Look Closer

The strip of mud and shingle between the shore and the concrete sea wall is almost as grey as the rough sea beyond and the bleak skies above. A drab day with deadening light. Somebody has stolen the Isle of Wight, shrouded it in fine mist and spray and a light rain that quickly soaks through the most effective of coats.

Look closer. Look out from the shelter of the café, through rain-streaked windows and back towards the beach. On the rain-washed mudflats oystercatchers are at work, questing deep into slick mud with their straight, deadly bills. Small parties of them fly past, crying in alarm, just below the black-headed gulls that tack expertly against a stiff wind, their silvery wings braced against the weather.

Look closer still, on the stones between the oystercatchers’ feet, in the pool just appearing as the tide falls. On every available anchorage strips and curtains and fronds of seaweed are holding fast, a diverse saltwater garden. Between the stones and weed lie myriad mollusc shells: some occupied, some empty. A few bear the borehole scars of past maritime battles or the cases of tube-bearing worms.

Look closer again; lift the largest rock in the pool. On its underside a cluster of sea spiders is taking shelter. Disturbed, they slink away with a slow, lurching gait on ponderously questing legs. The rock surface they crawl over teems with life of all forms: barnacles, sponges, sea-snails, minute young crabs and a bristly mail-shell – yet another form of mollusc – resplendent and glistening under the surface tension of a thin layer of water. A single stretch of coast with many scales to explore and many stories to uncover.


We were in rural Hampshire for a family party. Our focus was on chocolate birthday cake, balloons, presents and sparklers. But amidst and around us wildlife provided another sort of icing on the cake, the sweet glaze on an already near-perfect autumn afternoon. Over the hedge in the arable fields beyond, a flock of 50 linnets bounced into view and arranged themselves along a wire. Beyond them drifted the sound of a fieldfare’s half crazed chack-chack-chack. As the sun dipped and we began to think about moving inside, a heavy-winged buzzard lumbered low over the garden towards its roost, letting out a cat-like cry as it passed. A tiny moth spiralled out of the dusk and settled on my hand, antennae alternately waving.

Whilst we waited for a few artificial fireworks to go off, I saw the real thing. A fading yellowish streak of light marked the place in the sky where a piece of space-dust disintegrated. The avian equivalent of shooting stars were passing over too: redwings leaving their high, thin flight calls trailing across the sky behind them. Finally a tawny owl cut through the smoky air, its voice muffled only slightly by increasingly thick fog.

Try to imagine an autumn evening without such everyday nature.  The party games continue, we still gather with friends and family under the light of a million coldly shining stars. But something is different. The air, the trees, the fields, they all seem emptier. Lifeless. With the greatest respect to the animals I’m about to mention, too much conservation talk is wasted on lions and elephants and tigers and pandas and polar bears whilst the bottom falls out of the populations of once-common species here at home. The loss of one of those iconic species would undoubtedly be a tragedy but it wouldn’t cut to the heart, in the same way that the loss of a single loved one is so much harder to bear than the death of thousands in famine, war or natural disaster on the other side of the world.

That’s why last week’s puffin news moved me more than the objectively more alarming stories about wildfires in Indonesia and the Amazon. Puffins: the clowns of Britain’s seabird colonies, the focus of some of my earliest and most memorable expeditions specifically in search of birdlife. For me, Britain without puffins is unthinkable.  The thought of millions of acres of rainforest going up in smoke and countless little-known species being pushed closer to extinction is heart-breaking and alarming. But when it comes to puffins, it’s personal. The same is true for linnets (declining), the winter thrushes (declining) or moths (many species are declining).

The tough question is, what exactly am I doing about it? I type these words and send them off into the ether, I send a few pounds to conservation charities, I hope vaguely that my PhD will amount to something at least vaguely practical or that my teaching work will make the tiniest difference by proxy. Isn’t something more radical required in these troubling times?  I need nature like oxygen, but seem resigned to the point of idleness at the prospect of suffocation. If I barely raise a finger for the nature of home, what can or will I do about the perilous problems overseas, or even for wildlife that is very close to home but hasn’t yet gripped my imagination? It’s hard to imagine that I’ll make a stand for rare mosses, for example, when I do so little for birds or insects. Starting from home isn’t selfish, it’s essential: we stand up first for that which we love. If we – I – can’t even do that, then we will all fail together, and life will be all the poorer for it.

Horse Chestnuts

A few weeks ago I put on my leather jacket for the first time in a while. I wear it most often in September and October, generally the only months likely to have reliably dry, sunny but cool days. I’ve never had it rain-proofed, you see, something of a drawback for an article of outdoor clothing in England! And of course the tawny leather blends nicely into an autumn landscape. I feel somewhat part of the scenery, and wearing it in conjunction with a brown felt fedora really puts a spring and a swagger in my step. Sometimes I even get accompanied by a rendition of the Indiana Jones theme from a group of passing schoolkids, clearly unaware that they’re far from the first to make that joke.

One of the joys of wearing a long-neglected coat is the voyage of discovery that is putting your hand into a pocket. What might meet my fingertips? Perhaps a ticket or service book, perhaps a receipt offering clues to what we were eating 10 months ago. Usually at least two or three empty (hopefully!) specimen tubes on hand for catching small invertebrates. This time my hand brushed against a smooth, hard, rounded object – a conker, or horse chestnut. They’re my autumnal talisman, and at least once a year I end up selecting and pocketing one to carry as a charm.

These solid, weighty, natural objects are a tangible connection to seasons past, proof positive that it was more or less the same person who experienced a previous October. Something solid to wrap my fingers around. Taking deep breaths, I hold it and imagine the world back into being. Every time I reach into a pocket, I’m reminded to go on being the sort of person who stops to admire horse chestnuts, to turn them in my hand, see them shine and perhaps pop another one in my pocket for next year: a message to my future self. I need such nudges. One year on from writing this, I’m still finding my feet on the naturalist’s path.