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.


A poem for Palm Sunday – “The Donkey”, G K Chesterton

I find Chesterton a somewhat mixed bag , and that applies to his poetry also, but this has always moved me deeply, and is all the more effective for concealing its theme until the last stanza:

The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

Glen Falls – a poem by Ciaran MacCormaic, Glencomeragh, Co. Waterford

Glen Falls – a poem by Ciaran MacCormaic, Glencomeragh, Co. Waterford

A while back I posted “Be Still”, a poem by Agnes Hunt RHSM which is displayed on a board at the Holy Family Retreat Centre in Glencomeragh, Co Waterford.

There is a poem on the other side of this board:

Here are the falls themselves:

Here is the text:

The noise alerted me
The sound attracted me
The music held me
At the waterfall.
The reckless rush of water
Wasting itself
Against the hard rocks,
Which tried in vain to repulse it.
They merely enabled it to sing
A new song for each hard rock.

As it slid under me,
Danced over another,
Briefly embraced a third.
As I looked at the many hard rocks –
I heard the many joyous notes –
Notes that would be silent
Were it not for the hard rocks.
It was happy water, dancing and singing,
It was generous water
Serving fish and fly and flotsam –
Green shoot and tired twig
And half-grown berry.

But not all the water rushed.
Some eddied pointlessly
Against a rusty sluice-gate
Where it stood
Burdened with its various corpses.
Or so it seemed.
Underneath it made its eager exit
And bubbled mirthfully up again
To meet the welcoming sun.

And I saw a tiny trickle
Seeping from the sodden bank –
A mere piddle.
Of what use to such a hurtling stream
Was such a petty dribble?
Why, another small note
Adding to the chaotic chorus
Of the stream.
And one hard rock was heart-shaped.
Laved by the loving torrent.
And God was in the water,
And God was in the hard rock.

Ciarán MacCormaic, CFC,
Glencomeragh, 26.5.99

And here are (blurry) photos of the board

J G Ballard on viewing Crivelli’s Annunciation

Via Bibliokept:

I am sure that a large part of the enduring mystery of the Renaissance masterpieces in the National Gallery was due to the absence of the explanatory matter that now drains away much of the strangeness and poetry of the Old Masters. I would stare at Crivelli’s Annunciation, charmed by the peacocks, loaves of bread and other incongruous items, the passer-by reading a book on the bridge and the Virgin in her jewel box of a house. I was forced to use my own imagination to stitch these elements into a master narrative that made some kind of sense, rather than read an extended wall caption and be solemnly told that the peacock was a symbol of eternal life. Perish the thought, and let the exquisite bird be itself, and nothing more or less than itself. What could be more natural, and more mysterious, than a peacock and a loaf of bread appearing on the scene to celebrate the forthcoming birth of the Saviour?

From J.G. Ballard’s autobiography Miracles of Life.



At his blog the poet Malcolm Guite features a suite of poems on pilgrimage, one for each day of the first week of Lent:

In this first week in Lent my anthology Word in the Wilderness introduces poems about pilgrimage itself and our life as pilgrimage. We will reflect on maps and mapping, on how outer journeys and inner ones are linked, on what it is we learn from the landscapes through which we walk. 

Among familiar poems such as Walter Raleigh’s Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage, there are ones unknown to me. I especially liked Holly Ordway’s “Maps”. I was particularly struck by the line on the egocentricity of GPS (and by extension Google Maps etc.):

Antique maps, with curlicues of ink
As borders, framing what we know, like pages
From a book of traveler’s tales: look,
Here in the margin, tiny ships at sail.
No-nonsense maps from family trips: each state
Traced out in colour-coded numbered highways,
A web of roads with labeled city dots
Punctuating the route and its slow stories.
Now GPS puts me right at the centre,
A Ptolemaic shift in my perspective.
Pinned where I am, right now, somewhere, I turn
And turn to orient myself. I have
Directions calculated, maps at hand:
Hopelessly lost till I look up at last.

#AshWednesday with Evelyn Waugh in New Orleans, 1949

Via the Evelyn Waugh Society online I came across this from Waugh in 1949. It captures the falseness of the dichotomy betweent the fleshy pleasure of Mardi Gras and the asceticism of this day:

Ash Wednesday; the warm rain falling in streets unsightly with the draggled survivals of carnival. The Roosevelt Hotel overflowing with crapulous tourists planning their return journeys. How many of them knew anything about Lent? But across the way the Jesuit church was teeming with life all day long; a continuous dense crowd of all colours and conditions moving up to the altar rails and returning with their foreheads signed with ash. And the old grim message was being repeated over each penitent: “Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.”