birds


 

Redpolls (Carduelis caberet), fidgeted high in the larch, picked clean Capability’s cones  

 and a few fragile fallow fawns shivered by the guard of red stags.

 Then  with a flash of blue’, the final whistle sounded on the plough, 

 the white swan took flight with a last wheezing of the pipes,

 and I stood in the grove while silent swallows swerved around my knees.

 

Was there ever a more thrilling ensemble?   

The wild whoops and daring dives not of the solo violin,

But the rolling tumbling, death defying  lapwings. 

The woodwind section, a haunting of curlew,

their querulous ascent and curdling decline, 

 a wild race of  whistling oystercatchers,     

the redshank that pipes and dips from the wall.  

The choir, an alchemy  of plaintive plover,

banking  gold and white and back to gold again,  

 the skylarks locked in their trilling elevators

and the paragliding squeaking of pipits,

the brass is the honking  pairs of greylag  geese on morning  patrol,

percussion, the  humming, thrumming, drumming of roller coaster snipe. 

All this, while wheatears, that slate and primrose spring  

take silent  ownership  of cup and ring.    

There was a kind of magic that earlier spring, under the Quantock ridge, where Hope Corner Lane crossed the Kingston Road.

 If we left home early in the half light, before breakfast, the white owl would still be ghosting alongside the hedgerows on silent wings to take a last late vole to the shadow of the barn.   And  there in the garden of the big house, behind the wall, a fairy woodpecker, red head and ladder back would be fidgeting his way up the tall trees.  

Alas, the house has been demolished;  the barns pulled down, the birds gone, even the chinking of Corn Buntings in the fields.  The spectral owl still hunts in the wildernesses,  but the fairy woodpecker is a figment, an image torn from a book, a trace in the memory.     

Fifty three more springs have passed.  And then on Thursday,  lying in sharvasana  (the corpse posture) under the tall beeches on the Tumps,  I heard a soft regular tapping, more like a snore or the purr of a contented cat, and a high pitched call repeated three times.   I opened my eyes and caught a flutter as a tiny bird, no bigger than a sparrow but more fragile, moved to another dead limb and rattled a different pitch.  I focussed; the same white stripes, the red cap, the cheek patches and I believed in miracles.

The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker has declined by more than 90% in the last fifty years in the UK and cross Europe.  There are now fewer than  2000 pairs left in Britain.  At least two pairs are present amid the deer and open woodland in Chatsworth Park. The British Trust for Ornithology identifies the possible reasons for its decline as competition with and predation by Great Spotted Woodpeckers, and reductions in small-diameter dead wood suitable for foraging, while the species’ large home ranges suggest that landscape-scale changes in woodland (loss of mature broadleaved woodland, losses of non-woodland trees such as elms, and woodland fragmentation) may also be important (Fuller et al. 2005).

Sorry to moan, but I’ve got flu.   At least that’s what I think I’ve got.   It could be the return of the auld trubble – the malaria, but it doesn’t quite fit the pattern.  I begin to feel wobbly and shivery about dusk every afternoon, not every other day like I did with malaria.   My back and the muscles of my shoulders ache and I have a fairly superficial pain just above my nose where the sinuses are.   I’m coughing thick yellow phlegm and expelling the same gunk through my nose.  And I feel so tired I just can’t do any more.   No, let’s call it flu.  That’s what a lot of medicine is, after all, informed guesswork.   And before you ask, I didn’t take up the government’s offer of a flu jab this winter. 

I went to see the quack this morning.  The snow had all but thawed, but the wet ice outside the surgery was treacherous.   Was this an opportunist way of creating new business by a new entrepreneurial NHS?   Anyway, Dr Watson agreed enthusiastically with my deductions and I now have a bottle or crimson and custard minibombs to assist my waving immune system, a caution against unwise excursions into the mountains and more concern that the stress may have aroused dormant histiocytes.  I get the blood tests back tonight.   

It’s amazing in a way how a non specific infection like flu can bring on the gamut of unexplained symptoms; the exhaustion, fatigue, depressing muscle ache, the anorexia and early satiety, the bowel aches and pains, shortness of breath, the lot.   It’s like the virus switches on a non specific pattern of illness not unlike that induced by trauma, grief or disappointment, the chronic loss of hope that erodes life force.  I didn’t hear from my daughters this Christmas.  Maybe that’s what’s got to me

I came across a lovely few lines by Emily Dickinson on hope

Hope is that thing with feathers,

that perches in the soul,

and sings a song with no words

and doesn’t stop at all.

 

Only that particular yellow bird had gone off to feed in another garden. 

Time to re-stock the feeders.

They called him ‘The Fire of the North’. 

Once a soldier, man of action,

with connections to the King,  

A traveller, he healed the sick 

From Dumfries to Berwick,  

Made miracles

from Durham to Dunbar,

Received acclaim from Rome.  

.

Be our bishop, they cried.  

At first, he denied. 

Too much work,  he replied. 

I need peace, time and space

to converse with the grace 

of God, but don’t mention the ducks,   

We’ll throw in the island, they said,

Bring you breakfast by boat.  

.

You can wash our feet, they said

if that makes you feels good. 

But he waved them his blessings 

And cuddled his ducks instead. 

.

They must have thought Cuthbert was the man of the moment, a born leader, active, wise, understanding and willing to travel.   But he was also widely known for his piety, diligence, obedience and asceticism.   Northumbria extended as far north as the Forth and as far west as Galloway.  Cuthbert travelled the length and breadth of the country,  preaching,  performing miracles and talking to the people.  His generosity and gifts of insight and healing led many people to consult him. He set up oratories and churches throughout the Kingdom and established a reputation for himself and the church further afield.   When Alchfrith, King of Deira, founded a new monastery at Ripon, it was Cuthbert who became its praepositus hospitum or visitors host. He was a leading exponent of the customs of the Roman church at the synod convened at Twyford on the River Aln and also at the synod of Whitby.     

King Eagwith, about whom the great historian Macauley once said, ‘Who?,’  was impressed and prevailed on the Abbot of Montrose to release him to become Bishop of Lindisfarne,  but Cuthbert didn’t want that sort of responsibility.  He liked coming up with ideas, but he needed space to think and contemplate.  He agreed only if he could live for as much time as he needed in solitude on Inner Farne.  Cuthbert loved the sea and had frequently travelled from Melrose to the priories at Lindisfarne and St Abb’s.  It was said that he could communicate with the wild creatures.  The Eider Ducks were so tame they would nest in his hut.  To this day, the locals refer to them as Cuddy’s Ducks. 

But Cuthbert spent more and more time on his remote island.  If anybody, even the King, needed to see him, they would have to get a boat and a pilot and undertake the often perilous journey from the mainland.  At first he would welcome visitors and wash their feet, but later he waved his blessings from the window and returned to his contemplation. Cuthbert preferred the company of his wild creatures to man, but his inaccessibility only added to his reputation for piety.  

He died in his island hermitage and his body was brought back in state to be buried at Melrose.  Some years later, it was exhumed and his beatification was assured when it was found that no decomposition had set in.  It now rests in Durham Cathedral. 

So what kind of man was Cuthbert?   A reluctant leader?.  A man of great promise, who could not deliver; always out for a duck?  A selfish recluse?   This is open to conjecture, but I like to think of him as a scholar, a man of ideas and inspiration, who could be too affected by others’ agendas.  He needed to escape, to cease the chatter, the demands and be alone.  It wasn’t that he was selfish; quite the opposite.  But he was no politician.  He could see everybody’s view and could so easily be compromised.  And he was quite unsuited to administration. Luckily for him the King recognised Cuthbert’s symbolic importance and his retreat to the island just added to the mystique. He even passed a law protecting the ducks.   

I have just completed St Cuthbert’s Way across the Border Country from the abbey at Melrose to Lindisfarne Priory. It crosses the Eildon Hills (the Roman Trimontium), then follows the broad upland River Tweed as far as the crystal well at Maxton,turns south along Dere Street, goes up over the Cheviots to Wooler, gains the sea at Beal and follows the Pilgrim’s Route across the sands to The Holy Isle.

I rubbed up  a whole new crop of blisters and trudged the mud and sand of the Pilgrim’s Route barefoot and bloodshod.  Half way across, the sky darkened and a squall blew in from the North Sea.  It was then that the it started, an unearthly sound as if all the souls of the departed sailors shipwrecked on this coast has been disinterred and were howling in agony.  It came from what looked like a clump of rocks on a distant sandbank. I focused my binoculars and saw between two and three hundred seals, half of them pups.  This would have stirred Cuthbert’s heart and it stirred mine.                           

My feet have healed and I’ve donated my boots to the RSPCA.  Maybe a duck will find them useful.

When trees turn dim and lose their scent,

And birds have ceased to call  

When nighthawks glide through misty glades   

And fiery Mars comes up from shades

When fireflies blink and crickets wheeze.

and deer cough deep and owls sneeze  

The sky spreads its carpet of myth

Up ending Orion,

while I, sitting on a stone,

move the branch into the glow and wait   

‘til tousle haired, he brings dazed frogs, which,

steamed with greens, and pungent spice,  

we serve on leaves with sticky rice

and eat with bamboo shots.  .

Nyok!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s so clear in the freezer,

the sky deeper.

Steam rises from the falls,

turns grass stems to prayer flags

and trees into wedding gowns.

The windows of the big house

shine gold while

Thomas Payne’s excellent bridge

burns like a biscuit

against moors of palest pink. 

 

Crystal deep,

the sparkling deer

join with cosy sheep

in a warm circuit of silage,

fermenting an uneasy friendship,

a cloven harmony of hunger.

Flashing red, a woodpecker picks

at frozen bark

while titmice forage

out of habit more than hope.    

 

Spying a discarded raft, I climb aboard

and launch myself down the slope until,

disgorged in a tumble of laughter,

I get the drift, use my hands

like rockets on a space module,

gain stability but no direction. 

A stranger watches by the cattle grid,

‘I’ve only come for my grandson.’

I smile like a sheep in silage

and resolve to buy a sledge.

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