“When it was proposed to me to go abroad, rub off some rust, and better my condition in a worldly sense, I fear lest my life will lose some of its homeliness. If these fields and streams and woods, the phenomena of nature here, and the simple occupations of the inhabitants should cease to interest and inspire me, no culture or wealth would atone for the loss.”
Henry David Thoreau: Journals. 18th March 1856.
In the last couple of months, Wednesday has been my home day, a no-car day. For a variety of reasons most of my days for the last two weeks have been Wednesdays, in that I haven’t really been anywhere in particular. I’m beginning to get itchy feet. Or, since I’m a birder, perhaps I should say twitchy feet. I long to be back out seeing the world, out in special places like the Arne peninsula or Salisbury Plain, collecting memories and year-ticks.
But what I have to remind myself is that mobility is a modern innovation. Motorcars, aeroplanes, trains, even bicycles, are all new-fangled contraptions on an epochal sort of scale. Horses were an option, of course, if you could afford to keep one, or at least the cost of a place on the stagecoach. But they were about all that was available to Gilbert White, to name a famous example, as he pottered around his Hampshire parish in the 18th century. He and his fellow naturalists at the time and for long ages before would largely have travelled on foot. Even Darwin, once his globe-circling days on the Beagle were over, spent much of his life within the confines of his house and garden at Downe, and within the surrounding woods and chalk downs. So to claim that an interest in nature can only be fulfilled by ranging far and wide would be to deny the lessons of our forebears.
Dwelling on the wildlife close to home reveals sights which had seemed quotidian as freshly thrilling. Moderately common birds, for example, are rightly exciting, rather than a minor distraction on the route march to a rarity. I pay more attention to the beauty of each bird too, and also to their complex behaviours, as opposed to merely noting plumage features for ID. This is an ordinary corner of an ordinary English town, but it’s filled with extraordinary bird life. Mistle thrushes rattle away in trees on the edge of a playing field, boldly spotted and bold of temper. Redwings usher each other onwards as they range across the university campus in a never-ending search for food. Fieldfares move along lakeside bushes near our home on a similar quest. A male mandarin rests nervously on the shore of Maiden Erleigh lake as a snoozing great–crested grebe floats past. Days later, the silhouette of a kingfisher dashes for cover with a sharp call across the same water, now comprehensively frozen. A chirping community of house sparrows slowly stirs to life with the approach of dawn.
One can alternatively maintain the thrill of novelty by looking beyond the avian, as I increasingly try to do, to the overwhelming majority of species on earth which are not ‘pigeons’ (as a few of my beyond-birds friends have taken to labelling all birds). Granted, this time of year is not the best to get into insects or plants. But there’s still interest enough from fungus to galls to the occasional still-lively adult beetle, or simply in appreciating the fragile aesthetics of plants in winter – the time for bark, bud and berry to shine unadorned by showy foliage. Yesterday I spent a good while simply gazing at the thick haw frost which had coated everything down to the smallest spider’s web and leaf stem. On a marginally less cold morning last Friday I walked past the lake when it was still dark. The surface of the water was covered in the tiniest ripples, each carrying a shallow reflection of the still-bright moon until the whole expanse was lit up like a glitterball, or as though carpets of tiny bioluminescent organisms were swimming in the narrow liquid space between air and the slowly forming ice.
That moves a little away from wildlife, even, but is an example of the splendours of the natural world in its widest sense, that is to say encompassing everything. For where does ‘nature’ stop and ‘un-nature’ or the ‘unnatural’ begin? When we look – and I mean really look, relaxed and aware – such wonders await around every corner, however wild seeming a place we find ourselves in.
All this is in light of a suspicion I have, somewhere in the back of my mind, that our oil-powered, market-driven global economy is not far from collapsing in on itself. Or at the very least that we need to wean ourselves rapidly off the oil bit, if the collapse isn’t to be inevitable. For reasons I will explain shortly, I hope that our species manages to find ways of maintaining an ability to affordably travel vast distances, without destroying the viability of life on the very planet we’re traversing. Travel has been, is, and hopefully still can be a marvellous thing. But I’m far from confident that keeping it up at our current rate has much of a future. What then for us listing-twitching-travelling types? If we haven’t learned to be satisfied, and more, with the subtle wonders around us, we’ll be bereft. Best start the process of knowing and loving nature where we find ourselves. The adventure starts here, and now.
Thanks to Richard Smedley for the Mandarin picture. Not quite on the same lake as described enough, but still in Reading.