On a weekend in March before these lockdown days, I went walking high on the Sussex hills in search of loneliness. I would have no chance again for months.
The South Downs escarpment above Fulking running east to the Devil’s Dyke has the grandeur of mountains. The chalk buckles into steep glacial vales. When the wind blows (always it seems) it cuts cold and sharp straight over the north edge. There is no protection.
I’d come for solitude twice over. Right up here in the keening wind, just a little south of the ridge, off the track and along a scattered line of gorse, there are remains of a deserted medieval hamlet. The folding land creates a shallow coombe but it’s hard to imagine why anyone might choose to make a living in such a location, so far above other settlements snug in the down’s foot-slopes. Perching (Perchinges in Domesday) was once a small but thriving community though, with a well and a mill, toughing it out in downland traditions.
Perhaps this hardship finally made life up here impossible. Or perhaps, like many of England’s 3000 or so ‘lost’ villages, it was left suddenly to the wind when the Great Plague devastated the population in the fourteenth century. The pandemic of an age; a pancosmic pestilence from God for our great ills. For what might God scourge us now?
Back on the escarpment I turned at the right moment to see a lone red kite alongside me soar over the precipice. They are the most exhilarating creatures of freedom, managing economy with such supreme ease, forked tails figuring the air like compass points. I thought of how often and for how long we’ve envied birds this. In the indoor weeks to follow, I thought of kites, knowing intensely the ‘clay that clutches my each step to the ankle’ while the kite ‘Effortlessly at height hangs … steady as a hallucination in the streaming air’ (Ted Hughes, ‘The Hawk in the Rain’).
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.)
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.
Two weeks ago on a humdrum Monday a sparrowhawk came to our three-storey balcony, blowing our little space wide open in a burst of flight and feathers.
That’s how it is with sparrowhawks. There’s no preamble to the strike. Not the slowly-does-it buoyancy of a harrier’s quarter, nor the panic warning that accompanies a peregrine’s hunt over winter marshes. Most of my sparrowhawk sightings are barely sightings at all—an intimation of something bullet-brained, a sign of wing and greyness that registers just enough to count. They are glimpsed in their sheering horizontal strafes, sensed at the tilting up-and-over moment into hedgerow ambush. I have sometimes seen females soaring high in an eagle-fashion, and I’ve heard—seen photos—of individuals that do materialise for whole periods of time, all the hawk components suddenly but undeniably singular, complete, right there in plain sight of the kitchen sink. The most solid example I’d had till now was the filamentous ghost of wings from a momentary window zonk—the delicate traces of a botched hunt in a suburban garden. Sparrowhawk dust.
As with all predators, most raptors’ hunting attempts end in failure. Not this one. A young female perfecting her game. She is big and broad, built for open-sky spaces, unlike the males who haunt the intimacies of summer full-leaved woodlands. Our creaking reactions have already missed the arrival, whole seconds too clunky to match her. We must surmise the action: a chance sighting and too good to miss, shift and accelerate towards the next second. She lives now at the cusp, slicing the in between of everything in the strike down to seize and overtake the present, straddling the instant like the poor-bastard dove she’s shafted from the iron railing. On the balcony floor she’s astride her prey as if in some strange copulation, plucking furiously, then tearing at the good meat.
The space around was snow-silent in these minutes after the kill—a penumbra of small bird fear and human awe. We watched from just two feet away, edging closer on our stomachs right up to the window sill, making the most of this unpredicted hawk proximity. She saw us; of course she did—her whole being spins on those huge yellow eyes—but she was hungry and willing to tolerate us. Even so, we didn’t see her go. We’d turned to whisper, and right then she’d taken off with her carcass undercarriage, leaving a mess of dusky feathers to tell the tale, just in case we’d missed it.
What struck me in the days after was how many people miss out on such wonder, even when it thrusts itself right into our human centres. These chance happenings are so much on the margin for some of us—the countryside at the edges of our obsessive internalised urban lives. I called a friend that Monday, eager to share this remarkable incident on our fire-escape balcony, and knowing he was just minutes away. I couldn’t tempt him. Next time, perhaps. There is always hope that such things will take us by surprise, hurl our attention inwards to the ellipse of a hawk’s world.
There are some birds that are early fixed in the imagination, and hold their allure for a lifetime. These are not childhood memories of actual encounters, but of something more mythic – birds that made claims on my experiences long before I ever set eyes upon them. I knew them only from illustrations (John Gooders’ Kingfisher Guide to Birds in Britain and Europe; a scrappy pocket Collins), or experienced them vicariously in my uncle’s scrawling field notes. I loved their rarity, made them live – the impossible colours of bee-eaters, rollers, waxwings; the wildness of eagles – in my assiduously copied sketches from a hand-me-down set of Ladybirds. I dreamed of discovering these birds myself, desired them as much as those accumulating notebooks in my uncle’s study – dinky and black, with an elastic band that made a firm snap when you pulled it into place.
In an attempt to conjure one of these exotic species, I once invented reports to my mother, hoping that the fantasised chase across the South Downs would turn up a real life counterpart to the impressive sunset vision depicted in that Ladybird plate. It was years before I finally saw a great grey shrike – a strange songbird from the north with a grisly habit and a dapper bandit mask to suit. I’ve seen several since, but I am still compelled to see these birds when small numbers make their winter homes here each year from Scandinavia.
This morning was ideal out on the brooks, the first properly cold weather of the season and everything reduced to a shrike’s wintry colours: the stone-hard whites of frost, the bare blackness of trees, and low mists tracing every degree of grey-silver. As shrikes do, the bird I was after appeared quite suddenly, there atop a nearby birch. It was gone as quickly, in the second I glanced away, but there it was again, at some distance, silent and sentinel on another tree top. Shrikes establish large territories and can go unseen for long stretches of time, though they will be present all winter, remaining faithful to particular sites year after year.
Despite its scarcity, the bird has a long-lived gruesome legacy in British folklore, which pertains to the red-backed shrike, too, once a breeding species in these isles (unlike the great grey). Its various names speak of its macabre reputation, derived from its family propensity for impaling prey on thorns, recalling a butcher’s meat store, or the huge iron hooks from which his carcasses hang. The great grey’s scientific name reminds us of this habit – Lanius derives from Latin for butcher or executioner. A meat-hacker: the butcher-bird.
Its infamy goes back much further, however, as indicated by the strikingly similar cluster of names across northern European countries. Its late medieval English name was the waryangle which existed in various dialect forms for centuries, all of which, like Germanic werkangel or warkangel, mean something like ‘suffocating angel’ (compare Modern German, würger and würgengel). The name is not attested in Anglo-Saxon records, but may well extend back this far; waryangle, may, in fact, derive from Old English wearg (criminal) and incel (diminutive suffix): ‘little-villain’. Certainly by the fourteenth century the name was invoked as an abusive term. In Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale, the summoner is denounced by way of comparison, ‘as ful of jangles [tricks] / As ful of venym been thise waryangles’ [as shrikes are full of venom] (a shrike’s butchering thorns were thought to be forever after poisonous).
Remarkably, in an age without binoculars, and which is traditionally dismissed for its unscientific indifference to ornithological precision, the earliest illustration we have of the species actually comes from a medieval English missal (1400) produced in Sherborne, Dorset. It very clearly and accurately depicts a grey shrike labelled waryghanger, one of many British species depicted in this remarkable manuscript. For this illuminator, at least, the shrike held a place in the native imagination, as it always has in mine. Its flight from thorn to thorn points on to shrikes I have not yet seen, that exist in those books and pocket notes that occupy me still.
From where I am resting on the sofa with my broken leg propped up, to the north I can see the whole of Laggan Bay curving away up Loch Indaal towards the Point. I have the view in miniature laid out below me in intricate OS detail, and I can check off the landmarks by looking up and craning over the window sills: the Kintra River flowing out into sand and sea; the Machrie just a little further north; Knockangle Point; then at the far end, Laggan River, substantially larger than the other two burns. To the south, behind me, is The Oa where, I’m told, there are choughs and golden eagles. Sitting here just moments ago, watching a buzzard along the conifer tree line a short distance behind the cottage, a superb silver male hen harrier angled past, not twenty feet from the doors.
What the map cannot convey is the sound map of wave, bird and wind – the elementals that give vitality to what I can see, in the full sense of that Latinate noun: both necessary and indispensable, and literally with life, with being. Oystercatchers burst and then settle on the rocks (even they are named – RhubaGlas) immediately north-west from the windows – piebald flurries that patrol the shoreline continuously. Even at night I hear them. There are always flotillas of eider close into shore, males shabby and patchy now they are in their dark eclipse plumage, ducklings closely attended by their mothers in the rough surf. As is typical in these isles, weather fronts come and go quickly – rain and blue-black clouds hurtling across the bay, and then sun five minutes later.
I have had it in mind to get onto the dunes this afternoon, but my leg is preventing me from my usual exploratory holiday forays. Even short excursions are tiring. I may try stumping up to the Kintra outflow and look for brown trout. I’ve started reading Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, bought months ago but whimsically saved for a suitably inspiring environment. The chapters are built around nine glossaries of dialect words from all over the British Isles denoting phenomena of the natural world, particularly physical, topographical features. What is most exhilarating and striking about these terms, and what seems to bind them as a collective, is their great specificity; ‘finely particular phenomenon’ as Macfarlane puts it himself. I have been searching the categories to illuminate and more precisely express my view from where I write. How much more vivid and shared the world becomes when you have words like these at hand, inaccessible and absent to most in the modern world because they are the local, imaginative inventions of the ordinary, unacknowledged man and woman giving voice to the finest of observations relating to their lives working on and with the land, now and in centuries past, named and spoken in their land-rooted, down-to-earth vernaculars. Part of what Macfarlane laments and aims to recover is the loss of such rich testament to to our earth-belonging and -being: as we lose so much of the natural world to intensive agriculture and urban developments, so we lose these languages, for if the land is not there, or not there to be wondered at, at least, what purposes do such words serve beyond eulogy?
This view does not ignore or dismiss the fact that landscapes have always been affected and managed by human civilisations. The ‘scape is not a geological or ecological entity, is not untouched or ‘wild’ (an explosive word in today’s conservation scene, particular since the rise of the ‘rewilding’ concept) as it might be imagined in some idyllic, Arcadian vision. The term itself tells us this: in the sense that we popularly refer to the word today, associated with the artistic or picturesque, landscape comes from Dutch landschap, a term deriving from late 16th century Dutch painters. But the preceding and cognate Old English word landscipe (Middle English landschippe) also carries the meaning of land that has been ‘shaped’ or constructed.
The view does, however, argue that such places can easily be dismissed as redundant, as terra nullis, to borrow another of Macfarlane’s phrases, as blank spaces that must be filled somehow with something ‘useful’. Governmental policy refers to ‘natural capital’, a thoroughly prosaic term that is acutely at odds with the rich and nuanced language in Macfarlane’s glossary. This, surely, is where the grievous losses are now – the land uses which pay little or no heed to biodiversity; to the role of place for species other than the human; to the possibilities of all-species engagement with environments that creates sensitive and crucial relationships of the sort that allows the human species (as just one) to know land so intimately – through belonging, loving and observing as much as harvesting and controlling – that it is possible for one to witness the most intricate and particular of objects and occurrences and name them. The feadan (small stream running from a moor or loch); the bàrr fhàd (topmost layer of peat cut); the raon (wide flat area of moorland); the af’ rug (reflex of a wave after it has struck shore); the bretsh (breaking of waves on a rocky shore); the baa (sea rock as may be seen at low tide); the faoilinn (strand between a shingle beach and a loch) – to offer a few Gaelic examples that relate to my window experiences here on Islay. And my favourite, for its extended precision which seems comical for such a brief word: èit (practice of placing quartz stones in moorland streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and, therefore, attract salmon in late summer and autumn!) These are terms that do far more than locate or possess. They speak of intimate and enduring relationships and affairs with the land – local and exact, knowledgeable and meaningful.