Should your springs overflow in the streets, your streams of water in the public squares?
Well, water has to go somewhere: a lesson brought home by the recent flooding in the north of England and the Scottish borders. But where does it go when a town grows and smothers fields and streams with concrete, brick and tarmac? It’s buried, pushed out of sight. Towns like Liverpool and London have grown around rivers which have later been covered in and forgotten. But beneath the city streets, waterways continue on their ancient courses in underground culverts. Continue reading “‘Before the road was the river’: the streams beneath our streets”→
Reading Paul Evans’ Country Diary in the Guardian this morning in which he describes autumn leaves ‘fiery as metal blades in a blacksmith’s forge’, I was reminded that in recent posts I haven’t mentioned the extraordinary autumn we’ve been having this year. After an indifferent few months, summer burst upon us late, and from the last week of September through the entire month of October the weather was governed by a large area of high pressure that remained motionless over much of western Europe. Continue reading “Autumn 2015: mist, colour and unnatural warmth”→
There was a cherry tree in the front garden of the house in Cheshire where I grew up. Every year in spring, when the delicate white blossom would appear suddenly, as if snow had fallen overnight, I would sense that brighter, longer days were on the way. It later succumbed to poisoning from a poorly sealed-off gas main. Continue reading “The Birthday Tree”→
This is the time of year when the morning dog walk in Sefton Park is accompanied by the loud drumming of the Great Spotted Woodpecker. It’s a handsome bird when you catch a glimpse of it, either clinging to a tree trunk or flying from tree to tree in a flash of black, white and red. This morning I heard a commotion in the branches above me and saw something quite remarkable.
Since the 1950’s these birds have become increasingly common in parks and gardens throughout Britain. Once you have spotted one, they are easy to identify, being predominantly black and white, with a patch of red at the base of the body. You can distinguish males from females because the adult male has a small red patch on its head (juvenile birds exhibit a larger red patch that later disappears). But in spring their presence is usually betrayed by the sound of their drumming.
Although many people assume that they’re hearing the sound of a nest being drilled, that may not be the case, at least early in the season. In February, before the onset of the breeding season, the male woodpecker drums to signal for a mate. Selecting a hollow tree or dead branch with promising resonant qualities, he taps rapidly on the bark with his bill, making a rattle-like drum roll that is startlingly loud and carries for a considerable distance through woodland. Males not only drum in order to attract a mate – throughout the year they will continue to drum to proclaim their territory. Each male has his own drumming sequence and stops to listen to the replies of males nearby.
The drumming’ is the sound the birds make as they hammer their hard bills against the trunk of a tree. I’ve often wondered how the bird can do this repeatedly without doing itself serious brain damage. Here’s the answer, given on the British Trust for Ornithology website:
Hitting a solid tree with your beak so hard that splinters fly ought to cause the brain to rotate in the way that causes concussion in Man. Not a bit of it. The evolution of the bird’s drilling equipment has provided very sophisticated shock absorbing adaptations involving the way that the bird’s beak joins the skull. The stresses are transmitted directly towards the centre of the brain and do not cause the knockout swirl.
The beak is used like a combined hammer and chisel to drill into trees and branches and carve out deep nest holes. When woodpeckers hammer into wood to get at grubs they also have another anatomical adaptation designed to help them feed. The roots of their tongues are coiled round the back of their skulls and can be extended a prodigious distance to harpoon insect larvae in their tunnels.
Once a couple have paired off, the nesting hole, neat and round, is bored in soft or decaying wood horizontally for a few inches, then perpendicularly down. At the bottom of a shaft, usually from six to twelve inches in depth, a small chamber is excavated and lined with wood chips. The female lays up to seven glossy-white eggs in the dark chamber, each parent taking turns to incubate the clutch and later feed the greyish, red-capped fledglings. The young leave after three weeks. The nest hole is rarely used again, though other holes are often bored in the same tree.
What I saw this morning, alerted by a commotion in the branches above, was the sight of two males skirmishing outside a freshly-bored hole. I stood and watched for several minutes as they went at it with a fair amount of ferocity. I assume that what I was seeing was one male attempting to take over the freshly-chiselled hole of the other.
Woodpecker is rubber-necked But has a nose of steel. He bangs his head against the wall And cannot even feel.
When Woodpecker’s jack-hammer head Starts up its dreadful din Knocking the dead bough double dead How do his eyes stay in?
Pity the poor dead oak that cries In terrors and in pains. But pity more Woodpecker’s eyes And bouncing rubber brains.
On our doorstep: the treasure that is Sefton Park. At its heart: the jewel, the Palm House. Twice a day dog and I loop around this beautiful building. In the weeks around Christmas the filigree dome is illuminated with coloured light, and the interior decorated with seasonal lights.
Completed in 1896, Sefton Park Palm House was a gift to Liverpool by Henry Yates Thompson, whose grand uncle was Richard Vaughan Yates who donated the land for Prince’s Park to Liverpool (the Yates were a wealthy family of merchants and lawyers, Unitarians, social reformers and prominent in the anti-slavery movement).
The Palm House is one of the country’s largest Victorian greenhouses and was designed in the tradition of Paxton’s glass houses and was stocked originally with a rich collection of exotic plants. There are nine marble statues on display inside, together with a marble bench. On plinths around the outside there are a further 8 bronze and marble statues of famous explorers and naturalists.
A period of decline and deterioration culminated in the closure of the Palm House in the 1980’s on grounds of public safety (I can remember the rusting metalwork and slipped panes of glass at that time, with brown palm leaves poking out of the dome through broken glass). T
In June 1992, a public meeting was held to protest the dereliction and calling for restoration. A petition of 5,000 names was presented to the City Council by what had become the Save the Palm House campaign. A fund raising campaign was established, with a ‘sponsor a pane’ programme, generating over £35,000. Eventually, the Save the Palm House campaign evolved into a registered charity, Friends of Sefton Park Palm House that is now the Sefton Park Palm House Preservation Trust.
A £2.5m lottery-funded refurbishment programme saw the building finally restored to its former glory and the building is now open to the public on most days, as well as being used for many other functions (it’s especially popular for weddings). A specially constructed performance area means that the building can be used to host concerts and performances (such as this one, with Eduardo Niebla, the brilliant guitarist from Andalucia).
Back in September, in Sefton Park on the trunk of a spreading beech tree I pass every day walking our dog, a notice appeared. Following an inspection of trees in the park, it stated, this tree had been identified as hazardous, its continued existence posing an unacceptable threat to the public. Urgent and drastic action was required and the tree would be felled within days.
It’s always sad to come across a tree laid, low in a winter storm maybe, that has fallen under its own weight or weakened by old age. But to see a fine tree condemned to death in hours is a sad thing indeed.
Enquiries suggested that the beech had become hazardous as a result of infection spreading through the root system. Two days later the process of felling the tree began: all the major limbs and branches were removed, and the tree remained for several more days, reduced to a bare, leafless skeletal trunk. Then, finally, one morning’s walk revealed the end: the trunk felled and sliced up into heavy sections.
There is a beautiful passage in Hermann Hesse’s Trees: Reflections and Poems, originally published in 1984 that expresses very well the sense of loss that I felt:
Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.
Last month Seamus Heaney died, so some of his poetry was fresh in my mind. His 1987 collection, The Haw Lantern, includes a sequence, ‘Clearances’, in memory of his mother. In his collection of essays, The Government of the Tongue, Heaney discussed this poem, of how it was inspired by a chestnut tree his aunt planted in her yard the same year he was born. Through all his years of growing, he identified with the tree and felt a deep sense of loss years later when he heard that the family that had moved into his aunt’s house after her had cut it down. Writing about his mother’s death in ‘Clearances’, the memory of the tree returned, or rather he wrote, ‘the space where it had been’ did: ‘a kind of luminous emptiness, a warp and waver of light’.
Writing about the death of his mother, that ‘luminous emptiness’ became a symbol of ‘preparing to be unrooted, to be spirited away into some transparent, yet indigenous afterlife’. It was Heaney’s expression – ‘a luminous emptiness’ – that came into my mind as I took in the space opened up by the absence of the beech tree.
…. Then she was dead, The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned And we all knew one thing by being there. The space we stood around had been emptied Into us to keep, it penetrated Clearances that suddenly stood open. High cries were felled and a pure change happened.
I thought of walking round and round a space Utterly empty, utterly a source Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place In our front hedge among the wallflowers. The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high. I heard the hatchet’s differentiated Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh And collapse of what luxuriated Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all. Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole, Its heft and hush became a bright nowhere, A soul ramifying and forever Silent, beyond silence listened for.
Good news yesterday that Sefton Park has given Grade 1 listed status by English Heritage. The 235-acre site is regarded as a prime example of the municipal parks created in British industrial cities in the19th century. English Heritage said that the park had been listed because it had remained essentially unchanged from its original layout and was one of the first to introduce French park design to England. It was built by Liverpool City Council and opened in 1872. Sefton Park was designed by Liverpool architect Lewis Hornblower and landscape architect Édouard André who also worked on parks in Paris. The park also features the grade II* listed Palm House, erected in 1896.
Most days of the year dog-walking duties mean two circumnavigations of the park, and with every circuit I give thanks to the vision of city councillors who, in 1867, voted in favour of the Council borrowing £250,000 to purchase 375 acres of land for the development of the park from the Earl of Sefton. Some at the time thought the outlay was extravagant and wasteful. but what won the day was the case for clean, fresh open spaces where those who lived out their lives in narrow streets and courts that lacked sanitation or running water could walk and breathe freely.
So land that had once formed part of the Royal Deer Park of Toxteth did not disappear beneath the streets and houses of the expanding city. The open fields and the winding courses of the Upper Brook and the Lower Brook that I walk each day remained, a miraculously-preserved landscape of meadows and woodland that might easily have disappeared.
A pleasing aspect of Sefton Park is that, although its overall plan is formal, there are many parts where (both as deliberate policy to encourage wildlife and, I suspect, due to spending cuts and reduced staffing) it has been left to grow wild, so you can walk through glades and along paths that feel like open countryside.
Each morning, joining the confederacy of dog walkers, I have enjoyed hearing birdsong and watching birds and animals for whom the park is home. Each spring we watch families of swans, geese, coots and moor-hens as they grow; the small but noisome flock of bright green parakeets seems to have grown through the years, too.
On summer mornings, after barbecues, we marvel at the ingenuity of crows and foxes that have scavenged the rubbish left behind by picnickers to leave it strewn across paths and borders (marvel, too, at the ignorance, of humans who leave their detritus where they sat, making no effort to bin it or take it home).
But, miraculously, the park recovers. At the end of August, tens of thousands poured into the park for the first Liverpool International Music Festival – an event organized so efficiently that 24 hours later the park was immaculate, without trace of rubbish.
At the turn of the millennium, the park was in a sorry state: the waterways had all but dried up, and the lake too. The cafe was shoddy and dilapidated, and the bandstand paint was peeling. But the park underwent a £7m restoration in 2005 which included a refurbishment of the watercourses, the renovation of rockeries, a new play area and the restoration of monuments. In 2009, I wrote about the improvements, and added a little bit of park history.
Now the park – with its statues and beautiful Victorian buildings such as the bandstand and palm house – is restored to its former glory. To celebrate its new status as grade 1 listed, I’ve put together photos I’ve taken over the years in the park, images that present Sefton Park through the seasons. We are so fortunate to have this space to breathe right on our doorstep.
Oh bliss! Scorching Bank Holiday sun, a fair field full of folk, and great music. Our doorstep has been a little crowded this weekend as the Liverpool International Music Festival was blessed with a weekend of perfect weather for its inaugural outing, replacing the Mathew Street Festival which had deteriorated into an expensive, drunken mess.
The new festival has offered a varied programme of music – the Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Vasily Petrenko kicked things off with popular classics and fireworks on an overcast but dry Friday evening; there were the usual Beatles tribute bands on Saturday, and musicians from all corners of the world on Sunday. The Monday afternoon highlight for me was The Christians, Liverpool’s own socially-conscious soul band.
It was grim up north in the eighties: Thatcher, recession, factory closures, rising unemployment, the miner’s strike, and here in Liverpool the Militant-led city council’s ill-fated rate-capping rebellion and illegal deficit budget (the only time I’ve been made redundant). Shining light in the darkness, though, were The Christians. Their debut album The Christians in 1987 was packed with great songs, and there were more on the follow-up, Colour.
The only remaining member of the original 1980s line-up is lead vocalist Garry Christian. The other members of the original band were Russell and Roger Christian (the latter died in 1998) and songwriter andkeyboards player Henry Priestman. The line-up in Sefton Park consisted of Garry Christian (lead vocals), Neil Griffiths (rhythm guitar/vocals), Joey Ankrah (lead guitar/vocals), Lionel Duke (drums), Cliff Watson (bass guitar/vocals) and Mike Triggs (keyboards/vocals).
Though they may be a shadow of the former band in terms of personnel, the new line-up gave us 45 minutes of note-perfect renditions of Christians greatest hits, plus some great cover versions. They kicked off with ‘Forgotten Town’, those lyrics instantly taking me back to those troubled times in this city thirty years ago.
No life we’re living when there’s no time for giving No sign of loving in this age of push and shoving. Another boy with a broken heart Can’t you see the pressure tearing me apart? Oh there’s so much for me to overcome Should I stay and fight? Well where else is there I can run?
They followed that with ‘Born Again’, another great Priestman lyric that perfectly captured the sense of alienation, boredom and lives wasting away in a dying city:
I used to wake In the afternoon When the sunshine finally cut through the haze. I really don’t remember that much I just know I wasted a thousand days. We need protection from this infection Something to ease this cruel disease A ray of hope in a new direction.
It was strange hearing these songs in the glorious setting of Sefton Park on a sunny summer afternoon. The words are relevant to now: their time has come around again. But something felt different. This city, for all its losses and trials, is a different place now. The old problems are back, but the mood has changed.
Next up was ‘Greenbank Drive’. It’s good to hear a song inspired by a place you pass by every day:
At last I see an open road And I think I’ve found a meaning and an answer Lightened of such a heavy load, Suddenly I’m dancing on air. And I feel so alive, Walking Greenbank Drive
Garry introduced the next song as perfect for the day, and written by one of his favourite Liverpool musicians: ‘Here Comes The Sun’. This was followed by another cover – of Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Bottle’. Then it was the soaring lyricism of ‘Ideal World’:
In the ideal world We’d be free to choose But in my real world You can bet we’re going to lose
Your money fills their pockets Fear fills their tiny minds At last the world is talking now This ain’t no way to treat mankind
Here’s a memory-jerking video of them performing it on Top of the Pops in 1987:
They were only supposed to play for 30 minutes, but were allowed to continue for ten more minutes. A chance to hear another of their great 1980s singles, ‘Hooverville’:
And they promised us the world,
Said the streets were paved with silver and gold,
And they promised us a roof above our heads,
And like fools we believed every last word they said
We believed every word they said… They finished with their cover of the Isley Brothers ‘Harvest For The World’.
Afterwards I strolled around the park, getting a sense of the extent of planning and organisation that had gone into this event. Efforts had been made to make it family orientated, with plenty for kids to do – a packed story-telling tent run by the Black-E, a kids’ climbing wall, food, drink, a funfair, a train making the rounds of the park. There was more music on another stage, and a rock’n’roll band playing at the bandstand.
I’ve never seen the field so packed – it was solid with people camped out on the grass from edge to edge. Fellow Liverpool blogger Ronnie Hughes has done a great job of documenting the four days of the Festival at a sense of place, but here is a gallery of photos I took on Monday afternoon.
Gallery: Bank holiday Monday afternoon in the Park
We woke this morning to the sound of rain falling steadily for the first time in more than a month. The period of hot weather that has lasted since the beginning of the month (the longest spell of hot weather since 2006) continues for the time being, with today feeling especially humid. Walking the dog in Sefton Park this morning felt like being in a sauna, and last night at midnight the moon seemed to be shrouded in gauze, so pronounced was the humidity. Continue reading “Notes from the steam room”→
We dawdled getting out for our Boxing Day walk so that by the time we arrived at Leasowe for a stroll along the embankment, the predicted weather front was closing in perceptibly from the southwest. Behind us, Liverpool and the coast to the north still shimmered in the last of the morning’s sunshine, but ahead, dark, lowering clouds loomed over the Dee estuary and Wales.
We had begun the walk at Leasowe lighthouse, a striking structure that was actually erected in the early 19th century, though it bears a date stone that reads 1763, when the first lighthouse on this site was built. The older date stone was incorporated into the present building when it replaced the earlier one in 1824.
We decided to walk along the concrete embankment, rather than follow the path that runs just behind it, since the ground is so muddy and waterlogged after the persistent rain of recent weeks. The name ‘Leasowe’ is Anglo-Saxon in origin and means ‘meadow pastures’. Much of the ground on the landward side is below sea level, and is the reason why the embankment was constructed by the Corporation of Liverpool in 1829. Most of the low-lying land would be submerged by high spring tides, and there was always the threat that the sea would permanently break through the coastal belt of sandhills. The original embankment has been extended and strengthened several times since 1829.
In Birkenhead’s Williamson Art Gallery, there’s a painting by Harold Hopps of the embankment as it appeared in 1908 (above). Rebuilt three times since then, today’s concrete structure looks a lot less attractive than the one portrayed by Hopps, who has included Leasowe Lighthouse on the right, and New Brighton Tower in the distance.
But, if you raise your eyes from the concrete and look out to sea, this becomes a place of wild beauty. In the winter months these sand banks are renowned for the large flocks of sea birds and waders – migrants passing through, or residents – that flock along the tide line. The air echoed to the clamour of oystercatchers, while cormorants stood sentinel on the embankment marker posts. We stood and watched flocks of seabirds wheel and turn above the waves in constantly shifting patterns like filigree lace.
Approaching Meols, we felt the first drops, and before soon the rain enveloped us. We turned for the car, as the turbines continued to turn offshore. Ahead, across the water that gleamed in the fading light, stood the derricks and cranes of the North Docks and the massive hulk of the Anglican cathedral, and beyond that, the distant shadow of Parbold hill.
The rain set in for the rest of the day, soaking ground that is already saturated from weeks of drenching. In Sefton Park, every time it rains now, water pours off the fields and down the bridleways, or stands in pools and boggy marshes.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel manages to avoid most of the potential pitfalls of a comedy about a retirement destination in Jaipur to be both entertaining and well acted (the cast does, after all, include Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy and Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire, who plays Sonny, the exuberant and optimistic owner of the crumbling former luxury Marigold Hotel). At its heart is a generous humanity and optimism, summed up in Sonny’s words: ‘In India, we have a saying — everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, it is not yet the end.’
Canada geese are familiar enough birds around lakes and town parks, and there are usually a dozen or so on the boating lake in Liverpool’s Sefton Park. But, back in the spring a pair settled on the upper reaches of the Jordan stream that flows down through the park. Very soon it was clear that the female was incubating eggs on the island in the stream, and at the beginning of June three goslings had hatched.
Though Canada geese are a familiar enough sight, no-one could remember a pair successfully rearing young in Sefton Park. So it was interesting to watch their development, and the behaviour of the parents, as the weeks went by.
Canada geese are native to North America, where they are migratory, but since being introduced to Britain in 1665 as an addition to the waterfowl collection of King Charles II at St. James’ Park, they have developed a permanent residence and remain here all year round. This pair first came to my attention sometime in April, and, passing by on the daily dog walk, I soon noticed that the famale was safely ensconsed on a nest on the island in the stream. A female Canada lays up to five eggs in a nest which is little more than a shallow scrape in the ground, lined with feathers and soft vegetation. She incubates the eggs for up to 30 days while the male stays near.
As May turned to June the tiny goslings made their first appearance. Newly hatched (top), the goslings looked much like ducklings with yellow and gray feathers and a dark bill. Within a week they had grown to be rather awkward-looking, fuzzy grey birds. They grew at an astonishing rate – compare the two photos above, taken a fortnight apart.
But what has been even more remarkable has been the devoted behaviour of the parents who never leave their goslings unguarded. The male bird, especially, is always alert, long neck raised, looking and listening for any approaching threat. The five birds are never more than a few yards from one another.
The adult pair could often be seen standing their ground and facing up to a dog that ventured too close. Canada geese are not especially aggressive birds, but they can be when protecting their young. Dramatic evidence of this is seen in this Daily Mail report of a YouTube clip that shows a fierce battle between a protective bird and an office worker who strays too close to his nest in a public park in Ontario. The clip shows the lengths to which one of these birds will go to protect their partners and young.
Numbers of Canada geese in Britain remained low until the 1950s when they started to increase significantly. There are now estimated to be as many as 100,000 Canada geese resident in the UK, with around 190,000 wintering here from homes in the Arctic.
Canada geese are found on large inland bodies of water such as lakes, reservoirs and large ponds; as well as on seashores and rivers. They are grazers, not fishers so are often found on grassland. Their diet consists of plant material such as roots, tubers, shoots and leaves. As for humans eating them, Canada geese are reputedly amongst the most inedible of birds.
As their numbers have grown across the UK, Canada geese have come to be regarded as pests in some areas where they congregate in large numbers and cause damage. A large flock, defecating every few minutes, can deposit a great deal of excreta. The geese can be responsible for extensive fouling of lawns and other grassy areas, footpaths and lakes, causing an unpleasant nuisance. The droppings contain bacteria that may be harmful if fecal matter is inadvertently swallowed.
There has been argument and controversy over culls carried out in some places – and planned culls, such as a plan to kill 200 Canada geese on Lake Windermere earlier this year which has now been abandoned. There, local landowners complained the birds were eating crops and polluting the water. But when the move was condemned and a campaign launched to save them, experts reconsidered their decision. There are effective and humane methods of controlling Canada geese populations, including egg pricking or egg substitution.
A typical Daily Mail rant labelled Canada geese as ‘the most loathsome bird in Britain’ and went on to cast them as ‘unwelcome immigrants … winged thugs … lounging around all day doing nothing, claiming every welfare benefit in the book, driving their neighbours out of town and notching up ASBOs around the clock’.
By nine to ten weeks old, the goslings had grown their flight feathers and look like slightly smaller versions of the adult. By the beginning of August, they were barely distinguishable from their parents.
Canada geese usually pair for life, and have been known to pine to death at the loss of their mate, recalling the ‘Out of the Cradle’ section of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. A young boy watches a pair of mockingbirds nesting on the beach near his home, and marvels at the bond that binds them. One day the female bird fails to return. The male stays near the nest, calling for his lost mate. The male’s cries touch something in the boy:
When the snows had melted—when the lilac-scent was in the air, and the fifth-month grass was growing,
Up this sea-shore, in some briers,
Two guests from Alabama—two together,
And their nest, and four light-green eggs, spotted with brown,
And every day the he-bird, to and fro, near at hand,
And every day the she-bird, crouch’d on her nest, silent, with bright eyes,
And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them,
Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.
Shine! shine! shine! Pour down your warmth, great Sun! While we bask—we two together.
Two together! Winds blow South, or winds blow North, Day come white, or night come black, Home, or rivers and mountains from home, Singing all time, minding no time, While we two keep together.
Till of a sudden,
May-be kill’d, unknown to her mate,
One forenoon the she-bird crouch’d not on the nest,
Nor return’d that afternoon, nor the next,
Nor ever appear’d again.
And thenceforward, all summer, in the sound of the sea,
And at night, under the full of the moon, in calmer weather,
Over the hoarse surging of the sea,
Or flitting from brier to brier by day,
I saw, I heard at intervals, the remaining one, the he-bird,
The solitary guest from Alabama.
Blow! blow! blow! Blow up, sea-winds, along Paumanok’s shore! I wait and I wait, till you blow my mate to me.
Yes, when the stars glisten’d,
All night long, on the prong of a moss-scallop’d stake,
Down, almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer, wonderful, causing tears.
He call’d on his mate;
He pour’d forth the meanings which I, of all men, know.
Yes, my brother, I know;
The rest might not—but I have treasur’d every note;
For once, and more than once, dimly, down to the beach gliding,
Silent, avoiding the moonbeams, blending myself with the shadows,
Recalling now the obscure shapes, the echoes, the sounds and sights after their sorts,
The white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing,
I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair,
Listen’d long and long.
Listen’d, to keep, to sing—now translating the notes,
Following you, my brother.
Walt Whitman’s poetry was a great influence on Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing. Silenced by Mao’s regime for 21 years, from 1957 to 1978, Ai never lost his respect for Whitman, deepened by what Ai saw as a mutual concern for the afflicted, the poor, the weak, and the voiceless. It was during this period that Ai wrote a poem of similar delicacy and sympathy for a bird in pain, ‘Water Birds’, which describes the injury of a bird by a hunter while the mate flees in fright, leaving the injured bird struggling on its own to gain a hiding place amid crevices of stones, sadly and hopelessly waiting for the return of its companion:
At the moment Amidst crevices of stones With its own beak The bird caressed its wound, And in its sorrowful moaning of solitude Expecting the return of its soul mate.
Two years ago, we experienced our own local tragedy when a female swan in Sefton Park was attacked by a dog and died as a result of her injuries. The male swan remained, attentive to the needs of their six cygnets.
Yesterday the geese were gone. After months of seeing them, always within a few yards of the spot where the female had sat patiently on the eggs, their absence seemed to leave a melancholy silence. Where did they go? If these geese were in Canada or the northern United States, in the autumn, as soon as the young were strong enough for the journey, they would begin their migration south to the southern states or Mexico. The young learn the migration route from their parents and follow the same paths north and south in subsequent years.
But the Canada Geese in Britain are, in the main, sedentary birds. They don’t migrate, but soon after their young can fly they move a short distance to join up with a larger flock nearby. They spend much of the year in large flocks but disperse when they need to find breeding sites where they can raise their young. This pair probably left a flock somewhere nearby in the spring and identified the Jordan stream with its secluded little island as a suitable place to breed.
Most recoveries of ringed Canada Geese in Britain have found that the individuals concerned were within about 30 miles of the place where they were originally caught (although some do move further – including some quite long distance movements within Britain to join flocks, and a few movements to the continent).
But there are geese that pass through the British Isles on migration routes that bring them south from the Arctic. According to the RSPB around 700,000 geese arrive in the UK from overseas every year. The geese travel thousands of miles from their breeding grounds across the Arctic circle, Scandinavia, Canada and Greenland. They migrate here to escape the harsh weather and to feed on salt marshes, estuaries and farmland. England hosts extremely large flocks of migrating geese across various sites. One of the most notable of these is in the north-west at Martin Mere, twenty miles north of Liverpool. There, overwintering flocks of Pink-footed Geese, usually around 20 to 30,000 strong, arrive from late September through to mid-October. Martin Mere also hosts a smaller population of Greenland white-fronted geese.
Light thickens, and the crow Makes wing to th’ rooky wood.
– William Shakespeare, Macbeth
At this time of year, as the afternoon light begins to fade, the open fields in Sefton Park gradually fill, first with a handful and then hundreds of rooks. As the sun sets and the sky darkens, groups will rise and settle on the tops of nearby trees. This is a small-scale example of the phenomenon of the rooks’ night-time roost that Mark Cocker has spent the best part of the last decade observing, and which he writes about in his book I read recently, Crow Country: A Meditation on Birds, Landscape and Nature.
The goings-on in Sefton Park underline the fact that Crow Country is to be found just about everywhere in Britain. But whereas the display in our local park is a pretty intimate affair, Cocker is drawn to the stadium performances in which this spectacle involves tens of thousands of birds. He’s travelled Britain to the places where the most dramatic gatherings can be seen, though most of his observations have been made near his Norfolk home, where, at Buckenham Carrs in the Yare valley, he has seen as many as 40,000 rooks and jackdaws gather to roost.
For me, the most characteristic trait of rooks or crows (hard to tell apart, even for experienced birdwatchers) is their casual insouciance: approached by human or dog they will lift off lazily at the last minute and descend after a few desultory wing flaps a few yards further on, those always maintaining an alert and possibly amused watchfulness with those eyes like deep, dark pools.
But what has impelled Mark Cocker to pursue his obsession with rooks and to write about it with the same sort of passion that nurtured another Norfolk bird book, J A Baker’s ecstatic paean to The Peregrine? The answer for Cocker would seem to consist of several elements: one the one hand, he admires rooks as migrants, their behaviour embracing a spirit of freedom and community. He quotes a passage from ‘I Love, I Love the Free’ (1840) by Eliza Cooke:
The caw of a rook on its homeward way, Oh these shall be the music for me For I love I love the path of the free.
At the same time, Cocker concludes that studying the life of another living creature in depth and with total engagement is ‘a way of being intensely alive, and recognising that you are so’. Towards the end of his book, he writes:
It is a form of valuing life and of appreciating the fundamental tenet of all ecology: that every thing is connected to everything else. So I would argue that rooking isn’t merely about a single raucous black bird. It is about the whole world – the landscape, the sunlight, the very oxygen we share – all that lies between myself and the bird.
Cocker’s style differs in certain respects from JA Baker’s: he is more of a scientist, more the expert and more informative. Early in the book, Cocker notes that although crows are widespread they are mightily misunderstood, often to the extent of being confused with rooks and other corvids. He suggests that an easy way to distinguish crows from rooks at a distance is to count their numbers: a crow, he says, ‘passes its life as one of a pair isolated from neighbours by a fierce territoriality . . . Rooks, by contrast, live, feed, sleep, fly, display, roost, fall sick and die in the presence of their own kind’. Hence the old East Anglian adage ‘When tha’s a rook, tha’s a crow; and when tha’s crows, tha’s rooks’.
Despite its title, the book celebrates rooks in particular. His opening chapter is a rapturous account of how watching ‘a long ellipse’ of several thousand rooks and jackdaws head for their evening roost fills him with ecstatic delight:
I am awaiting the arrival of night and all that it means in this landscape. Ahead of me lies a great unbound field of stubble sloping gently down towards the hamlet of Buckenham in the Yare valley. At the settlement’s southern margin is a tiny railway station, where I stepped down from a train more than thirty years ago on one of my earliest expeditions to this part of the Norfolk Broads. Beyond that steel line is the flat expanse of the Yare’s flood plain proper, and from my position on this upper northern slope I gain a sense of the entire valley, the whole flow of its contours, the way that the land dips down then rises again on the far shore like a shallow saucer, like a natural amphitheatre, fit for the spectacle about to unfold.
As day draws into its final hour, our own falling star has dwindled to a lens of brightness on the southern horizon resting in its own bed of lemon and rose light. I watch the clouds being pushed towards it by a biting northerly. They loom overhead like icebergs in an ocean of cold winter blue, and through this interplay of light and darkness arrive the birds I’ve come to watch. A long ellipse of shapes, ragged and playful, strung out across the valley for perhaps half a kilometre, rides the uplift from the north wind directly towards my location. The birds, rooks and jackdaws heading to their evening roost, don’t materialise gradually – a vague blur slowly taking shape – they tunnel into view as if suddenly breaking through a membrane. One moment they aren’t visible. Then they are, and I track their course to the great skirt of stubble flowing down below me.
Along the margins of these fields stand rows of stately ivy-clad oaks, where the birds that have already arrived clothe the bare canopy, creating a heavy foliage of black. The whole effect of animal and vegetation reminds me momentarily of the great flat-topped acacias of the African savannah. In the failing light they are mere silhouettes and even the birds that have landed on the ground, wandering among the jagged stalks of stubble, create a simple, fretted chiaroscuro of pale and dark.
My attention cannot rest on the perched birds for long because I’m drawn back inexorably to the drama of the fresh arrivals. The long cylinder of birds, perhaps a thousand in total, has started to coil and circle the sky above the landing ground. They wind up into a single swirling vortex that breaks apart as small groups fling themselves to Earth. It is an extraordinary performance. I am so mesmerised by the flock’s sudden and convulsive disintegration that I fail to absorb the trajectory followed by any one individual. But all cease briefly to resemble birds. They become wind-blown rags or scraps of paper. The best I can think of is a moment I saw once in Jaipur, India. Above the city’s white-washed skyline floated a thousand small multi-coloured kites all at play in the hot desert gusts on that Rajasthani afternoon. The rooks and jackdaws acquired the same brief power of wild movement, straining against gravity and wind in equal measure.
Even this dramatic show holds me just a matter of seconds because each new development seems more compelling than the last. From the east, from rookeries that I know intimately around the village of Reedham, comes an even larger flock. Perhaps 4,000 birds arrive in a single river of movement and then perform the same wheeling downward plunge of the previous group. All the while that the visual drama intensifies, their accompanying vocalisations become ever more voluble and excited.
In this description of the process by which the rooks gather and settle on the fields, Cocker is merely describing the prelude to the main event – the sudden lift-off to settle in the trees and roost for the night:
It begins almost casually. A single concentrated stream of birds breaks for the trees, the stands of trees that have remained almost unnoticed until this point. Inconsequential while the drama built all around them, the woods known as Buckenham Carrs have grown steadily darker with the onset of night. Now that they have moved centre stage they have become a brooding cavity in the landscape. The birds pour into the airspace above it in ever- growing numbers, and they mount the air until there are so many and the accompanying calls are so loud that I instinctively search for marine images to convey both the sea roar of sounds and the blurry underwater shapes of the flock. It becomes a gyroscope of tightly packed fish roiling and twisted by the tide; it has the loose transparent fluidity of a jellyfish, or the globular formlessness of an amoeba – one that spreads for a kilometre and a half across the heavens.
Cocker compares this vision to ‘black dust motes sinking steadily through the gentle oil of sleep’ but admits that he is at ‘the limits of what my mind can comprehend or my imagination can articulate.’
Whilst many a mingled swarthy crowd — Rook, crow, and jackdaw,—noising loud, Fly to and fro to dreary fen, Dull Winter’s weary flight again; They flop on heavy wings away As soon as morning wakens grey, And, when the sun sets round and red, Return to naked woods to bed.
– John Clare, from ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar – January’ (1827)
Crow Country draws in autobiographical elements as well observations of bird behaviour. Cocker describes how he and his family moved from a city life in Norwich to make a home in the deep country of the nearby Yare valley. He writes about this move as an act of migration which is bird-like because he senses that it is driven by instinct. As he settles into the new landscape, he discovers that rook-watching charges ‘many of the things I had once overlooked or taken for granted . . . with fresh power and importance’. The birds, he says, are ‘at the heart of my relationship with the Yare . . . my route into the landscape and my rationale for its exploration’.
He recalls how, waking in their new home, he heard the rooks each morning, ‘the notes clattering on to the road and the rooftops of the village like flakes of tin’. Then he would see them in the evening, a long silent procession of birds heading north. He began to follow them to what seemed to be their roost, assuming that once they had settled on the hedges and trees that would be the end of the matter. But it was not:
It was virtually dark. There was so little light, I was barely sure if my binoculars were focused or not… Suddenly birds started to fly up in a purposeful jet of black shapes spurting for the trees. The movements of some seemed to act as a detonator on the others. Before I knew what was happening the whole host was airborne and swarming towards Buckenham Carrs.
When the flock was centred over the wood it began to swirl and twist. The birds were wrenched back and forth as if each was caught by the same conflicting impulses. When portions of the flock turned in unison through a particular angle the entire surface of the wingspan… was reduced to a single pencil line. The net effect in the quarter-light of dusk was that whole sections vanished and reappeared a split second later. It was as if a tonne of birds was being conjured and re-conjured from thin air.
He explains the distinction between the birds’ roosts and the rookeries where they breed from late February to June in the nesting season, and contemplates the sense of community endeavour that seems to underpin their behaviour:
In the nesting season, the abundant supply of worms is the key to the rook’s success. The onset of the breeding cycle in earliest spring is timed to coincide with the maximum availability of prey for the chicks. But the food items aren’t spread evenly, they’re clustered randomly…It’s thought that rooks have evolved to share resources and capitalise on the shifting and temporary abundances by pursuing a feeding strategy of follow-my-leader…. Each bird discovering a food hotspot faces the disadvantage of competition from neighbours, but it is more than compensated by the opportunity, on all occasions when it is less successful, to share the good fortune uncovered by others.
Roosts, by contrast, are located elsewhere and inhabited from October through to February. They are usually in the middle of woods, even though these are birds that feed in grasslands (they often fly up to 25 miles to feeding grounds for the day), and Cocker suggests that protection from weather and predators are an important part of the roosting behaviour. But the biggest advantage for rooks in gathering together in huge numbers in roots or rookeries is, he concludes, the spread of information about food sources.
Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed The speculating rooks at their nests cawed And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass, What we below could not see, Winter pass.
– Edward Thomas, ‘Thaw’
Cocker quotes other writers who have been entranced by rooks: Thomas Browne and Andrew Young, John Clare and Edward Thomas. There’s no mention of Ted Hughes and his Crow poems, but I think that’s because Hughes’ conception of a bird with violent, rapacious and disorderly qualities doesn’t quite fit in with Cocker’s rather more sublime vision. Thinking of Hughes, I came across this poem by Sylvia Plath, ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’, which seems inspired by the iridescent, purplish-blue glossy sheen of the bird’s plumage: ‘a rook/Ordering its black feathers can so shine/As to seize my senses’. Not simply black, but ‘Tricks of radiance/Miracles’.
On the stiff twig up there Hunches a wet black rook Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain – I do not expect a miracle Or an accident
To set the sight on fire In my eye, nor seek Any more in the desultory weather some design, But let spotted leaves fall as they fall Without ceremony, or portent.
Although, I admit, I desire, Occasionally, some backtalk From the mute sky, I can’t honestly complain: A certain minor light may still Lean incandescent
Out of kitchen table or chair As if a celestial burning took Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then – Thus hallowing an interval Otherwise inconsequent
By bestowing largesse, honour One might say love. At any rate, I now walk Wary (for it could happen Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); sceptical Yet politic, ignorant
Of whatever angel any choose to flare Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook Ordering its black feathers can so shine As to seize my senses, haul My eyelids up, and grant
A brief respite from fear Of total neutrality. With luck, Trekking stubborn through this season Of fatigue, I shall Patch together a content
Of sorts. Miracles occur. If you care to call those spasmodic Tricks of radiance Miracles. The wait’s begun again, The long wait for the angel,
For that rare, random descent.
This poem, by Norfolk writer Martin Figura, was written in response to Mark Cocker’s Crow Country:
‘Rooks: for Mark Cocker’
Their broken voices call against the hard ground of a day’s work. They are the dark coming home in dissonant scores until this field of stubble is soft-black with them, the telephone wires thick and bowed. Ten thousand grey tongues honour the dusk, the Lowestoft commuter train, the woods of Buckenham Carrs. Thrown like muck from a wheel until the sky is blind with them, they are the exact opposite of stars. And here they come, all bluster, their ostentatious flight across the moon to the hierarchy of branches, to the rough belonging of bark in their claws.
Rooks going to roost on a Winter evening in Norfolk
It’s almost as if they shouldn’t belong to the Crow family; sociable and generally vegetarian, Rooks are just out for a laugh really. With a clownish, daft face and a shaggy, dishevelled appearance, these croakers aren’t out to cause mischief like their cousins. In fact, when not in their rookery, they spend most of their time in fields not being scared by scarecrows (maybe if all the farmers got together and changed the name to ‘scarerooks’, that would work better). But farmers should just leave them alone as they eat as many pests and crop-eating bugs as they do seeds. Good old Rooks.