Flights of Fancy (Birds of a Feather)

I always enjoy listening to the dawn chorus. The cheerful, uplifting sounds of birdsong greeting the new day always put me in a good mood.

And I was delighted to take delivery yesterday of a whole raft of new computer programs – voice recognition software, a language pattern analyser, and an ornithological behavioural speech identifier to name just three. So I loaded them all up and recorded a few minutes of the dawn chorus in the garden this morning. I think you’ll find it illuminating:

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‘Oi, what you staring at, big beak? You want some, eh?’

‘Who, me? Well, if you think you’re so hard, come over here and say that! If you dare stick your foot in my territory, that is.’

‘Your territory is it now? Since when? Don’t remember you being so beaky during mating season!’

‘No? Didn’t need to be. Well, I wouldn’t be after yours, anyway. I’m not that desperate. You should ask her where she’s been! She’d mate with anything in feathers, yours would! Wanna know why that scruffy feral pigeon’s been hanging around here, eh?

‘What are you suggesting?’

‘What do you think I’m suggesting? Weren’t you just the teeniest little bit suspicious at the colour of the eggs? We blackbirds are supposed to lay sort of bluey greeny eggs, not white ones!’

‘The colours vary, mate. You should know that. Diet and climate and all that stuff.’

‘Not that much, they don’t. Those eggs were a dead spit for…well, for pigeon eggs, basically. And what about your fledglings? Rather on the large side, your kids. Lot bigger than you are, already. Walk a bit funny, too…

‘I…oh, for goodness sake! Oi, shut it Red Tits! Can’t hear myself tweet around here!’

‘Here, you don’t want to antagonise that robin!’

‘He don’t scare me.’

‘He should. You know what they’re like – vicious little buggers! I saw that one take out a song thrush a couple of days ago.’

‘No!’

‘Yes. Straight up. Blood and feathers everywhere! I tell you, that thrush’ll be on soft food for a while after that.’

‘That’s mostly what they eat, anyway.’

‘Yeah, but they like their seeds as much as the next bird, too. That one won’t be back at the bird table for a while. Bit of minced earthworm and over-ripe blackcurrant is about all it’s got to look forward to at the moment.’

‘Poor bugger.’

‘Yeah. Um…I’m getting a bit bored with all this, now. I know. See that cat down there?’

‘What about it?’

‘Bet you I can crap on its head!’

‘Bet you can’t!.’

‘Can!’

‘Can’t!’

‘Right, watch this…er…left a bit…there! Mwaah ha ha ha!’

‘Okay, yeah. Good one. Hah! That’s one pissed off cat, that is!’

‘Love it when that happens.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Right.’

‘Mmm.’

‘Okay, that’s it, then. Sun’s up, now. I’m off to go and forage some brekky. Same time tomorrow, then?’

‘Nah, not tomorrow.’

‘No? Why ever not? Here, you having that problem with Avian Pox, again?’

‘No, no. It’s not that. Shh! Don’t let the whole neighbourhood know! No, to tell the truth, it’s just that I’m a bit fed up with all these early starts.’

‘But that’s what we freaking do! Why do you think it’s called the freaking dawn chorus?’

‘I know, I know. It’s just that sometimes I think I wouldn’t mind changing it to the slightly-later-preferably-just-after-coffee-chorus.’

‘We’re birds, you pillock! We don’t drink coffee!’

”Yeah, obviously. Of course not. Course we don’t. I’m just making a point. You know what I mean.’

‘Will you two shut up! Dawn chorus has finished!’

‘Who said that?’

‘That gull up there.’

‘What’s it to do with him? They don’t take part. And anyway, they never stop making a racket themselves. Nasty, loud, shouty buggers!’

‘Yeah. They’re called common gulls for a reason!’

‘Too right!’

‘How would they like it if we went and sat on their cliffs and shouted at them?’

‘Right! They’d hate it! Um…what’s a cliff?’

‘Eh? Er, I dunno. What they sit on, apparently.’

What, like a twig?’

‘Yeah, I expect that’s it. Some sort of a twig.’

‘Can’t think why they don’t call it a twig, then.’

‘Common and thick, then.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Anyway, this isn’t getting breakfast eaten. I’m off to that feeder with the coconut shell and the fat balls.’

‘Fat balls? Is that some sort of crude joke?’

‘I’ve no idea. You coming?’

‘Yeah, okay.’

David Nash and Impermanence

A few days ago we went to the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, Sussex, specifically to see the Eric Ravilious paintings and prints on permanent exhibition there. There was also a large exhibition by the sculptor David Nash, who works with wood on a large scale. The fact that the whole exhibition, which also included a gallery of paintings, prints and a couple of small installations, and was intended to highlight the effects of the Climate Crisis, was the first one ever curated by Caroline Lucas M.P. of the Green Party was an added bonus for me.

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As much as I enjoyed the Ravilious, I was blown away by Nash’s sculptures. To see wooden sculptures on that scale is unusual in itself – usually that would be the preserve of stone or metal – but that very scale plays tricks with the mind and the eye. Boxes and bowls many times larger than one would expect meet the eye as you walk around the galleries, and many of the pieces also deceive where perhaps one looks to be made from several separate pieces of wood, but on closer inspection are carved from a single block like the boat shapes in the top picture, or the ‘stack’ in the one below that.

Much of the work is left rough-hewn, but even this can be deceptive. Some pieces have been carefully finished to give that appearance.

Sculpture is the art form that seems to exist to interact with the natural world. A number of the works here are based on natural forms, but there are also stories of projects Nash has undertaken where his sculpture is either living, in the form of carefully planted and managed groves of trees, or interact in other ways.

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‘Boulder’ is one such project. One of the first large-scale pieces Nash made was to cut a boulder-shaped chunk from a tree (illustrated at the top of Nash’s charcoal drawing above) in 1978. This was then transported to a stream near to where he lives and works, in the Welsh hills, and rolled into the water. Since then, it has slowly made its way downstream until it reached the estuaries and inlets of the sea, where it finally disappeared in 2015. Nash documented its travels in a series of photographs and films made regularly all the while, and presented in the exhibition as a film.

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Nash’s sketch of a Larch trunk

It feels as though there is something of this meeting of art and the natural world in old ruins overrun with scrub and grass. They frequently seem to have a sculptural quality that complements the landscape around them, in a way that more pristine buildings do not.

And I like the sense that an artwork, like a ruined building, is not permanent and that eventually the natural world will absorb it back into itself. That it will reclaim it. Perhaps the artist and the environmentalist in me merge here.

My own sculptures are in wood, and some of them are set out in our garden where they gradually degrade over the years through the action of sun and rain, until they appear strangely like some weird plants that have sprouted unexpectedly there.

Green Christmas

Yesterday was beautiful.

I went out for a walk in the morning as the overnight mist was lifting, and the air was cool but not cold, under a sunny, clear sky filled with birdsong. I felt a powerful sense of renewal in the world.

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There is little new growth yet, but the trees were covered in buds. Although we are not long past the shortest day of the year, the ridiculously mild temperature and the sun which felt warm on my face, reminded me that there is one more minute of daylight today than there was yesterday, and tomorrow there will be one more than that. And it will not be long before each day gains an extra two minutes, then three, then four…

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The air smelt clearer and cleaner than it had for months, and I felt like beginning a long journey. I yearned to be walking on the Downs, or heading through fields and woods with my destination nothing more elaborate than a bed in a basic bunkhouse or hostel, and somewhere to get a meal, preferably in a tiny village surrounded by hills and streams and woods. This is a feeling I get every Spring, that it is a time to explore more of the world.

Everything seems to be fresh. I need to do something new, something positive. To plant some trees, perhaps (always a good idea).

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I thought of Christmas. This year, we had a string of lights in one room, with handfuls of greenery as the only other decorations. This, for me, is a way to make sense of the season. It has nothing to do with religion, unless it be the ancient religions that worshipped the sun and the moon and celebrated the turn of the year at the Winter Solstice when the seasons begin their long, slow journey back towards the promise of Spring and the harvests of Autumn. A simple wisdom, in tune with the natural world.

I do not, I cannot – I will not – associate it with any other form of mythical gods. For me, it is all about the natural cycle of the seasons, simple and uncomplicated.

And I particularly like the period when Christmas is definitely over, and we’re only just getting into the new year. Everything seems to have this feeling of renewal, which was the whole point of the Yule festival. A time to look forward and plan for the coming year. This will be where the tradition of New Year Resolutions comes from, no doubt.

This year, I shall resolve to try and simplify my life further, and to live more in tune with the natural world.

Review of The Old Weird Albion

The Old Weird Albion, by Justin Hopper.

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The viewer sees a painting that appears to be composed of watercolour and charcoal, of a winding road or track, possibly even a river, leading towards a line of downland hills, the whole created entirely in black and shades of grey, with the title and author scrawled into the picture in brilliant white, as though it were a prehistoric figure etched into the Downs themselves.

And that’s just the cover.

This is a book quite unlike any I have read before, in that it is a book about the south of England, especially the South Downs of Sussex, but it is far more than geography and the associated disciplines such as geology and biology, rural history and architecture, and folklore. Psycho-geography was not a term I had come across before, but there is an aptness to it that becomes apparent as you read.

The book opens at Beachy Head, a beautiful piece of Sussex with a dark reputation for suicide, as a woman throws herself off the edge. Quickly, we learn that this woman was the first wife of the grandfather of the author, Justin Hopper. And we learn that this book is in part a chronicle of his efforts to discover this person and learn something of her life and, consequently, her motives for such an act.

In so doing, he needs to revisit parts of his earlier time in Sussex and examine his own relationship to the area as well as the relationship of other players, not just his grandfather and other members of their family.

He has a gift for sifting and selecting the weird in these relationships, not just at sites that might be naturally expected to encourage the weird, such as Chanctonbury Ring, high on the Downs above Steyning or in old ruined buildings, but also in humdrum blocks of flats in modern developments. He references modern phenomena like crop circles and throughout there is the presence of ‘magic’, in the sense of a natural force. Many of the people he meets are an eccentric mix of the weird, too, although I choose this description carefully, largely in the old, original meaning of the word of ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.

A strength of this book is its intensity, and I feel impelled to look at the pictures it references and read the books it quotes. So much so that upon finishing the book, I spent some time tracking down an old copy of one of those books, which I am now reading, and which holds my interest in just the way Justin implied it would.

On a personal level, this book came just at the right time for me, in that I am reacquainting myself with the geography and history, and the plants and animals, of the South of England, where I grew up and which formed my love of the natural world, and the book has encouraged me to look at this in a new way.

It is most certainly a five star book for me.

The Great Disconnect

There is a huge disconnect between the human race and the natural world. This is nothing new, of course, it is something that has gradually been developing ever since man first discovered farming and began to live in settled communities rather than living a nomadic existence. But it has accelerated rapidly since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, until we passed the point where for the first time there were more people living in urban areas than in rural ones. That may seem an obvious fact to many in the Western World, but that statistic is a worldwide one. 55% of the population today is urban, but the spread is very uneven. In North America, for example, 82% of the population today are urban, whereas across Africa as a whole it is only 43%.

This creeping urbanisation has had many obvious consequences, such as the growth of villages into towns, and thence into cities and finally into super-sized metropolises covering hundreds of square kilometres with hardly a tree or a bird to be found in some parts. Such as whole villages being abandoned as the population move to towns to find work, partly due to the growing mechanisation of farming and the demise of traditional rural industries. Such as a rapidly shrinking amount of land that can be thought of as wilderness. Even those areas that are not now covered with an urban sprawl may well be covered with farmlands or plantations, or large areas devoted to leisure activities such as golf courses which as far as wildlife and plant diversity are concerned, are little better than deserts.

And such as a growing and deepening disconnect between humans and the natural world.

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In small part, this is natural and necessary; it is a process that is inevitable as we evolve from a species indistinguishable from the other great apes in behaviour and purpose, into a species able to pursue activities unrelated to simple survival.

Of course, we have also become a species capable of wiping out our species and all other species, too.

But this trend seems to have accelerated at an alarming rate over the last thirty to fifty years. Of course, urbanisation continues to be a growing trend, the growth of technology continues to feed into areas such as farming, where we now have huge farms that can be operated by a couple of people alone, which might have required a labour force of maybe a hundred once, and we have social media and computers and gaming and thousands of on-demand TV stations.

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This last phenomenon I think is mainly the cause of what appears to be an especially severe disconnect between the natural world and the younger generations.

Now before everyone rushes to tell me of wonderful younger folk who love the natural world and who actively fight to protect it citing, perhaps, the incredible people who make up Extinction Rebellion, obviously there are many exceptions to this. But it is a trend. Before I retired, my job was teaching outdoor activities such as climbing or navigating, and I worked with many children and young adults. The environment in which I worked, of course, was the natural world. And although many of the youngsters who came along lived in towns or cities, there were also many who lived nearby, in a more rural environment. And what shocked me, was that so many of them had no better understanding of that environment than those that lived in inner cities.

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I met country children that couldn’t recognise an oak tree or knew what an acorn was. Country children who couldn’t recognise a kestrel. Country children who had no idea what wild garlic was.

As a kid, I lived on the edge of London. I don’t think I was in any way exceptional, but I would spend as much time as I could playing with friends in the woods and fields I could walk to or get to on my bike. We splashed around in streams and climbed trees, learned what different butterflies looked like, 037bfound stag beetles and slow-worms, caught minnows and sticklebacks, and absorbed a lot of knowledge about trees and birds and insects and mammals from books and TV programs and just being out in the country.

I assumed it was what all kids did.

But this seems to be no longer the case. I have already written about The Lost Words (here), the book written by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris as a response to learning that supposedly common words such as conkerlost words and kingfisher and acorn are words that the majority of children today are unfamiliar with – something that would once have been unthinkable. And this disconnect seems to me the saddest thing. So much of our very rich heritage has a rural background, be it music or literature, architecture, leisure activities, or traditional crafts. And the same is naturally true for most countries and societies.

But to return to the reasons for this, I feel the rise of social media and on-demand electronic entertainment has been the largest single influence on the younger generation, especially, to the point where to the majority of them, pretty well all their leisure time is taken up with these things and there is no desire to explore the natural world at all.

Sometimes I think the electronic world is more real to many of them than the real world is, anyway.

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Sigh. I’m off to check the vegetable garden.

Wordy Wednesday 5

Words.

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On World Book day I blogged about the wonderful collaboration between Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, The Lost Words, and in this I suggested that perhaps it grew out of Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks.

But Landmarks is a marvellous book in its own right, and has much the the same aim as The Lost Words, in that it introduces the reader to scores of words it is unlikely they will have come across before.

These are almost exclusively words from Britain used to describe objects and phenomena in the natural world, be it a word peculiar to East Anglia for a small stream (a currel, since you ask), a word from Sussex for a heap of dung (a maxon), or, from Suffolk, a measure of herrings or sprats (a cade).

Most of these are obscure because they are words in local dialect, and therefore only used in a small number of places, or have fallen into disuse and been virtually lost over the years, or are very specialised words that it is unlikely the majority of people would ever come across.

The book is filled with background stories by the author, either of his own experiences or those of other writers and scholars with a deep love and understanding of words and the natural world, which makes the whole book far more than simply a glossary of lost words.

The reader is introduced to a wealth of knowledge and experience on all aspects of the subject, from seas and rivers to woodlands and mountains, farmed land, the strange no-man’s land at the edge of settlements, and even deep underground.

Personally, I have been trying to drop the word smeuse into conversations since reading the book. It is a Sussex word, and so was / is in use fairly locally to me and means…well, read the book and find out what it means.

Oh, and maxon. Naturally.

Certainly a five star read.

The Old Way 4

Poem number four in a series of six.

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The Old Way 4

 

Of course, I had been in a rush to get here.

I think I had been walking for about an hour

Before I reached this path.

But even so,

I had not realised how fast I was going.

 

I had known I needed to get away

(that almost goes without saying),

But finally I arrive, and I slow down.

I slow down so I might look and see.

 

And breathe.

 

I slow down to feel the breeze

And the sun on my head.

I slow down to hear the birds.

I am in no hurry,

Now I’m walking on the Old Way.

 

I have bread and cheese, and I have an apple,

As though I were one of those folk

Travelling in a bygone age.

My only concession to today is a plastic bag.

 

Which I now regret.

World Book Day

World Book Day, celebrated today, 7th March, has the declared aim: Our mission is to give every child and young person a book of their own.

It is celebrated in the UK, although I have no idea whether this is an idea that has been taken up elsewhere, and would be interested to find out.

Schools, in particular, seem to have embraced the idea, with children encouraged to attend classes dressed as their favourite book or literary character. Thus hundreds of Harry Potters and Willy Wonkas and Very Hungry Caterpillars march into schools across the country once each year.

A splendid thought!

Which brings me to a marvellous project aimed at schools across the country.

Growing, in a way, out of Robert Macfarlane’s brilliant book Landmarks is The Lost Words, a collaboration between Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris. I can do no better than to quote Jackie Morris on the reasons: It had come to the attention of some who work in the world of words that certain words were slipping out of common usage. As a result when it came to amend the junior dictionary for a new edition these words were gone… These words included bluebell, conker, heron, acorn and perhaps the one that cut the deepest for me, kingfisher.

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So The Lost Words is aimed towards children, to encourage them, through the words and paintings of the book, to discover the natural world that so many of them know nothing of.

So many grow up today without any meaningful contact with the natural world, and this book aims to encourage them to know and to love and protect it.

And the project – the campaign, really, in a very ad hoc way, is to raise money where necessary to place a copy of the book in every school in Britain. It has already been achieved in Scotland, I understand, and hopefully, it will soon be achieved in every other school in Britain.

The Enduring Lie of a Golden Age – Part 2…This is Personal

Two weeks ago I wrote of the idea so many people have that somewhere in the past there was a ‘Golden Age’ when everything was so much better than today.

I am now going to post what might seem a bit of a contradiction to what I wrote then.

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More and more, we are losing our connection with the natural world.

Everyone would have a different opinion on what is meant by the phrase ‘quality of life’, but for me if I am surrounded by concrete structures, with a lack of trees and flowers and birds, animals and insects, if the building I am in consists of electronic devices, plastic, steel, and artificial floor coverings, if my engagement with the day to day tasks of this building consists of pressing buttons, then I feel my own quality of life is much diminished.

A common post appearing on Facebook is of a picture of a cabin or cottage in the wilderness somewhere, with the caption ‘Could you live here for a month without TV or phone signal or internet for $25,000?’

Could I do it? I’d bite your hand off for the chance to do it. And I wouldn’t even need the money as an incentive.

No press-the-button entertainment. Setting and lighting a log fire instead of switching on the heating. No dishwasher. No constant barrage of emails, texts and phone calls. No street lights – or streets.

I’d bite yer hand off.

Whether I am at home, working, or walking in the country, always there seems to be the sound of aircraft passing overhead. Day and night. Constantly.

And unless you’re in the middle of a national park, there always seems to be traffic noise. Even when I’m walking in the midst of woodland, or through fields, it’s always present as a background noise.

And anywhere near a road or street, it is just constant. And I find that extremely stressful.

This is one reason why I love being amongst mountains. Usually, they are remote enough that the traffic noise is finally silenced. Frequently, they are away from air routes. And, of course, there are far fewer people around. And those that are there don’t usually seem to be glued to mobile phones or playing music.

And I’m nostalgic. Well, I’m in my sixties now, I’m allowed to be. And that brings us back to the post about a supposed golden age. Nostalgia is a yearning for the past, with the inference that it was better than the present day. There are, of course, many things about today that are much less than perfect – I’ve called out a few of the things I don’t like earlier in this post – but only a fool would deny that huge medical advances have improved all our lives for the better, social security has largely alleviated the horrors of abject poverty and, at least in the affluent west, our lives are not subject to the whims of despots.

But although I can expect to live to a greater age than my forebears – at least in theory – I would be willing to trade some of that for a time when life was less complicated, a life where I didn’t feel constantly bombarded by social media and advertising. A life that was lived more slowly.

Not a Golden Age, certainly, but one I would happily live in.