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Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

Beatrice HarrisonOn May 19th 1924, the BBC made history with its first live broadcast of a wild animal, setting its microphones and sound equipment in the leafy Surrey garden of cellist Beatrice Harrison as she performed a duet with a nightingale. Against all of the expectations of BBC founder Lord Reith at the time, who reluctantly agreed to the idea despite believing the nightingale would be an uncooperative prima donna in its role, the broadcast proved profoundly entrancing, commanding an estimated audience of a million listeners and making Harrison internationally renowned. She was the recipient of 50,000 pieces of fan mail in response to the serenades, some of them addressed simply to The Nightingale Lady. Staying faithful to the precise date and place —even after Harrison eventually moved houses and the nightingales became the sole performers— that day marked the beginning of a yearly broadcast tradition that lasted until 1942 when the Second World War abruptly intervened. On May 19th of that year, as BBC sound engineers were about to go live to an expectant audience with nightingales on the airwaves again, a squadron of RAF planes loomed into the Surrey sky. Comprising 197 Wellington and Lancaster bombers, the squadron was flying east towards Mannheim in Germany on a bombing raid at the height of the war. Realising that a live broadcast of the aircraft could easily compromise the mission if being listened to in Germany, the sound engineers swiftly cut the feed.

Bee orchid

Although that temporary confluence of bombers and nightingales was never aired, an archive recording of the day still exists. On one side of the disc can be heard the drone of the departing aircraft as they pass over the garden, while the other has them returning in the aftermath of the raid, minus the eleven planes that went missing on the mission. Both are woven with singular and soaring song. I know of few more poignant and haunting sounds than those brief minutes when nightingales, singing in search of a mate after their long and arduous journey from Africa, share the spring air with a dense flock of bombers. There is a compressed fragility to it all — a tense, suspended beauty, as if that particular point in time was held momentarily in balance, tilted so easily into oblivion. Above the ecstatic, pulsing songs gathers the murmur of distant aircraft on the horizon. Merely a purr at first, something at the very edge of hearing, the sound rises to an ominous drone until it’s nearly equal to the nightingales in volume, underpinning their songs with a deep and continuous thrum before fading like smoke into the distance. Theirs is a brief and unusual unison, the strange, hypnotic braiding of sentience and machine, a moving threnody to life, struggle and death.

Victorian munitions vaults

That recording, now 74 years old, resonated greatly with me this past June when I joined a group of artists, ecologists, writers, historians and photographers in Kent for a project entitled Reimagining Lost Landscapes. Brought together by a charity called People Need Nature, we’d been asked to explore and reflect upon the former military base of Lodge Hill on the Hoo Peninsula, recording and documenting its cultural and natural aspects while considering its various values, whether historic, environmental or spiritual. Along with eleven other military bases, Lodge Hill is mothballed and being disposed of by the Ministry of Defence as it aligns itself with new strategic realities and financial concerns, shedding some of its extensive portfolio in the process. Currently in the hands of the government’s Homes and Communities Agency and, depending on the outcome of a public inquiry in 2018, potentially slated to be the site of a new town consisting of up to 5,000 houses according to proposals by Medway Council, it’s a large and extraordinary place spread along the ridge of the peninsula and partially nested within a wooded vale. Utilised by the military for a variety of purposes over the decades, Lodge Hill also teems with impressive natural habitats that are inextricably bound up with spaces of human use. So interwoven are they that it’s impossible to untangle them, much like those two strands of sound that coalesce on the recording, a recording that never seemed far away as we explored the base in sharp sunlight and drenching summer rains. As the stronghold of Britain’s dwindling nightingales, Lodge Hill is listed as a protected Site of Special Scientific Interest on their behalf, supporting 1% of the nation’s entire population. And so those few, unrepeatable minutes in a Surrey garden, magnified by time and lent depth by distance, came to embody the place for me, the long-twined histories of nature and war.

Lodge Hill meadowDyer's greenweed

From the moment we began our obligatory safety induction at the gatehouse, the worlds of natural and military history appeared to coincide, like parallel lines running together in the distance. As though a field guide to an unfamiliar country, we were shown through a ring binder of explosive ordnance that could still be potentially encountered on site. We might have been leafing through a book of orchids, waders or wildflowers the way each of the images entranced —the subjects of the photographs as startlingly vivid in their forms and features as their natural history equivalents— but the security guard named a checklist of species that had none of their sensuous appeal: artillery projectile, anti-personnel landmine, area denial sub-munition, air-dropped high explosive. It was a field guide that focussed awareness more than most, revealing the essence of the site’s history right back to its beginning.

Grizzled skipper

Designed as a naval magazine for the storage of munitions in 1870, Lodge Hill brims with the historical signifiers of its times. As an active base for over 130 years, being there is like watching archive film projected onto the landscape, gathered together and sequenced by era. From the grand Victorian vaults of elegant brickwork and arched windows to Britain’s first anti-aircraft battery, built to protect the munitions stores and still standing in ghostly ruins atop a ridge since 1913, the place takes you through successive ages within a matter of steps. There is no forewarning or sign as to what you might discover next. By the time you reach a replica street, screened by dense woodland and scattered with bee orchids and wild bee hives, you’ve arrived in Belfast during the Troubles. By then Lodge Hill had been transferred from the jurisdiction of the Navy to the Army, and this facsimile housing estate, as detailed and convincing as a Hollywood set, was raised to train soldiers in guerrilla tactics, urban warfare and bomb disposal techniques before being stationed in Northern Ireland. The scene is unnervingly authentic down to its smallest touches — the neighbourly back gardens where it’s easy to imagine people chatting across fences over morning tea, the block of public toilets graced with Ladies and Gents signs, and the startling IRA mural of a Republican fighter painted on a wall at one end of the terraced houses. Only a few hundred feet away, or one street over in the scheme of things, the base’s Newry Road, signposted in the same manner as the parallel world that exists outside the base, must have been recast in the 1990s in light of new military priorities and done up with corrugated metal siding and flypostered with fading images of Osama bin Laden and the Ayatollah Khomeini. Conjuring the mirage of a Middle Eastern city for Gulf War training purposes seemed futile amidst the sheeting English rain, the inescapable absurdity of imitating a region of deserts amidst the lush tangle of brambles and wild roses, yet those posters of bin Laden and the Ayatollah, their eyes scrapped away to the silver metal beneath, chilled all the same. Wherever you go in Lodge Hill, you feel as though you’re somewhere else as well.

Osama bin Laden, Lodge Hill

For obvious strategic reasons, military bases have an essential secretiveness about them, a discreetness that wraps them like bark. It’s what lends an element of the surreal to exploring one, where an ominous and unnerving street from conflict-scarred Belfast can sit alongside more commonplace sectors where wall-building and truck-loading are practiced, the utilitarian, but no less essential, aspects of warfare within a training regime. Though heavily invested in their operations as citizens of the nation they’re meant to protect, we know very little of the minutiae that compose a military site. They exist necessarily beyond the public gaze, publicity-shy places cordoned off behind high metal fences and barbed wire, and kept insulated from the larger tides of livelihood and land use that have swept across the countryside. They’re of our world, and yet different – managed in accordance with rules and requirements not reliant on the chemical needs of intensive agriculture or the economic pressures for growth and development. They’re maintained for combat and conflict in their many guises, and sometimes that essential difference in intent inadvertently produces habitats especially conducive to wildlife.

Northern Irish street

Soon after stepping into a sloping meadow beyond the gatehouse, species which are uncommon, or in serious decline, across Britain began appearing as we walked. In bursts of scattered June sunlight, dyer’s greenweed glowed yellow amidst the grasses, increasingly rare grizzled skipper butterflies skimmed the flowers of creeping buttercup and stitchwort, and a brown-banded carder bee was swept up in a net by entomologist Steven Falk, a species that has vanished from most counties and declined by as much as 70-80% since the 1950s. As well as being rich and important repositories of military history, sites with significant cultural value where important aspects of the nation’s military and political past, and in many cases its future, have been forged over a long period of time, active and former bases often exist as islands of diversity in a sea of increasing biological paucity. They’re places that, in more ways than one, remember the past, frequently acting as home to creatures that are being gradually cast out from the countryside. “Scarcer bumblebees speak a lot about landscape quality,” said Steven, holding the carder bee in a plastic tube for us all to see. “They need large amounts of the right flowers from spring until autumn across vast areas, so bumblebees effectively act as barometers of environmental quality.” Steven removed the lid from the tube. “This is as important as a nightingale,” he said, releasing the bee on the wind.

Brown-banded carder bee

From the flower-spun meadow I’d heard a few snatches of far nightingale song followed by silence, the kind of silence that H.E. Bates described in 1936 as the “breathless hushed interval,” but it wasn’t until we’d dropped down through the rippling grasses that we finally heard one up close. It’s a song that’s irrevocably slipping away, like sand in an hourglass. Having “lost 43% of its former range and declined over 90% since the 1960s,” the British Trust for Ornithology believes the nightingale could be extinct in the UK within the next two to three decades. But despite its staggering national decline, Lodge Hill remains home to a significant number of its kind, hosting around 80 pairs, the most to be found in any one place in Britain, partially as a result of the former military management of the land for bomb disposal training. Clear-cuts were mown in parallel lines through scrub where soldiers practiced the craft of defusing, leaving dense thickets to develop between them, unintentionally producing the ideal habitat for nightingales, a suite of dense scrub and clearings, a world of multiple edges where the bird can easily command territory, nest and feed in safety. While the base has emptied of soldiers, the nightingales, for now, remain.

Bomb-defusing zone

Storage bays

There is no wild song in Europe that’s been more revered down the centuries that the nightingale’s, honoured and praised by such poets and philosophers as Keats, Milton and Pliny, and tuned in to by a million people on their wireless sets in 1924 to hear a single bird duet with a cellist, or listened to down phone lines to the living rooms of relatives by those without radios that day. In his book The South Country, Edward Thomas encapsulates this veneration when he writes that nightingale song reminds us that “earth is something more than a human estate, that there are things not human yet of great honour and power in this world.” And yet while much of the country falls increasingly silent of their irrepressible and celebrated refrain, becoming reliant on poems, recordings and stories of the bird instead, as if solely a museum piece rather than a living, breathing creature, here was a place where it still rings as clear as water from the copses and scrub each spring, that spill of rolling, trance-like notes and staccato trills, the swelling and mesmeric spell cast by such a small and physically inconspicuous thing.

Sedum

Republican mural, Lodge Hill

Though we were meant to be considering loss during our time on site, what might vanish if Lodge Hill is to be developed into a town of 5,000 homes, it was the currency of gain that seemed more appropriate to acknowledge. Behind those high fences and walls that have sealed Lodge Hill from public view for over 130 years is a place of singular and unexpected wealth, a mosaic of deserving historical value, natural profusion and remarkable military interest. It’s a reminder of times long gone, but also a place of refuge and resilience in a contemporary sense, harbouring a richness that has often gone missing from other landscapes as a result of agricultural practices and development. And in the case of a remarkable wild bird it’s a place of strange fortuity, where bombs and nightingales are once again entwined, enabling a species to locally thrive amidst its national diminishment. As we explored Lodge Hill I couldn’t help but think of that day in May of 1942, how together the bombers and birds evoke something other than their individual sounds customarily do, those things of “great honour and power in this world.” Instead it’s a hymn to fragility, to all that is insubstantial and unrecoverable about these lives and environments, reminding us of how tenuous everything is. But as those eleven aircraft fell flaming to earth, and explosions tore open the city of Mannheim from the sky, the nightingales continued to sing loyally into the Surrey air for a mate, a world away, yet unmistakeably belonging to it and necessary as well.

This piece was written for People Need Nature after visits to Lodge Hill in Kent in 2015 and 2016. This non-profit organisation celebrates the connections that exist between humans and the natural world, recognising the myriad benefits of our varied relationships to it, and seeking to renew ties where they’ve come undone, frayed or threatened. The fate of Lodge Hill and its rare nightingales, alongside its protected landscape and valuable mosaic of military and historical features, will be decided by a public inquiry in 2018. In the meantime, if you wish to add your voice to the discussion of the future plans for Lodge Hill, Medway Council in Kent has announced a public consultation regarding their proposals for building homes on the site which will close on March 6, 2017. You can send a message through the RSPB’s Lodge Hill e-action, email directly to the Medway Council at futuremedway@medway.gov.uk or by filling in the online form at Medway Council’s own website.

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“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”  

                                            ~ Henry Beston, The Outermost House, 1928           

All images can be enlarged by clicking on them:                                        

Murmuration, Brighton Pier

Murmuration 2

Murmuration 4

Murmuration 5

Murmuration 6

Murmuration 7

Murmuration 8

Murmuration 9

Murmuration is the word given to congregating starlings, those beautiful and mesmeric gatherings that mark nightfall in winter as the birds shoal together before vanishing as if they were long ribbons being spooled into their communal roost. In recent years, though, these astonishing and graceful assemblies have thinned across the starling’s native European range as the species has suffered a steep decline due to a loss of pasture, the increased use of chemicals on agricultural fields, and fewer nesting and feeding sites being available in a rapidly changing landscape. In the UK alone, as much as 80% of the nation’s starlings have been lost in recent years. While billowing black clouds of them could once been seen swirling over London, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast, only a few urban flocks of such significance can still be witnessed today. And the beauty of the murmuration off the coast at Brighton is as much about the large number of people that stop to watch the dance and weave of birds over the sea at dusk – people of all ages, colours and backgrounds, most of them on the pier for the fun fair, fish and chip stands, arcade games and ice cream stalls that are strung along its length, a reminder of the wild and transformative spells cast by those “other nations,” the animals in our midst, “caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.”

Click on the image below to see a short video of the Brighton Pier starlings:

Murmuration 10

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Next month I’ll be travelling to North America for a series of book readings on behalf of The Small Heart of Things. Full details are listed on the events page and all readings are public, so do come along if you’re free and in the area. I’d be very grateful if you could share the events with any friends who might be interested as well. Looking forward to seeing some of you soon – many thanks!

April 6th: 57th Street Books, Chicago, 6PM
April 8th: Prairie Lights Bookstore, Iowa City, IA, 7PM
April 10th: Iowa State University, Ames, IA, 7PM
April 14th: Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS, 7PM
April 21st: Another Story Bookstore, Toronto, ON, 7PM

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The Bugling SkyThe steppe spilled away into the distance, marsh-green and silvered with pooled rain. The morning air was cold and misted, and our breath turned to fog when we spoke. As clouds sealed the plain with grey light, the land seemed eerily still until a hare sprang to its feet. From its concealing flat crouch against the ground, the animal suddenly loomed large on the unbroken plain, its ears spoked like a tuning fork above its head. Seen against the strictly horizontal, anything vertical in a level landscape is lent greater prominence than usual, magnified by the lack of competing features and the desire of the human eye to connect with something solid in all that space. There is less to dilute its presence in the emptiness, its seemingly lone tenancy is magnetic. The hare snapped out of stillness again, sprinting across the wet plain, flinging a necklace of bright water into the air with each step. When it jerked to a sudden stop, a second hare appeared where the first one had been, kicking up water into the distance, parting a path of scattered light through the grasses. I followed its run as it splashed west, shrinking into the distance until I saw a set of ghostly figures in the mist, a family of cranes against the horizon.

Wet puszta

The Hortobágy National Park is the second largest unbroken steppe west of the Ural Mountains and home to such rare creatures as the imperial eagle, saker and steppe polecat, as well as the improbable pageantry of the great bustard, a bird species whose males weigh up to 21 kilos, making them the world’s heaviest flying animal. But, like the remnant prairies of the American plains, these vast Hungarian grasslands are as significant for their cultural history as for the rich wildlife they sustain. Called the puszta by Hungarians, the steppe was once a world of semi-nomadic horsemen and pastoralist herders steering their animals beneath big skies across the sweeping sway of the grasslands, and it remains to this day an important site for the continued husbanding of the nation’s emblematic and ancient breeds of livestock such as the corkscrew-horned Racka sheep and the long-horned Hungarian grey cattle. Utilising the far-reaching visibility of an open landscape for communication, shepherds developed a unique grassland language, operating the evocative and isolated water wells that are dotted about the plain as a messaging system. As told by Dirk Hilbers in the excellent Crossbill Guide to The Hortobágy, the shepherds would position the bucket and the wooden dipping pole, called the sweep, in specific configurations to convey to others on the plain anything from news of a death or the arrival of the police to the time for driving animals to a watering place or that a meal was ready. It was a language made possible by geography, the braided tongue of people and place.

Hortobagy water wells

Long-horned Hungarian grey cattle

The space between earth and sky is where much of the larger life of the steppe takes sudden shape. Despite its seemingly obliging openness, the level land in autumn can be unexpectedly deceptive, sealing its creaturely secrets inside shifting mists and bouts of muddy, deflecting light. Squalls of northern winds and lancing rain often keep birds pinned to the deep grasses in wait for more beneficent days. Even the faintest of furrows can be as concealing as a canyon until an approaching eagle raises geese into the air like wreaths of smoke from a wildfire. But in whatever temper of weather or unforgiving light you find the place, the elegant cranes of the plain are its unmistakeable graces. They claim the puszta with regal authority, the adults reaching well over a metre in height and wearing a scarlet crown on each of their smooth, rounded heads. Magnificence is their kingdom: the long, sinuous neck and plume of lavish feathers about the tail, the stately and stilted legs. Even when just standing they soar.

Steppe

European tree frog

Each October up to 135,000 common cranes gather around the Hortobágy during migration, assembling from points as far north as Scandinavia and the northwest of Russia. They spend their autumn days in flocks and family groups dispersed across the vast plain, feeding on left-over agricultural spoils such as maize and potatoes until hard frosts in November spark their journey further south. Throughout the day we encounter these small parishes of cranes, roaming the dark earth as slowly as shadows lengthening steadily throughout the afternoon. Their movements could be meditations as they glean the fields, precise, measured and spare. But for all the beauty of seeing them in the fullness of light, it’s the enclosing end of day that we await.

Sunset cranes

As the sun begins to slide towards the horizon, the evening reverie begins. In all directions, cranes unfurl and fan their wings, lifting themselves from countless fields across the plain until the sky fills with long ribbons of magnificent creatures. Seeking refuge from nocturnal predators, they cross the steppe to reach a series of fish ponds to roost in shallow water, following the same aerial paths each night during their stay. As though watching the sea roll in along a shore, wave after wave of them pass overhead, a seemingly endless swell of movement against the dimming sky, carried along by the deep breathings of their wings. As the glow of the slipping sun hits the cold autumn plain, tens of thousands of cranes bugle in beautiful unison as their young whistle beside them in flight. There is no space for silence between waves, no room for thought or wishes or worries amidst such abundance, just the trembling beauty of their passing: all the gathered light and geometry of dark lines etching the horizon, the burnished sky and its evening riders. Even in darkness, long after the last sliver of sun has dropped away, you can still hear those trumpeting calls of longing that keep their family groups intact. The cranes push on above the plain into night, a river of song as bright as stars across the sky.

Evening cranes

 

 

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“The least I can do is keep my eyes open. Attention is what I want to spend. I don’t ever want to feel inside me a whole storehouse of unused binoculars, magnifying glasses, telescopes.”

~ Barbara Hurd, ‘Sea Stars,’ Walking the Wrack Line

Walnut in snow

Here in the mountains of northern Greece, we never know what kind of a winter we’ll have until it’s over. In some years deep snow mantles the valleys and slopes like a rippling white sheet has been thrown over the world, the temperatures steadily sinking until the smaller of the two nearby lakes is glazed with ice and our village water pipes freeze solid until spring. In other years, though, winter simply feels like a long extension of autumn, when lizards continue to scatter over the stony hillsides and butterflies drift through the pale and slanting light, worn to a faded memory of their earlier sheen, as if in deference to the supposed season.

This winter has been one of the hard ones so far; the kind of winter when wild snowstorms are followed by a piercingly cold brilliance – the night skies so deep and refulgent that the clarity of vaulted starlight is haunting. But these winters, however beautiful and stilling I find them myself, are tough on the wild species we share this valley with, and so just before Christmas I hung our bird feeders from the snow-sleeved apple trees in the garden and loaded them with seeds. It took a few days for any birds to find them, the feeders swaying like censers in the whistling mountain winds, but when they did, their calls went out across the valley, echo after echo until a carnival of winged creatures turned up one morning in the snow.

Photo by Julia Henderson

Photo by Julia Henderson

The main beneficiary of the bird feeders is the great tit. A relative of the North American chickadee, the great tit is one of the commonest species that exists here, an everyday sight around the village in any season. It’s joined in these roving winter flocks by birds that are no less unusual to this valley – chaffinches and tree sparrows that love to feed on the spill of small seeds at the foot of the trees. We’re so used to these particular birds that it’s easy for them to go unremarked, to see them simply as part of the outdoor furniture. The usual suspects – that’s what my wife and I often call them when we ask one another if there’s anything on the feeders.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Last March I travelled down the west coast of the United States on a book tour. It was my first time in that particular part of the world and everything about the journey – the people, places, landscapes and wildlife – was new to me, brushed with a unique light, the unmistakeable signature of first experience. My days carried a corresponding intensity. One of my stops that month was in Corvallis, Oregon, where I stayed with my friends Charles and Kapa. Along with their generous hospitality, and our long conversations and shared laughter, something else of that stay stands out for me: my time spent watching their bird feeder.

Charles has a ground-floor study facing the garden and he’s hung a bird feeder just beyond the window. Leaving for work one morning, he kindly said I could use the space to get a close view of its visitors. I settled in that morning with a mug of coffee and a field guide, and within minutes that simple pane of glass that framed a feeder had become a window onto another world. Something small flew in and foraged seed from the ground. It was black-eyed and shy, keeping close to the edges, the same cryptic colour as falling dusk. Another bird arrived, sporting rich chestnut flanks and startling ruby eyes beaded black at their cores. I watched, mesmerised by the sheer beauty of these birds that were new to me. As I turned the pages of the field guide, trying to assign names to a cast of colours, shapes and sizes, a bright flash caught my eye. I looked up from the book to see a large bird of deepest azure peering in from the other side of the glass. It carried the wash of a glacial lake on its head, tail and wings, as if an emissary from the far north. It sprung from the feeder and oared away on its own river of blue, but those few seconds in its presence were magnetic.

Snow on the plain

Charles asked me how I’d got on when he returned from work that afternoon. My excitement and delight must have been noticeable as I rattled on about the birds that had graced my day, their names alone a litany of mystery to me: dark-eyed junco, rufous-sided towhee, scrub jay. It turns out – and I should have known, given that it was a garden feeder – that these birds are some of the commonest around, the everyday Oregon equivalents of our great tits, chaffinches and tree sparrows. But that morning, staring through a pane of glass at a suite of elegant and astonishing creatures that were completely new to me, they were anything but ordinary. We tend to honour the first of things in our perceptual experience, elevating newness over repetition, rarity over regularity. It’s the novelty of the encounter that often sharpens its impression for us. Of course no matter how frequently we see a particular bird, becoming so used to its presence that we can sometimes turn indifferent to it in the process, the bird itself never alters at all.

Photo by Julia Henderson

Photo by Julia Henderson

Whenever I look out the window in the direction of the apple trees I try to keep that bird feeder in Oregon in mind, as if it were my first time in this snow-filled valley instead of being midway through my fifteenth winter here. I watch the great tits with the same keenness of eye that saw juncos, towhees and scrub jays blaze into my world as if forged new from a fire, resolving to be attentive not only to the things that are unexpected, but to those that are ever-present as well. The great tits are a blur of steely-blue wings against the snow, jackhammering sunflower seeds against the limbs of the tree. They send the bird feeders spinning like merry-go-rounds when they land on them at speed, twirling together until they finally slow, their feathers the colour of lemon peel and coal. I’ll see these birds throughout the year, long after I’ve cleaned the feeders and hung them from a beam in the shed, wondering what kind of winter will grace us next time around; creatures so commonplace that they’ll put in daily appearances as I sow and weed the garden and then harvest its fruits, but no less wondrous for their familiar and predictable presence.

Photo by Julia Henderson

Photo by Julia Henderson

This post first appeared on Jana Svoboda’s Tiny Resolutions series on her blog Door Number Two. Many thanks to Jana for inviting me to write for it!

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Wind, WaterIn the absence of sunlight flickered a different kind of brilliance. It was brief and beautiful, an iridescent bead at the edge of a strange and moving place, a lonesome cemetery sloping towards the shore. There were cherry-red candles and sticks of incense left as offerings, sea-mist like a shawl. In the shallows, the sleek ripple of a seal broke the surface, and then that bead of bright and whirling light caught our eye, glittering from a tree.

I’d crossed the Puget Sound from Seattle to Victoria by ferry that morning. All the braids of blue water and knots of winter-green islands that I’d seen earlier in the week as my flight lowered over the Pacific Northwest had been stripped back by coastal weather to a series of spectral shades. The sky was tarnished, the colour of old cutlery sold out of shoeboxes at car boot sales. Rain hung across the sound like a ghostly, shifting veil, the air stippled with spray from the dark waves rising against the hull. Wherever I looked, sky had joined sea. There was no distinction other than the line of their entwining, like a thin seam of solder sealing them together in place.

Strait of Juan de Fuca

I watched that grey line for much of the journey, knowing that clear weather would eventually undo the illusion of union. And I wondered about the effects of separation. Sometimes we’re let go of place, released from an embrace we’ve long known. In Seattle I’d met a fellow birder while scanning the foreshore for sea ducks. During our conversation about the species of the area, he told me to look out for Anna’s hummingbird. So redolent of simmered sunshine, a hummingbird was about the last creature I’d imagined finding in the midst of a wet and unforgiving northwest winter, but that tiny pulse of a bird, hypnotic as the glow off a summer lake, has expanded its range considerably in recent years. Once confined solely to northern Baja California and southern California, Anna’s hummingbirds have spread as far north along the Pacific coast as British Columbia and eastwards into some of the interior deserts of the west. The reason for this is simple: residents are planting more and more exotic ornamentals in their gardens, providing pioneering sources of nectar outside the native staples of the bird’s southern heartland. Crucially, especially in the northwest, where even exotics struggle to bloom in the wet winter mire, garden hummingbird feeders, devoutly topped up with a solution of liquid sugar whenever low, have enabled a once strictly southern species to become year-round residents of the north. “You’ll probably hear it before you see it,” said my new acquaintance. “Listen out for its faint buzzes and whistles.”

Chinese cemetery, Victoria

As my ferry slowed into Victoria, my friend Lorne met me in the harbour. After a late breakfast of pancakes, eggs and coffee in a warm and homely diner, we set off through mist and drizzle. “There’s a place I’d like you to see,” said Lorne, steering us towards the coast. We pulled over above a crescent bay, then sank down a winding rocky path into a meadow of scattered stones flanked by a few houses, a cemetery at the edge of the sea. Everything was saturated. Mosses and lichens had sponged up the rain, swelling into bright winter flowers on the graves. Each name on the stones was etched in Cantonese, and within moments of being there I felt that strange, magnetic hold that some places have over us. A seal cleaved the grey waters close to shore; a harlequin duck, exquisitely turned out in black and maroon, hugged the rim of a tide pool; a black oystercatcher fanned itself along the coast. Amidst all the movement of the breathing world, though, was the ineffable stillness of the departed.

Chinese grave

In the 19th century, the Chinese community of Victoria was forbidden from burying their dead alongside the city’s other residents. Instead their graves were dug in a separate, racially segregated section of the Ross Bay cemetery. Allocated a low-lying quadrant prone to erosion, the graves were occasionally swept into the winter sea by storms, so in 1903 a Chinese community association in the city purchased a plot overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Harling Point, guided by the principles of feng shui.

For the ancient Chinese, feng shui – meaning wind, water – was a philosophy of orientation, a way of seeking harmony between earthly existence and the surrounding environment. It sought to locate significant human structures, such as homes, buildings and tombs, in places of vital, life-affirming energy. It looked upon the natural world as essential to our well-being. I can’t pretend to understand the complex symbolic underpinning of the philosophy, nor the intricate reading of the heavens that it would have entailed before the invention of the compass, but I do know something of that desire we have to orientate and align our lives with the natural environment, seeking affinities with landscapes, places and wild creatures that deepen the significance of our brief presence here. Our lives wedded, in wonder, to the world.

Archive photo

Despite the auspiciousness of the site, the dead were only intended to be temporary residents of the Harling Point cemetery. Chinese belief at the time maintained that a body’s soul would hover over its tomb and remain homeless unless returned to its natal village. After a period of seven years, the bones of the dead were exhumed, cleaned and stored in a ‘bone house’ until they could be packed in crates and eventually repatriated to China by ship. This practice ceased permanently in 1937 when, with the start of the Sino-Japanese War, ships were unable to make the crossing. In the 1960s, the bones of nearly nine hundred people, stored until then in the ‘bone house’ and originally intended to be returned to their ancestral homeland, were buried in thirteen coastal graves on Harling Point, stranded, both in and out of place. Despite the sparseness of visible markers, the sea-sloped earth is weighted with loss, with only the consolations of wind and water to leaven it.

Memorial markers

Drizzle turned to rain as Lorne and I left, winding our way up the path, turning every few steps to see the gravestones pitched at different angles against the endless pewter sea. I knew the cemetery had moved me in a way that certain places, however unexpected, sometimes do. Its resonance rang through me like a bell. Near the top of the steps, a series of faint buzzes and sharp whistles broke our stride. You’ll probably hear it before you see it. We turned and followed the sound to a leafless tree at the edge of the path, the cemetery and sea spilling away beneath us. At the tip of a branch whirled the emerald and rose glow of an Anna’s hummingbird, glimmering in the winter rain.

Votive offerings

Many thanks to the wonderful Caught by the River for first publishing this piece on their website. It was while I was about to fly to London a couple of weeks ago, partially to read at a Caught by the River event, that I learned that The Small Heart of Things had won a National Outdoor Book Award in the U.S. for Natural History Literature. I don’t think I’ve yet come down to earth. I’ve known of the National Outdoor Book Awards for some years ago now, and it was in 2012 that one of my favourite books in recent memory won the same award, David George Haskell’s The Forest Unseen. Taking a square metre patch of old-growth Tennessee forest, Haskell tells an evocative and attentive story of the woodland world, weaving scientific precision with a vivid, poetic richness as he reveals the extraordinary lives and processes at play in such a small segment of earth. It’s a deep honour to be chosen this year for the award, and to be included in such good company as this remarkable and inspiring book.

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Dalmatian pelican, by Steve MillsIn the pale light of a February morning, a meteor flared unforeseen across the Russian sky. The fireball burned through the cloudless blue, weeping a contrail of smoke in its wake, before eventually crashing into the Ural Mountains and leaving hundreds of people injured by shattered glass from its shockwave. Recorded on myriad photographs and video clips instantly uploaded to the ether, the sharp, blinding light of the meteor’s trajectory was made visible around the world. The footage is startling, like seeing a rocket in the moments before its explosive, murderous impact, or some returning space vessel disintegrating upon re-entry. But those comparisons are of our world, our creations. Some footage revealed the winter morning being swept aside by blazing light, as if the sun had passed out of eclipse, or a door had suddenly swung open onto summer. Soaring over the city of Chelyabinsk at a speed of thirty kilometres a second, that incandescent rock brought us, if only for a moment, into touch with a universe beyond our usual experience, the vast and unfathomable space we sit inside. It was a visitor from afar.

Snow 4

Prespa is still shrouded in winter. Frost and snow clad the high hills and water wends through a palisade of icicles as it plunges downstream. Signs of the season’s turning are few and far between, and yet Dalmatian pelicans have been returning to their nesting sites on the lakes since January. Migrating from Turkey, the Middle East and other parts of Greece, the birds continually astound me by timing their arrival with falling snow, bitter mountain winds and a possibly frozen lake. They endure the ice and cold with commendable constancy, always homing in on the islands of reeds at the heart of the wetland before any other species. Over the years I’ve come to see the pelicans as having an inseparable connection to the lakes, gliding across the still waters or shoaling in the hazy summer light. They seem made for this life, floating in the blue bowl of the basin with an elegant and native ease, a part of the watery weave that holds this place together.

Dalmatian pelicans, by Steve Mills

Dalmatian pelicans, by Steve Mills

Last summer, however, altered my perspective on their world. As wind turbines are being staked on the high surrounding mountains, our monitoring work consists of charting the passage of birds across the sky, trying to determine to what extent their existence is imperiled by the whirling white blades. Along with their migratory journeys, the Prespa pelicans – both Dalmatian and white – often travel great distances throughout the breeding season to feed in other wetlands before returning over the staggered peaks. Standing in mountain meadows, knee-deep in flaxen grasses swept slantwise by wind, I watched pelicans parade all summer. I would see them skim low over the adjacent plain, glide across the fields and scattered houses like stones sent sliding across a frozen pond until they reached the edge of the mountains. And then they would climb.

White pelican, by Steve Mills

White pelican, by Steve Mills

As sunlight poured from the hot summer skies, I timed the rise of the white birds, their ancient, circling patience carrying them higher into the blue. Like many other large-winged birds, pelicans require thermals to carry them the tremendous distances they travel. I counted off the minutes as they rose like it was a choreographed dance, until I could barely see the birds at all. Just dim spots, flecks of paint on the high ceiling of a vault. From that cradle of warm air high above the earth they let go of the harness, beginning their long descending glide to the gleaming lakes beyond the peaks, like meteors stealing across the sky.

Snow 2

It was near midnight one summer when I saw a meteor cross the Prespa sky. The scent of night flowers had floated up like a net to catch pollinating moths. Fireflies sent their secret codes pulsing through the dark while cricket song swelled into a chorus from the grasses. I was sitting in the garden with friends, sharing stories and reminiscences, talking in the open and intimate way of long acquaintance, when the black skin of the sky suddenly split open, unzipped by a line of fire above the mountains. As the meteor sailed overhead our eyes lifted as one, like we were honouring the sky gods of old. The hurtling flame pulled a chariot of smoke across the black expanse, blazing over the lakes where pelicans huddled over young on their summer nests. We peered into the distance until the flickering light finally grew small and dim in our eyes. Wisps of smoke hung like banners over the night, and for a moment or two we were sealed inside a spell, a deep silence cast down from above, until we broke into giddy laughter. There are no words in any language to express the sheer depths of awe – sometimes laughter is all we have in the midst of such mystery.

Dalmatian pelican, by Steve Mills

Dalmatian pelican, by Steve Mills

The mountains are cloaked with cold, and the return of the pelicans means we’re monitoring them from the ridge again. But a day after the Russian meteor filled the flat sky of our screens we arrived to find our vantage point hazed by winter cloud. Our breaths pillowed ahead of us with each step. Hoping for a better view farther along, we climbed through a beech forest deep with drifted snow, each twig and branch sealed in the glass of a hoar frost. We’d entered a crystal mountain palace, an ice-world veiled in mist. Cloud sifted across the slopes, and all about us the silence and snow ensnared us.

Snow 3

It’s not easy remembering to look up. Standing amidst cloud and snow brought home to me the forgetful tendencies of the eyes. Our lives are lived primarily on the ground, in the here and now of our immediate concerns and surrounds. We’re so used to keeping our eyes ahead of us, focused on the next step – on work and worries, our daily routines – that whatever glimmers about the edges, or passes high above, can easily slip unnoticed through our days. As far as the human mind can fathom, what arches above the clouds is virtually endless, a universe of other worlds and stars and galaxies beyond reach. Comparatively few things pass into the narrow orbit of our experience, the tiny span of our sentient presence on this planet, and yet we’re part of something indescribably vaster all the time.

Dalmatian pelican, by Steve Mills

Dalmatian pelican, by Steve Mills

Wrapped in the white shroud of the clouds, I found myself wondering whether pelicans were passing above us on their way to the lakes, beating snow from their feathers or effortlessly sailing. I thought about them following their ancient, millennial trajectories high across the granite peaks, or circling up into the deep summer blue like the sky was another sea, where they floated with the same elegant ease. These passing travellers are reminders: to be open to faint glimmers that appear in the distance; to look up and let wonder lift me from the surface of the earth; to let go and lean into the sky.

Dalmatian pelican, by Steve Mills

Dalmatian pelican, by Steve Mills

It’s a great pleasure to be able to feature some of the beautiful pelican images of Steve Mills with this Notes from Near and Far post. Steve is the winner of the 2011 Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award in the Bird Behaviour category for this stunning image of a merlin and a snipe. Together with his wife, Hilary Koll, Steve runs BirdWING, a tremendous non-profit organisation which aims to raise awareness of birds and work on behalf of their habitats in northern Greece. There’s plenty of information on their website, and if you’re interested in getting involved or receiving an occasional email newsletter with updates about their conservation work and details of the birds of Greece there’s a place to subscribe on the homepage. The photos in this post can be enlarged by clicking on them.

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To listen to an audio version of ‘An Uncertain Country’ click the play button

To near the coast in April is to stray into uncertain country. At times a hot sun bathes the orange groves until they glow. Then the lashing rains return, hurled by the wind across the hills like ragged grey sheets. Mist and cloud roll cold over the plain where green seedlings stand shivering to their knees in drowned fields. A burst of sun sheers open the sky, only to be snapped shut by a lid of dark clouds.

The uncertainty stretches to more than just the weather, though; there is a sense of things hanging in the balance when we arrive. Birds make landfall throughout the day, so that at any moment a silent and secluded pool might be riffled with the murmur of wings. Migrating across the Mediterranean, they turn up anywhere on the salt marshes and lagoons that frill the Ionian coast across the strait from Corfu, steering out of the bleak storms or flung hurtling ahead, aiming for these small islands and edges of refuge, the dwindling places of wild necessity.

The Kalamas estuary spreads between the mountains and sea, an in-between world where salt and silt entangle. But however impressive these wetlands can be, they’re only an echo of their original size and substance, like pockets without a coat. Diminished by draining and dumping, and the pollution from fertiliser run-off, they still sparkle with concentrated life. Spoonbills huddled like the first fall of snow. Heads lowered together, they trawled the waters as if they’d been cinched into a pure white circle by rope. Cattle egrets rode the backs of cows like they were droving them home. Marsh sandpipers riddled the mud and herons speared the shallows, all feeding with the eagerness that follows a long journey. In places I could see how the fields claimed for farming were filling with wings as well, the salt water seeping back in, rising along its native course to restore an ancient equilibrium.

The wild world has a way of returning. Scattered across the mountains above the estuary were the silhouettes of empty houses. Whatever small sounds our steps made as we climbed to the ruins of old Sagiada were swallowed by the rain, sealed up by the squalling April weather. A pair of ravens hung as if black commas in the sky and Judas trees blazed like candles from the dark forest. The village had been torched by German forces in 1943, and its inhabitants fled their homes for Corfu, striking out across the narrow blue waters from the harbour far below. Through the grey mist that layered the strait I tried imagining the ragged line of boats escaping through the swells, the flames the passengers would have seen engulfing their homes as they sailed away, the sound of weeping trailing across the sea.

Having left behind their fields of sesame, rice and cotton, along with their animals and belongings, some villagers returned from Corfu at the end of the war to the handful of homes that weren’t completely destroyed. But as if forever condemned they were forced to leave a year later when the Greek Civil War swept brutally across the mountains. From that day the village has stood empty, an isolated home to the church and its fading frescoes. All that remains are the echoes of the ruins, the wild arbour of vines spreading like a fan across the walls and the fig shoots growing from old kitchens with no one to steep the young, budding fruit in syrup to be stored in jars for winter sweets. Stone arches clad in ivy mark a way between rooms, or passages from the houses into lanes that once led to the market square. The earth was furrowed with the habits of forgotten days.

Whatever certainty there might be is rarely ours to know. It eludes us like mist about our fingers. Driving the edge of a coastal lagoon the day before, yellow wagtails had fallen about us like rain. Wearing fresh lemon coats for the new season, they dropped out of the storm in their hundreds, as though a door in the clouds had swung open to release them. Spilling from the marsh tussocks and tamarisks lining either side, they were joined by swallows that swooped and swirled, circling us on our slow journey like chaperones from the skies. The air was woven with wings as we inched along; movement sustaining a stillness, a moment poised around our shared and unexpected laughter, the singular and irrepressible joy of being a part of the world. Our lives come and go with these moments, diving at depth or buoyant the next. And like birds or villagers making landfall after the uncertain crossing of seas we never know what we’ll find until we arrive.

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