Category Archives: Oare Marshes

Interview on my book

Bit of a cheat post this one, but Boydell and Brewer have recently published an interview they conducted with me on my book, Birds in Medieval English Poetry, so thought I’d share it. Click here, or simply read the text below.

Thank you for assisting our discussion of your book, Dr Warren. To begin, could you tell us a little about how you came to write this book, which is now the second in our new series Nature and Environment in the Middle Ages. What first drew you to the natural world in literature? 
When I decided to return to medieval studies after some years in teaching, it was an obvious choice for me to pursue a subject that combined a personal love of mine with literature. I knew that there was plenty to say about birds, in fact, because I’d written on this subject for my undergraduate dissertation a number of years before. Medieval literature is full of birds, and it seemed strange to me that no one had yet produced a full study examining how they are represented and what their significance is, or at least not one that seriously considered the presence and relevance of ornithological interests, rather than simply birds’ totemic aspects. Birds—as just one, conspicuous set of species in the natural world—were clearly of profound interest to medieval thinkers and writers, and I wanted to explore how and why. So that’s how it all began, but the project inevitably took on much bigger proportions for me as it progressed.

Do animals receive enough attention in medieval scholarship? 
I think it’s more a question of do they receive the right sort of attention. Animals haven’t been ignored in medieval scholarship, but there is a long tradition of thinking that medieval poets weren’t really interested in actual species themselves; it was what they meant that was important. Birds, specifically, have always received short shrift in ornithological histories, which tend to deal with Aristotle, and then skip to the 16th century. The medieval chapter in these histories is always by far and away the shortest—it’s a respectful nod to the more familiar textual references that exist, and which suggest that birds must have been observed on some level, but the popular attitude, at least, is that medieval people ‘knew little about birds, and cared even less’ (Stephen Moss, A Bird in a Bush: A Social History of Birdwatching).

With the spike in 21st century ecological sensibilities, though, there has been a revolution right across disciplines. Ecocriticism and animal studies have achieved considerable popularity and influence in medieval scholarship over the last decade, striving to emphasise the reality of nonhuman creatures in life and text, and demonstrate that how medieval people thought about the natural world and their relationship to it was much more complex and diverse than we have previously thought. So yes, I do think animals are receiving the right sort of attention in medieval scholarship now, but there’s still some way to go (if you look at how many panels there on nonhuman topics at the big medieval congresses each year in Kalamazoo and Leeds compared to other more traditional topics, there is a very striking disparity).

Your book discusses a rich span of poetry, from Anglo Saxon texts through to Chaucer and Gower. Do you have a favourite? 
I do have a particular fondness for The Seafarer. There’s something about the early Christian asceticism and the tempestuous seascape in which this plays out that really appeals to me; I suppose it chimes with my love of bleak, people-less spaces, like marshes. There is something so affecting and powerful about the intimate linking of the exile and the wild nonhuman, and the fact that birds are a conspicuous part of the environment and the Seafarer’s experience is fascinating to me. Seabirds are especially compelling to us humans I think, being that that they are perfectly at home in a location so alien and hostile to us—their mysterious experience is what, paradoxically, makes them such rich metaphors. I’m sure this must have genuinely been the case for those monastics seeking solitude and hardship on remote Atlantic islands like Skellig. If you’ve ever visited locations like this you’ll know you just can’t avoid the raucous presence of seabirds!

How did you come to settle on this particular selection? Did you have many to choose from? 
There are so many texts to choose from, especially if you move outside European traditions and consider, e.g., Arabic or Persian texts as well. I chose only English texts because I was interested in representations of native British wild birds, and because I purposefully wanted to bring new perspectives to much-studied poems by revealing and exploring their intricate and knowledgeable depictions of birds. These birds have received attention before now, but I wanted to take this further—to look at how the ornithological elements might be part of the wider thematic interests of the texts. There is also a subsidiary thread to the book which seeks to fill in some of those gaps about medieval ornithological knowledge, for which it was useful to survey the whole span of the Middle Ages.

What place, if any, did birds hold in the everyday lives of people in the Middle Ages? 
As for the everyday lives of most people, it’s very hard to know. The surviving texts of the medieval age, of course, were not written by or for, and can’t be said to represent the ‘everyday lives’ of, most people. But the written evidence does imply that for intellectual or elite milieux, at least, birds had a diverse and important status in all sorts of ways ranging from the practical to the philosophical: food, quills, hunters (and quarry) in falconry, caged songbirds, intriguing comparative subjects in theories about voice and music, allegories in bestiaries, subjects of ‘special mention’ in encyclopaedias (Bartholomew the Englishmen). In poetry, of course, birds became elevated metaphors for a whole variety of subjects, but what I aim to do in the book is show how knowledge of real birds and species (the ‘everyday’ if you like) still important in informing how these metaphors work.

Beyond this, though, it is possible to get a feel for how birds must have played a part in vernacular lore and discourses. Old English names for birds, for instance, suggest remarkable degrees of observation and listening, and their presence in Anglo-Saxon place names or charter boundaries conveys how they were acknowledged as important elements of environment (‘take the path left past the pond where the coal tit lives’, sort of thing), and there is no reason to believe that much of this didn’t descend from or wasn’t shared by your ordinary man and woman living and working in the natural world where birds are. There is no doubt that wild birds generally were much more plentiful in the Middle Ages; our modern ‘baseline’ perception is heavily distorted because we live in a world where pretty much all species, but particularly groups like farmland birds, have dramatically declined due to modern industrial practices.

Expanding on the last question, why would the presence of birds in poetry have appealed to a medieval poet or audience? 
Beyond what I’ve suggested above, I think the overall thing for me is that birds are such consummate and enigmatic transformers. They complicate, escape and thwart human attempts to categorise—something I pick up on with particular reference to the Exeter Book Riddles in the book. Birds, in life and in poetry, always seems to be in some sort of ‘trans’ status and I think this has a lot to do with why they were (and are) so compelling. David Wallace has eloquently said in his recent book on Chaucer that medieval conceptions of the human condition engaged the ‘perilous art’ of aligning ‘bawdy bodies and stargazing intelligences’. From this perspective, it’s not hard to see why birds were illuminating parallels—they are animals below human status in one sense, and yet occupy the ethereal heights above humans as well; they are both mundane and numinous at once.

A captivating aspect of your volume is the depiction of everyday birds and how their reality is used and transformed into metaphor. What’s your favourite example? 
Again, I’m drawn to the alien, pelagic qualities of the seabirds in The Seafarer which the poet aligns with the solitary speaker, but perhaps one of the most interesting examples is the owl in The Owl and the Nightingale. Part of the poem’s sophisticated comedy, for me, is that the ‘realities’ of the eponymous birds are consistently (and knowingly, on the part of the author) confused, which causes problems when these particular qualities are transposed into metaphorical use in texts like the popular bestiaries. So, when the nightingale attacks the owl’s day-blindness (which becomes a well-known metaphor for the sinner who cannot or refuses to see the light of Christ), we are aware that profound moral ‘truths’ are being drawn up on false premises: the owl states herself in the poem that this particular ‘truth’ about owls is just plain wrong.

This book clearly demonstrates a real love for birds. Are you an avid birder yourself? 
I certainly am. I birdwatch a lot in Kent where I live, particularly on the marshes up in the north of the county. It was my uncle who got me into birding when I was very young, and it’s his photos, in fact, that illustrate the book, including the striking image of flying godwits on the front cover.

Of course, you don’t need to be a birdwatcher to write about birds in medieval poetry, but I do think it has helped attune me to various nuances, such as the importance of sound or accurate observation in Old English bird names, or the ornithological aspects of certain species that clash with allegorical treatments.

What are you working on now, or will you be working on next? 
Still birds! I was approached by a publisher some years back whilst writing my PhD about the possibility of producing a trade version of my thesis. So, now the monograph is finished up, I’m turning my attention to this new project. It will take some of the informative, ornithological elements of the monograph and weave these into a nature/travel-writing narrative. The first chapter is set on the Essex Marshes, particularly concerning a place called Foulness Island, to explore Old English place names, and how birds, but also the natural world more generally, are intimately observed and become a part of human conceptions of place.

 

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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).