A good friend of mine wrote a song comparing humans to swifts. Unfavourably, of course. He notes our propensity to rush, to live life at breakneck speed to the extent that it becomes ‘no life at all’. The swift, on the other hand, has mastered speed: they make it look effortless, tearing weightlessly through blue (or grey) summer skies on their way to a whole life on the wing. It’s a fair comparison and very much in the fine tradition of questioning the pace of modern life. We move fast, but we’re really not very good at it.
But if you were to observe the world only through a series of snapshots, you might wonder if we hadn’t actually moved at all. For example, last spring whilst I was busy with bird surveys the British media circus was stuck on a loop: the phone hacking scandal, Murdoch this, Cameron that, who said what to whom and when, with a bit of Olympics news thrown in for good measure. Fast forward 12 months and I’m back to woodland bird surveys, whilst all journalists seem to be interested in is the Leveson inquiry. In other words nothing but phone hacking, and what various insufferable tycoons, politicians and hangers-on did or did not do or say with or to each other. Oh, and the Olympics are happening next month. Plus ça change.
In the space of the same period nature has transformed herself several times over, performing miraculous feats of regeneration. In the growing light of spring her plant communities conjure glucose out of carbon dioxide, water and sunlight, which invertebrate hordes gather to feast on. As the temperate summer gathers pace their whirring, clicking, sliding masses are themselves transformed into building block proteins for young tits, flycatchers, finches and thrushes, swifts and swallows, shrews and wood mice, which in their own turn become sparrowhawk, fox, weasel and owl.
Autumn sees the whole host turn to self-preservation, feasting on and storing ever more delicious sugars in fruit, nut and seed, or the creatures thus plumpened; whilst the trees, energy spent, relax the chlorophylls which drive the whole enterprise and allow other pigments their chance to come to the fore, painting the world red and gold. Finally, the sumptuous, rich, rotting heaps of what remain of it all sustain the most crafty or merely fortunate creatures (not to mention yet more species visiting from crueller climes) through what is a relatively bountiful winter. Of these a remnant will make it through until the hemisphere warms again and the cycle beings anew. An annual manufacturing output that even Germany or China might envy.
Yet spend any amount of time in a quiet, wild-ish spot, and you’ll notice that for what feel like long periods of time nothing much happens at all. A timeless, unchanging peace can, on certain mornings, absolutely saturate the woods, and despite all the signs of it being 2012 (the odd aircraft overhead, distant sirens, plastic bags of dog poo festooning the trees like cheap Christmas ornaments), you feel as though it might be any date within the last 10,000 years or so. In this way, nature manages to run through the expansive list of achievements I’ve described seemingly without any effort at all, in the time it takes human society to take great pains over going precisely nowhere.
Even when we attempt to counteract our busy-ness by worshipping at the altar of ‘relaxation’ it tends to backfire, as Ted Hughes skewered brilliantly in his poem ‘Work and Play’:
“The swallow of summer, the seamstress of summer,
She scissors the blue into shapes and she sews it,
She draws a long thread and she knots it at the corners.
But the holiday people
Are laid out like wounded
Flat as in ovens
Roasting and basting
With faces of torment as space burns them blue”
We might look down on the birds, thinking that our ingenious technology has removed the need to expend all our time on the struggle to survive; whilst Hughes’ swallow, like my friend’s swift, ‘toils all the summer’ at this work– conceiving young and finding them food. But each does so with such beauty, such vivacity:
“The swallow of summer, the barbed harpoon,
She flings from the furnace, a rainbow of purples,
Dips her glow in the pond and is perfect.”
Could anybody write similar lines about the human race? Perhaps it is the birds that should be looking down on us – more than just literally.
‘Work and Play’ by Ted Hughes
‘The Swift Song’ by The Brooms of Destruction