Foxlake

Am I walking the John Muir Way?, the barkeep asks, tending to my order. Clearly my  muddy boots and lack of wetsuit  point to me being a stranger in these parts..

I had considered I d come up the farm track up the embankment, but,  must acknowledge that in the parallel universe of the leisure industry, I did in fact, stride up the JMW. The wily natives had put up a sign out there with the word CAFE , and the lure  has suckered another punter. Tick.

Viewed through the deciduous larch , from outby the badger sett , Foxlake had a sci-fi feel. Initially I thought Close Encounters , but touching down its more Under the Skin, which after all, as ‘East Lothian in the Movies’ explains,  is a local triumph (a brief glimpse of Tantallon over Scarlett’s shoulder, don’t you know).

Sleek- skinned mammals in primary colours move rapidly across water attached to wires. A constant ambient whirring noise. I imagine a giant Air Loom using the shuttling amphibians as a power source to work a Grid, trapping the emotions of the surrounds , and , by night projecting them in a sub sonar beam back to their distant target in the Stars. It gives their jaded civilisation something to eat -the visceral highs of the adrenal boarders and their cheering offspring. (They cant get into Bake Off coz they’ve no mouths..)

The wake riders (see how Ah’m getting the lingo) only look human when they fall off. I greet each tumble with a small internal cheer, allowing me to send up Schadenfreude as a side for the delectation of the space monsters (best served cold).

None of the man-made paraphernalia here existed before World War Two even the shades of paint , and the converted rail carriage where I am sheltering from the rain. Foxlake , like a good extra-terrestrial out base, is entirely modern and disposable. And hopefully a more advanced civilisation than ours will know how to dispose of plastic.

A swan wanders over for a look , then quickly retreats.

The water is chlorinated Aquamarine, the costumes are Dayglo Contrast and Black. The chat in the carriage is Corporate Hospitality and Moving Down This Way Soon. My attitude is like Polly Styrene’s* . My teeth are similarly in need of some work.

The Guy Who Sold Them The Land wanders in , showing one of his rel-y’s the New Wonder.

‘Warm enough?’ he Gruffaloes.

I nod,egregiously (wrong answer..)

‘There’s a heater there , you know..’ he largesses, and points expansively.

(‘It was hard graft back in the day on the farm but I’ve made it to all this. Urban humanity parks its circus on my land and gratefully sit in heated rail carriages to watch their men show off.’)

I head dip in wonder that was better.. ‘But I ‘m warm enough’

(‘Can’t he see I’m a hermetically sealed writer – I’ve even brought my own oatcakes !’)

‘You can put it on if you want’ he gestures and leans towards appreciative rel-y..

(‘Ungrateful sod. No make much oota that one’)

The croissant comes on a tiny breadboard , with a napkin under it a strange inconvenient ritual of our time. The jam comes in a tiny ceramic saucepan. The crumbs go everywhere deep in the woods the cupped ears of field mice twitch.

I transmit the chorus of Horace Andy’s The Big Wheel vocal out into space. ‘Tune!’ goes extra -terrestrial intelligence..

You gotta be thankful for what you’ve got..’

  • One time lead singer of X-Ray Spex champion of scruffy unreformed humanity against the plastic teens.. see in particular ‘Germ Free Adolescents’ and of course ‘The World Turned Day Glo’.

    The X-rays were penetrating
    Through the latex breeze
    Synthetic fibre see-thru leaves
    Fell from the rayon trees


But of course you knew that.

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Writing about bee-eaters

The bee-eater story got me going again. I first wrote it about 6 years ago and I conceived it as  a piece of local history research.  I had a couple of friends who were journalists and I always claimed that if there was a story that needed reporting I would do it.. When I moved to Musselburgh I had just bought Birds Brittanica and looked up the excellent place index and the rest followed.. But it was not simply that – the writing and the process of finding the writing was coloured by struggling with rejection in a failing relationship, a young child in the middle, a sense of shrunken personal options and a demanding job.  I increasingly found solace in the non-human environment and the intensely personal space of language and projects..

However I think it would have ended quickly had I found a home for my story. I tried the ornithological world, the local library and historical society, and in each case people were polite but uninspired. They didn’t get it. I turned it into a performance piece for a local open-mike ( except there is no mike) night a friend runs.  I went in costume as a bird watcher with a cuddly bee-eater complete with squeezy bird call.   It made an impression – but not probably the one I hoped . It was hard in that atmosphere not to turn into a comic writer – for a while that was a creative tension , and I considered it as a persona, but it is not my project,

Part two is about  going, looking and responding – I didnt know this was called psychogeography , but I am  now happy to give  this as a shorthand for what I do. The poem is an attempt to make my process solemn and self-important . In it  I detect the influence of Kenneth White, founder of geopoetics , whose name will crop up again.

The poem came later and it is about a demand to do practice .  Being a poem makes it look solemn, unfortunately ,for now,  the blog layout makes it look ridiculous .. I may find out how to do it or give up poetry again..

Bee-eaters

Bee eaters

a pair dug a nest burrow in a sandbank near Musselburgh, East Lothian in 1920

There is

a method

Of attending

to things that are gone

spaces remaining

changed

The blinds

between the lines

the branches

no longer twitching

Bee-eaters in the Burgh – part two

As bird watching has grown in popularity , and birdwatching literature has burgeoned it was not hard to find the story of the bee-eaters. Considerably easier for me at the moment than travelling to Southern Europe to see one.

I promised myself I would search for the traces in spaces in my own life cycle. One day I cycled to Aberlady to Waterson House (SOC Library) to read the authoritative pronouncements of David Eagle Clark, another day off in the Edinburgh Room of the Victorian hub of George IV Bridge library I cranked the ageing microfiche and peered myopically at the facsimile Scotsman’s (men?) from the 1920a. I followed the historical course of he River Esk on my laptop from stored maps of the National Library . I checked the catalogues and curators of the Scottish Museum for the reputed skin – not quite wanting to know whether the trophy had survived.

I want to see a bee-eater so I can imagine how they might have moved. Does it swoop , or hawk or stoop? I could do this on You Tube of course, but as the damp autumn nights draw in I imagine a trip to Italy (Dove per un gruccione?) or Spain (Donde buscare un abejaruco?) .

But mostly I want to see where the birds were. I developed this habit via a series of half-hearted twitches – journeys to spaces in my life cycle to apparently random places where exhausted vagrant birds had collapsed (or been blown) on their biannual transglobal migration. A viaduct in West Lothian (Red Footed Falcon – dipped), a supermarket car park in Livingston ( Bohemian Waxwing – ticked) , a quayside in Montrose ( Bonaparte’s Gull – fed on bread crusts), and a desperate reverse migration of my own for the Wilson’s Phalarope paddling in lonely circles in the Musselburgh lagoons ( ticked – wrote off the engine of my friend’s car, bust friendship).

If a bird ‘obliged’ (birder speak) their would be others present and a language of brief urgent communication – tripods, GPS, pagers, revving engines and high resolution lenses.

Other times there would only be the space where the bird had been – and some discarded high energy bar wrappers.

The missing Grey Phalarope on the East beach at Dunbar convinced me that this was a subtler and more satisfying joy. I watched the waves and rocks in the low, fading winter light for several hours . Material things gradually dissolved as the chill gripped me and hope and torpor throbbed contra punctually. Perceptions reduce to a rhythm of light falling on an over sensitised retina pulsing signals to some part of my lizard brain which is struggling to distinguish life from non-life. The bird sometimes appears and sometimes does not. I think of quantum physics – in some realities is still appears where it was. Like Schrodinger’s cat . The Dunbar phalarope, the Musselburgh bee-eaters. Singularities.

bee- eaters in the burgh – part one

 

A world in which there were no improbable events would be truly improbable. And not at all random.

In worlds where random things happen we may have occasions to wonder.

In 1920 two bee-eaters (one male, one female) instead of nesting as is their wont in Mediterranean Europe, flew to Musselburgh, excavated a burrow in a sandbank on the River Esk, and prepared to lay eggs.

The European bee-eater has chestnut and golden upper parts , blue green wings, belly and tail and and bright yellow throat, which with its long curved bill and long feathers extending from the middle of the tail make it unlike any other British bird

states Animal Life encyclopedia which I collected in 98 weekly parts as a junior nature watcher in the early 1970s. Bee eaters feature disproportionately in illustrated wildlife books, as their feathers once did on women’s hats. Their status as a British bird is questionable , like the equally colourful (and vagrant) hoopoes and golden orioles I Hoped to stumble upon during my first Young Ornithologist Club outings.

The eyeflash advertorial of these blinded me to the subtle everyday beauty of the thrush, let alone the Scandanavian plumage variant of the rock pipit t- the meat and drink of the east Scottish birder.

Those colours are designed to dazzle and disrupt the expectations of moths and dragonflies in the Mediterranean light. In 1920s Musselburgh of wire -works, smoking chimneys and post-war class tensions they will have looked – and indeed were – something well out of place..

Gentleman ornithologists (not birdwatchers) mounted guard on the sandbank and worried about egg nesting boys. Mr Kirke Nairn watched the birds scrape a nest tunnel with their beaks amongst the martin colony on the river. The visit had lasted a week when the female disappeared, not as hoped into the nest tunnel, but, as the guardians were later to discover, into imprisonent in a green house in Inveresk Gate..

Here accounts of events diverge. The first , expressed in an outraged letter to the Scotsman, by Mr Kirke Nairn describes the actions of the gardener as an act of gross vandalism which should meet the fullest punishment under the new Wildlife Protection Act –

the propensity of the average individual to capture and destroy any unusual or beautiful creature that unfortunately comes within his reach

The opposed account , recounted to the magisterial Mr Eagle Clark, chair of the Scottish Naturalists Club, explains the birds demise from having fallen out of a tree unconscious and being placed in the greenhouse for its own safety from neighbouring cats, and once identified by local expert Mr Tomlinson, tempted to feed on a supply of honey bees from a local hive. It survived two days , laid an egg (small white – the only such ever in Scotland) . Then died. Its skin presented to the Royal Scottish Museum. Now lost.

The male bird also disappears shortly afterwards A rumour circulates that it has been captured and killed by a cat. Mr Eagle Clark tracks this story down too, and finds the elderly female owner , who explains she had found the cat toying with the corpse of an unfamiliar bird , and moved by its sordid end , has given it a decent burial.  Mr Tomlinson, with forensic precision, exhumes the corpse, to find ( equally remarkably) a parakeet.

And the trail now goes cold.

Even the sandbank disappears from the course of the River Esk.

IN 1955 bee-eaters rear young in a sandpit in Sussex. In 2003, the year I move to Musselburgh and reconnect with my childhood hobby another pair breed in a quarry in County Durham.. There remain no Scottish nesting records , but in May 2011 as I research through back issues of the Scottish Naturalist in the new SOC Library one of their members hears a bee-eater call over Loanhead. The  is unmistakable and oddly plaintive .

http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Merops-apiaster?view=1

footnotes – crepuscule at the old place

In march I met a guy in a pub who told me there were barn owls haunting the local stately home. This meant a trip up in the evening dusk before the clocks went back. A stand around in the dark in a space which is semi-public . And  a bit of reading about barn owls- some of which has led me to reluctantly redact the location of my walk.  As well as the Burns poem , which I know from an arrangement sung by Dick Gaughan on Handful of Earth (Topic),  the other influence on this piece is The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause (Profile, 2012) – which is a musicians view of recording soundscapes.

One of me tramps — crepuscule at the Old Place

 

Sparrowhawk (2), tawny owl, crows mobbing a heron, an early bat, 2 neds burying something in the woods, Half moon, Saturn’s rings, 18 dogs and finally the eldritch screech of a barnie.It is still -but not quiet. Each sound feels orchestrally arranged . The aural space opens as the light dims. Everything is listening . Audibly. The sleepers obsessively repeat their settling routines , and are unsettled again. The wakers start awake and recoil. My tawny blunders past , concentration elsewhere. Food, threat, mate.. perhaps even young.

I scan what is left to scan with a barn owls logic along edges, lines, fly routes. I keep away from the garrulous jacks and the plosive pigeons.

It gets brighter the hollow light casts a shadow on the lairds lawn. A nervous custodian searches me out with a flash light the beam plays through the trees like the track of the white flyer I have missed.

Time to go . A fox pads out for the evening.

Thus every kind their pleasure find

the savage and the tender

Some social join and leagues combine

Some solitary wander..

from Now Wesling Winds Robert Burns, ya ken