I am pleased to report Liam has now won a British Wildlife Photography Award for a video of his – here is Liam’s wonderful video of a caddis fly larva ‘s life – with a rather dramatic twist. The sheer patience involved, apart from anything else, is staggering.
I have previously cited this essay by Mark Cocker on the “New Nature Writing” as exemplified by Robert Macfarlane and Helen McDonald. Have been re-reading it and find, as often happens, the temptation to repost it in full very strong… but here are some selected highlights:
TThe recent expansion of “new nature writing” is among the most significant developments in British publishing this century. If you missed its inception or have not the inclination to read the scores of books appearing under its banner, you could do worse to catch up than to read a single chapter in Michael McCarthy’s new book, The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy. It is the one entitled “The Great Thinning” and it powerfully and succinctly summarises the unfolding national story.
The phrase refers to the inexorable diminution of wildlife on these islands since the Second World War, primarily at the hands of farmers armed with an array of industrially produced chemicals. “The country I was born into,” McCarthy writes, “possessed something wonderful it absolutely possesses no longer: natural abundance . . . Blessed, unregarded abundance has been destroyed.” His most powerful and strangely poignant example of this is something that only people over 50 would have seen: the blizzard of nocturnal insects that would eventually obliterate the vision of any driver on a long car journey during a summer’s evening. I remember it, just.
Over the decades, during his time as a journalist, McCarthy sensed the public’s ability to hear this story in its piecemeal form and ignore it almost entirely. Even now, he points out, the scale of what has happened on these islands eludes many people.
It is this gap between our recent natural history and the present public taste for such books that makes the upsurge of the “new nature” genre so fascinating – but also so perplexing. What role are these works playing and what do they say about the British relationship with non-human life?
Cocker considers the extravagantly praised (but not by me) H for Hawk:
The book’s profound impact is not in any doubt but a legitimate question to pose about H Is for Hawk is its status as a nature book. The motif of a raptor as a symbol of grief and of the author’s struggle with depression is indisputably powerful. Macdonald’s evocation of her bird’s savage habits also provides the book’s aura of raw otherness but it is ultimately not a wild bird. Yet there are wild goshawks in Britain and these barely appear in the text. You would understand why if you have ever tried to look for this extraordinary bird. Wild goshawks are among Britain’s most elusive and unpredictable large predators. I go looking routinely and count a sighting on one in ten visits a pretty good return. Goshawk watching is a frustrating business but the birds’ self-willed indifference to our intentions is surely almost a defining characteristic of nature.
It is not our project. It keeps its own hours. One powerful psychological effect of contact with nature is that it measures what we are not and the specific appeal of books on the subject is that they simultaneously remind us of our relationship with the rest of life but deflate our burdening sense of centrality within it. We become part, not all.
The key passage of this essay charts a subtle but important shift :
Mabey’s entire project could be summarised as a movement along a single axis between culture – land practice or literature, science, the visual arts, sculpture, whatever – and nature. It is metaphorically and actually rooted in a soil of real, living things. Almost every one of the books involves movement between those two poles. In Macfarlane’s work and in so many of the new books, nature and culture have been replaced by landscape and literature. It may seem a relatively small shift in emphasis but one cannot help pondering its significance.
He also considers William Atkins’ The Moor:
The Moor attempts to explore the cultural purpose and meaning of some of the most forsaken, yet most contested, semi-natural places in Britain. They are the gritstone uplands, dominated by heather, mosses and lichens but also now by sheep and by red grouse. This intermittent column of high ground serves as England’s vertebrae from Cornwall to Cumbria. Yet a striking anomaly about The Moor, which looks more significant in view of the recent widening gulf between north and south, is its billing as a book about British uplands, when Atkins barely crosses the English border. Yet Scotland holds twice as much grouse moorland – two million acres – as England and Wales combined.
In truth, the author is most comfortable tackling the historical and inherited psychological roles of such landscapes as described in the literary works of W H Auden, the Brontës, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath or Henry Williamson. There are, for instance, far more titles in the bibliography concerning the sexual politics of Hughes and Plath than there are about the environmental politics of red grouse and hen harriers.
Does that matter? It does if you consider that most moorland exists today to deliver a cash crop of grouse to a super-rich elite who think little of paying between £3,000 and £12,000 per person for a day’s shooting. Just as significant is that you and I, through our taxes, help to subsidise those little luxuries. As a consequence of management that aims to create the maximum possible grouse bag and therefore raise the most money, grouse moor owners have almost extinguished the predatory hen harrier from England and substantially reduced its potential numbers in Scotland.
The shift from writing about nature to writing “about” landscape, literature and human culture – our own “projects”- involves itself a kind of loss. Cocker ends with an Emerson quote that reminds me of Yeats’ “rag-and-bone shop of the heart” :
Does this mean that all nature books have to be filled with the grief and pain of loss? Of course not. But they have to navigate – as McCarthy endeavours to do – between joy and anxiety. Nature writers must ponder and engage with these troubling realities. Otherwise, we are just fiddling while the agrochemicals burn.
The real danger is that nature writing becomes a literature of consolation that distracts us from the truth of our fallen countryside, or – just as bad – that it becomes a space for us to talk to ourselves about ourselves, with nature relegated to the background as an attractive green wash. The project of re-enchantment might restore to us a canon of lost writings about the eeriness and mystery of our landscape. Yet, as Emerson warned in his essay “Nature”, what worth is there in words that have no real soil at their roots?
On this day one hundred and seventy six years ago, this is what Nathanial Hawthorne wrote in his diary….
October 12th.–The cawing of the crow resounds among the woods. A sentinel is aware of your approach a great way off, and gives the alarm to his comrades loudly and eagerly,–Caw, caw, caw! Immediately the whole conclave replies, and you behold them rising above the trees, flapping darkly, and winging their way to deeper solitudes. Sometimes, however, they remain till you come near enough to discern their sable gravity of aspect, each occupying a separate bough, or perhaps the blasted tip-top of a pine. As you approach, one after another, with loud cawing, flaps his wings and throws himself upon the air.
There is hardly a more striking feature in the landscape nowadays than the red patches of blueberry and whortleberry bushes, as seen on a sloping hill-side, like islands among the grass, with trees growing in them; or crowning the summit of a bare, brown hill with their…
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I have been posting some thoughts inspired by Peter Reason’s book In Search of Grace. I am trying not to let this blog turn into nothing but a series of extracts from the book! However I do feel that this nice little passage on puffins near the Shiant Islands Shiant Isles (owned by the family of another author I have featured here, Adam Nicolson) worth quoting – and a near illustration of the near impossibility of avoiding anthropomorphism:
Soon Coral was surrounded by puffins, with the distinctive markings around their eyes and their wonderful colored beaks. The air was full of puffins too, so full it reminded me more of a cloud of mosquitos than a flock of birds. Those afloat seemed to be juveniles, pufflets (puffins live up to forty years but do not mate for the first five years), while those airborne were clearly adults, tirelessly flying out to the fishing grounds and returning with sand eels hanging from their beaks to feed their chicks. These adults were so intent on their business that they often seemed not to see Coral, passing within fet of the mast and only diverting at the last moment.
It is very difficult not to anthropomorphise puffins. They do remind one of neatly turned out, rather insecure, self-important people. As I took Coral slowly across the pool towards the anchorage, steering through the floating flocks, the pufflets swam energetically ahead, looking anxiously from side to side as if to say. “I am not really bothered by this great white creature.” But when Coral drew too close for comfort, their heads bobbed this way then that even more urgently, while they made up their minds whether to dive or take off. Diving is the more elegant choice: a neat flip takes them the beneath the surface, leaving concentric rings of ripples. In contrast, taking off is usually a bit of a mess: their wings don’t seem to get much initial lift, so they splash frantically along the surface, wings and feet flapping away, often to crash inelegantly back into the water.
Here is the yacht Coral moored on the Shiants:
— Peter Reason (@peterreason) September 18, 2017
Came across an interesting Irishman’s Diary on Lough Neagh by Paul Clements from 2008 . Some highlights:
Lough Neagh was famed in the past for its winter floods and many people feel it is best visited in winter. Migrating birds agree that this is the best time to come. Tens of thousands of wintering wildfowl, including tufted duck and pochard, fly in from eastern Europe while whooper swans, scaup and greylag geese swoop in from Iceland to feed over the winter.
Eddie Franklin, the retired warden of the Portmore nature reserve in the lough’s south-east corner, knows the birds well. Spend a little time with him and he will show you the hiding places in the reed beds of the ruddy ducks, explain the activities of the rare male smew, and tell you about the families of gregarious nesting tree sparrows as well as the lapwing recovery project.
It’s not just birds for which the lough is renowned. The eels in Lough Neagh travel more than 4,000 miles to breed in the Sargasso Sea and the young fry return by drifting on the Gulf Stream back over the Atlantic, entering the River Bann as young elvers. The lough also has its own unique species of fish including dollaghan, which is a huge trout, and a small freshwater type of herring called pollan.
Those with an inquiring mind may wonder, for example, how Kettlebottom Island in the south-western corner of the townland of Balloo got its name. According to the Ordnance Survey Revision Name Book of 1856 it came, prosaically enough, from its shape, which “resembles the bottom of a kettle”. Or what of the delightful-sounding place called Half Umry? It was first recorded in 1637 when it was referred to as the half towne of Umery.
Other names that roll mellifluously off the tongue include Clintycracken and Knocknamuckly, Limnaharry and Moneyquiggy; and two that twist the tongue are Tamnafiglassan and Gortnagwyg. As every broadcaster knows, the village of Magheralin is pronounced as in Marilyn Monroe, while the civil parish called Montiaghs – from Na Móinteacha, “the bogs” – sounds much like chocolate “munchies”.
The curiously named townland called British stretches from Ballyginniff on the west side to the Dunore River on the east and includes the terminal of Belfast International Airport. The name derives from the Irish word briotás, a direct borrowing from the Norman-French bretesche.
And incidentally, as well as forming a base layer in Croke Park, Lough Neagh sand was used for the mortar in the building of Stormont Castle in east Belfast.
I have sheepishly avoided posting anything on bird feeding since this fatal illustration of the principle of unintended consequences.
Disposing of the prior feeders (although this may have been overkill) and regularly cleaning, and moving around, the newer ones, seems to have helped.
There have been no more dead greenfinches. This is coming into a quieter time in garden bird feeding anyway. I have seen greenfinches since, but not in the same numbers. The sad thought that this is due to my own doing persists.
A pleasing mix of species, currently dominated by corvids but with a proportionally higher amount of tits than before, still feed.
I have used this blog as a sort of journal of various observations on bird feeding. Unfortunately, and humblingly, I have realised that my bird feeding activity has in fact been doing the precise opposite of what I hoped. Killing, not preserving life.
I was familiar with Trichomonas infections– an condition which especially effects greenfinches – and had washed and even replaced my feeders fairly regularly, I had thought (but far from regularly enough)
A few weeks ago I saw some definite cat / hawk kills in the garden with evident wounds. There were also a couple of less evidently predator related deaths. Foolishly I put these down to cat activity also, based on dim memories of cats killing birds but not eating them. I also wondered if there was some dehydration going on given recent hot weather and redoubled putting out water.
I had noticed also that sometimes the greenfinches seemed to have a few seeds in their beak at the same time, a little like what can be seen in the above. In retrospect, this should have tipped me off the something was wrong.
Finally yesterday, having found two dead greenfinches – one of which was entirely unmarked, the other of which had some plumage damage. I realised what was up. The advice from Birdwatch Ireland and the RSPB is to remove feeders and bowls and wait at least two weeks to put out food again (with cleaned feeders). The BTO advice is as follows:
Rotate positions of feeders in the garden to prevent the build up of contamination in any one area of ground below the feeders. Empty and air dry any bird baths on a daily basis. You may wish to consider stopping feeding if you have an outbreak of the disease at your feeding station, in an attempt to force the birds to feed elsewhere at a lower density (although in reality they may end up visiting another feeding station and possibly one where no hygiene measures are in place.
It is humbling and sobering to realise that an activity that you thought was helpful and in some way kind, and also had put some thought into in terms of what kind of feed to put out etc (and it wasn’t that I didn’t know about Trichomonas infections and try to take some steps to prevent them), can end up doing the opposite of what is intended.
I am not sure if this bird is the same as the one photographed above, but I fear it is. Apart from other lessons, in future I will think more carefully and analytically about dead birds in my garden… and clean/replace feeders much more systematically.