinho’s free kick flying off at a weird angle and the dawning realisation that it was looping over David Seaman’s flailing glove. I felt then that if only I reached hard enough I could help him claw it out before it crossed the line. Never mind. Brazil are Brazil and they always win and I was proud of England in defeat: I wanted to console them. To let them know that we always lose and that was fine.

Where were you in 2004? Penalties against Portugal in the beautiful city of Lisbon, eyes glued to the television set, one hot summer’s evening: the familiar quarter final outcome, even then, as a 12 year old amateur pessimist.

2006? Same team. Same opponents. Same result: Owen Hargreaves the pub quiz answer, the only Englishman to score his penalty. YouTube is glorious: a nostalgia trap, that lets me relive my youth in shaky camera angles, dodgy aspect ratios, old commentator’s voices and Des Lynam before he left  to present Countdown. I can spend hours on it, as an amateur pseud, filling in the gaps of my shaky childhood memory. I can map out my pessimism: how it grew and flourished, watered by the inevitable tragedy of English football. How they invented disappointment for me.

And it felt like tragedy. Growing up with an interest in football lumbers you with two teams. Your club and your country. I grew up with Manchester United in the zenith of their success. I grew up with the English football team as the unspoken assumption in the school playground. We all believed. This year. This was the year. It was a camouflage. Boys growing up are taught in the playground to assimilate. To not stand out, to bray with bullish confidence, not to have weird interests. We all liked football. It was just what you did. It was all that was safe to talk about, so it was all that we spoke about. Growing up, England were the antithesis of Manchester United: they were the shadow of failure that stalked everything. From my teenage years I sunk into pessimism, defeatism: a world view informed by the world around me that whatever happened, we would lose. Whether that was sport or socially or my exams.

Somewhere along the line I tried to stop caring. We didn’t make it to Euro 2008; I’d discovered birds and books and the surprise first sip of warm bitter being pleasant, and that sport wasn’t really for people like me anyway: chubby, awkward asthmatics who got bullied by those who were better at it than me because they could run. But 2010 was my A-levels. I spent that summer, hot as all past summer seem, with my text books open in front of the TV. England in South Africa, thrashing about: 11 men with the coordination of a dying animal, being mercifully put down by a German team who could’ve won it. I couldn’t pretend any more than I didn’t care.

I have shaken that pessimism off, more or less, though it forms the foundations of my life. Subsiding is always a danger. There is something that will always be attractive, something less painful, about the premature expectation of disappointment.

England are through to a semi-final for the first time in my life. The teams that seemed stalk me – Argentina, Brazil, Portugal, Germany – have fallen by the wayside. I have even witnessed in the last week the great impossible: a strong handed English keeper. Eric Dier defying his name. A penalty shootout success. Gareth Southgate’s team have invented something different, something unfamiliar for me: hope.

Sebald on the Beach (October, 2017)

These words came at 4am, one sleepless, humid night in Greece. They were written in the Notes app on my phone while lying in bed and were forgotten about – until now.

The rain wakes us up from our shared shallow doze, drumming its anxious fingertips across the awning. The town cats scatter for shelter into the flower beds, their kittens dripping wet behind the plant pots, softly mewling for milk and mother. From the veranda, the town appears to be built on top of itself, building upon building, all facing west, facing the sea. The town is hidden from the harshness of the Greek sun at this time of the morning by the ridge of limestone mountains behind, green with olive groves and tall with cypress trees. This indirect morning light picks everything out in momentary clarity before the day’s stifling heat hides headlands, mountains beyond mountains, islands and churches that don’t reappear until the setting sun cuts through the haze, restores the landscape and honey-coloured cliffs appear as if by magic.

We take the narrow side streets to the harbour, between brightly coloured walls flaking paint and shuttered windows flung open to reveal the outside world to the canaries singing in their cages. Taking the table nearest to the water we drink espresso and chocolate milk, surrounded by fisherman from the harbour wall, watching the shallows flickering with light and silvered with seabream, while cats stick their heads into buckets of bait and chew. We get to try the delicacy of new words on the tip of our tongues, the fresh meat of kalimera, kalispera, kalinichta. We get to luxuriate in the differences of culture.

The Greek rain, at least not here, not now, doesn’t last long. Another shower drums into the pavement and people flee to the cafes for the few minutes until it passes. And after it does, it leaves a gift. Swallows. Fifteen or so, flitting above the harbour, blue on dazzling blue. They flicker, sweeping low over the rippling sea, collecting insects, moving south in one flock minutes later, nothing more than a fleeting, weather-deposited glimpse of the world’s workings. 

The world is – has always been – more connected then we’ve recognised, or perhaps accepted. The swallows are not Greek swallows or European swallows or the northern hemisphere’s. They are the world’s swallows. Birds of summer wherever they go, whether they’re breeding or not. And the problems they face are not local either. They face being shot in Malta, trapped in Cyprus, washed by a Mediterranean storm into the sea, held up by the wrong winds in the Sahara, starving if it’s an arid year in the Sahel, while trusting with their tiny battered bodies to bear themselves south, to Southern Africa. And when they get there their reedbed roosts might not have survived another season or global warming might have dangerously changed their food source. Any loss isn’t just felt by their species or us or any one of those places – but all of them. And this journey is taken in reverse by other migrants – people from Syria, Libya, further south beyond the belts of desert, trusting their bodies, or placing their lives at the mercy of ramshackle boats or bastard criminal traffickers who will abandon them to whatever fate befalls them. After payment, of course.

And on Valtos beach WG Sebald whispers The Emigrants into my ear, his own indirect reckoning with the holocaust and the natures of evil and grief through the lives and deaths of four Jewish emigres, while I sit on the sand, trying to change the colour of my skin, staring out on a placid sea that is nothing of the sort. ffffffffffff

The Stoop (January, 2017)

It took less than a second from beginning to failure. It took a jink of less than an inch for the pigeon to save its life.

On top of the water tower a peregrine is perched on a railing. It is a rare winter’s afternoon — bitterly cold, startlingly blue — and the falcon is motionless. Underneath the pigeons come and go, flying under the arched sides of the tower to shelter inside. The peregrine doesn’t stir, sitting hunched in the weak sunshine. Its grabbing, stabbing middle talon is long and clings to the rusting metal. A living gargoyle.

Familiarity breeds complacency.

A white pigeon flares in the sunlight. It drops low and slow and glides towards the tower. The peregrine knows. As the pigeon approaches, the falcon flips forward and plunges to earth like an axe. The pigeon sees and veers and is home under the tower in a split second, spared by an inch, by the flick of a white wing. The falcon swings up, drifts over, and resumes its familiar gargoyle perch on the other side of the tower.

It will fail and fail again in the space of a second, by the distance of an inch. The pigeons keep coming to the tower. The peregrine bides its time.

Three Things I Learned At Sea (November, 2016)

Place and mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered. I cannot tell what this movement is except by recounting it.” (Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain).

Every year great shearwaters circle the Atlantic like an ocean current. When the temperature on Tristan da Cunha — the remotest permanently settled island in the world — dips in autumn, they head to the Atlantic coast of South America, turn north, cross the doldrums and keep on heading north until they reach the north-east tip of North America. As the northern summer turns, they circle across, passing Britain on their way down the eastern Atlantic, back to find spring on a wet speck of rock in the south Atlantic. Stop. Breed. Repeat.

I was last amongst them in 2014. Not on land but in a RIB — a boat that’s several feet too small in every direction to be comfortable — floating for 30 hours, five miles out in the Atlantic. Several thousand miles in front of me was the American coast: behind me the jagged peaks of Madeira, the tips hiding in clouds of their own making. Around me, great and Cory’s shearwaters sat on the sea, waiting. The birder term for it is rafting — when they look like oversize ducks on the biggest of ponds. They took off, unfurling their wings, slapping feet on sea, and transformed. Their wings are long, thin and stiff. With them they catch the breeze like sails, and skim across the tops of waves. A stray wave, something irregular could wash them away, yet it never seems to happen.

The meaning of trip’s experiences are still slowly unfurling, like a shearwater’s wings, over time.

***

Pterodroma petrels are birds of myth and mystery: what is not known about them vastly outstrips what is. The English name for the family is the “gadfly” petrels, which my dictionary says means “a person who annoys”. Though flippantly truthful, I prefer Pterodroma: ancient Greek for “winged runner”. Both capture the essence of the family, fleeting, elusive, frustrating.

Fea’s petrels were discovered in 1899 by Leonardo Fea. Not long afterwards, Zino’s petrel was first found — unknowingly — by Ernest Schulz. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Paul and Frank Zino rediscovered them breeding on the third highest of the Madeiran peaks, the Pico do Arieiro, where their mournful wailing haunts the high peaks. They sing slightly differently to the Fea’s which breed on the Desertas Islands and Cape Verde*. Both species are rare: there are over a thousand individual Fea’s petrels. There are somewhere between 100-200 Zino’s petrels depending on how successful the breeding season is, and where the wild fires that strike Madeira burn. In 2010 only one chick survived: thirty-eight others and four adults were burnt alive.

I saw my first Fea’s distantly, briefly, underwhelmingly. It was an encounter loaded with an excitement that the sighting — fleeting, distant, disappearing in the gaps between waves — couldn’t satisfy. Like meeting a childhood hero. The second, several hours later, was better.

Seabirds harness the wind to fly. Shearwaters sail elegantly, slowly. Pterodromas spiral up, hit their apex, dip a wing and shoot seawards at a shallow angle, like following waves through the air. We saw this Fea’s coming from far off, stitching sea to sky. It is a fast flight. Deceptively so. In seconds it was beside us, arcing up, wings flexed forward. Dove-grey back and a fainter black line, zigzagging down the wings. Its tail is paler — the bird fading out. It’s head darker — black-eyed, black blunt bill. It dipped its wing and vanished.

I have a video of that encounter: ten seconds of meeting a mythical seabird. It still sends bolts of excitement through my nervous system.

It wasn’t until the second afternoon at sea that Catarina, behind the boat’s engines, spotted a Zino’s. She shouted: all idle chat stopped. A boat full of binoculars all drawn to one bird. It is essentially identical to a Fea’s. It swung up, reached its apex, and sheered down alongside the boat. It took all I could remember and all I could see to note the differences. The whiter underwing, the thin black bar running up it. The smaller, lighter size, the bill not so brutishly big, the flight that feels slower. It sheered behind the boat, between us and the high Picos of Madeira, before flying away over the waves. We all watched it until it disappeared over the edge. And as it disappeared the feeling was part relief — the trip a success, the birds still in existence — and part awe that they exist at all.

Yet. As I look back on it now it all seems tainted with metrics. It is not because of their essential similarity to the Fea’s petrel — the two species have a very different essences — but because rarity is a fact that conquers all. Fea’s may thrill but the experience of a Zino’s is difficult to separate out from their sheer vulnerability of their numbers.

***

The third day at sea. Both Pterodromas encountered, we sailed to a different spot. This time in the shadow of the Desertas Islands: two great lumps of abandoned rock that intervene into the sea’s horizon. We sailed out there with a super pod of more than 100 Atlantic spotted dolphins bow-riding, accompanying the boat down the coast of Madeira. A flying fish leapt in front of the boat, wings shining blue-green, tail-slapping the water as it went, as though it had evolved legs as well as wings and could never decide which it would rather use.

The day was hot and long. Birds were scarce but for the Bulwer’s petrels — bat-like in flight, impossibly slender, and much smaller than they look in the book — that were regularly flying laps around the boat. But it didn’t need to be a productive day. It felt valedictory: like we were content (smug) enough with what we had seen. Maybe it was the heat but I realised then that what I’d miss most from this was a three-quarter horizon of sea, rolling away until the edge of vision, essentially to infinity. A horizon of freedom, no obstacles and nothing hemming in. I felt then the urge coming over me that nothing would give me greater pleasure than to dive headlong over it; to be a great shearwater, always heading over endless empty horizons.

I resisted. If only because I can’t swim.

***

We stayed out until sundown. Behind the Desertas we were unaware that a fierce breeze had sprung up. We headed directly into it.

Waves thump into the boat and the spray breaks over us. Lips burn, eyes sting. The rolling crests of grey waves turn peach in the light. There is another type of wave: one we don’t crash over, but one we pitch into and skid over, with a momentary feeling of helplessness. A feeling of being suddenly at the mercy of the sea. The sun sets completely. Night unfurls. The boat has a tiny light, enough to make out the edges but not quite enough to see the next wave until it hits and I have to spit out a mouthful of seawater. I begin to notice other lights. Either side. Trawlers and small fisherman and buoys. The spray of a vicious wave. The lighthouse on the edge of the island. A plane’s headlights breaking through the night. A galaxy of streetlights strung out from Funchal to Canical, along the populated coast. The football stadium and the fish factories. The harbours and bars. The plane landing at Funchal international airport. I take my hat off and lean back and a voice whispers in my ear of the plough and other constellations. I see Madeira reflected in the sky. An unfathomable sky of distant stars and the smudge of Milky Way. I don’t want explanations. A dolphin breaches as we enter the harbour. A Cory’s shearwater circles under streetlights, calling, louder than the throb of distant parties. Spontaneous applause. Handshakes and smiles.

*A note about taxonomy. The Fea’s petrels of Cape Verde are the original Pterodroma feae. Those breeding on the Desertas Islands are thought by some to be a third species, Pterodroma desertas. Desertas differs only from feae in the measurements of its bill length and depth, tarsus, and, marginally, in the length of their wings. If desertas is proven to be a separate species, its population of 150 breeding pairs makes it eye-wateringly rare (and yet twice as common as Zino’s).

After the Fall (October, 2016)

Easterlies, decaying. Overnight rain. Early morning mist, lingering.

Chaffinches scattering from the gravel track to the cliff-top wood. Redwings seep out of the hawthorns and oak — some landing, some leaving. Other thrushes (blackbird and song) call quietly, seemingly several to each bush.

Gravel becomes mud. Light becomes shade.

In the heart of the wood is a strand of sycamores. I stand underneath, disturbing nothing, becoming like an adjunct trunk. In the heart of the sycamore, three goldcrests — six grams of feather, bone and muscle — flit about the canopy, foraging invisible insects from the undersides of rusting leaves. Migrants too. From, not just the woods of Belgium and the deep pines of Scandinavia, but from beyond the Danube, the Vistula, perhaps the Volga too? We are still working out from how far east our goldcrests can migrate in winter. An advance at least on the often repeated old folk-tales, that could only explain their crossings of the North Sea by them riding on the backs of short-eared owls and woodcocks.

The tree welcomes them, wherever they’re from. Food and shelter before the leaves are stripped back by November gales and they move on, once more, driven by the need for food and shelter. The mist has burnt off and the sky is deep autumn blue. The thrushes vanish. Skylarks head over, high, in singles. Flocks of goldfinch determinedly bounce south along the cliff-top. The world keeps turning. A leaf falls from the sycamore. The goldcrests keep flitting.

Field Observation of an Ocean Sunfish (September, 2016)

If I had stared until it made sense I would still be there now, rooted to that Cornish headland, rain-washed and blinking at it all. Blinking at its fin, a blunt triangular paddle, the same pallid colour as the rain that had swept over the bay in waves all day. Flapping with, I don’t know what, the tremor of the waves or the pleasure of a fish half out of water in the rain.

The waves washed it away. The fin disappeared in the grey dip between crests, only to surface a few feet further out. Fin and face, like a wind caught plastic bag drifting endlessly out to sea. I looked it in the eye, through rain-glazed binoculars, big and black and round. A plug-hole, soullessly expressive of depths and darkness unimagined. Unimaginable.

Ocean sunfish. Ocean-coloured sunfish. I knew it only by reputation. World’s biggest bony fish, world’s biggest niche creature. A once rare drifter in the warm water currents that now run like a river past the Cornish coast. I read later that it eats jellyfish and can reach a tonne. But it doesn’t look like that to me. It looks like nothing I have ever seen before – much less understood.