A sparrow’s existence

This summer has been erratic. Following the drama of my 92-year-old grandmother’s death and the trauma of my broken leg, the enforced immobility and slow pace of my time has created sharp contrasts. I’m usually all go in the school holidays, cramming the reading for a new PhD chapter and pacing – on the keyboard and up and down rooms – to get the thing written before a new school term starts. This year, though, I’ve been laid up, my body’s only concern is healing, and the lethargy that ensued left me way behind, with a sluggish will to get everything back on track. I’ve been house bound whilst my partner spent three weeks in New Zealand. On her return, we moved house, a busy enough event for anyone. I sat and let the heaving and lifting go on around me. These patterns of flux and fixedness made an impression though. Unable to fidget, bustle and fuss, my stillness drew my attention more fully to the speed and action and change of the outside world. It’s been a neat parallel that I’m reading piles of books on metamorphosis and transmutation.

Cranbrook

Our new place is a flat at the top of an 18th century, three-storey town house, now teachers’ accommodation, but once the school itself in Cranbrook. In our study, the insides of cupboard doors are graffitied with the etchings of boys’ names and dates. Some go back to the 19th century when the room was presumably a dormitory. Certain dates are prominent: the boy with time to carve his name in 1915, and turmoil just across the channel. From the sash-frame windows that have warped with age, I can look south-east across Cranbrook roofs. In the large, impressive boarding house opposite, swifts nest in the eaves. I’ll have a perfect view next May when they return. For now, though, as we move here, they’re already gone.

We’ve visited Oare on the north Kent marshes twice this August – the only site where I can sit right by the roadside with my crutches and scan with the telescope. It’s a favourite haunt. The waders are on the move, coming and going on the tides to feed and sleep on the sheltered floods – lapwings, golden plovers, dunlins, redshanks, huge numbers of black-tailed godwits mutating between their breeding and winter plumages. Some godwits are still a fired-brick red, some are dimmed in subtle greys, and others in between, caught in the motion of change. There are rarer species, too, bound for Africa  – wood sandpipers, little stints, curlew sandpipers. Their time is urgent and brief. Whilst our summers just get going, many migrants are turning around.

(Photo: Jeff Cohen, deeestuary.co.uk)
(Photo: Jeff Cohen, deeestuary.co.uk)

On moving in, one of our first jobs was to sort our bird feeders on the small fire-escape balcony outside our living room which now functions as our garden. The window to this room spans the entire height of the room – it’s wonderful. We bought two small copper beeches, strapped them to the railings in case of high winds and planted an ornate bird feeding station between them so that the feeders themselves are partially obscured amongst the leaves. The birds came immediately – starlings at first, squabbling over the fat balls, but then coal tits, goldfinches, blue tits, great tits, house sparrows, wood pigeons, collared doves. There is great pleasure in bringing this little piece of the outside world so close. In these later stages of my convalescence, I watch the patterns of change and movement and return in detail. Last week the goldfinches brought two juveniles. They are back everyday, sometimes in charms of six or seven birds.

I’ve been reading and writing a lot about ‘embodiment’ in the last month – the attractive and compelling notion that human bodies, their very identities, are inextricably and crucially enmeshed with the non-human world. An American academic, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, who has written a great deal on this sort of topic, puts it this way: ‘What if instead of curving into anthropocentric selves we extend apprehension outward into the ecomateriality with which we are palpably embroiled’ (Inhuman Nature). It can sound a bit pretentious outside the pages of an academic book, but I get that palpability. I feel it. Back at our bird feeders, I’m reminded of Keats, who puts the idea simply and beautifully to express the value of the immediate, present moment in our interactions: ‘if a sparrow comes before my window, I take part in its existence’ (Letter to Benjamin Bailey, 1817).

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