TLS essay: Little Parishes Of Sky

We have our patches, our parishes. We have short horizons. We walk the same paths over and over; we know the terrain and the climate, we know the all the regulars by sight. Birdwatchers, by and large, are parochial in habits – parochial, of the parish, “the indefinable territory”, as Richard Mabey has defined it, “to which we feel we belong, which we have the measure of. Its boundaries are more the limits of our intimate allegiances than lines on a map … Lovingly watched and logged as they are, they help provide a meeting place for wild life and human feeling”.

This is true, but they are lines on a map, too. I have measured mine out. From my third-floor office window they run just under a mile to the north, a mile and a half to the east, a few hundred yards to the south-east (the tower of St Walburga’s Church endstops the landscape there). These are my boundaries, for now. We start self-isolation today.

But of course there’s another boundary, a limit fixed at an angle to the landscape’s compass face, outward and upward, the one we call eyeshot. We haven’t got a garden here but we’ve got a lot of sky. We all have our share of that, our own personal tranche or channel of broken blue or seamless lamb-grey or declining evening gold. It goes as far as we can see or hear. This is a part of our parish, too.

I just looked out. There was a splashy pale yolk of a sun and a crow. There’s always a crow. This one was tracking a bearing to the west-south-west.

“One day has been pretty much the same as another”, wrote the naturalist Bruce Cummings, better known by the pen name W. N. P. Barbellion, slowly dying from MS in the cold London spring of 1917. “I get out of bed usually about tea time and sit by the window and churn over past, present and future. However, the swallows have arrived at last, though they were very late, and there are also cuckoos, green woodpeckers, moorhens, calling from across the park.”

As circumstances pull in our horizons like a drawstrung hem, we readjust, recalibrate, settle to our new scales. We might not respond as we think we ought. Cummings came to find that he was more enlivened by the birds at his window than by the presence of his infant daughter. But generally we will reach accommodation.

Kathleen Jamie has written about being penned in not by dire circumstance but – as most of us are, most of the time – by life, by the necessary responsibilities of the everyday. Oystercatchers are heard to call only when the school-run traffic falls quiet; peregrines are watched from the window, in nightclothes, as long as family life allows (“‘Mum, can we have our breakfast?’ ‘Just a minute …’ Dammit. I’d glanced away for a moment, and when I looked back the peregrine had quit fidgeting and flown.”). “Between the laundry and fetching kids from school, that’s how birds enter my life”, Jamie writes. “The birds live at the edge of my life. That’s okay.”

There’s a peculiar duality, I think, to the lives of the half-known birds that crisscross my square of sky, my vista of slate rooftops. I know them and I don’t know them. I know the way they fly, their perching places, their calls (I’ve spent lockdown mornings teaching the toddler to do a jackdaw chap!), their habits (I know the magpies will shelter under the gutter across the street if it rains, facing each other, quite still, like a pair of china ornaments); on good days in good light I might be able to tell one individual from another. But of course I don’t know them at all, any more than they know me. They are mostly where I am not. I know them here, that’s all. And what they are here is only a fraction of what they are everywhere (I am, I hope, more than the unshaven face at the window, gazing dully at woodpigeons over a mug of coffee).

A square mile of sky is, of course, what you make of it. I’m reminded of the metre-wide “mandala” staked out by David Haskell in a Tennessee forest in a bid to answer the question: “Can the whole forest be seen through a small contemplative window of leaves, rocks and water?” Can we see a world in a grain of sand, find in a hazelnut, with Julian of Norwich, all that is made?

“A lily”, said Vladimir Nabokov, “is more real to a naturalist than it is to an ordinary person. But it is still more real to a botanist. And yet another stage of reality is reached with that botanist who is a specialist in lilies. You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near enough.”

Most of us, in this sense, will never get very close. Not as close as Gilbert White, first among parish naturalists, who in the summer woods of Selborne looked at one species of jittering, yellow-brown treetop warbler and saw three (teasing what had been thought a single bird apart into the chiffchaff and wood and willow warblers); not as close as the expert birder and writer Mark Cocker, who has logged upward of 120 bird species from his Claxton home (from mine I’ve logged maybe a dozen). But I look out from my comfortable quarantine and in seeing birds I see more than I otherwise would – more, that is, than feathers and beaks, eyes and feet. Birds have baggage; birds bring meaning, they bring depth, and by doing that, in my eyes, they bring beauty.

“I can appreciate the beauty of a flower’, said the physicist Richard Feynman, as if in conversation with Nabokov. “At the same time, I see much more about the flower … I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions … The science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds.”

I watch the birds – I just looked again, to see a cloudscape of darkening blues and a pigeon coming in to land on the mill chimney – without much sense of connection or fellow feeling. We can find consolation in this. The poet John Buxton studied redstarts from behind the wire of German PoW camps during the Second World War. “One of the chief joys of watching them in prison”, he wrote, “was that they inhabited another world than I. They lived wholly and enviably to themselves … They lived only in the moment, without foresight and with memory only of things of immediate practical concern to them.” There are other priorities out there, other interpretations, other ways of looking at the world (these roofs, even, these chimneys, clouds, this column of sky). There is other news, on other channels.

Or we can take the other view. We can – or at least, some of us can – decide that the birds do not regard us with a cold eye.

From solitary confinement in a US supermax, Babar Ahmad watched birds through a six-inch slot of windowglass. “Not being able to talk to another human being for long periods of time is worse than being deprived of food and drink”, he recalled. “I was standing there observing the birds when suddenly one bird flew all the way to the outside of my window ledge. This had never happened before … The bird made eye contact with me and held it for a few moments. It was as if he knew that I used to watch his flock every day. It was as if he was saying to me, ‘Never feel that you are alone, because we are also here with you, on your side’.”

This isn’t a bird I recognize. Perhaps at times I wish it was.

If I walk across the narrow landing and look through the window at the front of the house it’s odds-on that I’ll see jackdaws (and the shadows of jackdaws, our jackdaws, thrown on the opposing wall by that struggling sun). Most likely, then, I’ll think of Polly Atkin’s poem “Jack Daw” – poetry, of course, being another of the meanings that birds carry with them. It’s a nature poem of roof, yard and chimney (“Your blue-eyed baby is crying in alarm / from the breach in our structure you cracked her into”). Atkin’s poems, such as “Windows”, often speak from home, through the lens of chronic illness:

Those lightless days when pain
keeps you in, under, and the feeder
at the window is the only source of movement
you count birds. A flurry of long-tailed tits
tumbling at the glass like blossom, the creep
of the nuthatch along the wall. There is no
zero count with a window survey.
Nothing so low, so empty, only
feathered need and flight.

We’ll all to a greater or lesser extent chafe against our confinement and our isolation, as the lockdown goes on. Often our little parishes of sky will seem too small. Mine seems small now. But then, at some point soon, a woodpigeon will leap up abruptly into a clap display above the opposite roof-ridge, or a goldfinch will pose fiercely on the vent pipe to clatter out its song, or the bandit-masked magpies will drop down to harry a cat somewhere below, and it will seem, all at once, a little bigger.

This essay was published in The Times Literary Supplement in April, 2020: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/joys-birdwatching-lockdown-essay-richard-smyth/

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