It was the best of times; it was the coldest of times…
That’s not quite it.
Ice on the rims of every lake, pond and puddle; ice in the streams, ice on the byways and highways. Ice in the water pipes of the poor, and of the bankers, of the shopkeepers, on the doorsteps of the high, and of the low. Ice carpeting the great lawns of royal palaces in London’s city, ice on the meanest field of bare sods in far-flung corners of distant counties, where farm labourers struggle for sleep, shackled by ice, nearly chilled right through to their very bones by ice. The heart of England is gripped by it; ice has her in its clutches, and not for the costliest of rewards will that cruel hand relinquish its grasp. Each turn of the soil, every groove and dip, lump and accumulation of mud, grit, and dust is locked in place; captured by ice, seemingly unchanging now, a dead land, littered with dead trees, an icebound landscape of eternal winter.
Into this imposing scene of the desolations of winter enters a horseless carriage, that most intrusive of contraptions, for now an island of warmth and merriment, and steered in this instance by a Mr Cornelius Twitcher*. A man of lean and rangy build, yet somewhat hunched, his form mostly obscured by a greatcoat, pullovers, and blue woollen scarf, which so obscure him that only what might kindly be called his Romanesque nose protrudes from out of this great abundance of garments. Mr Twitcher is a birder, a member of the tribe which practices that most curious of pursuits, namely to venture into climes intolerable to most in the hope of adding one form of bird or another to a list, kept as solemnly and carefully as the ledgers of a clerk at law. Setting forth, having descended from his carriage, he finds every contour of the field before him set like cast iron, so he travels with a rolling gait, stumbling and lurching over each bump like an automaton propelled by some mysterious external force.
As he ventures into the scene recently described, Mr Twitcher begins to recognise birds, as birders will: birds flying and calling, feeding, preening, resting, all about him the very frigidity of winter broken and tamed by the activities of birds. In the cities of England, weather has silenced the usual evidence of human industry, but birds must eat, and birds must fly, and here they do so. Mr Twitcher detects a crossbill finch, loudly calling the hour from a pine top, and another, responding in kind, then, overhead, fifteen siskins, uncaged canaries all yellow and free and bright, bounce and flit and bounce over his head towards a well-earned alder-bud breakfast. Amongst the remains of what a man of science may call liquid water, he observes waterfowl, here four and thirty coots, there a drake gadwall quacking gently as ducks must, five rotund little grebes, bobbing on the lake’s surface and giving, for all the world, the impression of being powder puffs discarded by several fine ladies in an earlier moment’s carelessness.
Mr Twitcher presses on. Then, from a small side channel enclosed by rushes, ignored in its insignificance thus far by the otherwise vigilant Mr Twitcher, ripples begin to betray the presence of birds – and here he finds his quarry, two smew, females both, sheltering furtively upstream in one last possible refuge from the cold hand of ice. Ice will not have them yet, but Mr Twitcher will, and gladly spends a frozen moment admiring their form: chestnut red heads, white throats, a most delicately pointed wing marked well with blue-black and white bars, a distinguished livery indeed. As they turn, he is delighted by their countenance, which appears in profile as like the sawbill’s, in other words fowl of their same kind, goosanders and their ilk, but facing them head on he sees a chubby, corpulent, contented little duck’s face, a child’s drawing, a bathtub toy, and finds them quite transformed. As is Mr Twitcher, who, in this way finding that his morning’s quest is complete, gathers up his optics, sets his face to the sharp air, and once more stumbles out across the waste.
*Possibly not his real name
Wednesday was the 200th birthday of the great Charles Dickens. Who reminds us grumpy old conservationists that human beings, through and despite of our unworthiness and myriad failings, can be an enormous source of joy, entertainment and love. One of the reasons you’ll have a hard time (get it?) convincing me that Voluntary Human Extinction is a good idea.