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Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

Coyote RoadWithout divination of their unveiling or any sense of a near and impending trajectory, the unexpected crossing of paths with a wild animal can arise as a profound surprise, a sudden braiding of ways both beautiful and bewildering, as though a brief dazzle of magic had detonated across the surface of the ordinary world. These encounters can be as strange and magnetic as those inexplicable old mysteries passed down through the ancestral line, odd happenings and surreal stories that, while both distant and dislocated, appear simultaneously fitting as well, resonant of things intended, as though two hands had been laced together in a clasp. But such wild moments of wonder as animal encounters never materialise intact and isolated from time, however much the experience might seem pure while in their presence; instead they are born of a restless sequence of events, given necessary breath and momentum by the messy pedestrianism of our lives, the stray and seemingly superfluous pieces of existence that tend to go untold in the larger telling. The small and simple fragments that carry us, always and without fail, farther down the road.

Mourning cloak

We’d left Kingston later than any of us had planned to, starting the journey back to my parents’ house in Eastern Ontario beneath a brilliant mid-afternoon sun after a weekend away. The five of us—my mum and dad, my brother, my wife and me—hadn’t been able to reach an agreement on where to eat before heading for home, and so we’d eventually peeled away from the highway to trawl the fast food options at the unappealing edge of an out-of-town shopping mall. After about ten or fifteen fruitless and frustrating minutes we abandoned the idea and picked up a quieter road northwards, my parents remembering a wayside restaurant they’d once dined at on the way. No sooner had we slowed when glimpsing its sign in a rural hamlet than we saw it was closed. We were so much nearer to home by then that we considered just waiting out our hunger and fixing something to eat upon our return, but only a handful of miles further on a roadside diner loomed in the crisp spring light of the dwindling day, one of those large but homely places where supersize motorbikes stand in ranks outside and desserts are racked up on white metal shelves within the shelter of a curved plexiglass case, great wedges of lemon meringue and coconut cream pie, deep bowls of creamy rice pudding. After strong coffees and burgers, and a reluctant rain-check on desserts, we waved goodbye to the waitress as we swung the door wide and hit the road again, one of those unassuming back roads of Ontario that crisscross the province in strictly parallel and perpendicular lines like a sheet of graph paper had fallen from the sky, laid over a land of farms, fields and forests in a transparency of regimental order. And that’s when we first saw it, so sudden and surprising to us that its presence felt oddly unreal, like a decoy compelling drivers to slow.

Amherst Island

But if I think about it for a moment, I have to go back even further to understand the context for our being there at that precise time, for long before we’d struggled to find somewhere to eat, delayed here and there by a combination of indifference, indecision and closed businesses, we’d caught a later ferry than we’d intended, crossing from Amherst Island to Kingston on a boat that furrowed a glittering seam of white-edged blue through the chilled waters of Lake Ontario, having missed our ideal departure time because we were still searching for snowy owls and northern harriers on that windswept swell of land. And if a pair of rose-breasted grosbeaks hadn’t appeared while we scoured a tangle of bare branches—the male’s startling scarlet bib so alluring as it pulsed through the worn brown woods that it kept us pinned to the path for a good quarter of an hour—we might just have made it. In fact, the more I think about it, we should have been on that earlier ferry irrespective of the rose-breasted grosbeaks but for the fact that we’d lost an entire hour in the morning by missing our crossing to Amherst Island from the mainland, badly misjudging the time it would take to reach the dock after relying too heavily on memory instead of the satnav and a map, both of which unequivocally told us that our remembered route would terminate in a dead-end nowhere near our destination, leaving us too little time to backtrack on our supposed certainties and follow our non-human guides to the ferry point in time. And if I’m really honest, I would need to scroll back to the night before the ferry if I’m to untangle the collective lack of clarity when it came to our chosen route that morning, back to the snug Kingston pub where we’d celebrated Mother’s Day with large platters of food, a cake and candles that we’d smuggled inside without my mum knowing, and a few too many beers and wines, the after-effects of which had seeped into the morning and slowed our minds. But of course I could go on forever, rolling back across the years through the countless daily decisions, diversions, vacillations and actions that ultimately help account for where we are at any given time, all the near misses and untaken decisions, all the random developments and decisive steps that steadily accrue into something resembling a narrative. But it’s a narrative that, but for a second or two here and there or a missed ferry and an extra drink, could be radically different in its composition and extensive catalogue of experiences. An entire lexical area in the dictionary has even been assigned to defining the possible nature of these minor yet consequential happenings: coincidence, good luck, bad timing, happenstance, accident, providence, chance, serendipity, fate, fortune and destiny. There are far fewer terms, however, to describe how the astonishing can regularly insinuate itself into the ordinary—how beauty and the everyday can easily blend.

Porcupine

Whatever words and ideas we might cleave to, all I know is that we were on that road at the precise moment our path intersected with another’s, a coyote struck with a cast of spring light known only from certain latitudes, the raking, slanted, longing light of the north, gin-clear and distilled from the memory of snow. We pulled over at the side of the road, called into the compressed stillness of the moment, the dense intangible solidity of space that seemed to inflect that simple field with grace as it rose from its grassy edge to a swell of coniferous trees. The coyote’s eyes as they watched us were bright and glimmering, as though they’d sieved sunlight from the air to save for seeing at night. And its strikingly large build, the brindled pelage of long rufous and grey fur and its prominent ears hinted at a possible descendent of the original coupling between the smaller coyote native to the southwest United States as it spread northwards around a century ago and the gray wolves of eastern Canada that were rapidly dwindling in number, the result being the eastern coyote, a substantially larger animal in its hybridised form.

Trout lily

Together we sat in the hushed spill of mystery, all eyes on this forceful presence that imbued the afternoon with a quality of wonder that’s easy to forget exists when faced with the routine aspects of a day, and I realised then that it was the first wild coyote I’d ever seen. If I were to subscribe to the idea of destiny it would be tempting to see all our previous diversions and distractions and delays, even the drinks at the pub the night before, as somehow redeemed by meaningful purpose, as though they were essential aspects to the eventual convergence, governed by a greater need. But what then of the coyote? Is its trajectory defined by destiny as well, or did it face the ordinary challenges of its day, leading to decisions and misjudgments that subtly recalibrated its way? What moments in those preceding hours, seasons and life it had led conspired to guide it to that field at such a time? Had it reluctantly shied away from its usual route that morning because a trio of lorries shipping timber from the vast forests of the north had barricaded the road when the first of them broke down? Did it decide to warily advance through a meltwater pool, usually too deep with spring tricklings from winter’s vanished snows to be safe, to a new hunting ground at the expense of one more secluded? Or did a tenacious vole evade capture by slinking further into the matted pale grasses in the sunless shadow of the trees, frustrating the coyote for a full half-hour, more time than its eventual reward was perhaps worth? And if so, if those minor details in the coyote’s life need to be considered in the context of our encounter, then what of the vole? What events in its brief, fevered existence had colluded in placing it in the coyote’s way at that particular point in time? And if the vole, then what? The lives of the lorry drivers and that year’s quanity of snow that led to the meltwater pool? There is no end to the web of connections.

Snowy owl

The coyote detached itself from the stillness and we watched it rise through the wet and shining field like a leaf flashing upwards through water. It wore light as if a garment, fitted seamlessly to skin. Shouldering its way towards the treeline, the coyote leaned back on its haunches like a family dog when it reached the top and faced us again, raising a back leg to scrape at some irritation behind its ears before yawning as if bored. We knew then that our roads were diverging again, steering us in separate directions. As the sun slipped further towards tomorrow, the sky beginning to flare with orange and red embers against a vault of cobalt blue, the coyote twisted round as it rose and slid as silently as smoke into the woods, each step the start of an unknowable new path. And our own way home, when we eventually let go of the field and carried on in the light of our crossed paths, had been remade in the shape of the world’s wonder.

Eastern coyote

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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 Sum of a Place

“They always say the best way to see the Gwent Levels is with a microscope or a helicopter.” I was walking through the stunning June meadows and dense willow copses of Magor Marsh Nature Reserve with Sorrel Jones, a conservation officer for the Gwent Wildlife Trust. The last relic fenland in south-east Wales, Magor Marsh was my first port of call on the protected Levels, and it hadn’t taken long to understand its significance – the place thrummed and buzzed with summer life. “You’ve either got to get right in and go, Look, this is amazing down here, or you’ve got to get up high and see this vast, extraordinary landscape from above,” said Sorrel, carrying her young son on her back as we walked, who kept irrepressibly pointing out cygnets and baby mallards in the water at the edge of the meadows. As much as the thought of experiencing the Levels from on high appealed to me, seeing them as a buzzard or a peregrine might, an ancient, hand-crafted mosaic of fields, villages and grazing marsh riddled by narrow waterways that has been reclaimed from tidal saltmarsh since Roman times, I was fairly sure that my debit card wouldn’t stretch to a twirl in the sky and decided that getting as near as I could was the best way of coming to know this place.

Meadow light

Close up of reen

Damselfly

Besides, that practice of looking attentively and up close at things, whether through the lens of a microscope or simply by getting your hands dirty in search of the rich particularities of a place, has the weight of successful precedence behind it. It’s enabled scientists to establish the extraordinary ecological diversity and vitality of the Gwent Levels, home to an enviable range of species from the totemic otter to the rootless duckweed, Wolffia arrhizal, the world’s smallest flowering plant that’s found nowhere else in Wales, so tiny that you could hold thousands of them in your cupped hands. And it’s a technique that’s allowed archaeologists to painstakingly sift through alluvial silt to reveal boats from the Roman period buried miles inland or the astonishingly preserved Mesolithic footprints of the intertidal zone, the 7,500 year-old steps of adults and children off the coast, as well as those of various wild animals, including the common crane, a bird that until quite recently had been extinct as a breeding species in Britain for over 400 years. It’s a place that comes into clearer focus as you near.

Reen near seawall

Orchid

Afternoon on the seawall

But even at a distance the Levels are mesmeric, beguiling beneath wide, estuary skies. They shape-shift with the weather as you walk them, borrowing the magical sea-light of the Severn Estuary when it’s struck by sun, or turning as dark and dramatic as a storm-tide. By a set of lagoons near the coast, I watched a pair of those magical, rare cranes drop slowly through a bloom of late afternoon sunlight, lowering on vast open wings like they were descending by parachute, the glint of a scarlet crown on each of their graceful heads. For the past year this pair of cranes has been regularly crossing the Severn Estuary from a reintroduction project on the Somerset Levels, restoring the tie of antiquity between their species and the Levels landscape that’s been memorialised by those relic steps beneath the tide. There’s hope that in the future cranes will breed there again, and if they did they would join some of the other charismatic species that dwell on the Levels, such as avocets, little egrets and water voles. The water vole occupies an unenviable position in modern Britain; it’s the nation’s fastest declining wild mammal, its population having nose-dived by as much as 90% since the 1970s. For a period of nine whole years it had gone unseen on the Gwent Levels until a successful reintroduction scheme returned the mammal to its native home in 2012. From those small beginnings at Magor Marsh the water vole has spread over three miles on its own, journeying outwards across its former habitat by reen, like the ripples from a stone dropped suddenly into still water.

Water vole

Common cranes, Gwent Levels

Reen, from the Welsh rhewyn, is the local word for the watery ditches that criss-cross the landscape like arteries, the primary feature of a complex drainage system that was dug over many centuries, and which included a subtle variety of components, from parallel field depressions known as ridge and furrow to shallow surface grooves called grips. On a map of the region the reens appear in bewildering blue numbers, like a dense grid of city streets, carrying water from the uplands and local springs safely out to sea in order to protect the reclaimed land from flooding. And it’s these earthen-banked ducts that set the Gwent Levels apart, making them both culturally and ecologically unique. Sculpted on top of an older Roman landscape of reclamation which was buried by alluvium some 1500 years ago after sea defences failed, the Levels reflect the long and evolving relationship between coastal people and the sea. Most of the present-day reens are medieval in origin, some of them the work of monks who lived and worshipped on the Levels. Such is the uniqueness of the historic, human-shaped landscape, including an evocative line of majestic old sallow trees that are believed to have sprouted from the willow mats laid down by monks attached to Tintern Abbey when crossing a particularly wet field to reach their grange farm near Magor Marsh, that the Gwent Levels are a designated cultural monument in Wales, a Landscape of Outstanding Historic Interest. And like those woven wands of willow that have sprouted into trees, culture and nature are deeply entwined across the landscape, giving rise to the wild diversity of the reens.

Reen 1

Pond weed

Line of willows

I sat in on a reen-dipping session with a class of schoolkids at Magor Marsh run by Kathy Barclay, an inspiring community education officer for the Gwent Wildlife Trust. It’s not only scientists and archaeologists who get up close to things, for it’s also the native and intuitive approach that children take to the natural world when given the opportunity. It’s how they’re able to engage with it so richly and perceptively, responding to creatures and sensations of all shapes and sizes with an equal degree of interest. I watched as the 9 and 10 year-olds scooped water, weeds and a wealth of aquatic creatures from the reen with enviable delight, scrutinising the plastic tubs where they’d sloshed the contents of their nets with rapt fascination. They pored over delicate ramshorn snails, tiny, flickering bloodworms, and the startlingly large beasts that are dragonfly nymphs. Racing back and forth with their dripping nets, hollering to each other about a particular discovery or laughing when someone returned with an arm wreathed in weeds, that small reen of their fascination and focus was nothing less than a world to them, which happens to be scientifically as well as imaginatively true.

Wellies

Reed-dipping

“We have 144 Red Data Book aquatic invertebrate species across the Levels,” Sorrel had said when she handed me a net a couple of days earlier, encouraging me to go dipping for the first time since I was a child. “That’s the diversity and rarity that you’re looking at here, because each reen is subtly different. You get fast ones, slow ones, shaded ones, not so shaded ones, so you have this massive variety of reens which suits a massive variety of invertebrates.” Once I got started, I found it hard to stop, twirling my net through the water in a figure eight as Sorrel had suggested, peering into the tub at the treasure I’d hauled up. Looking closely at them, every single one of those myriad blue lines on the map is wholly unique, supporting a singular cast of aquatic organisms according to the reen’s physical characteristics, as if each waterway were a stage for a different play.

Nymph

Severn Estuary near Goldcliff

In hindsight, though, I wish I could have taken that helicopter ride after all, because there’s no better way of appreciating scale than from height. In recognition of the remarkable ecological richness of those reens, the Gwent Levels are listed as a suite of eight adjoining Sites of Special Scientific Interest, encompassing most of that beautiful, ancient place and supposedly safeguarding it against development. From above I’d have been able to see how that nearly seamless stretch of protected land on both sides of the River Usk reaches all the way to the estuary, a glittering green sweep threaded by living waterways and studded with church spires. And while I was up there, I’d have had a clear view of what 14 miles of motorway would look like when driven like a stake through its secluded heart.

Magor Marsh

Tiny gem

Despite the protective measures in place to preserve them, the Welsh Labour government intends to lay six lanes of concrete and asphalt over the Gwent Levels, building a new section of the M4 to ease rush hour bottlenecks where the current motorway is pinched from three lanes to two in the Brynglass Tunnels north of Newport. Their chosen route -named the Black Route in proposals- would carve open four of those SSSIs and the Special Protection Area of the River Usk, as well as fragmenting the Landscape of Outstanding Historic Interest at a cost of at least one billion pounds to the taxpayer. The M4 relief road would irrevocably alter the unique character and integrity of the Levels, something that even the great flood of the Bristol Channel in 1607 (1606 in the Old Calendar), movingly commemorated by a high-water mark chiselled into the outer wall of the Church of St Thomas the Apostle in the village of Redwick, couldn’t manage, despite the terrible tally of death and destruction that those rising waters wrought.

Redwick Church

Bristol Channel Flood, 1607

The motorway would spell the end of the Levels as an intact repository of cultural and natural wealth. As the study for the characterisation of the Gwent Levels as a historic landscape makes clear, “the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of each part.” Along with the direct loss of habitat beneath the concrete footprint of the motorway, one of the largest single losses of SSSI land anywhere in the UK, the M4 bypass would rupture the essential cohesion of the place, acting as an impermeable barrier to all flightless wildlife, snapping protected habitat like a cracker in two, and isolating wild animal populations on either side of the divide. “It seems ironic,” said Kathy Barclay, “that we’re reintroducing water voles and re-establishing a population that’s going to be cut in half. Nothing’s going to go beyond the motorway.” While little wildlife will travel beyond the looming barrier once construction has begun, it’s likely that the effects of the motorway will seep everywhere, as each of the unique reens is coupled to another, linking up in a vast, interconnected drainage system that takes water southwards to the estuary. Any pollution from the motorway that enters one of the reens –whether from noxious fumes or a hazardous spill- would likely enter them all, carried along like disease in a bloodstream, fouling each of those singular, underwater worlds that the extraordinarily sensitive invertebrates are entirely dependent upon.

Reen near Magor

Harvest time

The Welsh government’s own website admits that during its consultation process it received more comments against the motorway proposal than for it, but dismisses them without a trace of irony as possibly being “the result of interest groups’ initiatives” while simultaneously championing the support they’ve received from corporate business. Even the Federation of Small Businesses in Wales has come out against the project, arguing that there are far better ways of spending such a colossal amount of money to develop the economy of south-east Wales. And despite its so-called need, no one I spoke to was in favour of a motorway across the Levels. Not bikers or birdwatchers, publicans or soldiers. Not even the taxi driver from Newport or the lorry driver from Port Talbot that I imagined might have more sympathy for the development in light of their working lives. Regardless of whether the people I spoke to lived on the Levels or elsewhere in Wales -and many of them regularly used the notorious M4 tunnels- they all articulated the same point of view, a deep concern about the project’s vast cost at a time when local services were being cut and a passionate belief that the place should be preserved as it is, just like it was meant to be, for its wildlife, historical importance and open character.

Severn Estuary

Pollard willows

“It’s hard to believe what these fields once were, and what they still are. When the tide comes in you get a real sense of their history.” I’d stopped for a coffee one afternoon at a café near the village of Goldcliff after seeing Wayne Mumford, the owner, standing on a picnic table while trying to photograph baby starlings in the eaves. “When I think that the Romans and the monks built this area where there’s so much history, and all the life that lives in the reens, I can’t understand why anyone would want to build a motorway through the Levels.” Wayne had shaken his head in the same dismayed way that Lisa Morgan had inside Donnie’s Coffee Shop in Magor where she’d been helping out the day before, though her voice was sharpened with anger and frustration: “I have to drive into Newport about five times a week and does the current motorway bother me? No. If I have to wait a little longer does it bother me? No.” She went back to wiping the countertop before continuing. “The sad thing is that politicians think they can ride roughshod over people and if they take a little bit, generally they’ll take a little bit more and the core of the place will have already been eaten into. And once it’s gone, we can never have it back again.”

Magor Marsh reen

Usk Lighthouse

What’s at stake with the Welsh government’s plan is not solely the unique and irreplaceable environment of the Gwent Levels, but the kind of future we wish to leave as our legacy. Do we honour protective measures for the purpose they were intended, leaving intact those places of natural and cultural significance, places that are necessary for both wildlife and our own well-being, or do we dismiss them as irrelevant, narrowing our focus until it excludes all but a relentless fixation on development at any cost, corroding the wider duty of care we’ve been entrusted with? In 2015 the Welsh government passed the Well-being of Future Generations Act, a bill that explicitly highlights sustainable development as the key to “improving the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales.” When such gems as the Gwent Levels can be sacrificed for the sake of development, it reveals just how empty of meaning the concept of sustainability can be. “We have to think outside the box as it were,” said Kathy Barclay as we sat in the nature reserve office. “We need to think of different solutions. The history of this place, and the cultural aspects of it are irreplaceable, so once you’ve wrecked it it’s gone. It’s absolutely gone.”

Near the seawall

School kids

The Future Generations Act also obliges public bodies “to make sure that when making their decisions they take into account the impact they could have on people living their lives in Wales in the future.” After the schoolkids had finished reen-dipping, I walked back through the meadows towards the classroom with them. They carried a small selection of creatures in glass jars to look at under the microscope, to bring that captivating world beneath the surface of the water into even greater focus. As swallows curled through the dry summer air and dragonflies glittered over the meadow grasses, I asked a number of them what it was that they enjoyed about coming to Magor Marsh and the Gwent Levels. Each and every one of them, spoken to individually, gave me the same two reasons, as though they weren’t answering a question, with a range and diversity of possible responses, but had instead drawn on a well of common sense in kids. Firstly, they adored the wildlife – all the myriad bugs and birds and butterflies that they got close to on each visit, the very things that accord the Levels their celebrated, scientific designations. But secondly, and of greater surprise to me, they all said they loved the peace and quiet there, the silence away from home and school. That silence must be a strange and phantom thing for them: having already recognised its importance in their young lives, they’re witnessing its increasing disappearance from their experience, the same silence that would be lost alongside the wildlife they loved from large parts of the Levels with six lanes of cars, coaches and lorries roaring through it. Another piece of the place chipped away, leaving a lesser sum in its stead.

Poplars

Ragged robin and visitor

In many respects the children that morning had been much like I’d imagined, a group of ordinary boys and girls who were simultaneously excited, noisy, curious, polite, pushing and laughing, and it was clear that this future generation already had an important stake in this present place, a set of emotional and imaginative connections that immeasurably enriched their lives, highlighting the enlightened reasons why landscapes like the Gwent Levels were originally protected. These were the citizens the well-being act was intended for, those who would inherit our decisions, who would grow up in a world diminished by the loss of unique places if we’re to sanction their destruction. As we crossed a bridge over the last reen before reaching the nature reserve classroom, the kids abruptly stopped talking and watched the water instead. That sudden, overwhelming hush of wonder when they saw a water vole swim across the reen could yet be the sound of nature’s future, and hopefully an enduring element of their own.

Water vole watching

Further information regarding the Gwent Levels and the campaign against the M4 motorway bypass can be found on the Gwent Wildlife Trust’s action page as well as at CALM, an alliance of organisations opposed to road-building across the protected landscape. You can write to your Welsh AM with your thoughts regarding the proposal here, while a petition against the motorway can be found here

The Gwent Levels is one of the places that will feature in the book that I’m currently writing, called Irreplaceable. The book will celebrate a range of unique and threatened places that are both significant and essential for wildlife and our own well-being. Whether ancient woodland that’s being lost to make way for service stations or urban allotments being turned into car parks, the book will champion the voices of those who are resisting their loss. Please feel free to use the comment box below to add any places of importance to you that are currently threatened in one way or another, regardless of how large or small they are, no matter how well known or unsung. Thank you.

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Bee-orchidThere are days that fall easily into two seasons, opening with a shimmer of spring heat before leaning back into winter-cold skies and bitter winds by their end, as if at the last moment a set of scales was tilted with the addition of a final, decisive weight. There’s little that is predictable about this span of turning time; perhaps uncertainty itself is the only thing we can be sure of when it comes to the weather – that a day of sunburn and sandals in the garden can just as easily be followed by a fall of brilliant snow as by another decadent show of burnished light. At times it can feel like we’re riding a seesaw throughout the day, never gaining more than a few hours of stillness at either end. Inconstancy is the mid-season’s sole promise.

PrimrosesEdges

Yet beneath this vivid and unsettled surface of weather, the abrupt and dramatic variations that visibly define this in-between time, there’s a constant murmur of transformations, the unseen but steadfast shift towards spring. Birds set sail on their long migratory journeys out of sight from us, triggered for the most part by changes in the length of daylight at their departure points, arriving with us one day as if conjured out of thin air after crossing countries, continents and countless travails. Sap rises invisibly through trees, the roots sponging up water, nutrients and minerals from the deep dark earth until we notice the swelling green buds and remember the shape of leaves. The streams in the valley ripple fast, suddenly bolstered by snowmelt that has trickled into rivulets and ravines from the high surrounding slopes, each flake condensed into a cumulative cascade of water by warming air. Even beneath us, after snow squalls and throughout ice-fastened nights, corms, bulbs, rhizomes and roots are pushing new shoots through the cold soil to spear towards a far star. Cusped on the threshold of a new season, we’re witness to just a sliver of this wondrous becoming.

Crocus in snow

Easter, Lesser Prespa Lake

Last week friends came to stay after days of blustery snow heralded the sunlit white blizzard of wild blossom. Their ten-month old son, Nojus, was at that in-between age when he craved more than just crawling but couldn’t yet walk on his own. Instead he hitched himself to a low table or chair for support, hesitantly stepping sideways while holding on with his hands, as if clinging to a narrow cliff ledge high above a canyon. Whenever his mother or father helped him, though, he would strike out with visible glee, jettisoning the table or chair as if it were unnecessary ballast, moving forward in thrall to procession, the simple and timeless joy of steps. I watched how his tiny legs wavered and wobbled, suddenly buckling and crumpling unexpectedly beneath him. And I saw how a deep and infectious smile spread brightly across his face when he rose up on each new attempt. Crawling no longer seemed to fit him whenever he scrambled across the floor again, as though it were just the last days of an old season before the new one began. And then one evening, while his father guided him away from the lamp in the corner of the room that endlessly fascinated him, there was something different about the way Nojus’ legs moved with each step. Something solid and articulate, something secure. “He has so much more strength in his legs,” said his father. “He couldn’t do this at all yesterday.”

Primroses in snow

Hellebore wearing a hat of oak leaves

The pale promise of primroses light the riversides like lowered lanterns. Overnight they could be buried by sudden snow, but at midday, in the sun-melted spaces, a soft petal-glow will shine through, a delicate and persistent gleam. Nightingales are back in the valley again, their bright, staccato songs splashed in a spill of sun; and the silence between phrases, the shaped and beautiful waiting. Swallows zing across the sky like gusts of wind and woodlark song falls like a slow and melancholy rain from the suddenly green hills, all those spears of grass angling skyward, just like the risen hellebore that I find wearing a hat of oak leaves. Willows are crowned by vernal light, each uncurling leaf inscribed by sun along its edges. Throughout the valley a snowstorm of white blossom froths in the cool winds that slope from the mountains, releasing a dazzle of sweet scent that hauls in bees like a net. We are at the edge of the turning world, when days waver like a spun coin until the weight of incalculable change finally tips us into spring. And when I next see our friends’ son he’ll be deep into a new season, walking his small corner of world on his own.

Sun sliver

Blossom season, Great Prespa Lake

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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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PoppiesThe sky is a harbour all of a sudden. Wherever I look there are wings leaving a wake in the air. Having sailed northwards to reach here, swifts, swallows and housemartins dive through the teeming insect feast laid on for their arrival, swirling through pools of clouded blue. Golden orioles flare from the lakeside willows, brief as lightning on the pale skin of the sky, and bee-eaters pass overhead in a parade of bright feathers – lemon, cinnamon and teal. I watch them snare sunlight as they fly, glinting like the dazzle of rings.

Grasslands

These are days of dancing light. Caught somewhere between spring and summer, it’s a season of startling, hypnotic clarity, a time when even wind seems refulgent, rippling silver through meadow-grass, racing in waves across the lakes like glimmering shoals of fish. The oak and beech leaves are so pale and tender that they could be translucent, awaiting the sun to fill their sails with billowing green promise. The mountain meadows are a constellation of colours: the white spires of asphodels nestled in glades of mauve orchids; wild yellow tulips entangled in trailing purple vetch; blood-red poppies splashed across the grasses. It’s as if a wild pageant had swept across the slopes.

Sub-alpine meadows

There are only so many days of such light at this latitude, when far mountains are telescoped into near focus, their ridges etched sharply against sky and gullies steeped emerald with trees. There is a sense of ceremony to this precision; all the coiled brilliance of winter unfurling like ritual, a lustrous lengthening of days. Poplars in the valley bend like bows in the wind, and I watch them launch magpies clear across the tumbling river, spiralling in sunlight with an iridescent gleam to their feathers, a glaze of dark, reflective glass. Soon summer will strip the air of intelligibility, all the fine details of those far mountains turned shapeless and vague by heat haze, as if veiled by the driftless smoke of fires. The sky will simmer through the dry months, drained of colour like the meadows grown pale beneath it, but for now the light falls as clear as water. Borrowing its glitter for songs, nightingales shimmer through the dark.

Ekklisaki

Clouds spin past like old cinema reels as I walk the last of the valley, their shadows chasing light across the hills. I follow the old ways home: the ancient slow meander of tortoises across the sandy slopes. Brimstone butterflies waver over the meadows like buttercups shaken by wind. Everything in this nameless, radiant season is transformed and turned magnetic by light. Even in the garden the grasses sparkle and elderflowers are crowned with a white burst of stars, catching the falling rain of light. I watch evening lower to a burnished glow as bees gather gold about their legs. And what the light knows is this: there are days when the world should sway.

What the Light Knows

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