The renowned British travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, also had the sharp eye of a naturalist. In Between the Woods and the Water, the sequel to A Time of Gifts, the young Fermor is crossing Hungary and Romania on foot and horse-back, describing an idyllic world about to be devastated by the Second World War. The descriptions of the birds he came across stand out.
[Cranes and wild geese] sometimes travel in a wedge formation, at others beak to tail for miles on end; unlike storks, which, as I had seen a couple of weeks ago, move in an endless, loose-lined mob as ragged as nomads in the Dark Ages."
On species he'd never seen before:
. . . the first, with dazzling yellow and black plumage and a short haunting tune, was a golden oriole; next day was marked by the blue-green-yellow flash of bee eaters; and the third by two hoopoes walking in the grass and spreading and closing their Red Indian head-dresses, then fluttering aloft and chasing each other among the leaves, their wings turning them into little flying zebras until they settled again."
After escaping to the Lake District to visit his friends the Wordsworths, Samuel T. Coleridge was on the overnight coach to London, preparing to face family responsibilities and the reality of earning a living. At dawn, he was mesmerised by a sight over the wintry fields:
Starlings on a vast flight drove along like smoke, mist, or any thing misty without volition – now a circular area inclined in an Arc – now a Globe – now from complete Orb into an Elipse & Oblong – now a balloon with the car suspended, now a concaved Semicircle – & still it expands & condenses, some moments glimmering & shivering, dim & shadowy, now thickening, deepening and blackening!
In his fascinating biography Coleridge: Early Visions Richard Holmes notes how this vision would haunt the poet long after. It was
some sort of self image for Coleridge, both stimulating in its sense of freedom, of “vast flight”; and menacing in its sense of threatening chaos or implosion, “Thickening, deepening, blackening”.
This excellent video shot at Otmoor, near Oxford, captures the display before the starlings settle in their roost, building up to an astonishing climax, when the flock becomes almost impossibly dense.
The Peregrine by J. A. Baker
is much more than a detailed observation of the falcon of the title. The author roams his patch of the Essex countryside, evoking the landscape, the changing light and other wild species he comes across. As he walks through winter, he notes the cruel impact of an unrelenting freeze, finding a dying heron, “its wings . . . stuck to the ground by frost”. He witnesses scenes like the following:
Above the brook a kingfisher hovered. . . . It half dived, half fell, and its bill hit ice with a loud click like a bone breaking. It could see a fish below the ice but it did not know what ice was. It lay on its belly, stunned or dead, sprawling like a brilliantly coloured toad.
In trying to break free of a human perspective, Baker found a haunting, unsentimental style to describe the natural world on his doorstep. More information on The Peregrine
In this intriguing documentary, based on his book The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane warns us not to write off over-developed and over-populated Britain in the quest for wilderness. Wild nature is there under our noses, in the most unexpected of places, and Macfarlane helps us focus on it, just as his friend Roger Deakin opened his own eyes.
Essex was chosen as an apparently unlikely location to commune with nature. Condensing a year of exploration, the film shows startling beauty among sewage works and dual carriageways. The contrast is beguiling: a peregrine falcon soaring past Tilbury Power Station is the angelic and the toxic closing-up against one another. Continue reading Wild places of Essex→
The Orwell Diaries is a remarkable blog which publishes George Orwell’s diary entries on the same date 6o years later. The entries are full of fascinating insights into the daily life of the author between 1937 and 1947 and include a surprising amount of observations on natural history. The comments by the readers are also, unusually, interesting. Here is his entry of 11th January from the cold winter of 1940:
No thaw. It would be possible to skate on the church pond, but unfortunately I have no skates here. The other ponds not bearing. Water beetles (the kind whose legs look like oars) can be seen moving about under the ice. When a brick lies in the bottom in shallow water, there appears in the ice above it a curious formation the size & shape of the brick itself, presumably something to do with the temperature of the brick when thrown in being higher than that of the water. Turned up a woodcock in the common lane. No rabbits in the field today. Birds very bold & hungry. Rooks in the vegetable garden, where they do not usually come. One or two primroses & polyanthi budding, in spite of the frost upon them. One of the elm trees apparently bleeds a brown-coloured stuff, sap or something, & large icicles of this hanging down, looking like toffee. Milk when frozen goes into a curious flaky stuff like flaky pastry.
Orwell had an enduring interest in natural history which stemmed from his childhood. In letters from school he wrote about caterpillars and butterflies and he had a keen interest in ornithology. He also enjoyed fishing and shooting rabbits, and conducting experiments as in cooking a hedgehog or shooting down a jackdaw from the Eton roof to dissect it. Wikipedia
The Guardian has an extract from an amazing new book about seahorses – Poseidon’s Steed by Helen Scales. It’s filled with beautiful, vivid descriptions:
Should we presume these odd-looking creatures were designed by a mischievous god who had some time on her hands? Rummaging through a box labelled “spare parts”, she finds a horse’s head and, feeling a desire for experimentation, places it on top of the pouched torso of a kangaroo.
This playful god adds a pair of swivelling chameleon eyes and the prehensile tail of a tree-dwelling monkey for embellishment – then stands back to admire her work. Not bad, but how about a suit of magical colour-changing armour, and a crown shaped as intricately and uniquely as a human fingerprint? Shrink it all down to the size of a chess piece and the new creature is complete.