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/
I’d never have found them two minutes later. I watched them, a pair, drop to ground after twenty minutes working the field and hedgerows and there achieve an instant metamorphosis—bird become sullen vegetation. Fixed on the spot where they went down, I located them only by their intensely yellow irises, stark and astonishing against indistinguishable feather-scrub, like a night creature’s eerily luminous eyes in singular darkness.
Short-eared owls are always a remarkable and special winter sight. They breed in northern and Scottish uplands, but their numbers are swelled from autumn onwards when continental birds disperse to new territories across the rest of more southerly Britain. Some years bring so many birds that every likely patch of land for hunting seems to have a resident pair (one year the small common just across from my in-laws, right on the edge of a busy town, had a pair that hunted each evening right among the regular dog-walkers).
The owls’ seasonal appearance makes them particularly associative of shortening, colder days. Their cryptic plumage is somehow the stuff of winter itself: matched to the subtleties and gradations of arctic tundra. It is the drab beauty of earth and grass intricacy; winter browns of loam and thorn, sedge, stubble and reed. It’s those facial markings, too, which conjure for me the year’s darkening nights—that black smudging mask framing the eyes has something of a Gothic, All Hallows spectre, a ghoulish stare that is unyielding and severe as winter itself.
That evening mist came in quickly as the sun set. It seemed to generate and rise from the earth itself, as though the field steamed with optimistic warmth. The cows became monoliths, their dark, head-down bulks forming a stone henge. To the south-east where St Peter’s church stands on a knoll, I could hear the jackdaws’ nightly Tenebrae in the tall stands of beech tree either side of the rectory. The birds continued to drift across from the west, their black forms like bonfire fragments in the red sky. Periodically and suddenly, the growing roost broke to an explosive cackling as thousands of jackdaws took flight before settling again minutes later.
By contrast, the owls hunted on in complete silence, easy and elegant on long, languid wings. The mist in the last minutes of light had consumed the whole field and the owls’ ghostly figures dissolved into whiteness.
In recent years I’ve done a fair bit of thinking and writing about seabirds in early English culture (see here and here). I’d say, in fact, I can talk at quite some length about seabirds in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and I’m currently researching the topic further for a chapter in a new book. My research and writing on the subject, though, gives me pause for thought, because despite similar imaginative responses to these remarkable creatures across the centuries, my experiences with seabirds in my own time are disturbingly and drastically different in ways that profoundly and irrevocably affect their cultural relevance to us in the twenty first century, and would have been unimaginably alien to our medieval ancestors. The picture of environmental destruction that afflicts seabirds is uniquely modern: we cannot think about seabirds without confronting how they are tied up, quite literally, with our detritus. The poet who depicts a gannet in the Old English Seafarer as a far-travelling companion on the winter waves could not have conceived of the strangulated individual in the harrowing image above.
In particular, of course, I’m talking about plastic, and the gargantuan quantities of enduring waste it produces. It’s such an unavoidable aspect of daily life that we barely give the substance a second thought, and we don’t need to. We can legitimately throw away as much of the stuff as we want, confident that it will be disposed of somewhere else, by someone we don’t know or care about. That’s the situation the ‘progress’ of convenient, comfortable living has led to; we aren’t required to care. To be sure, most of us know we should care, and most of us use local schemes to recycle as best we can, or avoid using plastic bags when we go shopping. What most of us could never have guessed is just how pervasive plastic and its disastrous effects are when we think we’ve safely discarded it. Without even considering the devastating effects on all the other creatures that inhabit the world’s oceans, it is estimated now that 90% of the world’s seabirds have consumed plastic (here and here).
In response to all this, and the sickening feeling we have about the sheer quantities that go into landfill every year in countries around the world (the stats are staggering: in Australia alone just toothbrushes produce 1000 tonnes of landfill a year!), my wife and I decided to go plastic and packaging free in 2018. We want to implement habits and routines that will slowly become a way of life. We know the realities—avoiding plastic entirely is pretty much impossible unless you want to completely cut yourself loose from modernity. We’ve done our research though, and have embarked on a scheme to dramatically cut down what we throw into landfill at the end of this year. (Later on in 2018 I’ll post again on this topic to let you know what we’ve done and how it’s going.)
In fact, we’ve apparently taken up this challenge at the right time: Blue Planet II has apparently really caught the public attention on issues of plastic; China has stirred things up by rejecting imported plastic from the UK from this year; and only days ago Theresa May made the headlines by discussing ambitions to force the big UK supermarkets to rethink packaging. Here’s hoping.
I’m excited by our environmental ambitions for this year: they feel real and filled with genuine potential. But taking on this more explicit form of environmental action has prompted me to think about the importance of those other less obvious, less immediate examples of individual responsibility. Writing about the natural world is the most relevant example to me, and it sometimes seems arcane, detached and irrelevant. What difference does it actually make? In some slight yet important way, though, the thinking and caring that happens when people write about the natural world does matter. In my case, understanding how seabirds were experienced and represented in the earliest English writings is part of the narrative that leads to our engagement with these creatures now, and their plights, even if only because we might be prompted to a keener sense of loss and responsibility. It is all part of the passion and urgency we share to influence the way people think about, encounter and treat the natural world. We do this, always, with the hope of making just a little, positive difference.
Where earth’s greatest landmass narrows to a subcontinent, below where mountain thrusts up rock to earth’s highest peak and river runs down to dry plain, just beyond where land tips into ocean, in one slip of forest in the wet mid-hill tropics that rise up on a small island once bridged to south-east India, behind the obscuring branch of one jack tree, there is a blue magpie.
We’ve come a long way for this bird. It is truly magnificent though. Don’t think your usual black-and-white, garden-menace job. The Sri Lanka magpie is of quite another order: blue body, blue tail – true blue, bluest in the forest – head and wings of dark tamarind, feet and a heavy corvid bill the colour of pomegranate arils. The same red neatly circles the eye. It’s a bird to travel for.
In cloud forest, good views of anything can be hard; it’s alarm and frenzy in the tops, exotic calls and brief flashes above. Tall is habit in a place like this – trees reach 40, 50 metres high, their boles straight up into tree domain – but such thick vegetation down here obscures verticals and heights.
The trick is to stand still, tune in to what you hear. In this valley, dawn is a broad coming like a passing eclipse. We stand in the green air on the edge of the clearing before the heat arrives, waiting for birds at first light. Orange-billed babblers are easy enough – their fuss and squabble shake the foliage with monkey-vigour. They are joined by the odd ashy-headed laughing thrush or drongo. Higher up, there are white-faced starlings and hill mynas.
The rasp of the magpie gives it away. And where there’s one, more follow. We watch six in total, a raucous mob tailing each other from tree to tree for just two minutes, so plainly blue you wonder how they do such a good job of disappearing.
We’re very pleased to see them. The thing is, you won’t find any of these birds anywhere else. Not just in Sri Lanka, but nowhere else in the world. Like so much of the immense biodiversity on this island – trees, insects, amphibians, reptiles, flowers, butterflies, mammals, birds – the blue magpie is an endemic. Sri Lanka’s ancient insular existence has evolved a remarkable ecology of highly specialised creatures. Amongst birds alone, of the island’s 27 full endemic species (there are subspecies too), most of these can only be found in the wet-zone hills in the far south, and some of these, even, only in isolated pockets of this territory. Only sixteen years ago, in fact, a new owl species was discovered in these forest fragments that survived colonial rule. It’s a reassuring sign in this age of loss and destruction.
Find this little lodge near Deniyaya on Google Earth, scroll in, then right out to see India, and Eurasia, and the whole globe. This is to know the fragility of every part of all things, yet wonder that the infinitesimal can still hold mysteries.
Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’ achieves its haunting allure because the bird at its centre features an unresolved and disquieting contradiction. It is both everything we might expect a song thrush to be – tuneful, ‘full-hearted’, ‘ecstatic’ – and yet ‘frail, gaunt’, intimately associated with the ‘growing gloom’. It is a favourite of mine precisely because of this ambiguity – effortlessly simple but, like all great poems, endlessly regenerating new meanings. Originally titled ‘The Century’s End, 1900’, for instance, the poem clearly expresses some sense of fin de siècle anxiety, but Hardy could not have guessed how much more painfully ominous his words would seem following the advent of the Great War. The poem presents a restless mixture of despondency and hope which might carry all sorts of valencies, including perhaps, in the early 21st century, the ecological.
I was minded to recall this poem today. Here on the Essex coast again, I walked at Tollesbury Wick along the Blackwater in late afternoon light. We had been out all morning, but with mid February now suddenly cold I am indulging a little winter solemnity while it lasts. Mornings have been below freezing – a hard frost, the ground brittle under hard glistenings. Out on the marsh, raised on the sea wall, the North Sea blast comes straight at you. There are huge flocks of huddled wigeon and teal on the reed bed pools, shifting lapwing and golden plover; on the other side, solitary redshanks on the exposed mudflats. I watch a barn owl quarter the banks way out on the grazing marsh. The bare hawthorns along the path have endured this for years – wind-beaten and crouching, aged with silver lichens that wreath the branches like dense fogs.
In these circumstances, I had not expected to be brought up short. But there it was. A single hawthorn in full bloom. I circled the shrub as though in ritual, brushed the white flowers. Then got in close to frame winter out – here was something wholly of spring, its delicate petals and scent, sweet green shoots lilting warmth and renewed earthly energies. I moved out, glanced up and across to Mersea where the clouds gusted, the colour of dented pewter. A small group of black-tailed godwits called overhead, all subdued greys.
A week before, perhaps I would have not been quite so astounded. It’s been an exceptionally warm winter – record-breaking – with temperatures well into the teens through the Christmas period and into New Year. I noticed daffodils, butterflies in December, primroses in January; naturalists and writers all over Britain have been noting these strange occurrences (see here, and here). Swallows were recorded months after they should have departed for Africa, and have already been sighted again this year. What might this have to do with the swift I saw at the beginning of September? This is one pleasure (and consternation) in watching nature; you see things that go entirely missed by others, both that which is expected (the firsts and lasts of each season), and that which is out of joint.
It is staggering, quite incomprehensible to think that here at one spot in squelching mud on this stretch of a tiny peninsula in south Essex I might be witnessing some phenomenon, a possible link between this moment and extreme weather patterns all around the globe prompted by Pacific ocean currents; the El Niño, droughts in Africa, a disrupted jet stream, a dragonfly in November, and the premature blooming of one young hawthorn. Even in our modern age, when the causes for such events can be explained, thinking upon the implications still invokes the portentous. I do not know precisely what atmospheric influence or telluric force is at play here, but one single feature of the natural world has reminded me of the intimate and far-reaching interrelations of all things, and I am embraced with it. I think of Hardy’s singing thrush. My hawthorn blossom in February’s ‘weakening eye of day’ conjures that ‘ancient pulse’, something ‘whereof he knew / And I was unaware’.
Today’s publication of Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change has, expectedly, sparked fierce debate about the enviroment. It has required people to (re)consider, defend and articulate the human perspective on the natural world: how are we defined in relation to it, by it and as part of it? To what extent is the earth our property and resource (natural capital)? How ought we manage our relationships with our local and global environments? What part, if any, should religion still continue to play in our engagement with the natural world? For many, the Pope’s comments on the environment are refreshing and hopeful. For writers concerned with cultural and historical perceptions of nature, there might be a further resonance, however: a new dialogue with the centuries-old, dominant Christian doctrine which has locked us into the idea that we are somehow separate to and inherently superior to other species. The notion that human rights and conveniences naturally come first, that every other being we lump into that vast ‘animal’ category are there to be exploited and used by us, still has a hold (who has not resorted to naming, however flippantly, uncivilised behaviour as ‘animal’?).
In a George Monbiot article on this topic, I was directed to the website of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation (a US Christian organisation), which talks of ‘God-given dominium‘ and the ‘imago Dei’ as part of its plea to the Pope to reject plans to reduce burning fossil fuels. It is hard for a medievalist to read such words without thinking on typical medieval theories about man’s dominant position in the hierarchical chain of being. There is Isidore of Seville, for instance, who reminds us that the ‘human stands erect and looks towards heaven so as to seek God, rather than look at the earth, as do the beasts that nature has made bent over’ (Etymologies, Cambridge, 2006). Other writers, from Thomas Aquinas to Boethius to Bartholomew the Englishman echoed these sentiments. There is a striking resemblance to the Cornwall Alliance’s view: ‘Good climate policy must recognize human exceptionalism, the God-given call for human persons to “have dominion” in the natural world (Genesis 1:28)’. And this: ‘the physical world … [is] an ordered cosmos that rational creatures can understand and harness for human betterment; private property rights, entrepreneurship, and widespread trade’.
As a medievalist, it’s fascinating to see how the medieval lingers in our own times. The Alliance’s standpoint certainly shows the longeivity of some medieval doctrine. But I am also uncomfortable with how their argument positions itself in relation to the medieval view, what they refer to as the ‘one culture nurtured for centuries in the Biblical picture of reality’, as though continued explotation of the earth right now can be justified through this comparison. Putting aside the fact that many – religious and secular alike – would query such a ‘picture of reality’ several hundred years on, the bigger problem for me is that this vision wasn’t exactly cut and dry even in the medieval period, so it seems a little shaky to be using it to substantiate arguments in the 21st century. What recent medieval scholars have been busy showing, in fact, is that the medieval ‘picture’ was far from uniform; it was riven with contradictions, variations, inconsistencies and ironies. My own work in this field has suggested how writers were very capable of complicating and destablising the usual representation of the human and non-human relationship, ridiculing it even (see here). In fact, a good number of medieval works suggest that ‘conceptualizing the animal realm was an ongoing, undecided question’ (Susan Crane, Animal Encounters, 2013). It seems to me that little has changed, and that if medieval thinking admitted these sorts of variations, then so should ours. It’s one reason why continued and renewed study of early attitudes towards the natural world is vital; it can do much to inform what we think and do now.