A windy day in the Tyne Estuary . I am walking out into the flat samphire desert . I d like to get down to ground level and crawl out through the tiny boababs each stem unique and upright in defiance the intolerable salinity.
There’s a driftwood log below the sandbank where the martins have nested. They are tacking across the wind to try and get back into their holes, cutting back into the wind to decelerate and turn and then dropping off to the right. Failing and going round again. I can distinguish the juveniles from their low success rate. At occasional moments I am looking at the heads of oncoming birds, wings outstretched, but artificially stilled, and I remember the illustrations in What to Look for In Summer – a book I stared at for long hours in childhood ( and was not alone in this). The illustrations are by CF Tunnicliffe, the doyen of the expanding field of wildlife art in the post war years . They are iconic images – still life but not stuffed life, tableaux crowded with observable wildlife a little more-closely packed than would ever be likely
but distinctly tickable.. lots of hirundines ,
crowds of butterflies ( maybe feasible in 1960, when the book was first published)
and turnstones, always turnstones, the maestro’s piece de resistance ( turnstones spend the summer in Siberia, although they start to reappear in August, so might make it back for the encore of WTLFIS).
Tunnicliffe’s illustrations are memorable because the birds ( and he is mainly a bird artist )seem to be about to move, and, for the young naturalists Ladybird targeted, there are less obvious things to find in the background (did you see the lizard on the rock?).
I wonder what an illustration of the scene around me today might look like – parched summer estuary, pondering psychogeographer on rock, intrusive long lens photographer stalking rarity, distant samphire collectors, an invasion of painted ladies blowing around, stork-like bird standing out of its carefully drawn background like an overlay.
Or maybe the spoonbills, which have drawn me here, only stand out to me. I wandered Europe a bit when I was younger, egrets on the Guadalquvir, flamingoes in the docks of Sfax and the saltpans of the Camargue, were as much part of the scene I wanted to experience as the names, the language, and the curious foods. Spoonbills, as I learned in my pre-teens, from the Observers Book of Birds, lived in Holland, were ‘remarkable migrants’ and ‘Visitor’ to ‘southern estuaries’, and were not worthy of an expensive illustration in the second edition.
Change has come fast though –
Eurasian spoonbill is a very scarce passage migrant to Scotland, with small numbers occurring especially in spring.
according to the Birds of Scotland, which I bought on publication in 2007. Only sixteen records were made in the second half of July between 1850 and 2004 . But in The BTO Bird Atlas of 2007-11 records of non-breeding usually immature birds occurred in 233 10km squares in Britain, around 20 in Scotland, and a first breeding record occurred.
The Tyne birds I can see wandering in the background today , known as the ‘Fab Five’ (and representing the equal largest group of birds ever recorded in Scotland since 1859), have obtrusively sieved the upper estuary around Buist’s Embankment (again atypical as the birds are usually solitary wanderers) , roosting picturesquely in a dead tree throughout July and into August. I’ve gone down after the thrill has gone. The spoonbills are quietly filtering the mud around the river channel, standing out from a long distance as gloss white (as indeed the incoming egret populations do) , and clearly finding lots to eat. I like the process of locating them , distracting myself, and then finding them again amongst the other white blobs on the estuary -mew gulls, shelducks and at least one plastic bag.
The prevailing ornithological consensus that they will not manage to survive a Scottish winter may also be challenged soon – the Atlas also records a major increase of winter range into the South of England , and that is already ten years out of date ( I’ve stopped buying these kind of books because they date so quickly). Meanwhile colonies in Turkey, the Balkans and the Med are declining . My book mentions habitat destruction, and seems in that way dated too.
Scientists and natural historians are now empowered to mention climate change, but may not yet be obliged to do so. It sort of spoils the bucolic otherness of our idyll. But that why they are here. They are climate refugees. I d like to say my distant white blobs look bemused or out of place, but they don’t . One estuary full of shrimps is much like another.
We now have the egrets, cranes and spoonbills of the other side of the north Sea. Vagrant storks are following. Flamingoes are breeding successfully on the Dutch/German border. Our local council talks about the potential upside of climate change for our tourist industry – they ll be pleased about this..
As a person I ve been losing things most of my adult life. For a while I considered this an irritating maladaption to the demands of competent masculinity ( I probably wouldn’t have used that term though). I’ve now learned to enjoy the pleasures of rediscovery and redemption, as well as the immersion in the river of things that passes while I look for my keys.
Absence is part of life. Loss is permanent (or unwanted) absence. Items of biota are always going missing, and usually return. We love them more because they do. You can tell the first sightings of the season – buttercups , swallows or skeins of geese- but how do you know its the last? How would you know its the last ever? And if you’ve started to wonder that how do you refrain from hanging on?
My current immersion in the river of things started when I began to become concerned that absences were turning into losses. That it was becoming harder to find things I d taken for granted – butterflies, skylarks , grasshoppers, hedgehogs. Things I had looked for in summer.
So the main element in what to look for in the future will be lack. The space once occupied by.. cuckoos. for example. Bernie Krauss talks about the gaps in the sonograms of denuded environments which evolved niches for particular bird songs spacing out to maximise their impact for the listening species mates. The sonograms confirm the absences that we might not easily notice, or put down to nostalgia.
Lack of honey bees. There arent many pollenators in the illustrations in WTLFIS. Small details seem to have been technically or contractually impossible to reproduce. Vaguely turd shaped honey bees are servicing the lime trees above some housemartin nests (more hirundines). Those honey bees are around a garden , and thats probably the best place to see them now. I have become able to cycle downhill through the farmlands of east lothian without getting a face full of flies . The word ‘agri -desert’ would have made no sense to Tunnicliffe, but might have been part of the premonition of Rachel Carson which was happening around that time ,and we now take for granted to the extent we are surprised that things still survive amongst the crops.
What to Look for in An Age of Mass Extinction?
Small items about distant natural disasters at the end of the news
Large items about nearby near natural disasters at the start of the news
Unfeasibly cheery items about accords, developments, technological breakthroughs and research elan.
Somewhere nearby where you can by an electric fan
Clouds of flying ants
A day trip to see a butterfly
Seagulls attacking children and family pets.
Ash dieback and oak processionary moths
Flamingoes on the Wash
Nostalgia support groups (and indeed political parties)
My own whimsy this summer has been to learn more wildflowers, and it has gone well. I ve spent a lot of time looking down.
The attention I’ve paid to the below the knee has taught me that there is a constant series of flowerings which sequence the weeks from April to September stretching out into a procession of ancient names and associations – aconites,coltsfoots, ransoms, bluebells, campions, hawksbeards, meadowsweet, toadflax, herb bennet, hellborine , centaury, gentian.., the tangle, the word tangles, the word ‘tangle’,also a seaweed – the pollen , in the breath, the tangled breath ..they bud, explode , get up your nose , get the bees drunk, wilt, fade and disappear, their names likewise forgotten and recovered next time round. We hope.
What to look for in summer is summer. It is the passage of the sun across the sky , the growth and decay, the green fuse driving those flowers. Dx/dt, experiencing time as curving, and then the serpent swallowing its mouth and time being circular. Normally.