I’m currently writing a book on birds, nature and place in our medieval past. It’s a nature book as a much as a work about medieval literature and culture. The narrative takes me all over Britain, exploring how people understood and connected to the natural world in the Middle Ages. Currently, in my first chapter, I’m on home turf in Kent writing about birdy towns and villages (including my home town, Cranbrook). I hope to post something of what I’ve produced soon, but for now, here’s a blog post on the subject of birds in place names that I wrote at the end of last year for Boydell and Brewer: https://boydellandbrewer.com/blog/world-literature/spirits-of-place-birds-in-english-place-names/
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.
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.
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).
I’m privileged to live where I do: my school accommodation backs on to rural countryside on the edge of Cranbrook. It means I’ve had some pretty great birds from my living room window, including a kingfisher who visits the pond just across from me in the autumn and winter. Last Thursday evening, I went out for a quick walk on the playing field behind the boarding house to watch the swifts screaming and careening over rooftops and my attention was immediately caught by an adult cuckoo working its way along the peripheral trees. The first I’ve seen in two years, and they only continue to get rarer (see here). This one quite happily spent a half hour feeding on grubs, flicking from the cropped grass to overhanging branches where it rested for short periods.
Also discovered that a pair of grey wagtails are nesting behind a broken ventilation grate down the outside cellar stairs right outside my bedroom window!
A postscript: Out for a walk today (Tuesday 17th June) on exactly the same field and I get another ‘garden’ first: a mediterranean gull with three blackheaded gulls! That must be pretty unusual for Cranbrook full stop!
We have driven all the way south to this man-made lake east of Troyes in central France, and now we await their arrival. It is mid-February, and although the light is noticeably returning in the run to spring, at this end of the day it’s already gloomy. Back home there have been enough mild days – a bare-skin warmth and pure-air promise of daffodils’ lustrous yellows – to leave off thinking of thick coats and gloves and hats and double layers before exiting the house. This year, spring seems just right. The trees are still dark and skeletal though, and things can still turn … Here in France, the potential of spring is less apparent. All those layers are back on.
In the distance I can hear some calling, announcing arrival long before they can be seen. I know what to listen for and think how ancient is this expectation, this anticipation of one bird species’ migration north, from Africa, from Spain, tracking immemorial flight paths up to the Scandinavian taiga, young and old, generation after generation joining others in huge numbers right across the Siberian steppes from one end of Russia to the other. The more eastern families move north from wintering grounds in the Middle East, northern India and eastern China.
Cranes are some of the oldest species of bird on earth. The European crane’s cousin in America, the sandhill, is known through fossil evidence to have existed in Nebraska in the Miocene, nine million years ago. In Europe, crossing the Mediterranean, these birds caught the attention each spring of the ancient Greeks. Hesiod, in the 8th century, depicts cranes as a conspicuous herald of warm weather. His farmers’ ‘almanac’, Work and Days, observes the birds as the sign for the year’s busyness to begin: ‘Take heed when you hear the voice of the crane from high in the clouds, making its annual clamour’. More famously, in The Iliad, Homer draws upon the familiar site of migrating cranes over the Cayster River (in what is now Turkey) to furnish a vivid metaphor for the invading Greek armies ‘gathering now / as the huge flocks on flocks of winging birds, geese or cranes / or swans with their long lancing necks – circling Asian marshes / round the Cayster outflow [at Ephesus], wheeling in all directions, / glorying in their wings – keep on landing, advancing, / wave on shrieking wave and the tidal flats resound’.
It is the long necks that appear first. And legs, rangy legs so that the birds appear all long neck; few at first, then continuous extended columns, as though each bird is threaded on one silk twine to the next. The numbers and volume grow, and bare mud fringes or islands disappear as the birds mass in to roost, some leaping and jerking beaks upwards in momentary preparation for their breeding rituals on the bog sites. They fly, not with an owl’s soft and silent ease, but still with languorous elegance. Not the flurry and burst of waders, nor the heckling of winter thrushes. Even their clamorous call is smooth, ordered – the engine of their vast, beating wings.
I think of home. Cranbrook. It carries the name of these birds, from Anglo-Saxon cran. Although we cannot be certain that this word was not used to label several heron-type birds by early medieval people, the fact that Old English texts do specify hgraga for heron implies that they did, in fact, differentiate. Whether cranes or herons rightly provide the origin of the town’s name, there are certainly enough place names cognate with cran across England to denote the species’ former distribution, like many wetland birds before the early modern drainage programs. They have now recolonised in the UK, appearing first at Hickling, Norfolk, in the decade I was born. In more recent times, they have been re-introduced to the Somerset Levels too.
English cranes are resident birds, though, and I want the migration. I want to see and to hear one of the world’s most spectacular events, to be a part of these birds’ monumental annual journey. To experience the cranes’ great flight is to know the flux set in motion at this time of year, the movement at the heart of those words for nature itself (Indo-European gn became the root of Latin natura, and bheu the Greek physis. Both words are bound up with the senses of birth, growth and movement.) And so I’ve made my migration to meet theirs – a pilgrimage for the remarkable – to coincide at Lac du Der for a brief time in February before the zeitgebers (‘time-givers’) prompt their departure north. There are resident birds here, too, but if you want numbers, the colossal din that shows the earth’s steady turning, you need to time it right. If the weather is too cold or too mild the birds may not stick around. At peak numbers, though, the cranes can amass in excess of 100,000 individuals.
We stay until dark, hanging on for the last groups to fly in from the flat surrounding fields. There are always more; dark, faint processions in the granulating light, till eventually I cannot tell cranes from sky or water. Their orotund calls persist, the black tips of their broad wings closing over and into the dark horizons of lake.