Guest Post: September Country Diary

For the last few months I’ve been writing nothing but boring ol’ science*. Fortunately for those of you with withdrawal symptoms for nature notes from our Newbury garden, my wife Rebecca has stepped into the breach with this country diary style piece. She’s a freelance proofreader and book reviewer with a fabulous book blog – do go and explore the literary delights on offer at bookishbeck.wordpress.com. 

*I sincerely hope it is not actually boring!


Country Diary early Sept. 2018

SIT. sit. SIT. sit. SIT. sit. I was going to keep walking to the summer house to have my tea there, but it seems the gangs of dark bush crickets behind me and across the way are inviting me to stop sooner.

Okay, I’ll sit for a while, just here, on the edge of the garden path. What would you have me see?

When I scale back my own activity to a minimum, I can appreciate how busy the wider life of the back garden is on an early September day. There’s a Crayola seafoam-coloured froghopper on the trailing ivy by my feet. A male blackbird alights on the fence, emits a few chacks of mild alarm with a blackcurrant eye fixed on me, and continues on his way. A young buzzard issues plaintive screeches somewhere overhead, while the fledgling woodpigeons in the neighbours’ grapevine squeal for alimentary attention.

Wasps are gnawing at the fences to either side, a sound that reverberates much more loudly than you might expect given that it comes from the jaws of a two-centimetre insect. They’ve been nibbling at our sheds for months to create papery grey nests, like the one by the tap that’s currently rendering the hosepipe unusable. I join their din by munching on an oaty biscuit as I pick up a collection of short fiction and read a story about a visit to a graveyard.

As vibrant as the garden feels these days, with its abundance of ripe pears and blackberries and the birds flying through by day and hedgehogs snuffling about by night, it’s impossible to forget that winter will be right at autumn’s heels. The bryony that so energetically engulfed the shrubbery in this patch is dying back, its bouncy green coils drying to a crispy brown. I look at the fading tendrils and think of my own silvering hair. Must ageing feel like failure?

Before too many weeks have passed I’ll be bundled up in seven layers, looking out from my study window and marvelling that it was ever warm enough to sit awhile on the garden path.

Rebecca Foster

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Review: Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? Lev Parikian

Lev Parikian is a professional conductor, a writer and, until the beginning of January 2016, a lapsed birdwatcher. Then, while he was on a simple walk through the park, eight Canada geese flew low overhead and left his year transformed in their wake. The “everyday beauty of the spectacle” reawakened a long-neglected interest in birds. Reviewing a childhood list that was, in birding parlance, rather ‘stringy’, and considering the birds one could realistically hope to see in a year, Parikian formulated his New Year’s resolution: 12 months, 200 birds.

Why anybody would lose interest in something quite so wonderful as birds is a profound mystery. But I sympathise. It’s happened to so many of us. As a child I was keen on birds – on the shelf I still have my copy of Spotting Birds, with its un-lifelike illustrations (already old-fashioned when it was published in 1964), which nonetheless I pored over, dreaming of seeing a white-spotted bluethroat, roller or woodchat shrike. Pity I didn’t realise at the time that the book was a translation from the Czech and came with no warning that I would have a hard time finding any of those in England circa 1990.

Anyhow, the world is full of interesting things and some have to fall by the wayside; besides, we’re encouraged to give up ‘such fripperies’ when we ‘grow up’ – aren’t we? Thankfully, I found birds again a few years after graduating; or rather, I should say they found me. They made themselves too obvious to ignore, from the oystercatchers stark and incongruous on the lawns of a Scottish castle to the sudden white flash of a wheatear’s rump skipping over a coastal rock. And so it is that I’ve been Considering Birds in the field since about 2005 and on this corner of the web (perhaps the name should have been Reconsidering Birds) since 2011.

Not coincidentally, that’s also the year that I, too, resolved to see 200 species. I don’t remember exactly why I decided on 200, but it seems to be a sweet spot: enough to ensure a bit of a challenge and plenty of varied birding adventures whilst not unduly risking family, finances, career or sanity. Many birders see a fair few more than 200 in a year – 300, even – but unless you’re spectacularly lucky the only way to reach those heights is to spend pretty much all of your spare time twitching – that is, pursuing rarities already reported by somebody else, and often criss-crossing the country to do so.

I don’t particularly hold twitching against anybody (though consider my eyebrow raised at the carbon footprint), but Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? won me over from the start by obviously not being another  straightforward narrative of twitching and listing, as much as I enjoy books like The Big Year. I admire the way the author set about building his list: for the most part, planning extended stays in good birding areas and trying to track down the species that are usually found there*.  This book is much more about the journey, the joys and frustrations of birdwatching, and the assortment of characters you meet in the often strange but ultimately wonderful community that is Britain’s birdwatchers. In pursuit of his target, Parikian never loses sight of the things that matter most to him, with the elements of family memoir woven into the narrative lending a touching emotional depth.

Obviously, the developing bird list does have to feature, and this is a potential pitfall for any bird writing. I’ve read plenty of trip reports that end up as total yawn-fests despite describing an extremely exciting day’s birding. Fortunately, this aspect of Why Do Birds is handled notably well. The ornithological cast of the book parades before us in entertainingly varied fashion without getting tedious.  The pace is helped along throughout by pithy prose that’s sprinkled with wry humour, the overall effect calling to mind Douglas Adams: a Hitchhiker’s Guide to Birdwatching, if you like.

Many of Parikian’s experiences along the way will be happily, or occasionally grimly, familiar to fellow birders, from the travails of describing the location of a small, well-camouflaged bird in a large, homogenous patch of vegetation to shadily toting binoculars through a residential area in pursuit of waxwings (honest, officer!) to the reticence to speak up in a bird hide for fear of sounding like an idiot. But above all, Why Do Birds is a timely reminder of the pleasure of watching birds in an increasingly distressing and confusing world. It isn’t a book solely or even primarily for bird-nerds: I can see many uninitiated folk being prompted by this book to pick up a pair of binoculars for the first time. Those of us already devoted to birding will be reminded why we started in the first place – for the love of birds, for their beauty, for the sheer exhilaration and fun of engaging with these wonderful, wild creatures that are all around, waiting for us to notice them.

This post is part of the blog tour launching Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? Do check out the other posts! 

*I don’t begrudge him the odd twitch, and enjoy the various ways he attempts to justify them to himself. I wouldn’t have made it to 200 in 2011 without a bit of indulgence; indeed, by my rough calculations, I would have ended up four species short. Did Parikian make it? Sorry, you’ll find no spoilers here!  

The Blessing Of Chalk

New Year’s Day

For us and the friends staying with us for New Year, our January 1st fresh start was up on the highest chalk in Britain* at Walbury Hill, enjoying the peace and expansive views of Berkshire illuminated by low winter sun. It’s a beautiful place for a muddy tramp and not a bad one to look for wildlife. Whilst neither the cropped fields on the slopes nor the sheep-grazed hilltop would please a rewilding aficionado, nature makes the most of the more sympathetic aspects of estate management here, mostly on habitat edges. Redwings and fieldfares burst along the hedgerows between feeding stops; finches skip through the game cover strips whilst buzzards pick over the stubble for small mammals. Red kites and ravens forage for scraps of carrion between bouts of tumbling in the breeze. The ravens particularly appear to delight in play, dropping suddenly like plumb-lines as if to measure the height of the scarp before swooping back to the ridge line with impressive power.

Over the hills lies Combe, nestled in a secluded dry valley, a settlement described by one book of walks on our shelf as ‘Berkshire’s hidden village’. It’s so idyllic that one almost feels guilty for spoiling the peace, but then I always get to thinking that Britain’s landscapes should be open and shared, especially where they’d otherwise be inaccessible to those for whom modern rural life would be impractically expensive or isolating. Combe can’t be home to many people now, and it’s hard to imagine the communities that would have lived in this tucked-away corner for so many generations of nearly unchanged rural life. We often forget that agricultural changes have been a rupture for human communities as much as they have for wildlife.

Chalk country feels particularly rich in culture. Signs of its significance to our predecessors date back thousands of years, to the Bronze Age and beyond, though these human artefacts are astoundingly recent compared to the crushed and calcified remains of millions upon millions of marine organisms that make up the rock. And whilst the veneer of human influence may be thin, it has created a unique ecology. Chalkhills in summer – herb-scented, butterfly-kissed – are a blessing. The ridge at Combe has retained little high-quality chalk grassland, to my knowledge, but an attentive summer visitor will notice its true nature still showing through in the pathside flora.

Epiphany

A week later, a literal blessing of chalk. In some church traditions chalk, exactly what you might use on an old-fashioned blackboard, is blessed at Epiphany to use in a ‘Chalking the Door’ ritual. One English church that does this is St George’s, the unusually Italianate parish church in Wash Common, which appropriately enough can be seen from the five-mile distant Walbury Hill vantage point as a glint of white above Newbury. The front door lintels of parishioners’ houses are marked by chalk crosses and the letters C, M and B, which stand for the traditional names for the wise men (Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar) as well as the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, ‘Christ bless this house’.

Evil is now symbolically kept from the door throughout the year to come; more practically, the reference to the Magi is meant to remind the householder of the hospitality shown by the Holy Family. The half-an-island home we call England is a country unusually rich in chalk. The door-chalking ritual may be too obscure for the metaphor to be of any use, but perhaps England’s blessing of chalk, eons in the making, could serve as a constant source of perspective and a timely reminder to welcome visitors from overseas and appreciate the gifts they bring.

*Walbury Hill is the highest chalk hill in Britain. But what’s the highest chalk hill in the world? Could Berkshire be harbouring an unsuspected record holder? Probably not, but I appear to have discovered an ungoogleable question – I haven’t yet been able to determine the answer and may actually have to visit the university library to find out, or at least make use of more technical online resources. What fun!

 **The feast marking the arrival of the wise men in Bethlehem. Fun trivia fact: the Bible story doesn’t actually number them. Three is always assumed since they are said to have carried three gifts.