The earth may be a tiny blue speck lost in the mind-numbingly vast depths of space, but compared to the scale of a single human life it is big enough. And as if the very big-ness of the planet wasn’t enough to contend with, it often feels so beset with problems that it’s difficult to know where to start living a good life—one which, we hope, might make some small positive difference. Sometimes the easiest place to start is right where we are. On Sunday afternoon I ventured into the garden and did some semi-purposeful digging: it always feels good, amid our over-connected and over-sedentary lifestyles, to spend a while with fingers literally in the ground. Even if I do reliably complain of being exhausted afterwards.
Gardening is at once a form of escapism from the intractable problems beyond the fence and a way of participating more fully, of taking responsibility for one small slice of the planet. Whether I do any actual good is another question. If anything, I feel mildly guilty as I interfere in the most direct ways with the path of wild nature: evicting slugs and woodlice from under a spare fence panel, disturbing a little group of pale brown beetles that must have wintered in the long dead grass I was gathering up. Hacking back the bramble and nipping out a sycamore seedling just as it had become established in our lawn.
Still, it’s a good reminder that my footprint on this earth is bigger than my size nine and a halves. I struggled for an hour or so trying to clear a small plot to grow some vegetables in. Elsewhere in the country farmers do this on a bigger scale on our behalf, and, given the difficulties of uprooting weeds and tangled grass clumps, I can hardly blame them when they reach for the glyphosate—though I’m pleased to say our friendly veg growers at Riverford manage without. One afternoon with spade in hand hardly counts as being connected to the land, but it’s a start. The sour note comes when I remind myself how fleeting this control and connection must be: we rent this house and the garden behind it, whilst the real power, influence and security belong to those who privately ‘own’ their dwellings and sometimes plots many times the size of our temporary abode.
A sign a few gardens upstream of ours
Friendly slug on the lid of one of my pitfall traps
A jumping spider on the shed wall, probably a pale specimen of Salticus scenicus
Lesser celandine flowering in our ‘lawn’
It’s easy to imagine that red kites are absolutely everywhere in this part of the world. By appearance and perception they are: they occupy higher sightlines than we do. If a kite is flying nearby, soon enough it drifts into view. This masks their true rarity, for whilst kite populations are undoubtedly higher than they were (not difficult from a starting point of zero) the current Berkshire breeding population is probably in the hundreds only. By contrast, there are over 800,000 of us just in this little county (1,000 humans per red kite!) yet sometimes it is remarkable how few people are visible at any particular time. Even scanning across a Reading street from the top deck of a bus on my commute home I often see only a handful of people actually out and about (occupants of cars don’t count).
Human beings are dwarfed by our own dwellings and transport contraptions. We hunch down in a maze that is mostly of our own making, but aren’t we supposed to have a deep-seated longing to fly with the birds? Perhaps there’s still some evidence we do. A few weeks ago I drove past Watership Down in Hampshire and noticed a fair number of people out flying kites. It’s been many years since I have flown one, but I recall how the tug of that thin nylon string gives just a hint at what it feels like to ride the wind. Flying kites in high places like the Downs offers not just a better chance of favourable winds but a vantage point that might just let us into the secret of what the kite sees.
And what does the kite see? Their colour vision is not dissimilar to ours, true enough, but image is only a part of the picture. Perception is what counts. Where we see an abstract mosaic of features that might be considered beautiful – fields, copses, villages, woods – is a kite more likely to process that landscape in terms of what it might offer by way of food, shelter or danger? Or does that over-emphasise the gap between species? It’s entirely possible that our aesthetic judgement of a landscape has some evolutionary underpinning in terms of searching for resources. In the same way, I suspect the kites know more about joy than we give them credit for. Whatever is happening when a red kite’s neurons fire, I reckon it’s doing a better job of being fully alive than I am.
The Reading skyline in May 2015
Although my job is far from being a typical 9–5 office one, I am a rush-hour rail commuter. Bleary-eyed from an early start, I try to use the time well by reading a book, or watching the world rush by the window. Moments of beauty often surprise me: even a low forest of lights alongside railway sidings takes on a magical quality in the half-light. Lately I’ve been concentrating on trying not to read the news, and scanning the blurred countryside for signs of hope. They’re getting hard to find, aren’t they? January is hard enough to get through, even without a daily bombardment of exceptionally bad tidings. I’m paralyzed, stuck between wanting to stay as informed as possible so that I might figure out something positive to do and simply retreating into my own little world.
Nature is no cure-all, but that’s where I tend to go for solace. Two birds in particular have been appearing faithfully on my journeys—one in the morning, one in the evening—gracing the day with a much-needed touch of wildness. First, a herring gull. A magnificent full-adult specimen see-sawing in a wide arc over the bus stops, showing off the length of its pale grey wings. It carries with it a sense of adventure and a whiff of salt spray, for such a bird might also be seen patrolling a windswept fishing port on the North Sea coast.
At dusk a blackbird claims the town square as his own. In a few short notes all of spring comes pouring out, and I can feel it trying to break. Leafburst and catkins, crocuses and snowdrops, daffodils, lambs in the fields, more and more birds joining the chorus. Chattering passers-by and the low growl of buses and taxis fade into the background, and cease to matter.
We did finally see off January yesterday. The weather on the first day of February was mild and the dampness of the air smelled somehow sweeter. Insects could feel it, breaking cover into the sunlight, wings a frenzied blur. Black-headed gulls rode the breeze for the sheer hell of it, as far as we could make out. The blackbird abandoned a loftier perch, descended to the small trees in the square, and began to sing all the more loudly. Much cold weather may remain ahead and storms both political and meteorological loom on the horizon, but in that moment the year’s promise was already fulfilled in a bird’s song. It was all that mattered.