Review of “Curlew Moon”, Mary Colwell

Back in the days leading up to World Curlew Day  I posted various curlew-related posts. One way on “Curlew Moon” by Mary Colwell.  Rather shamefacedly, I must admit I had not read the book (but an article by Colwell in The Countryman) at the time.

Having finished it in recent weeks, I can highly recommend it. It is a beautiful object, the cover designed by Jake Smyth with a shimmering golden curlew over a stylised river. An online imagine won’t capture the iridescence of the curlew:


cover curlew moon


I didn’t judge the book by its cover. Colwell walked 500 miles though Ireland and Britain exploring the curlew’s fate in these islands; from the ubiquity that guarantees near-invisibility (think of the robin and starling now)  and familiarity in poetry  and story  and music to loss, if trends continue, as a breeding bird here.

Like the corncrake, the curlew’s cry would have been part of a vanishing soundscape which is being lost. Colwell’s book is a very personal and very comprehensive look at the curlew’s plight.

Fifteen years or so ago I wouldn’t have liked the personal touches much, preferring something either more “literary” or “scientific” – but, as with Gordon Hempton’s “One Square Inch of Silence” or Peter Reason’s “In Search of Grace”an older, wiser me finds this roots the encounter with the natural world in everyday, even mundane human existence. Colwell celebrates the “nature heroes” she meets, who in the face of official and cultural indifference plough on with efforts to preserve what is being lost.

Some of the most fascinating sections of the book deal with the local realities which are often missed either by government policy or big NGOs. Early on, Colwell writes that “curlews need to pay their way” in a rural economy which has been progressively more intensified in recent decades. Land use and farming practices squeeze out many species, and E.O Wilson’s “Age of Loneliness”, in which humans share the planet with a few generalist scavengers, approach.

Like many who care about the natural world, Colwell is instinctively repulsed by hunting. Yet, as anyone who fully realises the impact of land use on biodiversity will surely concede, hunting is very very far from the major reason for the crisis of species loss (notwithstanding the fates of the Eskimo Curlew and passenger pigeon in the past) Colwell writes that on grouse moors in England and Scotland, there is a threefold higher chance of breeding curlews than in other habitats. Indeed, curlews owed a late 19th / early 20th surge in numbers in part to grouse shooting and other changes in farm practice.

Predator control is another contentious topic. Foxes and corvids can devastate broods, and for species like curlew whose breeding “hit rate” can be low, the rise in numbers of both has catastrophic effects. Again, Colwell initially treats this rather gingerly, but as the book progresses it becomes clearer and clearer that to save the curlew we must kill quite a lot of foxes and carrion crows.

This is not a palatable message to a lot of supporters of conservation organisations, and the big NGOs are wary of losing donations by sullying their name with predator control. It is very often outsourced to preserve deniability. Grouse shooting is Public Enemy Number One for many British birders because of the persecution of raptors which gamekeepers (illegally) indulge. Colwell is evidently sympathetic to the anti-hunting lobby, but also gives a nuanced account of the realities of grouse moors as an industry and employer.

All this is woven with a more personal account of her own  loss of mother and father – she from Fermanagh, he from Stoke On Trent – which is at times deeply moving (I also discovered – which had passed me by – that Seamus Heaney’s last words were a text message, “be not afraid” in Latin) Obviously the Irish sections – from Fermanagh to Sligo through the midlands – deal with the most familiar landscapes to myself. Both North and South, Colwell notes the heedless pursuit of economic development above all else that has characterised both jurisdictions in recent decades, and in one especially bleak scene gives a talk to a group of indifferent teenagers. In this age of Twitter boosterism when events like this get hyped up with hashtags to something they are not, it is refreshing to read her honest account of a difficult encounter. The local heroes are swimming against a strong tide of indifference.

In the South at least, there is a strong sense of cultural self-congratulation at How Far We Have Come (Brexit and Trump have intensified this), which militates against any consideration if we are going in the right direction and if there may be things that we will regret losing. The word “bog” has a high degree of ambiguity in Irish culture; symbolic of backwardness and economic deprivation, yet cutting rights are jealously defended.  Bog themselves are extraordinary habitats, trapping more carbon dioxide than rain forests. And when they are gone, they’ll be gone.

It is always hard to defend the idea of making some effort to preserve nature in the face of raw, often emotive, arguments for employment and economic need. The economic disasters of 2008-11 and beyond gave even more conviction to those who would ignore the possibility of co-existence with nature.

Of course, one could question the benefit, both long term  but even short term, of economy-first approaches and their narrow approach to utility (indeed the events of 2002 on in Ireland surely illustrate that definitively). Colwell shows she is sensitive to the sensibility of both sides, and her local heroes show that engaging rural communities – while often challenging, even Sisyphean – is the only way to effectively save what is vanishing before our eyes and ears in a supposedly Green-conscious age.


David Monacchi: “Fragments of Extinction”, the sounds of vanishing nature

With the prospect of mass extinction in the news, it seems a good time to reflect on the loss of soundscapes. In Ireland, the corncrake and the curlew were once the background sounds of daily life; now they are nearly vanished.

I have posted before about nature recording artists such as Gordon Hempton and Chris Watson who have captured soundscapes in the natural world that one hopes will not vanish altogether. I came across David Monacchi and his Fragments of Extinction project.

Monacchi records (and streams) soundscapes from the dwindling number of intact, untouched forests around the world. What makes his work especially compelling is the clarity with which he illustrates how these ecosystems have a panoply of harmonious acoustic niches, across species and genera. The best way to get a sense is this short video:

“the unfortunate matter of the suffix -anus”

I am pretty sure I have overshared from John Wright’s “The Naming of the Shrew”but ah sure one more for the road:

First, the unfortunate matter of the suffix -anus. In Latin nomenclature, it simply indicates position, connection or possession by, as in sylvanus (‘belonging to woods’), africanus (‘coming from Africa’) and alphonsianus (for Professor Alphonse Milne-Edwards). It has nothing to do with anything anatomical. The English name for the body part is from the Latin noun with the same meaning, itself a derivative of anulus or annulus – ‘a ring’. On the page, or if pronounced as in ‘pat’ or in ‘part’, the suffix is unremarkable; only when pronounced (properly, as it happens) with an ‘ay’, as in ‘pane’, does it become a source of infantile sniggering (for notes on pronunciation, see here). Taxonomists, wary of offending those they wish to honour, tend to avoid the suffix, if possible. But some names suffer more than others, and no doubt Milne-Edwards was delighted with his epithet. Professor Roy Watling, formerly of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, told me of the occasion he and his colleague Alex Smith wished to name a new species of mushroom in the genus Leccinum (a bolete). It was to honour the distinguished boletologist Walter Snell. Faced with the unthinkable snellianus, they settled on Leccinum snelli.

Other taxonomists have not been so considerate. The nineteenth-century botanist William Hemsley, for example, does not appear to have thought through his name for the bramble species Rubus cockburnianus, with which he wished to honour the Cockburn family. Rafinesque, although of French descent, lived and worked in the US, so he should have realised that his Soranus was open to misinterpretation.

More forgivable because of the language difference is Bugeranus, the generic name of B. carunculatus, the wattled crane, with which the German ornithologist Gloger presented Herr Buger. For temporal as well as language reasons, the nineteenth-century German botanist Karl Sigismund Kunth cannot be held responsible for the specific epithet of the invasive gamba grass Andropogon gayanus, with which he honoured the French botanist Claude Gay.

However, P. J. Hancox, writing in 1987, must be guilty as charged for giving us the improbable imperative therapsid genus Dolichuranus; that dolichos is Greek for ‘long’ does not forgive.

Review of Robert Pogue Harrison’s “Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition”, Nthposition 2009

Another review of mine from the departed I quite enjoyed this from Robert Pogue Harrison. And  I am now even further along my immersion in the “dull adult world”, ten years later.


Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition

Robert Pogue Harrison

University of Chicago Press.



In adolescence, gardening seems to embody the dull adult world. Why waste time weeding and pruning and mowing when you could be listening to some angry young band or other convince you that the world is there for the easy changing, or wrapping you in a comically soggy blanket of miserabilism? As you get older gardening begins to gain some appeal, though if you need some convincing of the value of it Robert Pogue Harrison’s book is invaluable.


Harrison is the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature at Stanford University, and has previously written on forests and on graves. He is poetic, digressive, discursive – with some respect for the sciences of botany and horticulture, but ultimately siding with poets (especially female ones).  “When it comes to speculation about origins we would do better to credit the intuition of poets rather than the conventional wisdom.”


Harrison begins with Voltaire’s injunction at the end of Candide  that “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” and ends with Firmin in Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano haunted in his alcoholic despair by his own mistranslation of a sign encouraging us not to destroy este jardín  on a neighbouring municipal garden. Firmin believes the sign is really a statement of threat, and one of Harrson’s themes is the Western perception of life as being all about force and purpose. We are “driven but aimless” in his conception, and he writes well and passionately about our times of goal-setting and to-do lists but of nothing beyond narcissism to do.


Harrrison rather grudgingly gives us a note on Versailles, which for him is incarnates “highly refined vice…The cultivation of envy, spite, pride or greed does not transform those vices into virtues: on the contrary, by submitting them to extremely regimented rules and protocols, it gives them a style that renders them sublime while leaving their vicious essence intact.” The majesty of Versailles is exactly that, majesty, and for Harrison the vast scale and order of the place incarnate a certain evil.


He writes of the magic gardens of Gilgamesh and the Garden of Eden, ideal pleasure gardens perhaps but ones which humankind could not bear for very long. Think of Odysseus desperate to leave Circe’s idyll. For Harrison, humanity was shaped by Care (personified in an ancient fable as moulding and naming humanity) and needs to exercise Care to achieve fulfillment. Gardening is the epitome of care taking –  all gardeners are constant gardeners. The Czech author Karel Capek (who coined the word “robot”) is a particular favourite. His “The Gardeners Year” is the source of some of Harrison’s most impressive and thought-provoking reflections. For Capek, before becoming a real gardener, “a certain maturity, or let us say paternity, is necessary” – in youth, one “eats the fruits of life which one has not produced oneself” and one believes a flower is “what one carries in a buttonhole, or presents a girl with.” The gardener is concerned with long time, with the future in the broadest sense.


Gardens and thought are closely related. A garden can be the most exciting place in the world, a place suspended in time, away from the world and yet part of the world. For Harrison, a garden should not be isolated from the world around it, for to be a “still centre of the world” requires the tension that comes from the presence of the world. He writes about Plato’s Academy, a garden for training future leaders, and contrasts it with Epicurus’ Garden School with its principled “idiocy” or withdrawal from public life and competition, and cultivation of gardening and friendship.


We read of princely gardens intended to embody state power, of university gardens, of Japanese gardens, of the convent gardens profaned by Boccacio’s heroes, of the gardens of the homeless in New York City. The book is wide ranging, allusive, and erudite, but it is not authoritative or definitive. There is no Montaigne, or Shakespeare. There is no Garden of Forking Paths. Harrison deals with monastic gardens incredibly briefly and dismissively. His big ideas are at times fascinating, at times tendentious. He devotes much energy to suggesting that the faultline between Islam and the “west” is partly due to the specificity of the Islamic conception of paradise as a pleasure garden of fulfillment, versus the vagueness of the Christian, which may indeed involve further yearning. More profitable is his use of Orlando Furioso as a key text to understand the chaotic nihilism of modernism.


We stray quite far from the garden in the later pages of the essay, and one is relieved to get back to the firm earth. If the gardener is opposed to anything, it is to nihilism. The garden is life-affirming because of its very insistence on care and need for care. Care is what makes life worthwhile, and in Harrison’s reading it was Eve who agitated to get out of the Garden of Eden because everything there was provided all too easily.





On St Stephen’s Day, I awoke to see a sparrowhawk perched regally, and not at all discreetly, on the roof of one of our bird tables.

It stood, as if posing for a textbook illustration. I called the children. One came and then ran off to get “something to take a photo with. ” I tried to get her to stay and enjoy the moment.

It flew onto the boundary wall, where it perched equally comfortably, flying off before any photo could be taken.

No other birds were seen for quite a while.

Ember Days and nature connection

Today, Friday and Saturday are Ember Days. I had never heard of these (though “embertide” rings a faint bell) until I came across this tweet

In a way Fr Schrenk explains it well in this thread so unroll it for the full explanation, or look here or here. Essentially, Ember Days are 3 days in an “Ember Week”, which occurs four times in a calendar year and mark the commencement of seasons. The December days are the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after St Lucy’s Day (13th December)

They are marked by practices such as fasting and abstinence, though specifics seem a little different depending on the online source.  One site I came across suggested “minor” fasting, ie one full meal and two light meals (which sounds closer to a healthy intake than to a fast to me) as well as marking the day with appropriate prayer.

Traditionally, clergy were ordained during Ember Weeks.



“Ember” is not a reference to fire but a corruption of the Latin Quatuor Tempora meaning “four times.” In Irish, they are Laethanta na gCeithre Thráth  – “days of the four times” – which preserves the sense of the Latin.  Ember days seem to have got a little more attention in recent times as a form of collective repentance related to recent crises in the Church. 

Separate from any theological or ecclesiastic practice, I am struck by the wisdom of observances that are tied with the cycle of the seasons and thereby of growth, death and renewal that follow the year. And I am struck by the wisdom of periods of restraint in consumption (which is what fasting is, as opposed to self-punishment) and of contemplation that relate fundamentally to the changes of the seasons. It is a cliché to bemoan the overcommercialisation of Christmas but it is salutary to recall that Advent was supposed to be a time of reflection, self-denial and preparation.

It seems a pity that the Ember Days practice has fallen into disuse in general. And again separate from any specific religious belief or affiliation, one wonders if the practice of Ember Days did help to connect people with the progress of the seasons (and if their abandonment is yet another marker of disconnection with nature) and whether for this reason observance of Ember Days is due a revival.

“Swallows”, George Szirtes

George Szirtes is a poet who writes both children’s and grown-up verse. His book “How To Be A Tiger” neatly shows how ostensibly children’s verse can be as valuable as adult-orientated work

One highlight: “Swallows”:

Hustling on the wing

all billow and swoop

Laughing as they go

Pouring from the sky

In one vast troupe

They fly tails forked

Suddenly uncorked.