Caught by the River

Pleasures of…February

5th March 2018

Raven watching, diary reading and a book launch: Neil Ansell shares recollections of the month just passed:

This February was not a typical one for me, in that it saw the launch of a new book – something that happens rather less often than it probably should. I considered the launch party a success from the moment that people started arriving, for it meant that I had invited people on the right day, which, regrettably, has not always been the case. I did still have to face the slight awkwardness of telling a room full of assembled friends and relatives that I had written a book that was largely focussed on the pleasure I get from being alone in nature. So basically, I love you all but I’d rather be on my own.

Since then I have been touring the new book. It is a strange interruption to the solitary life of the writer, when all these thoughts and ideas that had been very much a private affair are suddenly public property, and you emerge from invisibility into the gaze of your readers. This has meant, however, that the month has passed without the walks and wildlife encounters that I would normally choose to write about. So I decided to delve into the past, and search out the ghosts of Februaries past.

I have kept journals for much of my life, and have a box-full of those that have not been lost along the way, and began to wade through them for the first time in years. I found myself in 1973, aged thirteen, scavenging for fossils on the Jurassic coast, and spotting my first ever Mediterranean gull.

In February 1981 I was standing on a glacier, on the equator. I had climbed a five thousand metre high volcano in Ecuador. It had taken two days, but had not been a particularly difficult ascent; more of a scramble than a climb, and not a rope in sight, although there were a number of rather disconcerting makeshift crosses near the summit. No-one has climbed this volcano for decades now, for twenty years ago it erupted, and has done so pretty regularly ever since, and its glacier is long gone.

Five years later I had run out of money on my travels, and spent the entire month picking fruit in South Australia, in temperatures that would hit forty degrees by early afternoon. Quite a contrast to the previous February, when it had been minus twenty, and I had been waiting for the start of the Swedish forestry season.

This time ten years ago I was in the Philippines, filming an investigation into the illegal dogmeat trade. Just to be clear here, I am not talking about petfood, but about food made from pets. And a year before that I had been in Rwanda, filming with genocide survivors, as part of an investigation into genocide suspects who had fled the country and scattered around the world.

Searching through a lifetime of Februaries this way made me realise just how rootless my life had been, but then I came upon a synchronicity. In 1993 I was on a snowy ridgeline in the Welsh hills, peering down into the nest of a raven in a tall cedar tree on a steep hillside, where a bird was already sitting. Eighteen years later I was on the same hillside, watching the same nest, the pair calling and tumbling in display above me. Ravens mate for life, and are long-lived birds, so it was just about plausible that these were the self-same pair after all these years.

Ravens are the very first birds to nest. Through February they will rebuild their old nest, and will generally be on eggs by month end, whatever the weather. They are my February icon, nesting before the very first migrant makes it back to our shores, before even the curlews have come back from the coast to retake the moors. They are the very first sign of spring, an unlikely snowdrop among birds.

Which brings me loosely back to where I began. For while my book is liberally sprinkled with campfire tales from my wandering life, it is built around a year’s worth of solitary walks in the North-west Highlands of Scotland, watching otters and eagles, whales and divers. And ravens, lots of ravens; ravens scavenging the shoreline, ravens on the nest, ravens parading their young. Over the course of my year of walks I discovered that I am rapidly losing my hearing, from the highest frequencies down, and the song of most birds has now vanished from me forever. One by one I am losing my birds. But not the raven; the raven will never leave me, there will always be the ravens of February.


Neil Ansell’s The Last Wilderness: A Journey Into Silence is out now, published by Tinder Press. Buy a copy here.