In this piece for the Land Lines blog, psychotherapist Susan Holliday revisits the role of wonder in revealing to us the hidden depths of human nature.
In the hush of lockdown I have found myself walking around my little patch of south London more often. My dusty senses have been swept clean by the intricate and ever-changing details of nature in the gardens, parks and trees around me. I am not alone in this. Social media has abounded with intimate pictures of nature seen afresh. The uncurling of a leaf. Recordings of birdsong. Buds blossoming. At the same time, many of us have looked at ourselves more deeply. Away from the glare of our carefully curated lives we have found traces of subterranean dramas, trails of nocturnal longings, and tracks leading to uncharted inner landscapes. Perhaps there is more to human nature than meets the eye. More to feel, more to sense, more to see.
When I tell a new acquaintance I’m a psychotherapist, I often encounter the response ‘How do you do it? How do you sit with all that depression?’ The question floors me every time. It assumes that the ordinary men and women who step into my practice room are all grey, washed out and featureless, that my seeing of them might resemble a walk through a desolate landscape on a dull winter’s day. The truth is that beyond the surface symptoms of troubled lives, I have discovered ecologies of feeling as intricate as coral reefs and walked in landscapes of human experience as irreplaceable as our rain forests. Have you any idea, I want to reply, just how much richness, intelligence and beauty surfaces from the depths of every human being – if you just know how to look?
Most of what I have learned about seeing deeply within human encounter, I have discovered from a lifetime of wandering and wondering in the natural world. Seeing nature ‘out there’ has fashioned how I see nature ‘from the inside’.
Two days before the summer solstice, for some a magical time of year, but it’s stickily humid, windless and cloudy – perfect weather for the insects that are hatching in their millions. Walking the horses towards the wood for an early ride today, we were swarmed by hordes of little buzzing black flies who were irresistibly attracted to our hi-vis yellow safety tabards. Although they were an annoyance to us and the horses, we reasoned that the hatching insects would provide a banquet for the birds.
As we rode through the wood Katy told me how last night, at dusk, she and Dan had walked through the wood to an open heathy area where the trees are sparse. There, they had heard a nightjar churring. We rode to the heath and Katy pointed out the birch tree and the exact branch where they had seen the bird perch.
So, tonight at dusk, Peter and I set off for the wood hoping that the nightjar would visit the birch once again. We sat down, half hidden amongst tall green fern fronds, listening expectantly, keeping statue-still and submitting to the attentions of mosquitos and midges. We waited, watching moths being lured by the intoxicating scents seeping from wild honeysuckle blossoms. Like an inquisitive fairy, a huge dragonfly patrolled back and forth along the pathway deliberately buzzing us repeatedly. Each time it approached within arm’s length of us we heard the cellophane crackle of its wings. The twilight chorus of birdsong was interrupted for some time by two foxes who kept up a sustained barking duet close by. A pair of hobbies streaked past at alarmingly low level, deftly scooping insects out of the air, keening and chattering as they went. In the twilight, bats made increasingly audacious aerial passes and tawny owls called louder in the distance just as the last of the wrens, woodlarks, blackbirds and various finches finally tuned out. As the creatures of the day withdrew one by one, a whole new host of nocturnal beings emerged. Just before ten, silence, and a single shred of pink light persisting in the western sky. The scene was set for the nightjar’s arrival.
Darkness provoked twinges of doubt. Would the nightjar come tonight? Was our presence discouraging it? We decided to walk into one of the rides that intersected ranks of densely planted pines. No sooner were we amongst the trees than an unfamiliar two-syllable call rang out – kuik-kuik – from the shallow valley below us. Then, almost immediately, a momentary and unmistakeable churring sound from a much closer point. We could tell that the bird was rapidly moving up out of the wooded dip, as though puckishly distancing itself to refute the marker posts erected by the local wildlife trust to trace a walk named The Nightjar Trail. The nightjar had crossed two continents to reach this wood, and now in completely soundless flight, it was heading directly towards the birch branch Katy had pointed out. Without further ado the bird settled and began its song.
How do I describe the extraordinary sound? Perhaps as a long drawn out vibration steadily alternating between differing pitches. If you didn’t know that a bird was making the sound, it would be easy to believe that a tiny pulsating pump or engine was in operation somewhere far off, or that the continuous emission of sound was being generated by some tantalisingly familiar, yet unidentifiable, electronic device. It had the quality of ceaselessness, with the bird never seeming to pause to inhale. Perhaps the nightjar has evolved a skill equivalent to the circular breathing technique used by wind instrumentalists to produce an uninterrupted tone. When you listen for long enough, the apparently single sustained note clarifies into hundreds upon hundreds of tiny individual vocal pulses.
Maybe my description makes the song sound boring, the very opposite of the nightingale’s ever-varying trills and extravagant crescendos. Not so. The nightjar’s peculiarly burred, granular call is fascinating because it is enigmatic, slightly suggestive of the sustained notes of Mongolian throat singers, or white noise, or the continuous ‘om’ chanted by Buddhist monks. But those comparisons do not capture the other-worldly qualities of the sound. There is a deeply hypnotic quality about it that eludes description. Once you start listening, it is difficult to stop. Gradually the song supercedes all else and if you surrender and give it absolute concentration, the uncanny sound will penetrate into the core of your brain erasing every thought you thought you were thinking. You will have the strange sense that you and the song are unifying and that everything beyond the song is fading out of existence.
After listening for some while, I was overtaken by an urge to creep closer the birch tree. It was as though the sound was magnetising me. Even when I stood in open space within twenty feet of the tree, clumsily snapping twigs underfoot, the nightjar sang on undeterred. Then, without warning, the sound stopped as abruptly as it had started and I saw the bird’s surprisingly big silhouette rise a few feet into the air above the birch tree’s straggly crown. As the nightjar ascended, it lifted both wings vertically above its back and decisively clapped them together, the sudden impact resembling the smack of wet sheets flapping on the line on a windy day.
In the instant of the wing-clap, the bird dropped through the air like a stone. Its other beautiful name, the fern owl, sprang to mind as I saw the black silhouette vanish into the darkness amongst the bracken fronds. After a second or two of silence, the churring began again, just as strongly as before, but this time coming from a different birch tree. Somehow the bird had swooped along behind me, obscured by the bracken’s low horizon. We stayed and listened some more as the moon climbed higher and Jupiter became clearly visible. No other nightjars sang, just the one solitary bird. We hoped that the song was being appreciated by a prospective mate. Midsummer is nightjar breeding time.
Eventually, and reluctantly, we whispered our farewells to the nightjar and began to pick our way out of the dark wood, but as we backtracked we happened upon another beautiful natural phenomenon – glow worms. Peter saw the first one, a luminous yellow-green dot shining amongst the dry grass under a gorse bush. There were more dotted along the pathway so we lingered on, marvelling at these new nocturnal delights while the nightjar, who had travelled from south of the Sahara, sang on and on and the moon glowed and the sharp pinprick of Jupiter’s planetary light traversed the solar system. What a day it had been for the birds’ insect banquet, and what a night for the feast of the senses which had complemented the nightjar’s midsummer visitation.
by Kim Crowder
Note from the Author
The area of rural east Suffolk where I live contains fragments of rare lowland heath – nightjar habitat. Each summer these birds arrive at nearby locations including Upper Hollesley Common and Snape Warren. Over four decades here, my daily horse – or dog – assisted walks have enabled me to learn the lie of the heathland as well as the adjacent woodlands and Forestry England plantations. Since 2015 I’ve kept a nature journal detailing the appearances – and disappearances – of the animals, birds and insects I encounter, but somehow the paths of the nightjar and I never quite crossed until recently.
The only previous nightjar experience I’ve had was in France, several years ago, when on a late night walk the air was filled with the astonishing and unforgettable sound of a nightjar chorus, maybe a dozen of them calling simultaneously. The friend I was staying with insisted that the sound was being made not by birds, but frogs! So it was an especial thrill, and privilege, to learn of a new and perhaps as yet undocumented nightjar haunt so very close to my home. It seemed important to make the most of this rare chance to see the bird at last and to try to capture and share the experience by writing it into the journal from which this extract is taken.
About the Author
Kim Crowder is a writer, visual artist andresearcher. Her writing and visuals draw together ethnography, history, personal reflection and nature writing.
Kim’s interests include human-animal relations and her current work focuses on aspects of nature, rural lives and the histories of people, places and things in East Anglia. A selection of her recent essays is available on her website.
Kim was awarded a PhD in Visual Anthropology by Goldsmiths College, University of London, in 2012. Her academic writing has been published in various anthropological essay collections and research papers which have been widely referenced.
The Land Lines Blog is pleased to share this unique look at the River Erme estuary by scientist and writer Philip Strange. In this piece, Philip compares two visits to the Erme estuary in 2019 and 2020 – and remarks upon the changes that have taken place over the course of the year.
The Devon countryside still looks fresh and green as I head towards the coast on this late spring morning. The narrow lanes are enclosed by steep grassy banks decorated red, white and blue with campion, cow parsley and bluebells, as if to celebrate the season. I am on my way to the estuary of the river Erme, an isolated, unspoilt place that I love to visit. The last part of the journey takes me down a one-car’s width track that descends steadily for about a mile, winding gently from side to side as if it’s not quite sure which direction to take. There’s mud on the lane in places, also running water and many potholes; this is Devon at its deepest. In time, though, silvery gleams of water appear through the trees on the right.
I park by woodland near the end of the lane and walk down a rough stone slipway on to the sandy beach. The tide is low and the estuary is spread out ahead, a vast tract of pale flat sand, sculpted into ripple patterns by the receding water and now mostly dry. The river Erme, a snaking, shimmering, ribbon of water, flows across the sand in search of the sea. There are a few people about enjoying the warmth and light of this sunny morning but there’s plenty of space and children help their parents build sandcastles on the beach while dog walkers saunter across the dry sand. It is a peaceful, happy scene.
But the mouth of the estuary is not far away and the sea is visible downstream, wave crests sparkling in the bright sunshine, reminding us of its power. The proximity of the sea means that this part of the estuary is strongly tidal, a natural battleground where the sea and the river fight for supremacy. At present, the sea is in retreat, but as the tide rises, the sea will take control, covering the sand and eventually filling the entire area between the tree-lined banks. Waves then progress some way up the estuary and kayak surfers enjoy the watery surges of energy.
During an art and writing residency in a small cabin in King’s Wood, Kent, I wanted to see the nightjars that arrive in summer to breed. I was writing a book of wildlife encounters experienced during the hours of dusk, night and dawn. The nightjar’s haunting display has always been an event I try not to miss. One evening, my partner, Kevin, decided to join me.
The Goatsuckers of King’s Wood – by Alexi Francis
Strange sounds and surreal moments …
A churring is audible from the birch trees at the edge of the wood. It is an uncanny sound, like the soft purr of an engine. My phone shows nine twenty, dusk. My partner and I follow in the direction of the sound.
It’s June on a still, mild evening in King’s Wood, Kent, and we are here looking for nightjars. The sky darkens from eggshell to powder blue. A small herd of fallow deer, grazing the forest track, slip away into the undergrowth when they see us. Keeping as quiet as we can we venture off the main track into an area of sweet chestnut coppice, the trees no more than two metres high. In a small clearing of birch saplings and grassy tussocks, we pause and wait, poised in anticipation, as white moths flitter between broom bush and rush stem like drunk angels.
It is not long before a dark shadow of a bird, scimitar-winged, like a giant swift, scythes the air above our heads. It is a glimpse, a moment of wonder. Then we hear the distinctive wing clap of the male as he performs to attract a female or ward off another male.
The Land Lines Blog is delighted to share this new piece on lockdown, and a search for the ashy mining bee! This summer, after an uptick in the number of people caring for and visiting gardens and green spaces in ways they haven’t before, Eline Tabak writes about her experience of lockdown, and her search for a more elusive species of insect around her current home in Bristol.
Lockdown has compacted my life into four points. They’re good ones, though, and I recognise how lucky I am in midst of a pandemic. Like a scalene triangle, my home lies in the centre of three distinct green places: a park, a cemetery, and a nature reserve. While, to my amateur eyes, the park has remained the same as any other I know asides from the usual comings and growings of spring, the heathland nature reserve reminds me of my childhood and has been a delight to see change these past months. The biggest surprise, to me, was the quiet beauty and joy of watching the cemetery grounds come alive. During my walks at the cemetery (alone and with others), I’ve come across grasses I was unaware existed. The weeks brought a variety of greens, whites and yellows, browns and purples, the odd allium and common wheat. I have also discovered that what I thought was wild garlic (well, it is) is really not the only thing called wild garlic, and that I should really just give up on forcing myself to try and remember what everything is called in Dutch, German, and English—not to mention local and regional varieties. Who knew there were so many plants called wild garlic and that they have so many different names?
And everywhere I go, I am on the lookout for bees. While I keep an eye open for all bug varieties and the occasional spider, bumblebees are my favourite. It’s something about the way they are so small and quick, yet big and lumbering at the same time. I’m not an entomologist, and I often don’t know what I’m looking for (or talking about). My knowledge of bees often comes down to that there are many (around 20,000 described species and counting) and that they’re all hairy and have two pairs of wings. Looking with not a slight amount of jealousy at the bees the Americas and other continents have to offer has also made me realise that there are almost 300 different bee species in the UK, and that I have yet to see most of them. Even worse, I don’t know what most of them are called. Having only recently started walking around with a bee guide in my pocket back in the Netherlands, I sometimes still think about mining bees in terms of sand bees (as we call them in Dutch) and, if I’m being honest, I prefer the simplicity of describing and naming common bumblebee species in terms of where you tend to find them: the garden, soil, and fields. There’s something in the unassuming character of tuin-, aard– en akkerhommels.
We are thrilled to publish on the Land Lines Blog today an essay by Jim Pratt, the nephew of Welsh borders novelist and nature writer Margiad Evans. The essay is focused on Margiad’s war-time correspondence with her brother Roger, who was imprisoned in a series of Prisoner of War camps in Germany and Poland, and features excerpts from previously unpublished letters.
In 1941, the thirty-two-year-old Border poet Margiad Evans (Peggy Whistler) moved into a semi-detached farm-workers’ cottage without electricity or running water on top of a hill in Llangarron, Herefordshire. Her own, fully equipped modern house a few miles distant had been rented out, and it provided most of her income during the war.
The cottage, named Potacre, had been built in the corner of a large field on a ridgetop with long views north towards the Black Mountains of Wales (Fig 1). This view became so embedded in her soul that 15 years later, while living in Sussex and on the verge of an early death from cancer, she was to write of it:
It will please you perhaps to hear that the neglected Anglo-Welsh writer you sent to Ireland all those years ago, is named by ten professors of literature as the leading writer (and poet) of her day. It did please me, but it seemed a long way off, since the writer, like the bee, is always building, always adding fresh cell to cell. This process finished, so is all. I am now tired […] I think I shall go home to live if I can get there anyhow as I have a longing to see the Black Mountains that sometimes seem to hang from the sky like a rainstorm.
Llangarron is set in a countryside little changed since medieval times, of small hedge-girt fields and coppice woodlands in a discrete, intimate landscape of rolling hills and little streams in shallow, tree-lined valleys. It is crossed by ancient, deep-cut farm tracks. Describing Herefordshire in 1936 as ‘rural – gosh, how rural‘, A.G. Street notes ‘There seem to be less cars and more horses per hundred acres in Herefordshire than in any other English county. In Herefordshire they raise cattle and sheep, make cider from their apple orchards, and breed horses and cobs[…] If you like horses and cider, and glory in a really rural existence amidst unspoilt countryside, you cannot do better than settle in Herefordshire. It may be a trifle wet but it is always green and sweet and clean and peaceful. Three-quarters of it are grassland […] [Even where the land is ploughed it is cropped mainly with fodder for the livestock, while there is at least five times the acreage in orchard than in wheat’.
In 1939, Margiad’s younger brother Roger Whistler, recently married, volunteered for army service on the outbreak of war, and was commissioned in the 4th Battalion Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. He joined his unit (part of the BEF) in northern France in March 1940. Following the German invasion of Belgium and France on May 10th, his unit provided part of a sacrificial defence of the southern perimeter around the town of Dunkirk that enabled the evacuation of over 300,000 fighting troops back to Britain. Only one officer and a handful of men from the 4th Battalion made it back to Britain: at least ten officers were killed, and the remainder, including Roger, became prisoners of war on May 30th. Along with some 2000 other British army officers, he was incarcerated in the notorious PoW camp Oflag VIIC in Laufen, Bavaria. In the confusion of Dunkirk, he had been posted as “missing” and his family had no news of him. However, on September 16, Margiad described how she first heard, in Ross-on-Wye, that he was alive:
By some freak I was the one who first heard you were alive. I was going from house to house investigating pension cases […]. I heard a telegram had been pushed under the door and at the same time I knew that Mother and Miss Smith were out. I knew in a moment that what I had believed all along was right and you were alive. The street – the Market Hall clock – they all seemed blurred and yet more real than ever before. It had been raining – I remember the wet leaves in the Ashfield gardens. I rushed to the Post Office and they told me what was in the telegram. Then I telephoned Mother who was having a day’s spree in Hereford. It was a day or two before her birthday and none of your cards had arrived. You should have heard her voice “What a birthday present! Oh thank-you, thank-you!” as if I had given her the world and all its lives. I did no more work I can tell you. About an hour later I sort of came out of my joy for a minute, and lord bless me if I wasn’t still gaping at that clock which looked absolutely vacant and silly with no more meaning in its face than a stone. That night we all drank to you.
The Land Lines blog is delighted to share with you this nightjar-inspired poem and illustration, which was sent sent to us by illustrator Ilse Meijerink via her blog ‘Sisters Corresponding Across Town’.For more about Ilse, her sister Mariëlleand their work, please see the ‘About the Authors’ section at the bottom of the page.
The poem below is a translation from the original in Dutch, which you can find here.
do you know me? I fly at night aroused by moths you can hear me sometimes see but do you know me? Goatsucker Lich Fowl ideas born from ignorance afraid of what I do
I get names Names like pigeonholes to put things in order
there are also those who venture all alone in twilight set off and keep walking go with it with eyes wide open and see how I live in shade who look not at the other to ask if they see clearly see me fly in the air between trees bird rather square with wings wide and earth drawn in my feathers
About the Authors
Ilse and Mariëlle are sisters who reside in The Netherlands. Ilse is trained as an illustrator and Marielle specialised in screenwriting in film school.
Their mutual interest in nature was sparked at an early age where their mother would make them observant of all things growing on the ground and their father would point out every feathered thing he heard and saw flying in the sky.
When Ilse moved to Glasgow, the sisters started the correspondence blog immerpost.wordpress.com, where Mariëlle would write a short story or poem about something that caught her attention in the natural world and Ilse would respond with her own interpretation through drawing – and sometimes the other way around. The blog was started almost ten years ago and the siblings continued their correspondence when Ilse moved back to their home country.
The Eskimo Curlew is a small wading bird, similar in appearance to the Eurasian Curlew but around half the size. It has longish legs, a mottled brown body, and the familiar long beak: “for poking”, as my young son puts it. To describe the bird in the present tense may be misleading. Once abundant in North America, its population crashed in the late nineteenth century due largely to mass slaughter by hunters. Homo sapiens has never needed much of an excuse for wiping out other species; the Eskimo Curlew seems to have suffered for being too damn tasty, especially just before southern migration. According to a contemporary account, “they are frequently so fat that when they strike the ground after being shot flying the skin bursts, exposing a much thicker layer of fat than is usually seen in other birds”; they were sometimes known as “Doughbirds”. The last confirmed sighting was on Barbados in 1963 (the bird was shot, of course), although there have been several plausible later sightings. The British Ornithologists’ Union accepts four British records for the bird. The most recent is from 1887.
I first encountered the Eskimo Curlew through an app on my phone, which I began to use in 2019 to record birds that I’ve seen. Whenever you make a new entry, you are presented with a checklist of “Birds of the United Kingdom”. The Eskimo Curlew nestles comfortably between Eleonora’s Falcon and Evening Grosbeak. It is unlikely that I will see either of those two species in the UK, as they are normally to be found (respectively) on Mediterranean islands and in North American forests, but at least they are known still to be in existence. It can be a fiddly to navigate through such a long list as I record more mundane species – “Blue Tit: Yes”; “Blue-cheeked Bee-eater: Probably not” – but I get to experience the promise and the glamour of exotic-sounding names. I don’t know what a “Bobolink” looks like, but I imagine it as a kind of flying monkey.
Despite its inclusion of many species that I am unlikely ever to encounter, the app makes it easy to keep records by date and place. It tells me on the ‘Summary’ page that today I have seen nothing: it is 4.30am and, if I kept records of “Heard Only”, I could tick blackbird. I have seen 54 species this week, 64 this month, and 125 this year, compared to my personal record of 186 last year. My life total stands at 191, although this figure does not include species seen before 2019. I can also get more detailed information with a few taps; for example, bringing up a list of the 66 species seen this April, during which I did all my birding on foot from my house due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
The Land Lines blog is delighted to share this essay, with brilliant accompanying photos, from Andy Thatcher – a film maker, photographer, writer and researcher.You can visit Andy’s website and Instagram page for more. This essay reflects on the virtues of local walking in a time of lockdown. For more on this topic, check out Ian Tattum’s blog post on walking and COVID-19 here!
From the Periphery to the Centre and Back Again: A Journey through Lockdown
In the time before Covid-19, striking up a good conversation in Exeter frequently ended up with comparing notes on moorland, bluebells, coves or cows. Exeter’s easy access to two coastlines, two national parks and everything between them meant that sharing favourite places was often on a par with sharing stories about one’s children or pets. Exeter can seem more like a base for exploring than a destination, and while it does have some splendid green spaces, it’s difficult to shed the feeling of urbanity on foot; everywhere feels distinctly managed, tampered with, and not simply left to get on with things. You have to do a bit of investigating to find any corners of vegetal anarchy, and I’ve been doing just this over the past few years.
It’s a splendid thing to begin a long walk from one’s doorstep. I grew up in Tunbridge Wells, which is blessed with pockets of scruffy woodland, and from my home in East London, I explored the Lea Valley wetlands and the southernmost heaths and skinny woodlands of the Epping Forest. In Exeter, I’ve got to know the top of the River Exe estuary as it flows beneath the M5, the riding stables, farms and woodland at Stoke Hill, the pylon-dotted Clyst floodplain, and the town green and remote c.14th church at Pinhoe. Such places show heavy traces of human activity; the holloway leading down to Digby & Sowton station is tarmacked and the graveyard gate at Pinhoe leads into fencing protecting a vast new – and paused – housing development in an old clay quarry. There’s a kind of picturesque here, but it’s off, like a jigsaw of a thatched cottage with some pieces badly scuffed and others missing. Such places are popular with dog walkers, teenagers and young parents, but Dartmoor or the Jurassic Coast are seductive to those of us looking for a decent walk.
There’s environmental virtue in not driving an hour to go walking, and there’s an affirming satisfaction to staying local, but these aren’t my only motives: I get a certain pleasure gleaning what others overlook. Finding a stream clogged with retired lampposts fires my imagination no less than a mist-wrapped tor, and discovering a bee orchid outside a homeless hostel is if anything more of a thrill than finding myself within feet of a cuckoo up on the heaths. There’s also a pleasurable melancholy to overlooked places, and the bramble-choked paths behind a housing estate afford a very different kind of solitude to that of unending and empty moorland.
I realise I’ve made a lot of comparisons here, and that’s likely part of the pleasure: the choice of this place over that helps make it unique, precious, special. And so on March 23rd, when Exeter’s tracks became the only ones available, they changed utterly, and in ways that were fascinating.
The Land Lines blog is pleased to share this poem by Suzanne Davies, accompanied by an illustration. Suzanne was inspired to write this by our Spring Nature Diarywith the National Trust earlier this year!
In the warmth of spring a sparrow comes to the garden
he perches at the edge of the old stone bath it’s cold
he’s watchful takes his sip, silent slow
and I see just for a second smooth poised in the balance of his beak
a bubble of water a circle of light so pure that I hold my breath
and then it’s gone
and he flies off into the canopy of leaves I almost cut weighted with twisted vines winter thorns descending
and I watch, trembling in the balance of his being as I listen to his song for the world
as perfect as a drop of pure water
paused between sunlight and shadows
Sunday May 10th
About the Author
Suzanne is a Classics teacher and loves teaching both language and literature. She has two rescue dogs, and spends hours walking on the local beaches in South Wales photographing the wild flowers, butterflies and the sea in all weathers. She also loves sitting in the garden watching the sparrows.