nature

Wild Walk

Once, on the way to the allotment, I saw a heron stalking, spearing and then swallowing a fish. Its snakey neck bulged in and out: you could almost think the fish was still swimming as it travelled down the heron’s gullet. I think I held my breath the whole time.

These close encounters with wild creatures have an almost transcendent quality. When I was a child my family spent several summer holidays visiting RSPB nature reserves. I will never forget the thrill of a marsh harrier gliding above our heads; it was one of only two in the entire country at that time. I was eleven years old and felt as though something inside me had changed for ever.

It would be easy to live for these moments, to think they were the goal and end point of all our experience of wildlife. I know they can keep me going for days, and that’s as it should be … except. Except that we are missing something if we only think about the rare and spectacular in nature.

I’ve been reading Mark Cocker’s book Claxton, a collection of short pieces mostly about his walks near the small Norfolk village of the same name. There are charismatic encounters aplenty: otters, peregrines and on one occasion no fewer than twelve owls in a single field. Yet he repeatedly warns of the danger of privileging the showy and the spectacular.

‘What truly makes an ecosystem flourish is the very opposite of its flagship representative: the sheer bio-luxuriance of its commonest constituents – usually the plants and myriad invertebrates,’ he writes. ‘A reedbed doesn’t amount to very much without its multiple millions of phragmites’ stems.’

January trees in the Porter Valley, Sheffield

January trees in the Porter Valley, Sheffield

In the same way, those parts of the natural world that we tend to overlook – ‘the leafless trees, the dank grasses and flowerless plants, the expiring fungi and voiceless birds’ – are all essential to what he calls ‘the great gift of a walk in wild space’.

I like this calling of attention to what appears to be common. As Cocker says elsewhere, if we knew how to notice and value the everyday, we wouldn’t have got to the position where the house sparrow is one of our most threatened birds.

To help me learn more about my ‘living neighbours’, the plants and animals that live in our valley, I’ve signed up to do a ‘Wild Walk’. Wild Walks are a new project from the Willdlife Trusts and the British Trust for Ornithology in which ordinary members of the public commit to doing a walk regularly, recording what they see and then uploading their findings for the trusts to use to inform their conservation work.

My walk is easy. It starts just near our home, runs along the valley and ends at the allotment. In good weather I do it several times a week.

The starting point for my 'Wild Walk'

The starting point for my ‘Wild Walk’

What is much, much harder for me is identification. Every time I step into the wood I’m aware of being surrounded by millions of different living organisms and yet I can only identify a handful of them, mostly birds. Fungi, lichen, insects, moths and mosses: my ignorance of all these and more is shameful. Which is a bit of a problem for a wannabe citizen scientist.

Moss and lichen are abundant on the dry stone walls that border the paths

Moss and lichen are abundant on the dry stone walls that border my Wild Walk

Not knowing also seems like a kind of ingratitude. Imagine somebody fabulously wealthy living in a stately home full of stunning antiques and paintings. Then imagine that person saying they don’t know anything about them and they never bother to look at them anyway.

Stepping stones mark the halfway point of my Wild Walk

Stepping stones mark the halfway point

We would rightly scorn a person like that, and yet so many of us tolerate a similar lack of appreciation of the extraordinary things that are all around us as soon as we walk out of our front doors. At the back of Claxton Cocker lists the species he has seen in the parish. It runs to more than thirty pages.

Making a dent in my ignorance seems daunting but on the basis that you just have to start somewhere, I’ve made a resolution to learn one new identification fact every week. This week it was the coal tit song. It caught my attention because it really sounds like ‘tweet, tweet’, like a parent teaching their child what birds say. The RSPB has a recording here.

It’s a common enough bird with an ordinary-sounding song but it’s beautiful and it matters and my life is the richer for knowing more about it.

coal tit

Coal tit picture credit

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What you might not see in winter

It’s like a bereavement, the state of our planet. Not just the fact of loss – I’ll get to that later – but the way it smacks you in the face when you’re not looking, or leaps up in the midst of the everyday, shocking you all over again when you thought you were safe.

I bought a nostalgic treat the other day, a copy of the Ladybird book What to Look for in Winter. I could justify it, almost, as ‘research’ for my MA but really I pressed the button on eBay because I had the book as a child and seeing the cover again made it irresistible.

cover

It’s a beautiful cover. What to Look for in Winter, published in 1959, is part of a series of Ladybird nature books illustrated by the renowned wildlife artist Charles Tunnicliffe. Muted greys and ochres evoke a wintry chill and the sparse beauty of a frozen landscape.

Most striking of all, though, is the sheer quantity of birds on the lake: herons, mallards, widgeon, tufted duck, and a snipe skulking where mud meets ice.  Above, a flock of whooper swans is coming in to land; you can almost hear the ‘wonderful whirring of their wings’, as the author E. L. Grant Watson puts it.

The abundance of birds and other wildlife is repeated throughout the book. Another lake picture shows at least fifteen pairs of coots and, in the bare-branched tree above, a flock of redpolls and siskins.

lake cropped

You can only see part of the thorn tree beside a Dutch barn, but there are seventeen birds in it: greenfinches, bramblings, yellowhammers and chaffinches.

barn cropped

On other pages, fieldfares crowd into a holly tree, golden plovers throng the bank of a lake and a huge flock of lapwings circles above a farmer ploughing a field.

My nostalgic indulgence suddenly turned into a sickening sense of loss.

Perhaps it’s because I live in quite a built-up area that empty or almost-empty, trees have become the norm for me. An occasional flock of long-tailed tits in the silver birch outside our house is something I treasure for days.

Things are a little better on the allotment, where there are often small flocks of goldfinches in the summer, and a colony of rooks in the nearby woods. Sometimes we see large gatherings of lapwings, geese and swifts around the nearby reservoirs.

But the blurb on the inside cover says this book will ‘add considerably to the pleasure of a winter walk’. There’s an implication that the kinds of wildlife pictured are accessible to ordinary readers, and that the abundance is normal. It doesn’t suggest you need to go to a special, out of the way place to experience it.

Was Tunnicliffe exaggerating? I doubt it: as a wildlife artist, his attention to detail was meticulous. What’s more, the book as a whole is instructional in tone: the point of it is to enable children to identify plants, birds and animals.

In 1959, children could learn, from one page of a pocket-money priced book, how to identify five different plants, including two types of fern

In 1959, children could learn, from one double-page spread in a small, affordable hardback, how to identify five different plants, including two types of fern

In any case, the evidence of loss is there in the statistics, if we can bear to look at them. In the last 40 years, humans have killed half of all the animals on earth. The current extinction rate may be 100 times higher than normal.

I don’t know how we reverse this but I do know we can’t care about things we have never seen. You can’t miss flocks of siskins, skeins of geese or a whirring whiteness of migrating swans if they have never been part of your life.

When I was writing the book about Incredible Edible Todmorden, I learnt that looking too hard at the big picture can be paralysing. Confronted with loss on this scale, it’s easy to despair.

Conversely, even very small actions can be energising and lead to bigger things. Going outside and paying attention would be a start. Trying to learn more, and in the learning to care more.

Why not go on a walk today and try to identify a new species? Take a Ladybird nature book with you if necessary. It’ll help you with the identification. It’ll also remind you what we’re up against.

When I was researching this post, I came across a lovely article by the award-winning author Helen Macdonald, on what this book meant to here as a nature-obsessed child. Well worth a read. 

Life talk

I’ve been spending time lately with someone who is dying. The day I thought I might see him for the last time I went for a run beside the stream near our house. I was trying to work out what to say. Is it better to plan, or to wait and see what comes in the moment?

I was running past a bridge and the sun was falling through the trees and splashing on the path. You should talk to him about life, I thought. Tell him how grateful you are for his gift, the one that made it possible for you to live here. Tell him about the tomatoes slowly ripening in the allotment polytunnel, and the way the light is lying in a shaft across that millstone.

millefleur

I ran beside a stretch of water that is kept for wildfowl. The moorhens’ nest had gone, and the mallards dozing in the early morning sun didn’t even twitch as I went by. You should talk much more about life, I thought. You should talk about the heron flying across the reddening sky last night, and the earthworms that show that the allotment soil is getting healthier, and the fox that appeared out of nowhere after you had put manure around the raspberries and stared you straight in the eyes, as if daring you to try and scare it away.

chocolate cherry

I’m picking up the blog again because I’ve realised that the most important things in life only become visible when you pay proper attention. I’ve been trying to develop that habit of paying attention, especially on the allotment where there is so much to learn, not just about how to grow food but also about the myriad life forms that share the plot with us. It’s a hard habit to embed when so many things clamour for an instant response, when so much seems urgent, pressing, demanding of haste. I hope that  regular blogging will help.

When I saw my dying friend after the run last week, he asked me the usual things born of a lifetime of good manners. How are you, how are the children, did you have a good journey? I told him we were well, that the journey was long but OK. I told him about the red kite hovering over the M1. His eyes lit up.