I must need a break – I’ve made a cup of tea without a tea bag in it. It’s time to walk the garden and see what’s ready to be picked. I grab a punnet and head out the back door, the cat skipping ahead of me and grumbling to himself as always. In the first, more obviously cultivated half of the garden I claim a few raspberries and two pods of peas. That’s the sum total of our ripe and ready crop for this week, but both the berries and the peas are deliciously sweet and worth so much more to us than their insipid packaged cousins.
There’s another, more bounteous harvest that we hardly had to work for at all. A few snips here and there to stop them taking over the garden completely is all it took to spur new growth in the bramble hedge, first triggering bright green creepers, then buds, flowers and finally seed-filled fruits. The quantity of ripe blackberries takes me by surprise, showing how little attention I’ve been paying lately. The day itself is ripe too, matured into that soft, peach-hued light beloved of photographers, as rich as spiced honey wine. Some of the berries are soft to the point of disintegrating in my hand, their crushed fruitlets leaving intense inky stains. Some only come loose with a gentle twist and tug which sets the stem bouncing, piercing my fingers with tiny thorns.
Meanwhile a carder bee weaves a trail through the tangle in front of me in search of one of a few remaining flowers. I can hear a wasp working its way into a weak spot on a windfall pear. Greenfinches mournfully trill overhead and house sparrows are chirping contentedly to each other in their evening roost by the canal. All around the garden it feels as though fruition is the active word; grass refreshed by recent rain, birds well-fed and relaxed, most weedy plants running to seed. There’s an air of contentment. I breathe slowly, consciously, grateful for the light and to be outdoors on a fine evening, picking fruit.
I find it difficult to state how utterly brilliant swifts are without resorting to cliché. They dominate the sky in our part of Newbury. Early on a weekday morning on my way to the station I see them barrelling down street canyons, boomeranging past recently vacated nest sites. When I’m here during the day, they’re intermittently visible as they follow layers of airborne insects up and down with the meteorological cycles. They’re after that productive layer between the peak of convective plumes and the point at which insects fall out of controlled flight and into the prevailing flow.
In the mid-afternoon parties of two or three break off and rocket down to the canal at the end of our garden to drink, perhaps to clear their gullets of all that dry chitin. They descend on the water in a swooping dive that’s impossible not to compare with a jet on a bombing run, clipping the water with their beaks just briefly enough to slake their thirst. I watched a trio buzz close to a kayak in the process, surprising and I hope delighting those paddling it.
In the evening swifts congregate back at low levels in great screaming parties. They pass our house in sudden bursts, so fast that the sound reaches us almost no sooner than the bird does and equally quickly fades as they accelerate away. As the sky fades to dusk the swifts rise into swirling towers, now often joined by a few house martins (which you can pick out by sound – they blow raspberries) which I rarely otherwise see here, though they must nest somewhere in the neighbourhood.
I never quite manage to notice the point at which they vanish for the night, but eventually they do, ascending to the clouds for sleep. One evening this week two came back over low, unusually late, in rapid level flight punctuated by short stuttering contact notes. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but these staccato calls sounded more serious and purposeful than the usual exuberant screams. A practice run for migration? They’ll soon leave us. It’s the saddest reminder that the months and years roll by all too quickly, a thought I can’t shake off in a month that marks 10 years since our wedding and 12 since graduation.
I seem to keep coming back to swifts, and I make no apology for it. For as long as we share a planet with creatures so ridiculously wonderful we should keep shouting about them! See also here and here.
Time is such a fluid thing. Two weeks keeping busy on the road in America passed slowly. I don’t mean that the weeks dragged, but that we packed a lot in. Each day felt full and rewardingly long. Our trip to Europe last June was similarly eventful; by the time we got home it felt like we’d been away for an age. By contrast, two weeks since returning have vanished in a flash. I’ve got a lot of work to do this summer, and holding on to the portion of it that remains feels rather like straining at a boat’s rope to stop it slipping off the quay and disappearing over the horizon before I’m ready to board.
This sensation is only heightened by my awareness of fine details marking the passing of seasons. Each new insect species that suddenly emerges into maturity in what I have taken to calling ‘our meadow’ – the now gone to seed rank grass which former occupants of our house probably called the lawn – is another sign of the summer galloping onwards toward conclusion. At the moment the grasses are hosting numerous grass bugs. Each sweep of my net picks up tens of these leggy creatures that are shaped like grass seeds but striped with surprisingly bold colours: pale green, yellow, black and flaming orange.
I’ve kept a few to identify and add to our growing garden species list, but the urge to collect and name which gripped me earlier in the year has somewhat subsided. To relax I’m now spending more time simply watching insects. The most obviously spectacular of them was a trio of fresh silver-washed fritillaries fighting over a clearing at the heart of our campus Wilderness. The most breathtakingly, mysteriously beautiful, though, were the Dolichopodid flies. Sometimes called ‘Dolis’ for short, as flies go they’re the epitome of grace and style, all slender legs, eyelashes (really!) and bright metallic colours. They also exhibit charming display behaviour, the males using a variety of odd visual signals to woo passing females.
Waiting for a bus in the shade one warm evening last week, I happened to see one hovering a millimetre or two above a twig, back legs dangling either side, middle and front legs raised. The wings of the fly were an invisible blur even as its body held perfectly still. Another – a challenger or an interested female? – sat facing it at the twig tip. Perhaps in these flies I have at last found the secret of how to slow down time, since watching something so wonderful is the ideal way to lose track of it. Fortunate for me that the flies departed before my bus did!
Dolichopus ungulatus by Martin Cooper. Via Flickr used under CC BY 2.0