Only Sleeping

“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15)

It’s an oft cited phenomenon of our time that our lives pass at such a pace we’re unable to truly experience them. I don’t know if it’s simply because we’re all so busy – I don’t exactly feel in a hurry right now, as I sit at a clunky old desktop computer with a glass of wine to hand – but certainly many people I know have complained of time’s acceleration as we age. I experience it all the time, and am often chided not to be constantly remarking upon the astonishing passage of years. “But that can’t have been almost a decade ago!” I might say, but it really has been that long since my first graduation, or the holiday in Scotland which kick-started my birding life, aspects of which are still fairly fresh in my mind.

There are moments, almost every day, when I do persuade the seconds to stick around a little longer. When I gaze at the intensity of autumn colour for a few still seconds, get wrapped up in watching the insects on a patch of ivy, or watch a robin singing whilst he regards me with a bright, intelligent eye. Yet when I look so closely and genuinely start to lose myself in a particular time and space, it often starts to dissolve before my very eyes. Like when you stare so hard at something your eyes lose focus, and everything is lost in a dim blur.

This time of year occupies a lot of my head space. I associate the closing quarter of the year with memories of so many new beginnings – new terms at new schools, family birthdays, the rich, fruity sensations of autumn – that sometimes the present manifestation of a thing, be it the rich lacquer of a freshly hatched conker, the sharpness and wood-smoke of an autumn dusk, or the papery rustle of falling leaves, seem only to be a dim echo of a deeper reality, ungraspable for now yet remembered.

I suspect it stems from a deep-seated tiredness, a sadness, a feeling I can’t shake that adult life is something of a disappointment. That this is a parallel world we inhabit, drained of colour. I’m in an elaborate childhood dream from which I expect to wake up at any moment, back in the village, in the early 90s, pressing my nose against a steamed-up window one winter’s morning to watch a real-life flesh-blood-bone-atom nuthatch plundering peanuts in the garden.

Maybe there is indeed very little that is solid about matter, as a physicist would point out. The hardest of substances is nothing but a sparse constellation of particles, held together by mysterious charges. Neither is perception immutable. How am I to know that the things I see, hear, taste and feel are anything more than accidents of brain chemistry? Can they bear any relation to what others experience? Perhaps when we were children, our lives were so imminently real to us that the tenuous nature of reality hardly seemed to matter. Life was more immediate. Joy and sorrow came and went in a heartbeat. Hope almost always overrode despair.

Wide-eyed, innocent, expectant, full of awe, seeing what they really see and not what they’ve learned to expect to see – a childlike person, in the idealised, untainted sense of what it means to be a child, would be a great observer and therefore the consummate natural historian. How do we begin to overcome the sorrow of the world and regain that sense of wonder? How I long to stop sleepwalking through life and become fully conscious to the wonders of the world. To be a born-again naturalist: what finer ambition could I have for the rest of my life?

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Death Becomes

During our recent stay in the USA, a cardinal had an unlucky fatal collision with the patio doors at the back of the house. The unfortunate bird was either a female or a juvenile male, from its mixture of buff-brown and orange-red plumage. Adult male cardinals are, of course, a bright scarlet. Gingerly, I extended its wing. Two primary feathers on each were only about half grown, and since cardinals don’t lose and regrow their flight feathers during their first summer I could see this was an adult female.

By coincidence I was partway through reading Bernd Heinrich’s book Life Everlasting, a lovely little meditation on the process and meaning of death in the animal world. In it he describes a series of experiments conducted at his cabin in the Maine woods, in which he left out carcasses in order to study the behavior of Nicrophorus beetles, known as sexton or burying beetles. What more fitting burial could I arrange for the recently expired cardinal than one conducted by beetles? I took her down to the edge of the woods and retreated, hoping the insect undertakers would soon arrive.

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Ebb and Flow

Summer in Maryland was apparently a temperate, rainy affair this year. On our recent trip we saw the evidence of this everywhere we went. The Great American Lawn was resplendently lush and green, weedy vegetation was rampant, wildflowers were plentiful. A wetter than average summer in Britain can be bad news for insects since the average summer is wet enough to begin with.

In the often very hot and very sticky mid-Atlantic USA, rain is clearly a boon, keeping vegetation from drying out – which ensures a good supply of food for insect herbivores (and by extension their predators) right through the season. Insects were abundant this September, predominately big ones like the cicadas and crickets mentioned in my last post, and a superb variety of large hymenopterans which I admired but have not begun to identify, if you’ll excuse the uncaptioned photographs. The strikingly handsome Goldenrod soldier beetle seemed to be in the peak of its mating season.  Add in warm and humid conditions that prevailed throughout most of our stay and it felt a lot like high summer still held sway.

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