The term ‘twitcher’ gets misused, the ornithologically-challenged applying it to any old Sunday stroller out on regulated marshland, indulging in a brief respite as he or she binoculars gadwall, teal and tufted duck. There is a lot of talk about the therapeutic qualities of the avian world. Enjoy it while flocks last.
I am in love with the dwindling idea of nature, an anxious love, the addict’s itch and a nostalgia for something I never had. The opportunities to indulge in amnesia are too good to be missed.
I half-ignore odd facts about prime twitching spots being, now, at sewage treatment works (insects aplenty), landfills, at the open sores in the land. It is hard to accept that species can adapt. I would rather them fade and die than submit themselves to such indignities. I remind myself that they are not there for my entertainment, nor my salvation as I project my hopes and longings on to the natural world that I help to destroy. I am always a whiskey bottle’s distance from black misanthropy.
Birds appear everywhere, on our coffee mugs, in our children’s literature, our damp tea towels, the logos for new internet start-ups, they form the shapes assumed by hand-crafted jewellery in London boutiques, adorning the bodies of those unable to identify redshank or bar-tailed godwit.
I see both these species, and many more, at Oare Marshes near Faversham in Kent. It is Remembrance Day, November 11
. The sun is cold and bright, illuminating a tidal landscape with austere brilliance. I don’t think of dead soldiers much as I listen to the reedlings, the bearded tits, who hide down low out of sight as the wind picks up, swaying the bulrushes. A quiet Sunday morning out on the marshes, briefly punctured with thoughts of blasted landscapes and shattered trees, land slicked with the blood of young working class men dying for the interests of others. That is what I remember, what I know. Out on the mudflats, large crowds of waders huddle, shuffle, nose around in the saline mud. Golden and grey plover, teeming redshank, the occasional oystercatcher. A few larger birds, the godwits. I identify the black-tailed from the bar-tailed, near-homogenised due to their winter plumage, through the slight curvature of the bar-tailed’s beak. Striking birds, and I relish the shape my lips form to recite their names, small poetry of the marshes, the mantras and incantations of a sub-language that hides amongst the reeds of English. As language dies so does our capacity for thought and expression, and so I speak the names of the species aloud to the whispering reeds, who sway in approval. I spot a little egret, pure white heron, standing still in the brine.
I recall entering water with great crested grebes enacting their mating rituals around me in brackish waters off the coast of Helsinki, arctic terns swooping above. Of seeing hummingbirds perform bee-functions in a suburban garden in Washington State. Flocks of diving, massive, pelicans and the frigate birds that floated like kites off Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Of the week, in 1993, spent in the Scilly Isles. I ruminate on my Englishness, thrown into sharp focus by my interactions and close friendships with Americans and Finns. Old anarcho-punk songs that raged through tales of eco-terrorism play on my internal radio.
‘Soon there will be nothing left to kill’
. Fragments of prose from my favourite nature writers.
It is a dying world, like Mars, but glowing still’
Melancholy is the easy option here.
A few more redshank come in to land, to join their fellows. Out on the water, shoveller ducks and mallards bob sleepily. Cormorants stand austere and reptilian, wings outstretched in prayer to the distant sun. It is cold.
A Barbour-jacketed man stands with thousands of pounds worth of telescopic and photographic equipment, aiming his technology at the reeds and the elusive bearded reedlings. We can hear them, yet they remain invisible and in the abstract. ‘Be lucky to see them now, now the wind is up’ he says without shifting his gaze. I nod and murmur in assent. I recall the meeting of a poet in Farringdon, after her performance of the poem ‘Reedling’ for a new anthology of bird-related literature. We chatted over pints of London Pride and she had given the printout of the as-yet to be published poem. It remains, still, pinned to my cork notice board.
The day after Oare, sitting in early morning light as drizzle drums the windows, clutching steaming coffee, I tell my American housemate of the sadness felt stranding in Canterbury on the day before Remembrance Day. Persistent November drizzle in a city I used to know, where I had been schooled and walked the old Roman walls with my uncertain teenage friends. Huddled like waders under a McDonalds parasol stood three elderly members of the British Legion, avoiding the grey rain and clutching their jangling collection boxes. I had watched them as a Romany woman tried the heather trick on me, but I had learned my lesson some fifteen years before on this very high-street.
The golden arches of the M were flecked with drizzle. I didn’t donate.
Back in the kitchen, we drank coffee. My friend declared:
‘Britain is a sad country. Not sad, as in pathetic, there’s sadness in the air. Even more than a place like Berlin.’
I nodded, gulped caffeine, rubbing the back of our cat’s neck. The small feline had appeared from nowhere. She looked up at me with inquisitive yellow eyes. I looked at the domesticated hunter, purring contentedly on my lap, thinking of the birds she would kill come adulthood. My own dreams were arboreal, lost in an endless deepwood before the first humans came to the islands. Dark creaking boughs and an endless question of ‘what am I?’ My daytimes were flecked with micro-second daydreams of being shunted by unseen vehicles, crushed under the wheels of red buses, a hope for violence and a wounding of my city routine.
One night I had lain awake for hours, thinking of my anxious love, listening to a fox scream in the back garden. Otherworldly, torture victim, sufferer of abuse. The sound made me sick. When sleep finally came, nothing but nightmares of metallic atrocities and bored sexual violence.
At home in London, clutching hot tea on winter nights, my mood lifts when I see a green-jacketed Chris Packham on the BBC. Packham the punk fan whose website proudly declares: ‘He also embraced Punk Rock and played in a band and the DIY ethos and determination to never take ‘no’ for an answer are forcefully retained.’
There’s a strange could-be nostalgia, maybe something else as I remember a greener world, but then the world
greener, wasn’t it?. On a day in mid-2012, I pass a flock of house sparrows chirruping loudly in bushes by Enfield Lock. Perhaps they are returning.
In Niall Griffiths’ novel of English cultural imperialism
we get treated to the striking image of an illegal rave high in the Welsh mountains, a small bird caught between competing bass frequencies, buffeted between speakers above a sweaty crowd of dropouts and marginals. Elsewhere in the novel, a bleating lamb stumbles blindly, its eyeballs ruined and removed bloodily by crows. I have no illusions as to many of these creature’s natures. I recall seeing four magpies (‘for a boy’), peck and stab a pigeon to death in grotty London parkland, amid detritus of Special Brew Cans and empty crisp packets.
J.A. Baker, that writer’s writer, took his English love of the avian to incandescent and hallucinatory heights with his undefinable books
The Hill of Summer.
He died in obscurity. Bert Jansch wrote an entire instrumental LP themed around British avians, segueing from
. They knew the power of these words to transform.
In 1993, three years after the Poll Tax riots and a year prior to the passing of the Criminal Justice Bill, my father took my brother and I way out West to the Scilly Isles, a buzzing helicopter from Penzance over a churning Atlantic to reach the tiny archipelago. I was ten years old. A mecca for twitchers and bird lovers. Cornish cream clotting in the genteel hotels as earnest men in waxed green jackets, telescopes hung like prize kills over their shoulders, pace the small land masses of Tresco and St. Mary’s. Crime is so rare as to be mythic there. Michael Morpurgo speculated
Why the Whales Came,
for children, on Tresco, although I never read his books at that age.
The Scilly Isles have been inhabited since the Stone Age. The idea of archipelago living appeals greatly.
It is here, in Major’s grey reign, that’s where my nostalgia takes stubborn root, despite my better judgement. I start to remember events before they have finished, catch myself thinking of the things I am doing
in terms of ‘do you remember when?...’ The unrecoverable past, the writer’s mine. Every day is Remembrance Day.
So it was in those late Tory years that the trip to the Scilly Isles was undertaken. A year or so ago I saw my father’s collection of photographs from those times, my brother and I small, fresh faced in wellies and kids’ binoculars. These days, all I see are the age lines in my parents’ faces.
I live on an island. It’s shores, the coast, a permanent fixture in my childhood, my daytrips. In the dreamtime I hop across an archipelago of interrelated ideas. Every person, or no person, is an island, the phrases are used in equal measure. I know the impossibility of true communication and I do find understanding, companionship, rapport, connection with others. A network of interrelated ideas, and we all act as ciphers in some way to each other. She represents the vegan idealist, he the advocate of a polyamorous lifestyle, the cyclist, the writer, the liability, the saviour, the eccentric who's into birds.
My life-map is an archipelago of safe havens and fond memories, surrounded by deep seas of unknown towns, rail replacement bus services, washed out concrete corners.
Everyone’s an island. We form our own archipelagos.