We’re almost at the end of our annual run of musings known as Shadows and Reflections. Since so many of our lives were lived in thematic overlap in 2020, we’ve asked our contributors and friends to focus on the small, strange and specific as they look back over the last 12 months. Today it’s the turn of Ceri Levy.
The garden has been a source of small dramas this year. Mysteries too. I keep discovering things out there. For example, what moves a large rock from one place in the garden to another? This has happened a few times over the year and happened again yesterday. What is large enough to move something so heavy? I have no idea. I have a camera and have set up a trap, but have discovered nothing. No information. It is exactly as it was, but in a different place — almost as if it has been picked up and placed deliberately. Is some creature trying to start some game of rock chess or stone draughts with me? By returning the piece to its original starting point have I nullified whatever game this could be?
May 16th brought one of the most beautiful moments of the year. This was a garden bird race, organised by a Twitter acquaintance, Darren Archer. A simple but effective way of spending time and discovering more about where I live. The idea is to see as many species as possible in a 24-hour period in one’s garden. It was a magnificent, bright morning and I strode out into the garden and spooked a magpie and a jackdaw. A nuthatch dropped onto the well-stocked feeders. Quickly, I ticked off all the usual birds I see on a normal day. One cuppa, 12 species. The only regular garden visitors I was missing were dunnock and coal tit. I was looking at what is easily taken for granted and I watched the patterns of wildlife emerge. I realised that what had once been a flock of a dozen or so sparrows had now evolved into more than 30 of the noisy blighters that zoomed around the garden. They seemed to be chasing each other, tumbling in the air and swooping into the trees and onto the feeders. That chirruping sound is a sound of my childhood; I remember it so well in every hedge I passed as a kid on my way to school. Noisy little statement-makers. “We’re here! We’re here!”
Moving from corner to corner of the garden so I could see the trees from different angles, I was hoping to discover an unexpected guest or two. A starling mobbed a kestrel, while a charm of goldfinches chatted away overhead before landing at the top of the crab apple tree. Their discussions continued and decisions were made, and after the motion was carried they flew off to pastures new. I saw a vertical motion on the willow’s main trunk and something flew downwards. A new visitor to the garden — a treecreeper! They are such beautiful little birds, and in many ways they don’t creep. They march upwards, at a fair rate of knots. I was enthralled, and made the most of my time with this tree-traveller. Then it was gone. A green woodpecker yaffled and derided me from afar.
The day moved on and the weather turned to rain, but no matter: this was as good as a day birding in the Isles of Scilly. The expected became the unexpected. The expected became the disappeared. Mystery upon mystery. A dunnock finally gave itself up and walked into view, but one of the most common birds had not shown up at all. Where were the coal tits? These habitual visitors to my garden had upped sticks and left my bird race far behind. The afternoon dragged but then late afternoon the scimitar shape of a Hobby rapidly cut through the air and was gone. Wow! Another first for the garden. And there, serenely gliding in its assassin’s cloak, was a sparrowhawk, which was given a wide berth by pigeons and the like. They don’t want to enter a bird race with that predator.
As I contemplated Zen and the art of garden watching, the day drawing in, the hulking great form of a grey heron billowed its wings as it passed overhead, and a flock of canada geese headed home for their roost. At the back of the garden a mistle thrush settled on a wooden post, and several song thrushes greeted the evening with a demented cadence. I tot up my list and am happy to report that I have seen 35 species. Needless to say that the next morning, the first bird I see is a coal tit, back from its awayday.
A similar race was organised for the autumn. During a break for a cuppa, I found the wren that lives in the hedge along the patio flying around the conservatory. I started opening windows, hoping to steer it towards one. But it took off down the corridor and found itself in the small utility room. There was now no sound of flapping. Like a cartoon version of a dead bird, the wren laid on its back, eyes shut, feet pointing skywards. I felt a terrible pang of horror and sadness. Gently, I picked it up and held it in my hands, hoping to bring warmth to its dead feathery form. I started talking to the bird, asking it not to die, and I stroked the nape of its neck gently for a couple of minutes. This bird was part of my life; I saw it daily on the windowsill, feeding on the birdfeed I left out.
And then, in response to my ceaseless incantations, the wren’s eyes magically flickered and slowly opened. The wren saw me and I saw the wren. (The last time I had a connection like this with a wild bird was watching a marsh harrier being euthanised, having been shot beyond repair by hunters on Malta. I’d seen the spirit of the bird that didn’t want to die, and the vigour of that majestic creature as it fought to stay alive, but the drugs were too strong. At that moment I’d understood there is a spirit within animals.) I knew these were still dangerous moments for the wren’s well-being. The bird listened as I talked calmly, and we ventured outside. I sat on the grass and placed it next to me. For a few minutes it stayed stock still, apart from the odd gaze up at me. I just wanted to see it do something that would signify life returning to normal. And then it fluttered its wings, ran towards a bush, and flew to a tree. It was the most joyous moment of the year.
For 2021, a new project has come to mind: I am hoping to travel the River Welland from source to end, to discover its influence on people, artistically, scientifically and culturally. I aim to find the stories that a river never stops telling. If you know of any, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. I hope this will form the beginning of a new series of podcasts we hope to release entitled Gonzovation Conversations. (Try and say it three times quickly! It’s nigh on impossible).
For now, I’m going to watch the redwing as they flood the garden to strip it of berries. There are worse places to be. Until we next meet…