Call of the curlew: birds and the spirit of place

In these last days before Christmas my wife and I have escaped to our favourite place out here on the Essex marshes. On our first morning, the frost and brightness we’d hoped would last was suddenly replaced by mild Atlantic temperatures and thick, seeping mist. Still, this weather has its own spectral winter beauty. Like snow, mist can have the effect of flattening out time and place, as though to make indistinguishable everything that separates us from past and future. Marsh goes out into one empty and endless beyond. In the far distance I can make out the looming bulk of Bradwell power station, but even this is strange and ancient today, a stone-dark monolith suspended in white.

The mist doubles everything we love about these places—the deep sense of past centuries brought close in a landscape that is still wild and uninhabited. In these secretive, oozing creeks are the birds. Redshanks are always sudden alarm, piping urgently and flashing trailing white wings when they burst upwards at the last second. Curlews sound somewhere between woe and surprise, wail and sigh, wind down chimneys and an old kettle’s boiling scale. Like everything here, particularly on a day like today, the birds feel distant and elusive.

It is the waders that seem most distinctly of the marsh to me, as though their eerie calls evolved quite purposely to sound the evocative spirit of estuarine substance. We’ll never fully know what earlier people made of birds’ presences, but what evidence does exist suggests that they intimately associated birds and place as much as we do. Old English bird names emphasis hearing birds in general, but birds that appear in Anglo-Saxon place names and charters tell us that birds were not only noticed, but often featured as integral markers of place.

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The Anglo-Saxons certainly knew this place, the sealt-mersc. They managed and farmed it, and made it powerfully symbolic in their poetry. The land has come and gone here on the Essex coast, reclaimed and uncovered by the waves over the centuries, but the saltmarsh has always been here in some form, and for marsh-dwellers, birds were a part of these habitats. Medieval wetlands were inhabited by a much greater variety and numbers of birds than today, and these are recorded in place names that last to this day. The snipe, for instance, a very characteristic bird of fen and bog, is noted in Snitterfield (Snitefeld, 1086), and in a charter entry for Berkshire there is a snitan ige ‘snipe’s island’. Snipe are skulking birds, and it was probably their sounds that attracted attention as much as anything—another Old English term for the bird was hæferblæte ‘goat-bleater’, a marvellous description of the vibrating, eerie noise made by male snipe in their breeding flight as the wind rushes through their tail feathers.

One of the best known Old English poems implies that sea and coastal birds were clearly familiar enough residents of place to evoke a profoundly atmospheric maritime scene. It is, moreover, the birds’ calls that are highlighted in The Seafarer:

Sometimes I took the swan’s song for my game, the gannet’s sound and
curlew’s cry for men’s laughter, the gull’s singing for the mead-drink. There
storms beat stone cliffs, there the tern answered them, icy-feathered; very
often the eagle yelled, dewy-feathered. (The Seafarer, 19b-26)

This littoral environment is characterised and animated by birds. Perhaps most telling of how noticeably and vividly birds have always registered in people’s experiences of the marsh and coast, is the Old English name of an island south of here, past the Blackwater’s mouth, over the bulge of the Dengie peninsula, round to the River Crouch and across to Foulness Island—Fugel Næss ‘Bird Headland’. The place is still an island today—only reachable by a treacherous, ancient path across the sands until the 1920s—its north-east point leading out sharply into sea. The birds remembered in the name must certainly have been the flocks of breeding and migrating waders and geese that still frequent the place today in internationally important numbers.

Tonight is the year’s longest night. The mist is down and I walk out onto the sea wall from our cottage. There is no human sound I can make out at all, but even at this late hour wigeon and teal are whistling in the hidden creeks and redshanks still call out panic. The cloaked mystery of the marsh is at its most potently intense now. A curlew’s liquid trill comes to me down the watery channels through double mist and darkness. Little wonder birds of this place, like birds of the night, caused folk to imagine their eldritch notes as something bewitching—the luring temptations of malevolent sprites.

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