Caught by the River

Swifts and Mayflies

Sue Brooks | 23rd June 2016

Inspired by Rob Cowen’s ‘Common Ground’ and Charles Foster’s ‘Being A Beast’, Sue Brooks spends the month of May in pursuit of two elusive species

Mayflies_in_Sunset_Dance_Gilbert_White_Natural_History_of_Selborne Illustration by Philip Henry Gosse in a Victorian edition of Gilbert White’s ‘The Natural History of Selborne’

Oh to be in England – not April this year, although it was full of copious delights. It was always going to be May. Ever since I read Rob Cowen’s Common Ground back in December my imagination had been fired up on Ephemera danica and Apus apus – swifts and mayflies. I must have read those two chapters a dozen times through the hard frosts and NE winds of April, wondering where to start looking. The swifts would return on May 7th, the date lodged itself firmly, but I had no idea about the mayfly.

I went to the fishing tackle shop in the nearby town – an elderly woman with a shopping bag and umbrella – and asked my question about the best place to see the mayfly emergence. The man behind the counter stopped chatting to his friend and reached up to the rows of small plastic envelopes. You want to buy a spinner?
No, I just want to see the emergence. I read this book… sounded marvellous.

They didn’t know – a warm day anywhere would do, you just had to be in the right place. No help there then. I was smiling when I left, and so were they, I’m sure.

A week later, emboldened by the sight of a man up to his waist in the river where it curves around a small island, I asked again. Shouted over the noise of the water and he knew immediately. Ah yes. Mayfly. Wonderful to see them dancing. 11am is the best time, or 3pm or 8 – 9pm in the evening. It’s all over in a day. And he reeled in his line and came to the bank to show me the best place he knew- the River Avon at Amesbury between May 27th and June 10th. Choose a warm day without wind. I’ve seen them in a little spinney where the chaffinches gorge themselves. He found the page in his fishing diary. Amesbury in June: the loop in the river. Park by the Post Box.

Frosts continued but on May 2nd the wind veered to the South. May 4th, high pressure began to build. It reached 20 degrees centigrade on the 5th. On the 7th, Apus apus day, I walked to the river. The air thickened, dark thunderclouds approached from the West, midges swarmed. There were no swifts within range of the binoculars, but I could sense their presence. It felt like an emergence day, the kind that swifts would know about: the reason for flying 5,592 miles from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The next twelve days were bitterly cold again – winds had returned to the NE. I started a new book. Being A Beast, by Charles Foster. The chapters are divided into the four elements, badgers and red deer representing Earth, otter representing Water, fox for Fire, and as I reached the final chapter the creature representing Air was, of course, the swift. It took my preoccupation to an entirely new level.

It turns out Charles Foster has revered the swift for years, revered to the point where all questions, doubts and philosophies can ultimately be tracked back to the swift. The one Being who encompasses and connects all other beings. He invokes Rupert Sheldrake and Terence McKenna. I found my copy of True Hallucinations and leafed through its extraordinary pages again. And then Charles Foster tells this story which begins There’s a gay Lebanese hairdresser in a thumping west African town. His salon is a temple where he worships a gently demanding goddess.

Charles and his friend Nigel travel upriver in search of the goddess. Everywhere there were wooden masks with slit eyes. We were hundreds of miles inland, but there was a good yard and a half of tide. They wait for days. Big old things with moustaches slank in the mangrove arches. Charles falls asleep. And then suddenly I was awake and on my feet shouting “They’re here, they’re here.” Nigel was asleep too. I kicked him awake. I pointed at the sky. For a moment there was nothing there but a sliver of cloud. And then they were there as I knew they would be, seven of them, screaming silently, straight from Oxford and the throne of heaven, high and then low, hunting the wind, ploughing through a thermal which must have been whirring a thousand feet up like the fan on an old bus, trawling a whole weather system because they’re birds of the whole world.

Swifts. There is more intimacy in that transcendental moment in the west African bush than all the valiant attempts in previous chapters to get close to badgers, deer, otters and foxes. But it doesn’t come without hard work. You’ve got to get dirty in the earth, cold and fearful in the air, singed in the fire and seasick in the water. I have hardly begun.

However, May 20th felt different. I felt different; ready after all the waiting. There was dampness in the air and warmth, good visibility, light south-westerly winds. I drove to the river again, down the track under the tall poplars. The air was full of willow down, drifting on invisible currents so fine I could lift up my hand and pick one with thumb and finger, and release it back into the flow. A good sign, I thought. As I came out from the canopy they were there. Black anchor shapes slicing through the thin cloud. Thank you. Thank you. Tears prick at the back of my eyes and I fumble for the binoculars. Phrases spin from the pages of the two books, stray facts that have lodged in my head – how they can tell an insect with a sting from one without, how they can shut down one half of their brain in order to sleep on the wing, rocking slightly, how they can live for twenty one years and travel in that time more than twice the distance between the Earth and the Moon. And in the time it’s taken to write these words, they were gone.

I took the path along the river bank, through the gate into the meadow. It looked magnificent. Rich with grasses and meadow buttercup. About half way into the field where the aconite flowers every year, a blackbird was singing operatically from the top of an alder. I stopped to listen and flies gathered. Large flies which seemed to be on an invisible string – pulled up and released, pulled up and released. I caught one in my cupped hands. Such a beautiful creature. Long creamy abdomen crossed with black bands, a black body and head with two questing antennae. Delicate gauzy wings with black veins, and three fine hairs, longer than the entire body, protruding like swallow’s streamers from the tip of the abdomen. More like a dragonfly than a fly. Could this be? Could it actually be the Mayfly I had read about and scrutinised in photos, and longed to see in the spinney by the Post Box at Amesbury, here in my own back yard??

I released it and stood still. They were so close. They brushed my cheek and bare arm. The vertical rise and fall was about 4 or 5 feet, never touching the ground, never colliding. The tail streamers were held stiff and upraised on the descent, with the wings outstretched, slowing the speed gracefully. There were perhaps thirty or forty mayfly dancing, all males I assumed, in the hope a female would join them. It lasted perhaps twenty minutes until the swifts reappeared. They were over the field, plunging, twisting, skimming the tops of the grasses within feet of where I was standing. Screaming silently, as Charles Foster says, for the sheer joy of it. I tried to lock onto one bird with the binoculars and stay with it in the hope of glimpsing the act of picking an insect out of the sky. But it made me dizzy. It was enough – more than enough – to be there.

The chapter in Common Ground about the mayfly is entitled One Day. This was such a day for me. One day as close as I could ever imagine to swifts and mayflies. Thank you Rob. Thank you Charles. Books can change your life.

Sue Brooks on Caught by the River