A landscape is not an empty environment. It is not static. A place is as much defined by the beings that live within it, that make a place their home and in turn help define the makeup of that very place.
When I am crushed on the London transport networks and I dream of some other life, I think of birds. I think of the diving arctic terns and Bewick’s swans surrounding the island in Finland where we stayed one summer. A red kite in battle with crows above the M4. The mating dances of the marsh harrier in Stodmarsh, Kent. The puffins and guillemots I haven’t seen for many years. Birds, at times, represent escape and transformation.
For me, a defining aspect of what gives a specific space its character is what bird species live there. Perhaps in Britain, with so few large mammals, birds are regarded a little bit more highly than in other places around the globe. This is just a hunch I have, but then again Britain’s birds are the most watched in the world. I can only offer theories as to why this is
I’ve written a fairly lengthy explanation of the reasons why I think birds and birdwatching are important (‘Specifics’, for Unofficial Britain, here) but there’s room to go into some more depth about how it interweaves with and relates to the concept of landscape punk.
What is interesting to me is the very real presence that Britain’s bird-life has in our culture, and in our literature. They are the real and physical things we see, but they also represent something deep and significant within us. Some of my favourite writers who have written about place and landscape have turned their attentions to the avian world, with startling results. Take for example the Welsh writer Ron Berry, author of such powerful novels Flame and Slag and So Long, Hector Bebb, who also wrote his own idiosyncratic take on watching peregrines (the imaginatively titled Peregrine Watching), bringing his unique prose style to a subject that could be very dull, were it just confined to the realm of field notes or scientific writing. Berry was a huge influence on writers like Niall Griffiths, and his novels are a revelation – seriously go and track down So Long, Hector Bebb. Working class and from the Rhondda Valley, his style (I assume largely self-taught) bends language into strange new shapes, is daring and experimental. He is as in love with language as he is with people, place and nature. Berry brings this linguistic flair, and a keen awareness of the politics of place, to his writing about peregrines:
Above the escarpment, 15-20 year-old sitka spruces cover the mountains as far as the eye can see. Down below, beyond the dam wall, more sitkas on what was once a large, rolling common. Here in Wales, the Forestry Commission has effected a land-grab greater than any since the Roman invasions. Horizons have been degraded, watersheds obliterated, deciduous copses overwhelmed. When the conifers are harvested in the next century, areas of ancient Gwalia will look like the Western Front, reeking of diesel instead of cordite.
Watching peregrines becomes obsessional.
We get the sense of a world under threat. Progress threatening to strip the land of all its biodiversity, and the birds, the peregrines in particular, become an antidote to something.
Obsession is what powers a much more famous work on the same topic, JA Baker’s The Peregrine (I’d recommend this essay by Gareth E. Rees for a smart take on it). Another amateur, I suppose, writing a book that could be considered outsider art, its dense visionary prose soaring way beyond any conventional ideas of memoir or nature writing. Like Berry, the writing is an English language you haven’t quite encountered before, powerful and charged in a way that is only fitting; birds can produce immense passions and the language employed by these two writers reflects this.
In The Peregrine obsession spills over into an attempted act of possession. Baker’s world willfully strips human influence away (you could say it desperately ignores it), to the extent where the human narrator at times becomes the falcon he tracks. An urge to leave the problems of the human world behind, to become as free as the falcon. Though Baker is, in the end, also painfully aware this is a world under threat. There’s a quote from the beginning of the book I return to again and again:
Before it is too late, I have tried to recapture the extraordinary beauty of this bird and to convey the wonder of the land he lived in, a land to me as profuse as Africa. It is a dying world, like Mars, but glowing still.
Baker is talking about the Essex countryside, an area stretching from his home in Chelmsford to the coast, and Berry the landscapes of South Wales. Both are rendered in terms that make them seem hyper-real – emotional responses to place as important as anything. We all create mythologised personal landscapes in our heads; a lesson I learned from Baker was that your own personal patch, that place that may seem insignificant or dull, can be rendered into something awe-inspiring. It if it is important to you, then it isimportant. This is an attitude that fuels my approach to landscape punk, that I don’t need approval from anyone or anywhere to say what is important. I will decide what is important to me, and hope others will do the same themselves.
In a way, I am celebrating the amateur. We need scientific rigour, and we need the naturalists and scientists. But just as much we need nature writing like Berry’s and Baker’s, human, lyrical and passionate. The feelings I have felt in certain spaces watching birds I see reflected in these works and I know I am not alone. Just understanding the science is not enough. Without the corresponding emotional response to birds and their environment, why should anyone ever care? I believe the world is more than just its parts. It is more than statistics and it is more than the world of strict rationalism. We need the science, of course we do, but to deny the very real emotions landscape and its natural inhabitants can stir in the human being, that seems like a mistake. I am an amateur when it comes to these subjects. I do not possess all the facts. But birds, and the places they inhabit, mean something to me and that, surely, is a valid response.
The sight of birds can be at times an ecstatic and transformative experience. They remind us of a world and a rhythm that is not our own, and of what we may have lost, or be losing.
Tim Dee, in his beautiful account of a birdwatching life, The Running Sky, recognises this:
What they do and how they do it, the same over and over, gives their lives alongside ours an expression or a pattern in the air, that can seem like art or ritual, as if they are deeper in the world than us, more joined to it, as we might dream it only. We have broken from nature, fallen from the earth, put ourselves beyond it, but nature, ever forgiving, comes towards us, makes repairs to the damage we have done. The swallow returns and builds a nest.
Again there is the sense of loss, and of the kind of redemption the birds can offer. Is this selfish and anthropocentric? Probably. I have little problem with this, as we can never step outside the human experience, however hard writers like Baker may have tried.
Kathleen Jamie, in her wonderful essay ‘Peregrines, Ospreys, Cranes’ expresses a kind of puzzlement at the attachment she is forming to a pair of nesting peregrines:
So there we are. Nesting peregrines. Another damn thing to worry about.
Like Dee suggests, the appearance of birds is akin to an ever-forgiving nature holding out the proverbial olive branch. To those who are receptive to such things, you begin to care, much to your surprise. Jamie’s essay (from her superlative non-fiction collection Findings) is another great example of the amateur birder being lured into a world other than their own. The peregrines appear and she is fascinated by them, leading her on path that brings her to Baker’s book (out of print at the time) and into the rhythms of the avian world:
Between the laundry and the fetching kids from school, that’s how birds enter my life. I listen. During a lull in the traffic, oyster catchers. In the school playground, sparrows – what few sparrows are left – chirp from the eaves. There are old swallows’ nests up there. It’s late April but where are the swallows? The birds live at the edge of my life. That’s okay. I like the sense that the margins of my life are semi-permeable. Where the peregrines go when they’re not at their rock ledge, I couldn’t say.
We can see this interest spill over into music too. Bert Jansch recorded an entire instrumental LP entitled ‘Avocet’, with every song named after a British bird. Birds appear constantly in British folk music – ‘The Lark in the Morning’, ‘The Cuckoo’ and so on. The contemporary band Grasscut have named their latest LP ‘Everyone was a Bird’ featuring songs like ‘Curlews’ and ‘Red Kite’, getting across a deep attachment to both landscape (with its ‘glittering estuary mud’) and the birds that live in them. Like the writers I have mentioned, this is music that reenchants the world, and it does only by altering how you look at things. I listen to ‘Curlews’ and get that same feeling from the books I’ve mentioned, the same feeling I get when I see waders out on the mudflats. It is a real and genuine response.
These emotional, personal and idiosyncratic responses to birds and landscape fit perfectly into my take on landscape punk. It’s about a willingness to get out into the world and interpret in your own way, to experience that strange interplay between nature, the grand sweep of human progress and the individual experience. Sometimes it can be angry like Berry, curious and quizzical like Jamie, poetic and enchanted like Dee. At times it can darken into the misanthropy and death-laden desire for escape we find in The Peregrine. We are not academics and our various responses are all valid. And for some of us, birds are a way of experiencing the world in an incredibly vivid way.
In the new year I am happy to be a part of an anthology published by Dunlin Press, a book of creative-writing and illustration focusing on British wading birds. I chose the avocet, for its significance to me on a personal level (seeing them back in Kent at Oare marshes was a joy hard to articulate), as well as its historical significance; the avocet returned to Britain during the second world war, taking advantage of flooded land that would become RSPB Minsmere, and indeed kick-started the creation of the RSPB itself. The avocet is just a wader, just a bird. But is so much more than that if you look at it the right way.