Hawkeye (September, 2016)

My favourite sentence in JA Baker’s The Peregrine is “The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there”.[1] It comes at the start of chapter two, where Baker turns his attention towards a discussion of what a peregrine is and the data of his observations. The methodology, if you like, behind the book’s slow unhinging from the human world, to that of the falcon’s. It is my favourite sentence not because it encapsulates the bird or the book in its entirety but because it encapsulates the writing. You can read The Peregrine many times and it will change and shift. You will notice new things, new sentences, overlooked details. It is like going birding, repeatedly in the same spot, and seeing different birds every time.

I spent the summer working with The Peregrine exploring the archive of pollution in its writing, within the toxic context of writing about polluted places. As usual at the end of a long project I can’t retreat back into books. Instead on holiday with my partner and her family in Cornwall, at the wet, salt-glazed selvedge of England, we retreated into wildlife and the basic elements. Sea breeze, salt air, granite and heather again. We found three peregrines. A big adult female skimming the fields between Cape Cornwall and St Just. A bulky swarthy juvenile bludgeoned through a rainbow off the Lands End cliffs. The most spectacular was another juvenile, a small tiercel, tussling with a raven: stooping at a bird it couldn’t possibly catch, flashing its talons, carving up the air every side of it. The raven rolled over, raised its claws and barked. The falcon thought again and circled through the air, tucked its wings in and fell to earth like a dead weight.

I never saw if it was a successful stoop. I think it probably wasn’t – it is not the first time I have seen a young peregrine repeatedly circling, hassling and stooping over prey it has no hope of catching, as if it was playing, practicing, sharpening its reactions on the whetstone of actual living prey. At the same time, if I hadn’t seen it, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. Peregrines playing with ravens? Yeah right. Once a birder, always an incorrigible sceptic.

When I first read The Peregrine I regarded it as the ornithological gospel truth. The second time I read The Peregrine I thought it was an extraordinarily written piece of fiction, unavoidably stringy (string: the birding slang for made up, hoax observations). Ever since then, every time I read it, I change my opinion about it. My inkling is that its more contentious observations will eventually be proven true, or at least possible. In the past few years urban peregrines have been recorded hunting woodcock after dark, which Baker mentions. I recently came across a short paper about a peregrine hovering – again behaviour mentioned by Baker that I had in the past regarded as being impossible. These behaviours might be really there, but the hardest thing to see. Baker is, in the terms of Immanuel Kant, an “enlightened” observer – committed to the truth of his own impressions, observations and thought, without relying on received wisdom – or myth.

Yet the question of authenticity and Baker never goes away, though I dearly wish it would. Nothing is gained or taken away by pronouncing on the veracity of a text with a rubber stamp of truthful authenticity or fiction. That is as bad as people who would reduce the text to being about one thing, confidently pronouncing on the meaning of The Peregrine as if it was a fixed, easily pigeonholed story.

Having spent the summer exploring it as a depiction of its time and place, I still think it’s a pre-eminent example of a portrayal of a landscape poisoned by “the filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals” (15), a place where for the falcons “foul poison burned within them like a burrowing fuse. Their life was a lonely death, and would not be renewed” (118). Derek Ratcliffe, the naturalist who discovered the eggshell-thinning effect of DDT, wrote in his monograph The Peregrine Falcon, that had the decline of the peregrine in the 1950s and early 60s continued unabated, “extinction of the Peregrine in Britain could have occurred by 1967”[2] — the year when The Peregrine was first published. It is important not to forget this, or forget about the persistence of chemicals in the environment. Due to DDT’s chemical stability it remains present in the environment to the point where in 2002 still “No living organism may be considered DDT-free”.[3]

Baker’s writing persists due to its potency. In its synthesis of science and poetry it is, I think, unparalleled – a pre-eminent example of how to write about nature. Six years ago when I first read of his aim to follow the peregrines of Essex “till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye” (41). I thought, for six years, that deep fovea was just a poetic expression of the materials of vision, one with a nice tang of Romantic mystery about it. It wasn’t until a week ago, reading Tim Birkhead’s excellent Bird Sense that I discovered falcons have two foveae. The fovea is the part of the retina where the visual image is sharpest. Where a bird has two, one works for close up and one does distant vision. In Birkhead’s words, “the deep fovea… acts like a convex lens in a telephoto lens, effectively increasing the length of the eye and magnifying the image to provide very high resolution”.[4]

The hardest thing of all to see… Baker attracts light. Writers Robert Macfarlane, Mark Cocker and the academic David Farrier have all discussed Baker’s prose in terms of light – as luminous, or flaring – as well as his use of light. Where we have light, vision follows. Macfarlane also describes Baker as having “an obsession (ocular, oracular) with the eyeball”,[5] adding that “One of the many exhilarations of reading The Peregrine is that we acquire some version of the vision of a peregrine” (154). The more I learn about peregrines the more I realize the extent to which Baker’s writing embodies them. Further and deeper than just the aerial perspective Macfarlane talks about. Baker’s writing is like the magnified, high-resolution vision of the peregrine’s own deep fovea.


[1] J.A. Baker, The Peregrine (New York: New York Review of Books, 2005), 19.
[2] Derek Ratcliffe, The Peregrine Falcon (London: T&AD Poyser, 1993), 324.
[3] Vladimir Turosov, Valery Rakitsky, Lorenzo Tomatis, ‘Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT): Ubiquity, Persistence, and Risks’, Environmental Health Perspectives, V. 110, No.2 (February 2002), 125-128 (125).
[4] Tim Birkhead, Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird (London, Bloomsbury, 2012), 17.
[5] Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2015), 141.


Norfolk: Nature Writing and Brexit (25/06/16)

A marsh harrier calls from a storm-cloud strewn sky. A cat-like mewing from high, so high up it took me longer than usual to spot its grey wings disappearing in clouds. It called again, tucked its wings in and dived. At the bottom of its dive, it swung up — somersaulted through the air — and dived again. Skydancing in June. It disappeared over the far side of the reeds that rippled like water in the breeze. Two juveniles took the male’s place in the sky, one with food, the other tussling for it. Presumably the offspring of the male; I can’t explain the skydancing. Raising young takes the whole season and raptors usually only have one brood a year. BWP later tells me that they will display if an unpaired female ventures into the male’s territory.

Underfoot, a grazing marsh which after a week of torrential rain was sodden. The peat is springy and sprouting purple marsh orchids. Damselflies flickering into life from reeds beside the ditch — sudden sparks of blue that disappear on rest. Norfolk hawker dragonflies patrol these ditches, their beat a constant, rhythmic back-and-forth just above the levels of the reeds.  They hover at the end, wings too fast for the eye to see, bulbous green eyes glistening. And I wonder if they can see me and know I’m something other than the highland cows at the far side of the marsh, clinging to the drier ground.

***
Retreat is not defeat.

The consolation of nature is a phoenix — every time it is killed off as an idea it comes back again, re-emerging as something new. Ever since nature became something to enjoy, instead of something to fear, fight, tame or cultivate, it has been used to echo human feelings. Hence we have pastoral literature and elegy depending on whether you were celebrating or grieving. Darwin posed a problem, but only once Tennyson had ‘faltered where he firmly trod’, writing roughly a decade before evolutionary theory: ‘Who trusted God was love indeed / And love Creation’s final law — / Tho’ Nature red in tooth and claw / With ravine shrieked against his creed’ (I.M. LV-LVI). But nature is bigger and more complex than that. The war poets invoked English landscape, in part to remember what they were fighting for, in part for escapism from a world breaking apart around them. In the mid-twentieth century things got melancholy and angry. Nowadays we know that nature is more beneficial for mental health than anyone could have guessed. This is a general gloss, of course. But there is another way that retreating into nature is beneficial.

On Thursday Britain voted to leave the EU. The pound plummeted to its lowest rate in my lifetime. I was born in recession, left school in recession and now my future, at my glummest moments, looks like it will be one long recession too. I fear for my ecologist friends whose jobs depend on EU money and EU environmental law. I fear for the Thames estuary, for which European environmental law stopped it from being turned into an airport.

It is often said that we live in a post-truth age. Post-truth politics and post-truth media. These phrases imply there was a time when this wasn’t the case; when everything was something other than rival, competing narratives. Beauty is not truth – not necessarily anyway – but beauty is a reminder of the fundamental importance of the world around us. I don’t think we live yet in a post-beauty world.

On Thursday as the news of the vote was sinking in, I was miserable beyond belief. I was tapping into my inner Tennyson. All was woe, despair, and plotting dream emigrations. I’d head off to Sweden, Iceland, Canada, anywhere but here. Then I walked out into an unbearably hot afternoon, muggy to the point you could wade through the thick air, and by a shallow fast flowing river I found a colony of banded demoiselle damselflies. I watched them for what felt like hours, flitting from reed to reed, four wings flapping slowly, uncannily like how you’d imagine a fairy would fly. I watched them change colour: blue to green, dark to bright depending on the light, and angle and action. I was reminded that there was beauty in the world, and the importance of it — and not just for the state of my mind. And that the environmental protection that EU law afforded protects not just them but the farmland surrounding the stream, and the mid-Suffolk arable aesthetic ideal. I was reminded that everything is political. 

Nature writing can feel like an ineffectual response at times. A luxury. Rhapsodising while the turtle doves vanish and the economy sinks. But it is also fundamental and in the light of our vote for isolation, I think we need it more than ever: a close focus on ‘nature’ (howsoever you wish to define and use that word), beauty and the often hidden, often elusive, stories behind it. The difference one person behind a desk can make to the existence of a species is an important story. But so is the sheer beauty of it, how it makes us feel and behave: the fundamental reason behind why so many of us love the environment.

I am terrified for the future of our environment. But now, while we still have orchids, odonates, marsh harriers, clean beaches and migratory wildlife, we need to write about them, and the love of them, before they become forgotten things.

***

Nature doesn’t much care for borders.


The group of waders called ‘knots’ get their name from Canute: trying to hold back the tides that the birds race and forage in. The red knot were mostly birds that had failed to breed successfully in the high Arctic, either in Greenland or the far north of Russia. A great knot – the fifth record for Britain – was what the lines of twitchers were parsing the flock for.

I spent yesterday afternoon and evening on Norfolk beaches trying to find it. The afternoon at Brancaster, under a fierce sun broiling the air and turning the distant wader flocks into a singular grey smudge, warping and melting a pair of spoonbills in the heat haze. Clean golden sand. Clean sea. The evening was spent at Holme, feet half-sinking in and sloshing in the tidal flats. Behind us, in the dunes, a turtle dove purred, and a storm cloud darkened the horizon. When the great knot appeared, out from behind a clump of seaweed the excitement travelled down the line of assembled birders. Instructions barked out, reactions whispered: fifty people united in glee. 

The great knot belongs in summer in the far north east of Siberia. Upon departing the tundra they migrate the length of Asia, to spend their winter in the Australian summer, forming giant flocks on beaches. Or, occasionally, getting that mammoth migration wrong by 90 degrees and landing in the right habitat, with a similar species in the wrong hemisphere.

Nature doesn’t much care for borders.

Stag (June, 2016)

You fly like a man drowning. Frantically paddling, wings out of sync, legs akimbo, worried faces. Trajectory: downward. Down on to the stillness of your back.

Our natural reactions are to stay motionless — completely still — in the face of danger. But being on your back at the bottom of Lewisham station stairwell is not where you evolved to be. Lewisham evolved around you. While you crept out at night from the dead wood pile, drunk on hormones and ready to wrestle, a city was built around you. Concrete towers grew tall and were felled. Metal and glass towers grew in their place. You stayed.

We guard you. People rush past, fear of the beetle in their eyes. We flip you the right way with our tickets. Your grappling hook feet still thrash for grip. Your movements jerky, like a clockwork toy that can’t quite get going. Antennae waving — four points on the end, like fingers reaching out to hold onto air. Between your shields, gilt edges.

Down the stairs comes the only other person not afraid. He looks at us. Nice stag beetle, he says. They’re rare now. We shepherd you to the edge. The bright lights behind you, the thick dark night of the undergrowth ahead. Your antlers twitch.

On Orford Beach, after Sebald (November 2015)

The lighthouse edges closer to the North Sea. It will go the way of Slaughden, five miles north of here and sixty two years a relic under the sea. Or perhaps like Orford harbour, suffocated by shingle. Nothing lasts forever on the shifting stones of Orford Ness. The waves made this sculpted shingle spit, the waves remake it and the waves take from it too. Underfoot it crunches like the waves that break upon the shore. Rain. Leaves, miles from the nearest tree, are blown on the wind. A hare skims over the shingle crests like tumbleweed. Tumbleweed, that is, that hunkers down to the stones behind the sickly green sea kale and disappears completely.

To disappear completely in a landscape that could be drawn like an architect’s plan, a landscape of regular lines and flat horizons would seem difficult. Even with the weather settling in, when either end of the spit disappears into the greyness of distance, the in-between space seems impossibly open. But the repetition of shingle and its undulations played a trick on me. The dappled colour, the pointillism of the land warped my eyes. I felt the shingle rising, floating around me, a disorientation in the way that no shingle beach had done to me before.

The walk around Orford Ness takes you back to the military huts across the salt marsh channel on a bridge with no sides, along a ribbon of broken concrete.

I am beckoned into the dark. Laboratory four. My eyes adjust to the green and the dust and the dirt. A bone lies in the corner, dully shining. I pick up a hard hat from the pile. On one wall paint is cracking and peeling, like a layer of lichen; the ceiling camouflaged by the creep of algae across the concrete. With the guide I descend down a crumbling, darkened set of stairs, handrail flaking rust, to the bottom.

He explains. They call these the pagodas. The overlapping concrete roof, raised on columns with a dome of wind-sculpted shingle on top gives them the look of a religious building. The reason for this is because the roof is designed to break apart. The high windows blow out, the columns give way, the concrete breaks in the middle and the shingle pours in like a waterfall, sealing the building and whatever remains inside.

An instant tomb. A shingle sepulchre.

Everything else is, apparently, a mystery. Geiger counters suggest that nuclear material was not tested on site, though the evidence that does exist says that the explosive triggers that cause the nuclear reactions in atom bombs were. It’s hard to tell anything from the evidence left inside laboratory four: the walls are as high as a church, clad with metal panels with crucifixes cut out of them. Rusting veins of pipes still run. Of the numbers stencilled on the walls, the number 23 is the least faded.

23 years ago W. G. Sebald walked on the shingle here, feeling like he was passing through an undiscovered country, and though the feeling remains it is no long the same. The year after he came the National Trust bought the site and set about discovering it. Paths were made safe, cleared of the ordinance that still crops up, unearthed by the progress of shingle. Buildings were surveyed. Archives were explored, information collected, former soldiers spoken too. Truth is relative here. Story proliferates. I was told that the radar warehouse halfway up the Ness contains the wreck of a UFO found at Rendlesham and that the sea between here and Shingle Street was one day set ablaze — and charred uniformed bodies washed ashore. Allegedly.

This is not the same National Trust that does tea rooms in manor halls. The manners here are decay and entropy, its spirit not tamed, its truth still elusive. A progressive preservation of a place that — without celebration or judgement — has become a museum to Suffolk’s small part in mutually assured destruction. A museum to the apocalypse that it nearly caused. 

23 years ago, knowing only that it was once the site of military testing, Sebald felt that he was ‘amidst the remains of our own civilisation after its extinction in some future catastrophe’. A place that eluded him and his all knowing voice. It eludes still. 

I come over clammy, claustrophobic in the dark of laboratory four. The weight of shingle on the roof oppresses, the certainty of a building designed to smother and suffocate completely. Back out in the bright light of the cloudy day, amongst the ruined outbuildings, wire shells and sprawl of brambles, I can breathe again.

In the shelter of one of the buildings sits the casing from an old nuclear missile, a collection of military signs, and photographs of soldiers. In the doorway a garden cross spider trailing silk, manipulates its back legs and weaves its web from the outside in. From the brambles strewn among the huts a goldcrest forages, gleaning invisible insects from the thick clumps of leaves and thorns, its crown of gold glowing in the late afternoon gloom. It is the most alive thing on this almost island of the dead.

What will survive of us is not love but brambles, rocks and concrete. 3

Notes from the Hortobagy

Nagy. In Hungarian it means ‘great’, pronounced with a nasal ‘oi’ sound for the vowel, and with tongue to palette, spitting out the G sound. I can’t pronounce it the same way twice, but the result is surprisingly intelligible to waitresses, bar staff and our guide Tamás. It’s hard to know who is more surprised, me that it works or the locals who seem to be unfamiliar with English tourists trying.

***
Ahead of me is the puszta. The great Hungarian plain and the westernmost stretch of steppe in Eurasia. In the very distance — unfathomably flat and far — trees shimmer, shake and levitate, a fair distance above the clear sky swimming beneath. Clear spring skies. The air is hot and heavy. The soil says it hasn’t rained in weeks.

I thought I knew Hungary but I didn’t. Like it’s language, it never seems to stay the same. It is not settled, easy to master. I had it as Cambridgeshire on a vast scale: fen and farms. Flat, wet and traditionally kept — grey cattle, Racka sheep, the Mangalica pigs — an East Anglia with a better range of birds. I recently came across the poet C.P. Cavafy in a great piece by Amy Liptrot:

    You shall not find new places; other seas
    you shall not find. The place shall follow you.
    And you shall walk the same familiar streets

I was, the first time I was here, an East Anglian abroad in East Anglia: all wetlands and thin copses, and birds half-familiar. Though I did see a Black Stork and think it was, in that sun-addled moment of it sailing over on effortless wings, the most magnificent thing.

I was wrong. Away from the old fish ponds and reedbeds, there is a vast expanse of even older grassland. The flat sublime. A landscape impossible to take in in its entirety.

***

The woods here are not of nature’s doing. We drove up to one, firmly attached to the ground, though it probably levitates too if you look from the dusty red-roofed town on the edge of the horizon. Under communism swathes of the Hortobagy was dyked, irrigated and ploughed. Damage that is slowly being repaired. The trees that were planted here were, oddly, American. You can find Aspens with rookeries and Nightingales in them, and it is bizarre, incongruous and not as ecologically useless as you might expect. For although the Hortobagy is a natural grassland, these trees provide nesting grounds for lots of birds that would otherwise struggle, such as the Rooks. The Rooks have to compete with the Red-footed Falcons returning from the very south of Africa, who take over old Rook nests. In this hot, bare wood the Rooks croak. Spring is black and guttural. The falcons perched in the trees shriek like London parakeets. Grey males and orange females seeing the Rooks off their stolen nest-spaces and snatching insects over the grassland.

The grassland here is Sousliks scurrying, worrying amongst the brown waves and white ribbons of chamomile flowers. A Saker — large, so large — hunts overhead. Another of the Souslik’s predators, the Long-legged Buzzard, spirals on the thermals overhead. More of a fawn and orange than the Common Buzzards that sit on every fence and motorway sign here. The Sousliks never settle.

The falcon and the buzzard bear a familial similarity to British birds. It is a subtle exotic, the familiar yet different. It leads to a kind of uncanny birding where slight differences make different species, whilst the wagtail in the long grass has a blue-grey head, long yellow stripe above its an eye and is the same species as our Yellow Wagtail.


***

That night from the track outside our hotel on the edge of the Hortobagy, we watch a distant storm in the south west horizon. Lightning raking the sky. No rain falls on us, but the warm storm wind blows anyway. When the lightning flashes it lights up the serpent-like sidewinding of dust down the track.

The Nightingales sing regardless.

***

Two days earlier we were somewhere in eastern Hungary. Somewhere off the map in our hands, navigating by Tamás’s head into the land beyond the plain. If you had unfair stereotypes of Hungary, here is why they are manifest. A landscape of intensively farmed fields, flat and hedgeless. A colourless place and a ferocious sun — we drive past a man strimming the verge while wearing only his pants. For every absolutely gorgeous part of the country, Hungary has these places that feel neglected, run-down and unloved. We take a couple of minor roads and end up in the middle of a desert. A ploughed field that extends all around into a panorama of dust and dirt. There is no cover other than a few meagre, stunted trees by the road. All is arid and brown. A vision of over-farmed hell. An uncared for land.

‘When we discovered this place there were 50 pairs here. Now there are 2.’

It’s hard to imagine what 50 pairs of Short-toed Larks in song, rippling across this barren place would be like.

Tamás pokes the soil with his tripod leg.

‘They need this dry, dusty soil. They used to be a speciality of the Hortobagy but in parts it is under grazed and they don’t breed there now. Same with Kentish Plover and Collared Pratincole’.

The worth of a guide is that he can navigate to places like this. It begins to feel a little like cheating when after five minutes you’re watching half the Hungarian population of Short-toed Larks, crawling between the furrows, a tiny sandy speck in a vast brown plane.

***


The next evening it spits with rain. Grey clouds rolling in over the steppe, promising future storms. A big sky, bigger than I’m used to. We sought shelter by a ruined farm, riddled with bullet holes. We passed a T34 tank on a plinth by the road: a monument to the Battle of Debrecen, when the Hortobagy was a front for a tank battle between the broken and soon to be defeated nazis and the red army sweeping through eastern Europe. Or perhaps from the Soviet occupation of Hungary — the Hortobagy is just inhospitable enough for forced labour camps.

A Barn Owl detached itself from the farmhouse and slips into the gathering gloom. It is not used to people being there for large parts of the Hortobagy are restricted access and to get onto the plain requires a guide and is strictly policed. I have mixed feelings about this but it indisputably provides Great Bustards with the space to thrive — and all the other open grassland loving wildlife of the area.

The landscape is charged with absence. The bullet holes in the farmhouse chill. The trees have no leaves. There are no people, nobody working, other than lorries thundering past a road just visible on the horizon. It is a haunting, inscrutable place in these overcast moods. Not East Anglian in the slightest. Whilst we are stood there nothing arrives and nothing leaves. A couple of Roe deer bucks leap from patches of long grass to long grass, the only movement, the only thing other than a vast still quietness.

And then we pick out one, three, then six Great Bustards out in the grass. Not too far from the Roe Deer in size, a fabulously eccentric bird with a fanned tail that almost reaches its head, a tigerish mottled orange and black back, whiskers that fan out from its grey, turkey-like face. When it shakes, it ruffles its entire plumage, flashing white like a can-can dancer.

It is an absurd bird. A relic from Europe’s past as a flat and open and remote country; a bird for Europe’s future where places like this remain protected for their self-evident qualities. 4 Accent 6;

Wallasea Island (February, 2015)

I’ve recently been discussing landscape with a good friend and it has reminded me that my taste in landscape is an acquired one. She is excited to be among the baize and bone of chalk downland; I am thrilled by marshes, space and the absence of ‘landscape’. We both grew up in the same part of Suffolk. She turned inland in the search of English hills and I turned outward, looking for the edges. She thinks these marshes are boring. I think I get it from dad, who as a child asked to go on holiday ‘somewhere bleak’. I’ve always felt the same, as if taste in landscape was genetic and not formed from a patchwork of childhood memories involving seawalls and shingle beaches and ever-grey skies.
 
I mention this in lieu of explanation. It was dad’s fifty-something birthday and we were stood on the selvedge of a seawall, admiring the scimitar curve of Essex. We were stood on an island but it is almost indistinguishable from the mainland. Behind us: a yachting village the other side of the river. The Crouch washes the bank metres from our feet and stretches east, merges with the Roach and dissipates into the shallow muddy expanse of the North Sea. In front of us: Kentish power stations are dark smudges in the murk, the Thames hidden and betrayed only by ships apparently sailing through dry fields. The marsh is essentially a building site. It has yellow cranes and diggers — emblazoned with Hawk — spread across it. Here is where the dirt being dug out from under London by Crossrail is being shipped to and turned into a new island in the river. The island will be an RSPB reserve and the noticeboard has optimistic images of Spoonbills. While they have high hopes for here, politicians bicker over whether to build a Crossrail station over my local park.

If the new nature is that which we can find in the margins of our urban lives, then I guess this is the new old nature. The desolate and remote locations of old nature, but a nature made by diggers and trains instead of fences and signs. We can lose sight that nature is as often man-made as it is man-destroyed. And the wildlife? A Rough-legged Buzzard hung over the marsh, flickering wings and spread tail, showing its patchwork of peat and cream plumage. A Hen Harrier ghosted low along the ditches, terrifying partridges and a Marsh Harrier drifted higher over the wetter areas, worrying the wildfowl. They do not care about the diggers.

But the real highlight was the Corn Bunting. In a crop field by the car park we found one. Dumpy, streaky and very brown, it is what is thought of as a birder’s bird. We found another, and another, until the crop field was alive with birds moving amongst the leaves. The flock was at least 100 strong, which would’ve been unremarkable 100 years ago. Perhaps even 50. But since then they’ve declined by 90% throughout Britain. A bird that used to be so local that populations 30km apart could sing with different dialects, they are the canary in the coal mine of British agriculture. I hadn’t seen this amount of Corn Buntings in my entire life, before today. I wasn’t even aware such gatherings happened in the 21st century.

And I remember when I last saw a Corn Bunting. I was a couple of miles into the Sussex downs with the same friend who is now so excited to be moving there. It had rained all morning and we were on the top of the green escarpment. Around us the landscape seemed like a dream of genteel Englishness, a period fiction of the past. From a manure dump a Corn Bunting sang its tuneless jangle. It looked as though it could’ve been shaped out of a lump of soil and straw, earth magicked to life. I was excited. My friend was bored, irascible, thoroughly uncharmed. Evidently an acquired taste.

Wicken Fen (01/01/15)

Hoar frost forms as a sub-zero dew, on bitter still nights under the stars. It is the architecture of temperature and moisture: a crystalline fragment of frozen water like glassy barbed wire. On fenland afternoons when the blue sky lies about the temperature, the hoar clings on to the links between the boardwalk slats, out of the sun and beyond the reach of errant footsteps. Breath still condenses around our faces. The track away from the boardwalk is thinly iced and deeply puddled. We turn back with the ice cracking around our feet above puddles deeper than our boots. Between the reeds and the lode runs a thicket of hawthorn and tangled guelder rose bushes. A mob of Fieldfares descends from the clear sky on to them, as unruly and noisy as drunks at closing time, squabbling over the best of the pale red berries.

The fens. A landscape made by man. The extent of green and brown and water may deceive but the spirit level horizon and ruler straight lodes remind you that this was once below sea level. It is a landscape you can put a precise date upon. Wicken Fen is also precisely datable: from 1899 when the first patch of land was bought and set aside as one of the first nature reserves in Britain. Fenland is a young habitat too, requiring constant management to ensure it doesn’t dry out or succeed into scrub or woodland. The sea of reeds in front is a landscape that is kept permanently young, younger than its 115 years. 

The sea of reeds gently sways in the slightest of breezes. Spider silk shines against the light, joining reed head to reed head. I shiver. I’ve been coming here since a child and I have no warm memories of the place. I have memories of seeing my first Barn Owl on a family walk down the lode, wellies ankle deep in snow. It was spotted first by my mum, flying towards us. She thought it perhaps was a swan at first. I’ve been here in summer and still felt a distinct chill sweeping over the landscape. I can hardly picture it in anything other than winter; half-frozen in still tranquility, full of the empty space and silence I crave.

The sun turned golden and lit up the reeds.

The tranquility lasts just a moment until the next step flushes a Blackbird with clanging alarm notes. The sun disappeared. A Hen Harrier drifted down a ditch. A young male. Young: the brown-streaked underparts were suffused with a golden freshness; male because the wings were glazed with a greyish-blue tinge. It is a bird that carries its own sense of drama. There are no underwhelming Hen Harriers, being physically imposing and the rarest raptor to breed in England. Winter in the fens offers them relief: easy pickings along the fields and lodes, safe roosting in the middle of undisturbed marshes. In summer they head to upland moors where — with the habitat for 300 pairs — four nested this year. Tagged chicks vanish. Adults get their legs crushed in illegal traps. Meanwhile an adult male joined the young male out over the marsh. The adult’s blue-grey plumage appeared as ghostly as its effortless movements in the cold light.

A blood-orange sun sinks out of the cloud, flares briefly and drops below the horizon. A clean air sunset. A Barn Owl quarters slowly into the gathering night

Lost (December 2014)

At the tip of Portland — an island that is not an island — is a garden that sits just back from the cliff top overlooking the English Channel. A cold wind blew under deceptively blue skies. In the garden was a Barred Warbler, a young bird that got lost on leaving Eastern Europe and ended up clinging to the last bush in Dorset. And stayed there, not trying to relocate to the rift valley of Eastern Africa where it belongs at this time of year. A wintering record in Britain is almost unprecedented. 

The first glimpse I had was of a disembodied bird in the back of a bush. Against the light, haloed and fragmented by twigs, I could make out the stout bill and tip of the tail surprisingly far apart. I was expecting a grey bird, but found a delicately silver one instead, with a keenly staring eye. It hopped out and the stout bird turns graceful, clinging to the thin twigs and contorting its body to dismember the fruit donated to it by local birders, which it vigorously guarded from the local sparrow flock. Over the course of about an hour’s observation it revealed a subtle charisma; a behaviour more akin to a bolshy thrush than a small Sylvia warbler.

We laud birds for their migration feats and characterise them as epic and heroic. With that though comes something quite human; they got lost. Whether by winds, misfortune or a misfiring migratory impulse, they become transient visitors, a temporary taste of somewhere exotic in the bleak last bush in Dorset. If an interest in birds is built around a pan-animal empathy, I empathise most strongly with these birds. The lost and the awkwardly out of place.

Spiders (October 2014)

Spiders in Acton are a sign of seasonal change. I’ve not experienced anything like it, nor lived anywhere like it since the age of seven, when I was ripped from the suburban housing estate comforts of Hertfordshire, and rerooted to an ugly working village in the middle of Suffolk. In that village there was space, and the privacy that comes with four walls separated from the neighbouring houses. I discovered birds. Cocksure Pheasants strutting through the garden, the raucous Rookery over the road and Fieldfares raiding the apple trees in the garden of my neighbour too elderly to pick them. The first Chiffchaffs of the year became important to me. It signified spring. Autumn by the sky filling with birds again after the summer lull. Juveniles of many species locating due south and sailing over. 

Last summer I moved to London. To a job in deepest west London, where the grey and beige seep from the sky and the concrete and color everything. I lost my horizon to the perimeter of the street. My sky was no longer so full of birds. In its place I found spiders. I found spiders straddled across my front gate in the murky half light of the morning, only I didn’t find them until I found them on my face, silk breaking around me and feelings of both disgust and guilt. Sorry little guy. We repeated it for two months, gradually decreasing in frequency until around November and the arrival of winter in the city. 

Winter isn’t a season worth celebrating in London: it is damp, mild and filthy, and its citizens match the gloominess of their surroundings. It is mild enough so that the Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps don’t have to leave, and this doesn’t give spring a headstart but spoils it’s grand arrival with the longer, brighter days. If the leaves never quite all fall from the trees than what is winter? Where does that leave spring?

So instead I celebrate autumn, and away from the countryside and coast that I grew up on, in and with, I’ve turned to spiders. I watch them on grey Saturdays as I wash away the past week with endless coffee. I learn their names. It seems the polite place to begin. The Garden Cross spider. With a name it can go beyond mere surface appearance. A surface that is stripy brown legs, alternating light and dark, with a crucifix of broken white stamped onto its abdomen. And I watch one weaving its web from the inside out, against the pale sky where the web can’t be seen, leaving her to space-walk slowly and purposefully, suspended by her own invisible lines. When woven the web is both intricate and massive, the size of the window looking out onto the garden. It collects a hoverfly and a small wasp, both quickly wrapped up in excess webbing and slowly deflated. A life transfusion. In it she finds the protein that gets metabolised into the white crucifix mark on her back

Meanwhile in the spiders I find a life that makes me feel better about being in the city. Amidst the rush that threats to drain the life out of me, I can still find new ways to mark the seasons, and keep in touch with the nature around me that’s different to what I’m used to in the country.

And then October. The spiders begin to fade away and the sky is pierced with the soft edged calls of Redwings and the clatter of Fieldfares amongst the traffic noise, jet engine roar, parakeet shriek and sirens, alarms and the hectic hurry. I miss the spiders just sitting there.

March 2014

Birds don’t sing with subtitles and I struggle to remember the identifying features of any birdsong for more than about five minutes. I’m deeply envious of the birders with a xeno-canto of the mind, as I can just about manage to hold twenty five species or so in my head at any time. For me there’s a reason why birder is a contraction of birdwatcher and not bird-listener. And yet…

March baked. The trees shook through the haze over heath. A Stonechat perched in a stunted Silver Birch, not quite in the brightest orange and black of its breeding plumage. Buzzards spiral high into the wind, surveying their territory over the Surrey commons; a fragment of the old English landscape. In the bones of a tree a lark sat. Not your typical lark. Through the haze of the telescope I could make out the salient details: black and white coverts on the edge of the wing interrupting the dull brown plumage, and a longer bolder stripe over the eye. A Woodlark. It is a classic boring bird. Important too: only 3000 or so pairs left breeding on the southern and eastern heathlands. And then it started to sing.

‘Teevo cheevo cheevio chee’

Initially tremulous – as if still warming up for the spring ahead – notes shaded the air. Then a torrent. At this distance the bill doesn’t appear to move, but stuck open directing its aria, descending through notes as blue as the sky, echoing.

Echoing. That’s what flicks the switch in my mind and it’s 2007 again. I am 15 and wandering the sanderling heaths of coastal Suffolk by myself. Cautiously, it’s spring, there might be Adders about. I found the heath by accident, following a track round from the adjacent estuary. It looked good habitat for Dartford Warblers, but I don’t see them. Instead, I enter a glade of pines and am struck by birdsong. The most intensely delicate, beautiful melody I had heard from a bird. And the volume! It seems like the exaggeration of memory, or of youthful exuberance but it filled the glade like a soloist in an opera hall. Volume and beauty. It moved that cold teenager — shy, and not much given to displays of emotions — to a moment of rapture. I never saw that Woodlark well, but I knew I would never experience one like it again.

The song from the bare tree fades, the lark flies to the ground and lands out of sight, but never out of mind.

It is a typical boring bird. One of my favourites.