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Tuesday, 6 December 2011

A Game of Placid Beauty

This was how one chess grandmaster described game 6 of Bobby Fischer’s eventual win over Boris Spassky in 1972. Overshadowing any discussion of this tournament, which has now passed into legend, preserved only on grainy film images, is the knowledge that Fischer, who outwardly played a chess game of such reverent grace was inwardly pursued by a thousand demons; demons of genius, turmoil, narcissism and his own sense of hopeless fate. These were demons that were eventually to overtake his mind, forming a forward guard to the degenerative renal failure that killed him.

Watching Liz Garbus’ superb documentary on Fischer recently, I was reminded of Victorian studies of Dunnocks which, when published, shocked the naturalist establishment because they revealed nature not as a bucolic paradise, but as a place of savage struggles. What’s more, they were presented with a bloody struggle for survival that took nature beyond the imaginative limits of what they once thought possible as they gazed on the outward grace of birds on the wing.

Without wanting to sound to glum, it is the most natural thing in the world to die. Staying alive requires hard-won resources and a battling instinct. The truly awe inspiring fact is that the fight to stop ourselves falling into this permanent state is what makes life on earth infinite in its variety and wonder. Every animal and plant adaptation we count and codify is there for the reasons of being able to patrticpate in the struggle to simply not die.

This is a prosaic outlook but also provides a foothold into understanding what our relationship is with the wildlife that surrounds us: To know that the nictating eyelid of the gannet is a flourish of nature, put there to garnish the wealth of adaptations necessary to furnish his plunge-diving lifestyle as he searches for food; to dive into the desalinisation plant contained in the head of the arctic tern that means that the liquid he needs to live can be gained from an environment that would mean death to you and I. These and more are testament to why nature is not a game of placid beauty. It is bustle, purpose, fight, reach, stretch and death.

But, like the observation of any master perfectly discharging his craft with the knowledge that all is raging inwardly, these testimonies of nature’s bloody truth are not, and should never be, barriers to the appreciation of the beauty with which those truths are executed.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Memories are made of…the Weapon Focus Effect

During research for some writing I’ve become intrigued by the delicate interplay between emotion and memory and, moreover, how this manifests itself in our relationship with the natural world. Perhaps quite obviously, scores of cognitive psychologists have experimented with the effects of emotion on our memory and find that highly charged emotional reactions to experiences drive deeper markers into our memory than most ‘normal’ experiences.

The experiences we have, running on the cross-cut axes of whether they’re soothing or exciting, positive or negative, contain all manner of cues or stimuli that combine to help us remember something; whether that’s a simple connection between memory and birdsong or memory and love or more complex correlations, these are the things that web together to define what our memories look like.

But in 1959 one J A Easterbrook, in his cue utilisation theory, suggested that the more emotionally aroused we become, the fewer of these cues will hit home; only the principal, most stimulating elements of the experience will be encoded in our memory, while the peripheral details will become fuzzy and only lightly adhere. This was further defined by something termed the Weapon Focus Effect, where witnesses to violent crime can tell you what colour the knife was but cannot say whether the perpetrator was wearing a white tuxedo or a balaclava.

In recent times I’ve been unsure what my most potent memories of encounters with wildlife are made up of. I have publicly entertained theories that every cue and element of the experince has somehow been used and I’m still not convinced that it isn’t. But in all my many thousands hours spent in the natural world, feeling bucolic and sensitive but where nothing out of the ordinary happens then I can, with certainty, tell you that I was feeling relaxed. But couldn’t give you a single reason why I know that. This is because I don’t remember it.

Conversely, the times I have been visually bludgeoned by rampaging superpods of oceanic dolphins or incised with surgical precision by the vision of a stooping peregrine have hammered markers into my memory that are almost immovable. The weapon is permanently fixed in my mind. In some cases these are less markers than they are obscenely large, flashing neon signs. What’s more, the effect of the strength of these memories on my ability to recall them means I can escape to this Las Vegas strip of memory whenever I chose to debauch myself in all the finest sights and sounds of the planet has to offer.

But that leaves me with one more question: What might the lasting effect on us and the planet be if we were to arrive at a point where every encounter with the wild comes to us loud and clear regardless of its distance in time?

Friday, 4 November 2011

Reflected in my eye

I have been looking through the most recent portfolio of photographs from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year as well as some of the images in this year’s Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) annual exhibition. Moving well beyond the technical aspects of aperture settings, shutter speeds and compostion there isn’t a single one of these images that does not deliver revelations to the imagination as well as the eye.

The great achievement of these images of the natural world is that they grant us visions of the subject that we might not otherwise see, whether that’s in another, more conventional image or whether it’s in an actual encounter. Yes, there is no substitute for personal experiences of the natural world but in the hands of photographers and artists who are masters of their art then even the most familiar wildlife, encountered perhaps on a daily basis, is elevated to a different status.

Sometimes, the image says something about a place or a subject that we, if only we had the skill, had always wanted to say. We see and image and inwardly give a little cry of recognition: “Yes, that is what that animal is to me, they’ve ‘captured’ it!” Joyously, this also happens with the most abstracted images. Fields of poppies, the colours of leaves and pigment, reduced to their most basic shapes and colours give an extra dimension built of layers of emotional reactions to the natural world.

Just as the first photographers removed their lens covers to allow the image to burn onto the glass plate, the newly discovered connections that these images uncover for us, latch on to our consciousness. As well as helping us see the natural world in a different light, they can just as well grant us new visions of ourselves.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Latest Publication

Orion Magazine invite 4 writers every two months to share their experience of a landscape that's special to them. Click on the link below to read my piece from the November / December issue.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

I Smell Winter

I do not enjoy the height of summer. It’s true I am no sun worshipper but the summer, in all its drowsiness and listlessness seems, in some respects, so dead. There is nothing driving life on. Don’t get me wrong, few things are as pleasurable as a river in summer where light, reflection and colour show off their craftsmanship to dizzying effect. However, the world seems, perversely, to liven up as winter approaches with the urgency of migration and preparations for winter. Flocks are larger and noisier, mammals are louder, trees are showing off and everything becomes that much closer. Last year, the Quarry Cottages were wrapped in snow and I found this in one of the pages of the electronic diary I’ve been keeping.

“Dylan Thomas has reminded me to look at the ‘bandaged hills’ and I can see them as I type, the edges of the bandages picked out by hedgerows that disappear criss-cross into the fold of the combe. It is a stark but grey day and the falling snow produces that unique bright stillness that is peculiar to the north; light and perception are filtered just as the ice crystals stitched a vast lunar halo around yesterday’s moon. Anna and I stood at the front porch and looked at it and I wondered how such a prosaic phenomenon could produce such a poetic vision.

Icicles interrupt the top of my vision through the window and a brambling is flicking through the snow at the bottom of the bird table looking for the scraps that the dunnock has missed. Behind the stock fence at the side of the garden sheep, fairly distantly, gather round the steel manger of hay fed by the two dark tracks of a Land Rover. Closer to the fence four pheasants are, seemingly, idle in the white doing nothing but looking around nervously. The ancient apple tree, planted in all probability when the house was built has, on each apple, a cap of snow but fieldfares have pecked away at many of them. The buzzard perches stately on his favourite bough on the wood verge to the north and I imagine myself closer to him where I can see the large flakes of snow falling across his yellow iris. He sits on the edge of a small wood that was planted around the old quarry, now a lake.

Behind me, on the downs the short eared owls are probably hunting, as they do each winter. They are visitors here and they come to bob on their balsawood wings above the rank grass at the field margins. Everything here is close and the snow brings it closer. At first light on Sunday from our bedroom window we saw the solitary hare, potent and pagan symbol of all that is wild, belting across the pure white field.”

The verdict on winter? I am in love with the spring but it is this deepest season that really sends my senses racing. The stillness and intense quiet makes me feel more human than at any other time.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Owl vs. Goose: Winner Takes All

Our perception of the natural world continues to take its place as the virtue that divides mankind. But what these perceptions represent has changed and is changing.

Take the two images above: the one on the left is Egyptian and, in an almost anatomically perfect way, depicts red breasted geese. The one on the right is from northern Europe and represents, in a highly stylised way, an owl. Both wrought by human hands, both produced around 2000bc. The striking differences do not need listing. But considering that the people that made these images were at the same point in human history how can they possibly be so different?

The differences in artistic culture that clearly exist between the two civilisations is not the point; these images speak of different attitudes to the animal. That the same human hands can see similar animals and yet reproduce them so differently suggests a divide that, in a different context, still exists today.

One the one hand we have something that is elemental, almost god-like in its appearance; simplified and, to a certain extent, anthropomorphised with those very human shaped eyes. The owl is suddenly more than just a bird and becomes totemic, emblamatic of a fear or a reverence. On the other, a homage to the animal itself; represented in detail, in all its beauty. Not only shape and physiology but plumage and, in the background, the realist tufts of its natural, marshy habitat. The geese, then, are not symbolic but represent a certain prowess in depicting the natural world.

These perceptions are no less acute in today’s world but exist in more highly evolved permutations, few of which seem exclusive. There are those whose reverence towards the natural world borders, or sits entirely within, a spiritual boundary, a boundary into which (in some cases) few rational incursions take place. Others may occupy the DMZ where scientific understanding diplomatically mixes, sometimes uncomfortably, with an unabashed enjoyment of the wild. Still others will take a road that continues to gaze upon the environment as nothing more than a wilderness to be tamed or a resource to be exploited.

It may be true that perception divides us. A more terrifying thought is that the balance in which our planet is said to hang may depend on which perceptions come to dominate human thought.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The Great Gig in the Dry

If he's not advising governments and conservation organisations on what to do to feel closer to the animals they're striving to protect, or writing another knock-out essay on human-animal interaction then the legend that is Jim Nollman can probably be found with a guitar on the deck of a boat, trading chops with a killer whale.

For longer than I've been alive Jim Nollman, David Rothenberg and the rest of the good people at interspecies have been peeling back the babel-like layers of language that have built up between humans and animals over countless years. And as they do they're not only unlocking secrets about how these animals communicate and why but also opening a door for us to realise that the distance between us and wildlife is shorter than popularly supposed.

We have fallen into the habit of being the observer. We seem to have set ourselves apart as a higher mammal that is there to keenly describe the relationships that exist between animal species. Indeed, we seem to think it an imperative. But amongst the sheaves of descriptive text we may have neglected to leave space to understand and make use of the relationship between 'us' as one species and 'them' as another. 

The instruments that people like Jim Nollman use to 'talk' to animals like whales and dolphins are, to a certain extent, just a metaphor for how close we could come if we allowed ourselves to step outside of the confines of what fills the bell jar. Yes, it's true that animals such as the great whales are "gifted with extensions of the senses that we have lost or never attained" and are "living by voices we will never hear" but that doesn't mean that either voice is unintelligible to the other. We just have to adjust our sense of what's understandable. 

Thursday, 11 August 2011

NEWS: Latest in-print publication

Look out for the November/December issue of Orion Magazine where one of my short pieces will be published.

Monday, 8 August 2011

All watched over by machines of loving grace

I’ve been reading about the perturbation effect. And I am perturbed.

The perturbation effect occurs when an intervention to control something creates the opposite, an increase in that which is trying to be controlled. This has come up in the badger culling debate where the original study showed that attempts to contol the badgers meant that the animals became ‘perturbed’ and ranged further away from their home territories, thus increasing contacts with more cows and thus increasing the incidence of bovine tuberculosis. Or, to put it another way, they get afraid of all manner of human-induced crap and run away, fast. But, badger fans, easy on those hammers, because this isn’t about your stripey friends. This is about us.

We all have our limits and we can quickly reach a saturation point that means that we feel we have to escape disturbances and move to a different place. And that place is so often wild and natural. We frequently refer to our brushes with nature, whether it be a countryside walk, a bit of birdwatching or a determined trek into wilderness, as being part of an ‘escape’. An escape from the pressures of everyday life, escape from the idiots at work who ring you only to ask if you’re on the phone, escape from the relentless pile-up of technological barriers put there in the name of progress. We’re perturbed. And this is both wonderful and tragic.

Wonderful because we still recognise its necessity. Incongruously we place ourselves in exposed and wide open spaces to find sanctuary because it’s a place where the modern predators no longer stalk us. They migrated to the cities long ago and we can be left alone to forge links that have become weakend over time.

Tragic because, for the majority, we now treat these experiences as unique and ones that have to be sought after. It takes effort to experience them and needs a concious plugging-in of the wires that connect us to the natural world. But when we do, those connecting wires sing with a thousand messages.

All things considered, there has to be another way. It seems that if we can find a way to experience (or at least feel) our place as one of the planet’s species regardless of our time and place then that’s better than feeling the need to escape when things become too much. Ahead of his time, in 1960 Kenneth Allsop said it best. "In this technologically triumphant age, when the rockets begin to scream up towards the moon but the human mind seems at an even greater distance, anger has a limited use. Love has a wider application, and it is that which needs describing wherever it can be found so that we may all recognise it and learn its use"

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Old Whatsisname

I will confess to you now, I did once use the latin name of an animal in a conversation but, and I wish to make this absolutely clear, I didn’t inhale.

It’s true, that in scientific names lies a kind of poetry but, like bardic Welsh, it has a meter and a scheme that only a few people can truly unlock. And if they choose to try and do so, its carefully constructed rhythms stand at risk of being butchered. If that happens with the beautiful and primal Welsh language you get covered in phlegm. If it happens with scientific names one can come across as, to use a technical phrase, a bit of a tool.

It’s also true that in those names lies an originality, something vestigial and primitive; these were names granted before some scientific truths were uncovered and as a result they can be wonderfully evocative of their time. Take the Tawny Owl for instance: Stryx aluco. I’ve heard tell that this means Brown Witch. And to spend time in the dark of a woodland listening to their screeching and tumbling calls is to be reminded why nature may have appeared so unsettling to the people who first thought to call them witches.

But on the whole, it’s the common names of things that hold the real power because they hold a more personal place in a recognisable language: The cloaked minor, the vestal, ingrailed clay, the uncertain, white satin, pale prominent or oak lutestring. Poems all. These are the names which the pastoral moth collecters of previous centuries have left with us, the use of the word ‘the’ as part of the name lending the moth a familiar but imperious air. So which would you rather have, The Gothic or Naenia typica?

The botanists and ornithologists were prose poets too. I want to stumble across ploughman’s spikenard, touch the stem of the rue-leaved saxifrage and be repulsed by stinking iris. I could also wax lyrical about the churring call and soft-as-breath dusk flight of Caprimulgus vociferus or Caprimulgus carolinensis but (while in the USA at least) I’d rather talk about the beauty of the onomatopoeic Whip-poor-will and Chuck-will's-widow, just two of that country’s enigmatic nightjars.

The odd thing is, I envy my scientific colleagues that can catalogue latin names in their mind as easily as they can the names of their children. And, before I appear too hard on them, for the majority of named species it’s absolutely necessary given their tiny size and vast family trees. But I will probably always reach for the accessible, the familiar. After all, it’s the same name that was called out in identification by the people who stood in the same spot a hundred years ago and that’s a powerful continuum.

Friday, 8 July 2011

NEWS: Latest on-line publication

A short piece based on my latest post below is now one of the featured posts at Orion Magazine:

The Writing is on the Wall

Could you deconstruct and describe the sensual ingredients that make up why being outdoors makes us feel a sense of wellbeing? I’m not sure. Probably not.

But on a particular part of the Wash there is a wall. It is the sea wall. It is a barricade, there for your protection. It’s here you can go no further. You have to stop the car, climb the bank by grabbing the tussocks of grass and look out over the marsh. And most of the year it is a marsh, covered only by the sea at the spring and neap tides.

And that’s what we called it: The Marsh. In the village where I grew up this place is what is meant by The Marsh. It certainly isn’t The Seaside. The Seaside is amusement arcades and ice creams and promenades. It isn’t The Coast, either. The Coast is cliffs, spits and crashing waves. This is The Marsh; unnamed and unnameable. On one side of the sea wall are the fields and on the other side is The Marsh. And only now (having lived away for so long) I wonder why this is. I also wonder whether all of the villages around the wash call their section of creeks and wind The Marsh.

But what a place. It was here that I saw my first marsh harrier. Here that I swam in the salty cuts and picked up salty gashes. Here is where we collected samphire and here that every ingredient of the sheer experience of being out of doors is driven home by a sensual assault.

The salt marsh provides a gluttonous visual diet of greens and huge pulsating bundles of waders and geese rolling their way across the mudflats. Your nose can take in the salt of the mud and under your feet and hands you can feel either the sharp edges of coastal grasses or the slippery but unforgiving marsh mud with its black core and brown skin. This is big sky country and the utter flatness creates indescribably vast and distant cathedrals of cloud. The sorrowing curlew calls. In your ears roars a wind arriving, almost without interruption, from the steppes. Any stunted hawthorns lean landwards and you know what Sylvia Plath meant when she wrote that “the wind Pours by like destiny / bending Everything in one direction.”

It’s a place like this that teaches you what to be aware of. Everything here is so immediate and definite. Everything here is without compromise, softened and blunted by nothing. It magnifies all your senses. Makes you realise they’re there and what they’re for. It forces you to count each wave of experience. And instinctively we assimilate them to create a feeling for which, frustratingly but joyously, we can count and name the components but cannot begin to describe. And it probably doesn’t matter that we can’t. Because for me it’s the sea wall, for you it will be somewhere different. All that matters is that the place exists for everyone. Go back there and enjoy the indescribable.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Where the Wild Things Are

I’m not abundantly blessed with patience. Now, when I read that back it suggests that patience comes in at number 3 or 4 (or at least in the top ten) just below tenacity and understanding. The fact is that me and patience aren’t really acquainted at all. We probably met once but it would have been at a party where the music was very loud and we didn’t get beyond asking each other what we did for a living before politely excusing ourselves and going off to talk to more interesting people. No. It’s safe to say that I’m not the most patient person in the world and the good people who know me are currently exchanging knowing looks. This sometimes manifests itself in a splenetic fury over the smallest things. OK, it’s usually tinted with irony and is more of a rant than real anger but some people can be really annoying can’t they!

So what is it that allows me to spend many a fallow hour staring out to sea in the hope of seeing a whale or a dolphin? I’ve spent less time buying a house than I have staring at a seemingly empty void. So what’s different? I think I know. I think it’s the ocean. The Sea. The Raging Main. The Deep. Deep Blue. Davy Jones’ Locker. The Ocean.

I have never met a person who doesn’t think the sea is a wonderful place. Not everyone is happy to swim in it, paddle in it, dive in it, row across it or sail on it (all some people do is vomit in it) but in everyone there is an innate sense that it’s special. Think back to your days of childhood. I grew up very near the coast but, nonetheless, on family holidays it was a moment of pure elation when I could look above the green coastal verges and see the grey, blue, purple, turquoise, many-coloured sea for the first time.

For me, for us, for the whole human race it continues to be a thing of wonder; an undiscovered country where stuff we just don’t understand happens; where beings of infinite variety and impossible anatomy move and live as easily as we do on dry land. It also has the added quality of consisting of another medium altogether. Moving from the dry and open air into the water is more, much more, than walking from one habitat into another. Doing so, in our imaginations or in reality, is to step from something manageable and understandable into something where physical laws change. Standing on top of a mountain we can perceive the height and depth of where we are. Floating on a boat over the deep blue we have no such conceptions and our normal senses of position no longer work. Our perception of our environment involuntarily changes.

And this is no more acutely apparent, in my experience, than when we see the creatures of the sea from the largest wanderers such as the great whales to the smallest and most delicate petrels. Being out on the open ocean unbalances our internal and spiritual compasses. But that moment when the animal appears sets the needles of our compass spinning wildly, frantically. You just don’t know where to put yourself because these animals put out of kilter what our imaginations are able to deal with.

And that’s what defies my own impatience. I know that if I spend days out on the ocean without a glimpse of a whale or a dolphin or a specialist of the marine air then the presence of the great cataract of the sea beneath me and the mysteries of what abides there unseen and unseeable is a connection I can’t, and don’t want to, live without.  As the source of ancient first life, the home of the planet’s most majestic residents and a place of fear and wonder the sea is, in one man’s words “the great unifier, man's only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: We are all in the same boat."

Thursday, 13 January 2011

What would you say?

I read a great news report just yesterday about a postgraduate student who works for the charity Froglife. She’s just been funded to undertake a project which seeks to understand how biodiversity and our relationship with wildlife has changed within living memory by collecting oral histories from people. Imagine that. Recorded memories of what people remember about the wildlife of their childhood and younger years.

Now what a beautiful idea that is. How many times have we or someone else, seen something and said “I haven’t seen one of those for years!” Now, we could be talking about anything there. A mangle, for instance. But this is about wildlife. What a powerful thing it is to understand how the most detailed threads in the web of life have changed in recent decades through the feelings and thoughts of people who have lived and died in the environment. That not only provides a clue as to what is no longer there but, from a conservation perspective what should be there. But best of all, it will (I sincerely hope) show how our attitudes to the animals and their environment have changed and why they’ve changed.

So what would you say? If someone stuck a microphone in your face and pressed record what memories of your changing observations and attitudes to your natural world would you pass onto the next generation?

Would it be as simple as remembering the large flocks of house sparrows that are no longer around? Would it be how you felt when you saw your first fox hunt? Or how you felt when you saw your last? Would it be to remember skylarks over the allotments? Or otters on the river whose banks are now roads called Kingfisher Avenue? Would it be the childhood elm trees that are almost nothing more than memories in today’s Britain? The loss of the hedgerows near your house that were once so numerous? Will it be freely accessing land or coastline that you can no longer access? Will it be the feeling that there was once a bird that sang in the hedgerow? Or will it be the memory of how you didn’t used to see so many buzzards or red kites as you do now?

As such, I don’t expect it will all be a litany of loss and mourning. I think it will be a rich collection of differing feelings and changing times for good and bad in equal measure. Whatever memory it is you’d choose to leave then please leave it and make sure it really means something to you because that, surely, is the only true measure of its value.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The Return of the Native

If I was asked to pinpoint the moment and species where I learnt by heart my first birdsong then that’s an easy one: Skylark, allotments. Now that’s no great achievement for a person of any age unless they happened to be deprived of vision and hearing because the Skylark is one of natures great show-offs; singing and careering around the sky for the pure joy of it. It happened in this wise…

When I was growing up, in some kind of effort to save money, we had an allotment for a short while which was a shame because I think they were quite difficult to come by. But yes, the committee who looked after such things had dressed in their ceremonial robes and whilst burning incense in a back-room of the village hall and chanting the index of a seed catalogue had pulled my Dad’s name out of a jewel encrusted chalice. I don’t know much about these things but I’m pretty sure that’s how the allotment of allotments is decided.

The allotments were on the edge of the village and we had to drive to get there. The toil was predictable: hoeing, pulling, scraping, picking and planting. In order to make the work easier, at some point or other (and for an even briefer period) an old yellow rotary cultivator arrived on the allotment. This was inevitably, although I can’t be sure, purchased from ‘a chap I know’. ‘A Chap I Know’ was the absolute and unquestionable source of every second hand piece of dripping machinery that found its way to our house. Either Dad knew a lot of chaps or one particular chap used to sell us an awful lot of rubbish for not much money.

Now I’m sure you know what a rotary cultivator is but in case you don’t it’s the freakish and schizophrenic offspring of a clandestine three-way liaison between a lawnmower, a tractor and the man who invented napalm. It is a petrol-powered creature which you push effortlessly through the soil while to rotating blades coolly churn and till the soil. At least that’s the theory. This particular rotary cultivator was different.

The most popular sitcom on television at the time was Open All Hours. In this piece of very British comedy the miserly Arkwright kept his cash register draw so tightly sprung that it would nearly take the fingers off when closing. This particular roto-vator (to give it its generic name) was the Arkwright’s till of the village allotments. Goading this thing into life was a hazardous moment as it seemed to live on the edge of murdering its operative and any onlookers. My brother and I would be asked to stand well back at a safe distance while my dad tentatively primed the fuel, switched the choke and, heart-in-mouth drew the starter chord. If it fired then you had to be pretty quick because it would be off, dragging you uncontrollably through the potato rows. Once he’d managed to clamber onto the back of this marauding beast and tamed it by clicking it off then my dad would often stand back and, in a fairly weak effort to save face, admire the crazy network of barely turned soil running in a snake-like line over the whole area and say “Yes, I’m quite pleased with that. Excellent but probably enough for today.” These are pretty much my only memories of the allotments but for those skylarks. Those genre-defying skylarks.

I can remember, and the memory is fresh and strong, looking across the flat fenland in the blinding sunshine and hearing that song and my Dad telling me what it was that sang it. From then on the skylark was there, ‘dropping silver chains of sound’. The song of the skylark then became talismanic; forever associated with the fields, farms, the sky and that place. But that song, so difficult to describe or put into words, (and scores of poets have tried) is so easy to understand in its context. Since then I’ve seen thousands of skylarks perched on posts or sitting on the ground and I can recognise them as skylarks. But perched on a post it’s only half a bird, only a picture in the round view of the binoculars. Only when they take to the wing and hover high up, trilling their complex and dipping cadenza does it properly become a skylark, filling the whole space and showing us why it’s there. It shouts out to be admired and looked-at and heard. Once it’s in the air then binoculars are useless, or rather they should be abandoned, in favour of taking in the whole of the picture: the fields, the crops, the grass, the big big drifting sky and that sound. It is absolutely and indescribably part of the landscape. And it pushes me back in time thirty years to those allotments.

In more recent years that song and its presence or absence have become totemic of whether or not we’ve stuffed up our countryside completely. And to me, it’s also become a sign of whether I have my priorities right or wrong. Can I still make time to walk and sit and listen? Do I still have the ability to attune myself to the landscape and its inhabitants? If the answer to either of those questions is no then I’m in trouble. Big trouble.