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Wednesday, 4 April 2012

It's only rock and roll but I lek it


As a student of the natural sciences you get drilled into you the things that drive life along. You learn quickly about the requirements of life and these needs form an indelible list in your mind as you categorise every behaviour under these several umbrellas: Safety, Food, Reproduction. And in the gloaming of a pre-dawn upland pine forest in North Wales I had volunteered myself for an experiment upon the importance of the last of these. I was indulging in a rare slice of primaeval voyeurism: I was going to watch black grouse do the dance of love.

I had been told exactly where to go and, knowing well the nature of such things, I had steeled myself to be there at around 5.30 in the morning to walk the mile or so in the gloom to the lek. As I began my walk through the black forest I found myself, torch in hand, completely alone. Not another living soul was close by which was just as well because I’m fairly sure I wasn’t supposed to be there. This presented several unmissable opportunities.

Number 1: Enjoy the silence
Nothing really touches the silence that befalls the world before it wakes up and if that can be enjoyed with the scent of pine needles assaulting your nostrils then so much the better. Yes, there are the nocturnal churrings and shufflings of various creatures but the usual human accompaniment is gloriously absent. There was a terrific article in the New York Times recently that listed the top places to go in the United States if you’d like to enjoy some silence (bang goes the silence in those places, then.) But articles like that speak of a tragic loss of something when it means special excursions in a noisy machine have to be planned in order to stop hearing the things we’ve chosen to surround ourselves with.

Number 2: I could practise my impressions of other animals unselfconciously and very loudly
So out came the little owl, green woodpecker, a grunting badger, a barking fox and my renowned red deer bellow. This last one was accompanied by bulging eyes, knitted brow and testosterone fuelled stance. Oh yes, I was serious about finding a mate.  This made me laugh. Long and loud.

Number 3: I could let the landscape and the birds do the talking
Under normal circumstances I would be with other people, joking, laughing, perhaps leading them. But now, as I reached the edge of the mature forest and it gave way to short pines, heather moors and rough yellow grass, the sun was inching up and the principality of the sky light enough to backlight the early morning mists. Just above the mists, floating on disconnected pine tops, songbirds began to appear, taking advantage of the clear stillness to really let go on their best chops, the warm-up acts for the full dawn chorus. 

And so there I sat, back against a pine, looking out across a rough patch of grass and heather. This rose to a ridge a short distance away, dipped down to a place I couldn’t see and then the hulk of the mountain shot steeply upwards, a mottled work of browns, purple hues and yellows. And within minutes of my arrival, somewhere just beyond my visible range, the bubbling call of the grouse tumbled down the hill to my feet. They continued calling as they became visible: First, the white rump feathers, fluffed and desirable in the gloom, then the curved points of the tail and then the red eye wattles. And there they were, strutting, bobbing, rushing and dancing; the to’ing-and-fro’ing, the didyouspillmypint posturing and the victorious ruffling of neck feathers.

Watching those seven or eight individuals, working the dancefloor, I liked the fact that one of the most basic life defining functions could be still be witnessed in its genetically driven glory. My genes would have to work very hard to tempt me into a physical display of prowess. (And if I were persuaded then my dance moves, which are akin to someone in an uncomfortable amount of pain due to a serious bowel complaint, would be unlikely to earn me much of a harem.) But joyously, in the early morning mists lay displays of such natural force that I am compelled to wonder what we’ve surrendered in exchange for the comfort of a lifestyle where layers of artifice dress up every aspect of life and the way we live it.

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