Alex Preston muses on the interplay between his two great loves – books and birds
Now that I have children of my own and have left youth and London behind for a more gentle life in the country, I’ve found myself returning to the central obsession of my early years: birds. Bird-watching was everything for me as a child. I barely looked down from my seventh birthday to the onset of adolescence, chasing fleeting encounters with kittiwakes and cranes, sandpipers and storks. All our family holidays were necessarily birding holidays, and my schooldays are one long memory of swallow-thronged barns, yellowhammer-charmed footpaths and curlew-haunted estuaries. There’s barely a childhood recollection that isn’t somehow pinned to a bird.
Then adolescence came and I got suddenly shifty about my ornithological bent. I put on a Nirvana t-shirt and learned three chords on a guitar. Girls and booze and fags arrived and then the next big obsession: books. Picture me on a misty sixteen-year-old evening, hair as long as my school would allow it, perched on a bench in a cemetery with my trenchcoat collar up, a copy of Crime and Punishment in one hand, a Lucky Strike (because they were what Henry in The Secret History smoked) in the other. I celebrated my ruthless disposal of the nerdy little twerp in the bird hide, with his binoculars and his Barbour and his marsh harrier-induced overexcitement.
Except you can’t ever really stop being a bird-watcher. Even at my most charmlessly teenaged, I’d still feel something flutter wildly within when, on squally November afternoons, I’d walk along the seafront at Brighton and see dark arabesques of starlings coiling up over the ruined pier. Or when, on grudging holidays with my family in France, I’d catch sight of one of that holy trinity of exotic birds – a hoopoe, a bee-eater or a golden oriole. Summers were still marked out by swallows and swifts, winters were waders and wildfowl. There was so much deep-bedded knowledge in me about these airborne things, so much entrenched affection for them. I couldn’t not see them, couldn’t pretend I didn’t love them.
So I went undercover and started looking for birds in the books I was reading. I collected snippets of bird writing and copied them into notebooks, arranging them by species, learning many of them off by heart. It became a habit, and in the way of these things, I began to see birds in every book I picked up, discovering ornithological gems in the most unlikely of places – John Updike, David Foster Wallace, Charlotte Smith. It was partly, of course, a kind of confirmation bias, the way that our minds are naturally attuned to the things we want to see. I was looking for birds, and so I found them.
There was something else, though. Birds have long served writers as objects of fascination, of sublime mystery. It’s no wonder that Odysseus took so long to get home – Homer had him spend such a lot of his time looking up at the birds (mainly eagles and gulls) whose flight patterns he read as augury. There’s also the repeated formula in the poem, epea pteroenta (“winged words”) that links poetry ineluctably to birds. It’s possible to trace a line from Homer right through the heart of literature – Virgil, Beowulf, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, the Romantics – to the present day in which birds have a strikingly prominent position. Whatever they did to me as a child (and continue to do now), they also did for many of our greatest writers.
I carried on filling my notebooks as I read – through Oxford, through my PhD on the work of W.G. Sebald (there are more birds in Sebald than you’d think). I took these notebooks with me as, in my late twenties and early thirties, I began to reintegrate myself, tentatively at first, into the birdwatching world. I discovered, you see, that having Shelley beside me when I saw a skylark, and having Richard Jefferies and John Clare beside him, leant a richness to my adult birdwatching that wasn’t there as a child. I think back to the dry intricacy of my Collins Gem field guide, and I recognise that this is what was missing – these authors gave me a language with which to address the birds, something more than mere identification.
The best bird writers also achieved something that the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called “inscape” – delivering the unique spirit of the bird in a line or two. So when Edward Thomas wrote of swifts with their ‘wings and tail as sharp and narrow / As if the bow had flown off with the arrow’, they come immediately before us. Or when R.S. Thomas calls a barn owl ‘the breath / of the churchyard’; or William Cowper has his peacock as a ‘self-applauding bird’ and ‘a sumptuous pharisee’; or J.A. Baker names the peregrine as ‘like the winged helmet of a Viking warrior’ and has him flying in ‘that cloud-biting anchor shape’; all of these summon up what birders call the “giss” of a bird – the thing that makes one bird unquestionably different from all others. One last bit of “inscape” for you: Paul Farley on the lugubrious grey heron:
One of the most begrudging avian take-offs
is the heron’s ‘fucking hell, all right, all right,
I’ll go to the garage for your flaming fags’
Anyone who’s seen a heron lift itself resentfully from a pond or riverbank as you approach will greet these lines with instant, joyful recognition. Because this is what the best literature does – it helps us to recognise things that we have long known, gives us language to describe the world more intimately, with greater precision.
I see now that my early birding days were only half-lived. I needed those years of reading, of noting down, had to know how Wordsworth and Woolf heard the nightingale before I was able to appreciate it fully myself. Reading poets on birds adds deep and lasting layers to your appreciation of them in the wild, it lets you know that you are part of a long chain of knowledge and feeling, gives you words with which to capture such fleeting beauty, such otherness, such ‘heavenly bric-a-brac,’ as Michael Longley called the birds he loved and wrote about. And whether it’s Longley, or John Clare, or Ted Hughes, or Mary Oliver who speaks to you, I wish every birder would take a poet into the hide with them every now and again, slipped in with the thermos and the field guide.
Alex Preston is the author of As Kingfishers Catch Fire:Books & Birds (illustrated by Neil Gower) copies of which can be found in the Caught by the River shop at the special price of £21.99