By Kim Crowder
In the second installment of our summer series of new nature writing, Kim Crowder reflects beautifully on the dramas of the natural world that took place during the course of this year’s spring and early summer in the microcosm of a stable roof, noting the ‘returns’ that the season brought and the forms of recycling and renewal that emerged.
For me, April and May are months of great anticipation: I’m watching for the returning birds, especially swallows, house martins and swifts whose arrivals signal the beginnings of summer. My ornithological skills aren’t particularly acute, but first sightings of these species really matter to me for the same reason that swifts matter in Ted Hughes’s poem:
They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed
Since 2016, I have been keeping a nature journal, on and off, and in it my first sightings of passerine birds are a high point each year. From April to September, swallow-spotting is all part of the daily routine at my stable because, ever since I began using it in 2015, there has been a nest of one kind or another there. Like me, the pony has learned to cope with near-misses with speeding swallows. In good years the residents of this nest – and of several others hidden in nearby derelict barns – form large aerial congregations. A mixed flock of swallows and martins skims the paddock daily, sometimes hunting for insects, sometimes chattering and swooping as though for the sheer pleasure of acrobatic flying.
By journalling, I’ve kept track of the swallows’ comings and goings over four summers. Given the pessimistic environmental context, this journal-writing has come to feel increasingly important. This year, like last, the swallows were slow to arrive. The first three birds put in a short-lived appearance on 18th April and a group of eight martins arrived the next day. But by the end of the second week of May, I was concerned as many completely swallow-less weeks had passed here while friends in neighbouring villages already had their full complement of swallows. This spring’s journal entries document the story of the life of the nest in my stable.
22nd March, 2019:
At the stable this morning Peter asked me if I had noticed what had happened to the swallows’ nest. At first glance I couldn’t see what he meant as the nest is up in a very dark corner. But then I saw that around the top edge of the nest, several layers of dried leaves had been very carefully added. They are arranged so that there is a small gap at the centre-front of the nest’s rim. We are not sure which bird might have done this – wrens maybe? If so, this will be the third round of recycling this nest has undergone.
When I first took on the stable, which is in fact a re-cycled shed, there was a small defunct wasp nest high up in one corner. In the summer of 2016 a pair of swallows used this empty wasp nest as a kind of foundation on which they built their own nest and raised two broods of chicks. In between one brood and the next, Peter fixed a small shelf under the nest as we were unsure how much support the fragile wasp nest was actually providing. All too often we have seen the disastrous collapses of nests full of swallow fledglings. In 2017 swallows, possibly the 2016 pair, used the nest but only raised one brood. 2018 was a great disappointment – and a worry. Very few swallows returned to the barns adjacent to the stable. Those that did come arrived very late and the nest in the stable stayed vacant all summer. Whenever I piled up his bedding to air, the pony climbed on it, giving himself enough height to chew at the old wasp nest, so I pulled its remains out from underneath the shelf that supports the still-intact swallow nest. I’m still hoping that this summer another chapter will unfold in the story of this nest.
Recently roofers began work on the old Georgian stable block nearby. Local rumour has it that this is the start of conversion to luxury holiday accommodation. The slates and joists are off and today I had a look round the yard at the piles of old timber and debris amongst which I saw the wreckage of two immense wasps’ nests. Perhaps the wasps will find somewhere to relocate this summer as there are still many undisturbed places in other derelict buildings here, but if swallow nests were destroyed too I’m not convinced that the birds will find new nest sites so easily because, to me, swallows seem more choosy than wasps about where they live.
After becoming aware of the remodelling of the nest, I began to observe it very closely. A few words at a time my journal records how, day by day, the leafy brim was carefully developed and embellished, with further materials added piece by tiny piece – but I never spotted the builder at work. Tiny shreds of hay stems and seeds filched from the pony’s feed were carefully placed around the entrance hole. Silks from a large adjacent spider web were stretched across so that they became part of the structure. After a month, we were curious to know what the nest’s interior looked like, so we visited with a camera and a mirror. Peter held the mirror and I quickly photographed what was reflected in the glass. I felt inside the nest for an instant, just long enough to discover that the nest did not, as yet, contain eggs. We left hurriedly, aware that we might well be being watched by an easily discouraged nest-builder.
When magnified on screen, the photos revealed that, in addition to the soft white breast plumage that the swallows had previously used for insulation, the mystery builder had added more feathers, horse hair and velvety green moss. These materials were densely interwoven so that they lined the whole interior. The dried leaves around the brim were from oaks, beeches and bracken nearby and they had been meticulously broken down into tiny, more easily manipulable, fragments. Consultation of our bird books suggested that the re-modelling might be the work of a wren. We learned that a male wren often works on more than one nest so that the female can take her pick. How could could any female wren resist the beautifully decorated structure waiting in the stable?
20th April, 2019:
Record-breaking Easter temperatures today. A sign of global warming? At the stable first thing we found out that the new occupant of the old swallow nest is definitely a wren. I saw her dart out of the little hole at the front of the crown of leaves on top of the swallows’ mud cup. She streaked across the stable and exited through a tiny gap under the eaves. With the wren absent, I reached up and felt very gently inside the nest. Under my fingertip, the unmistakeable shape of a tiny egg. I withdrew my hand immediately for fear that the wren might sense my intrusion and abandon the nest.
Knowing that the wren must be sitting, I didn’t dare touch the nest again. Further consultation of our various bird books showed that she might have laid up to eight eggs which she would incubate for 12 – 15 days. Once hatched, the nestlings would fly 12 – 18 days later. These estimated timings were only partly useful: I didn’t know how long the wren had already been sitting so it was impossible to work out a projected date when her young might fly. Each day I completed my stable work quickly, taking care not to cause any disturbance. After my discovery of the presence of an egg in April, well over three weeks passed before the next notable development.
15th May, 2019:
There’s an adage that says you should be careful what you wish for. Tonight I wish I’d been more careful with my wishing. All last summer, when no swallows nested in the stable, I kept wishing they would. This year I’ve been wishing for their arrival since early April. In their absence, I’ve wished instead that the wren would rear a brood in the old swallow’s nest. Well, now both my wishes have been granted – and it looks like a problem.
This morning I heard a few swallows chattering loudly as they made low swooping passes across the meadow. It was so good to see that they had, at last, arrived. But when I went to stable Ollie for the night, one swallow was making repeated dives in and out of the open door and paying close attention to the nest. Very cautiously I put my finger into the nest entrance and immediately felt several tiny, very warm and well-feathered little bodies. It can’t be long before the hatchlings fly, but I’m not sure whether a swallow might eject the fledglings. How good would a wren mother be at defending ‘her’ nest against swallows who very much want ‘their’ nest back? How patient can the swallows afford to be, given that their time here for breeding is so short?
Three days passed, during which I saw a pair of swallows flying agitatedly in and out of the stable. I knew they were determinedly checking out the nest. I worried. The swallows vanished yet again. Then on the third day this happened:
17th May, 2019:
A dramatic time at the stable tonight!
While changing Ollie’s rug I thought the female wren flew past me. I looked up and saw one baby wren perched precariously on top of one rug hook, one on another, two whizzing straight out of the door, another one flying madly around the back of the stable, and one more scrabbling about in the hay. Baby wren mayhem ensued for several minutes with them repeatedly landing on Ollie’s head and back and clinging to the stable walls with their long sharp claws. Worried that a wren might get trodden on, I wanted to get at least some of them back up on the shelf that the nest sits on. But in the half-light, that was easier said than done as I kept mistaking stray balls of horse-dung for wrens and vice versa. I managed to catch two wrens and lift them onto the shelf and in the second that each was in my hand, I had the chance to see the ferociously tigerish stripes on their wing and tail feathers up close. Once caught, the frenetically hyperactive little birds glared at me, their minute eyes black and shiny as beads of jet. After watching the two who had flown outside, Peter also commented on the birds’ high-speed movements, their frenzied energy and the intensity of their fierce expressions.
Everything settled down eventually, but tonight I’m anxious about the water bucket. I can’t remove it because an equine must have access to water even if he can’t be made to drink it. But I hope no young wrens fall in overnight. We think there are seven fledgelings who all seem completely ready to leave, which is good because the swallows have been back checking the nest again. This could all just work out if the wrens depart safely and the swallows move in promptly. But wrens can rear more than one brood in a season – so there could still be competition for this nest.
18th May, 2019:
Up early, keen to get to the stable to see if all was well. Not a wren in sight. They’d all flown! Walking away, I heard faint cheeping from inside the thick beech hedge, and one wren fledgling shot like an arrow across the track and into the wood.
20th May, 2019:
I’m on the lookout, not just for the wren returning to rear another brood, but also for the swallows who might decide to reconvert the hybrid nest back to a swallow-specific dwelling. I’m watching closely for signs of another kind of nest-building too – a queen wasp grazing the timber of the stable walls, mouth-harvesting tiny particles of timber. By mixing these with her saliva, she creates the material to produce paper honeycomb cells for her eggs. The tell-tale signs of this grazing are networks of tiny light-coloured tracks where wood has been stripped away.
A queen can lay 100 eggs a day, so a big nest like the ones destroyed by the roofers might contain thousands of wasps. A colony of this size is something I definitely don’t want in close proximity with a pony well past 30: he’s the equine equivalent of a human nonagenarian. The idea of locking him in with a vast wasp colony seems risky. If the wasps begin to build, they will have to be stopped.
The idea of destroying one kind of nest while appreciating and encouraging another kind seems contradictory. Shouldn’t I cherish all nests? What logic is there in treating one nest as though it is more valuable than another? Who am I to decide? It’s a tricky problem – one that is deeply embedded in contemporary concern with wildlife. The RSPB’s current slogan ‘Giving nature a home’ (displayed on signage at a local marshland reserve) makes me uneasy because it contains the unspoken implication that the onus is on humans to decide where nature’s home is, what that home might consist of. The notion of partitioning nature off, creating a divide between ‘it’ and ‘us’ is worrying. Perhaps, unintentionally, the slogan carries the strong suggestion that the homes we might ‘give’ to ‘nature’ are ours to give in the first place, ours to apportion to species we consider most deserving. Which birds, animals and plants do we discard, dispossess, and which do we nurture and foster – and on what grounds? The questions are as old as our species and the answers have probably always involved a balancing act. But now, there is a pressing need to make intelligent and informed choices about our actions and their impacts on the species with whom we share the planet. Acting responsibly towards nature is paramount, but we should beware of ‘homing’ nature in ways that are conscience-salving short-cuts: we need to avoid the trap of thinking that the care we extend towards nature in one context grants us permission to be bird-averse, nature-averse, in another.
Like most of the people I know who care about the state of nature, I slip into inconsistent, irrational habits and thoughts, sometimes playing off one action intended to benefit nature with another that I know to be detrimental. If I feed the wild birds, can I justify exterminating just a few troublesome garden pests? As I’ve never owned or driven a car, do I have enough carbon credit in the bank to offset the ills of having coal fires? When this sub-conscious bargaining between nature-friendly and nature-averse choices occurs, George Orwell’s notion of ‘doublethink’ is apt as it involves ‘…holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them …’ and, or, ‘…forget[ing] any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, [drawing] it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed.’ It is precisely the ‘now you see it – now you don’t’ character of nature and environmental change that makes it difficult to resist this kind of doublethink.
This story of the changing fortunes of various nests is about something more than seeing birds suffering a housing crisis – an avian predicament that might be addressed by well-intentioned provision of assiduously monitored reserves – or ‘homes’. If there is a need to give nature a home, there is a bigger and more urgent need to stop taking nature’s home away from it in the first place. In the case of the roof renovations here, de-construction prior to repair and renovation has dislodged resident populations of birds and insects. But the problem is far bigger than the disturbance to some old buildings and their non-human inhabitants in one defunct farm-yard in Suffolk: the events there are all part of momentous global change. Why have the populations of swallows and martins decreased so suddenly here? What is going on in the distant homes that passerine birds also occupy on the other side of the globe? Although the migratory birds’ return is still a definite cause for rejoicing and reassurance – as in Hughes’s poem – the moment has come to be tinged, too, with a sense of anxiety and foreboding. The number of returnees is dwindling yearly; their behaviour is altering. When will none breed? When will none make it back at all?
There’s no way of knowing if ‘our’ swallows even began their journey out of Africa – impossible to tell what mis-hap befell them. Did they succumb to natural predation? Were they snared, or poisoned, or shot? Did they perish in some unprecedentedly powerful storm? I’ll never know. And this lack of knowing troubles me. I feel their absence as a huge loss, the kind of loss that nags and persists because there can be no closure, no conclusive answer to my questions. Looking up, I see not just empty space, but an emphatically unoccupied place – a blank where something is missing, is meant to be: there is silence where the sounds of bird voices should be. This vacancy exists not just in the air or the empty nests: it extends into my journal, onto this page and into my mental calendar. With just two or three exceptions, all the days of 2019 will remain unmarked by the presence of swallows in this place.
The way I have written about these nests may coincide with what some refer to as the ‘new nature writing’ – a genre that emphasises loss and the belated celebration of those parts of nature at greatest risk. In her 2018 overview of the nature books of the year, Pippa Marland wrote of the ‘widespread sense that we need new stories to narrate our relationship with the natural world – stories that inspire us to pay attention, to mourn what is gone, to cherish what is left, and to translate our enchantment and grief into political action.’ In Hughes’s poem, written almost half a century ago, the swifts’ re-appearance affirms that ‘the globe’s still working’. Were Hughes writing now, alongside the practitioners of the ‘new nature writing’, he might have shifted the poem’s emphasis to highlight how the world is starting to stop working, how not all of creation is waking refreshed.
While Hughes’s ravishing descriptive passages capture the swifts’ exuberant flight, the poem’s celebratory message has an unspoken subtext that points to the birds’ vulnerability and risk-laden existence. The lines that I quote covertly recognise the frailty of migratory birds: their journey is hazardous and their arrival can’t be taken for granted. But what has changed since the poem was written is that now, it’s not just the travel but also the conditions at both the departure point and the destination which make the birds’ existence so precarious. What Hughes didn’t know, as we do in an era of climate breakdown, is just how much the odds are stacking up against the survival of migratory birds.
Twenty years after Hughes wrote ‘Swifts’, my neighbour provided a powerful demonstration of hostility rather than appreciative welcome towards another passerine species – house martins. In the 1990s, the eaves of my house, and of four of my immediate neighbours’ houses, sheltered dozens of house martin nests. All summer, every summer, the martins were an established fact of life. Not only did I take their comings and goings for granted, I also assumed that, like me, everyone would be delighted by their presence. I was wrong. One day there was a commotion, hysterical martins wheeling through the air, shrieking in distress. The cause: a neighbour was leaning out of a window dismantling the nests. Just as you might snap an Easter egg’s chocolate shell piece by piece, she was systematically destroying the nests one by one, indifferent to the anguish of the parent birds who saw their eggs and fledglings falling to the ground. Her justification: the birds had dirtied her laundry. In breaking the nests, she also broke the law. I tell this story alongside the one about the swallow/wren nest because both illustrate ruinous human intervention into the lives of birds.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 – intended to protect wild birds and their nests and eggs – is good in theory. But, as in cases like the one mentioned above, it can’t safeguard against ignorant impulse, nor is it always robust enough to answer back to profit-driven agendas. Transgressions against birds do not only happen on remote mountains and moors, or in the unseen private spaces of domestic sheds, attics or roofs: they are far more widespread, and often, paradoxically, legitimised under the terms of the Act. The RSPB’s website quotes several legalised conditions on which exceptions to the Act may be granted, including this one:
‘A person may kill or injure a wild bird […] if they can show, subject to a number of specific conditions, that their action was necessary to preserve public health or air safety, prevent spread of disease, or prevent serious damage to livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber, or fisheries.’
Thanks to the granting of such exceptions, bird deaths, damage and reduction of bird habitat take place wherever property development, farming, forestry, road building and a host of other ‘justifiable’ activities occur. In a small country like Britain, that’s just about everywhere. Bird-hospitable spaces are rapidly shrinking. In its 2016 State of Nature report, the RSPB described the UK as being ‘amongst the most nature-depleted countries in the world’.
The kind of political, nature-aware action that Marland advocates was given recent and powerful expression. While the swallows were absent and the opportunist wren was re-building, another kind of migration was taking place 100 miles away from my stable. People were flocking to the multi-sited Extinction Rebellion London rally that ran from 15th – 24th April, 2019. The timing of the home-making event logged in my journal exactly coincided with environmental protesters setting up home in a tented encampment at Marble Arch. During the days when the wren was most active, well-orchestrated acts of civil disobedience were being committed by rally-attendees at Parliament Square, Oxford circus, Heathrow Airport, the Stock Exchange, on railways, on roads and elsewhere.
Extinction Rebellion’s concerns focus on climate breakdown and its ‘utterly catastrophic impacts to life on Earth’. Their website states that ‘A “biological annihilation” of wildlife in recent decades means the Sixth Mass Extinction in Earth’s history is under way’ and that ‘The air we breathe, the water we drink, the earth we plant in, the food we eat, and the beauty and diversity of nature that nourishes our psychological well-being, all are being corrupted and compromised by the political and economic systems that promote and support our modern, consumer-focussed lifestyles.’
I am not a wildlife campaigner, and this essay is not offered on behalf of any organisation. This writing is not intended as an elegy for bird species who have probably returned yearly to this site since at least the 13th century. Nor do I want it to merely memorialise the delight that the swallows’ arrival has brought to me and to generations of people who have lived here before me. In describing the chronology of events that occurred in one small birds’ nest in England over the last four summers, the writing is intended to bring alive the reality of the presence – and the absence – of certain wild creatures. Trails cut into wood by a grazing queen wasp might be understood as a kind of writing: the queen’s statement of intent, her prediction of the nest and colony that she will bring into being. They are literally the writing on the wall. The stories I have told here have some resemblance to the queen wasp’s grazing tracks, made one thought, one mouthful of words at a time, to bring this account into being. I am writing about the writing on the wall.
The questions provoked by the absent swallows and the renovating wren are as probably as old as the ruthlessly competitive and power-hungry species that we are. That’s one way of looking at the problem, but then again, the fact that the human species got where it is by being adaptive leaves space for optimism. It could be that the answer is nested inside the problem: the adaptivity and resourcefulness that got us into the current environmentally precarious situation may be the very traits that enable us to find a way out of it – if we want to.
The nest I have described is a complex structure combining materials and techniques contributed by two completely different bird species. Swallows built the superstructure, patiently laying successive courses of pellets of damp earth, a raw material composed of mineral particles – sand, silt and clay – as well as molecules of air and water. Every one of these gobbets of earth comes replete with fungal spores, pollen grains, humus and all the incidental particulars of decay – microbial life forms, bacteria. It also contains swallow saliva and whatever parasites the birds’ mouths may contain, plus bits and bobs of avian DNA. For insulation and soft furnishing, the swallows lined the nest with downy feathers plucked from their own breasts. To all that the swallow had collected, the wren added more feathers, leaves, moss, and animal hair. So the nest is very much a thing made of the stuff of both life and death – a construction cemented together not just by spittle or skilful interweaving, but also by instinct, determination, devotion, labour – and maybe by love too. Although the component parts of the swallow-wren nest can’t easily be picked apart, it is all too easy to undo the bigger patterns of bird lives: remove a roof, lag a loft, fell a tree, and whole systems of bird livelihood begin to unravel.
Did I make this piece too long, too detailed? Possibly, but when detail is omitted or blurred the full meaning of the bigger picture is lost. What’s in the bigger picture? Everything that we stand to lose – the co-inhabitants of the world, and ultimately, our own long-term tenure of the planet. Keeping an eye on the detail, sharpening up awareness of what’s immediate, or, in Pippa Marland’s words, allowing ourselves to be ‘enchanted’ – these are are good places to make a start on renewal and reparations. Such acts are the raw materials that might be used to rebuild outworn relationships and attitudes to the natural world.
In moving between a Suffolk stable and a London protest rally, between poetry and politics, delight and despair, this essay points out how the effects of environmental and anthropogenic change play out very close to home, if not actually at home: they are there to be seen in the every-day as much as in the exotic or the far-away. The nest seen as quintessential home provides a rich metaphor, one which is useful for thinking about the current environmental crisis in which everything is contingent upon everything else. The nest illustrates how what is big, momentous, catastrophic, often manifests most explicitly in the overlooked, the very small. Nature is now deeply entangled in the cat’s cradle of late capitalism, yet the survival of the planet – and of all its creatures – may lie in the little things that fit in the palm of your hand: a car key, a long-haul holiday flight ticket, a throw-away bottle, a plastic spoon. The political is right there in the personal and now is a good moment to take a leaf from the birds’ book, or in this case, a feather from the birds’ nest: to take notice, to repair, recycle and renew.
Notes and References
1 Hughes, T. 1974. Swifts in Season Songs: Spring Summer, Autumn, Winter. London: The Rainbow Press.
5 Oakley, K., Ward, J. Christie, I. Engaging the imagination: ‘new nature writing’, collective politics and the environmental crisis at http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/174288/1/174288.pdf Accessed 24/5/2019
Kim Crowder is a writer, visual artist and researcher. She holds a PhD in Visual Anthropology from Goldsmiths, University of London. Her PhD project, which investigated industrial pig farming in Britain, focused on pig-mens’ intuitive knowledges, embodied skills, craftwork and previously unexplored human-animal relationships which occur during commercially led animal commodification. Current writing concentrates on aspects of nature, agriculture, rural lives and the histories of people, places and things in East Anglia. Her writing and visuals draw together nature, culture, ethnography, history and memory.
You can read more of Kim’s writing here: http://www.livesinnature.co.uk