The Water of the Hills: A Parable for Our Times by Marcel Pagnol

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Recently I returned again to the wonderful novel sequence Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources by the French playwright, author and film director Marcel Pagnol (1895-1990). This year I even made The Water of the Hills (L’eau des Collines), the title for the whole work, my book of 2019 in The New Statesman. Originally published in the same year that Rachel Carson released Silent Spring (1962), Pagnol’s great work is the most resonant modern parable about nature that I know.

Every European who has ever watched a screen in the last 40 years has been touched by it, because the famous harmonica riff that has been used ever since in Stella Artois adverts was initially inspired by Pagnol. Those few melancholy chords have morphed into a kind of audible signature for everything rural in France, but they were initially part of the soundtrack for Claud Berri’s brilliant screen adaptation of Jean de Florette (1986) starring Gerard Dépardieu and Yves Montand. (in fact, I learn that this music was itself borrowed from the overture to another tragic tale, Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, Force of Destiny, opera).

Together with the sequel Manon des Sources, Berri’s film is still the biggest box-office success among all foreign-language cinema and sealed the international reputation of Dépardieu. Yet I urge you to find and watch the films again here: like me you may come to judge Montand’s performance, at the very end of his life, the more complete and the most moving expression of broken human dignity.

Everyone thinks of both the novels and the films in terms of their dramatic human story and I shall outline this in the first of my two blog posts. (The Water of the Hills is, after all, shaped as two separate novels, so i shall respond in kind!). In the second post I’ll dwell on its implications for our relations with nature. The title, even, gives a strong clue to the underlying ecological themes. The work is a meditation on water’s centrality to life.

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Pagnol is rightly cherished as a kind of Gallic Thomas Hardy, with his books, in turn, celebrated for their rich, earthy, humorous accounts of Provencal life at the turn of the century. The author was born and raised in the high limestone country just inland from Marseilles and his landscapes and rustic characters have the authenticity that comes from deep firsthand knowledge. To the bucolic comedy, however, Pagnol blended plots that most closely resemble those of classical Greek tragedy. In fact the pair of novels contain heart-rending dramas that are of mathematically precise symmetry.

The first volume tells of Jean Cadoret, who is both a hunchback and an idealistic intellectual, a town-bred tax collector, who has inherited a family farm just outside the fictional village of Les Bastides. The farmhouse is called Les Romarins and is portrayed, at first occupation, as a forlorn plot, rank with weeds and brambles, the olive trees long neglected and its rich soils unproductive and dormant. The farm’s single saving grace is a private spring that flows perennially in its upper ground and offers potential to Jean Cadoret’s ambitious new rabbit-breeding scheme.

Unfortunately just before Jean, with his wife Aimée, a former opera singer, and their delightful young daughter Manon can arrive and take possession of the house, they are preempted by the machinations of  Ugolin Soubeyran. I love the way that the clue to his despicable behaviour is contained in the name. He is a young peasant farmer with his own grand designs for Les Romarins – an intensive carnation-growing operation that would be a thirsty consumer of its spring waters.

Egged on in these flower-growing plans by his elderly and wealthy uncle, César Soubeyran – known by all in Les Bastides as ‘ le Papet’ – Ugolin blocks up the spring at the Cadoret place. His hopes are that the owners and their plans will soon fail and enable him to snap up the farm at a bargain price. Quickly he inveigles his way into their household, feigning friendship and offering faux assistance, somehow always finding a way to be on hand for his charming and open-hearted neighbours, all the while enjoying a spider’s-eye view of the unfolding tragedy.

For no matter how hard Jean de Florette labours, and no matter how nobly he wrests from Les Romarins the makings of a successful enterprise, the hunchback is thwarted by basic meteorology and geography in that part of southern France. Unaware of ‘his’ spring or its blockage by the Soubeyrans, Cadoret resorts to ever more desperate measures to obtain water. Steadily, inexorably – with a growing thirst that can never quite be quenched by the wine that is his consolation and his increasing addiction – Jean dies for want of simple H2O.

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The second volume Manon des Sources tells a very different kind of story, but it is one of equally dramatic and emotional power. And, in a way, it is the perfect measure of Pagnol’s brilliance as a novelist, because the central tragic ‘hero’ – if we can call him that – is precisely one of the two villains of the first volume. César Soubeyran.

At the close of Jean de Florette we see César and Ugolin unblocking the well after purchasing Les Romarins from the destitute widow Aimée and the fatherless Manon. In their poverty the two Cadoret females are obliged to go and live with their Piedmontese friends and neighbours in a cave located near the only other water source in the area. The Soubeyrans, meanwhile, free the spring from its cement plug and the waters gush forth, at which point Ugolin cries:

“The carnations, Papet … Fifteen thousands francs a year … The carnations … It’s a fortune that’s bubbling up … Look! Look! It will run to the carnations … Look!”

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Initially the waters and fortunes flow exactly as they plan. The Soubeyrans  do indeed found their carnation farm and Ugolin secretes in his hearth the gold louis that his profits yield. César is delighted to see his nephew flourish and anticipates that his wealthy young relative will soon take a wife and produce the heirs to inherit the Soubeyran land and money that his ancestors have salted away.

Manon, meanwhile, grows up into a gorgeous young woman, living freely in the hills above her old home, tending her goats, reading her fathers’ books and playing the harmonica that is her only other inheritance from him. The story then reaches a watershed in two Hardyesque moments of dramatic reversal, and fate flows in the opposing direction.

The first occurs when Ugolin, out hunting in those same hills, comes across the sumptuous young naked Cadoret maiden as she bathes Diana-like in a rock pool. He is intrigued, increasingly captivated and ultimately besotted with Manon, who moves centre-stage to direct the course of events in the second volume.

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The second key moment happens when Manon, following a lost goat into the Earth, discovers the underground chamber, where gather the waters that supply, not only Les Romarins and Ugolin’s thirsty carnations, but the entire supply for the village of Les Bastides. She thus reverses the situation and blocks up this mountain stream and inflicts upon the community what it has done originally to the Cadoret family. For Manon discovers that several of the villagers knew of the Soubeyran plot to oust them from their farm but had done nothing to stop the evil.

Two tragic consequences unfold as the water crisis grips the village. Ugolin, tormented by his guilt and his love for Manon, and realising that she will never consider him as a suitor, goes mad and hangs himself. Cesar is grief stricken by the loss of his only blood relative, but worse is to follow. For in his youth le Papet had had a love affair with the eponymous Florette, the mother of the hunchback Jean Cadoret and the grandmother to the beautiful Manon.

However he had departed into the army and had never learned why Florette’s had abandoned him and had gone to marry in a neighbouring village. He learns, however, his lover, far from leaving or rejecting him,  had written to tell him that she was pregnant with their child.

At the book’s close Cesar realises finally the devastating truth. The man whose misery he had sought, whose livelihood he had ruined, whose farm he had allowed to fail for want of water, whose plans he had thwarted in favour of a nephew, and whose family he had rendered destitute and turned into cave dwellers, was, in truth, his own son. Jean was his heir and Manon his granddaughter.

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The boy, the man and the Jack Snipe: why I jump for joy at being a naturalist

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‘Is it a “Jack” snipe because it is like a jack-in-a-box?’ were the words I overheard from someone standing near me. A fair question, because as it feeds this tiny wader (technically it is called Lymnocryptes minimus) from Arctic Russia bobs up and down, the body performing a rhythmic movement that I timed at about one bob per second.

The seemingly involuntary vertical motion is in a separate plane to the jack snipe’s frenetic, horizontal mud-probing action, which I reckoned it was repeating at about five stabs every second. So in a minute of feeding the bird simultaneously pops up and down and jabs the head and beak forward at a rough ratio of 60:360. Let’s be frank: this is hilarious stuff. (Check out the various Youtube pieces here, apologies for the music).

But to answer the person’s question, this bouncing behaviour doesn’t explain the name. ‘Jack’ – first recorded in the seventeenth century – is a reference to the species’ size. It is a ‘little’ snipe, compared with the once-abundant resident bird known as a common snipe.

What I find entrancing about this secretive creature is that it reveals its identity, aside from the distinctive jack-in-a-box behaviour, by relative or negative capabilities. Jack snipes are less than their relatives. When visiting Britain they are also silent. In all my life I’ve never heard so much as a peep. They’re famous, when flushed, for flying less than common snipe and sometimes even refusing to move at all (for this reason the French call it Bécassine sourde, the ‘deaf snipe’). In fact the first I ever saw 46 years ago was plucked bodily by a friend like a gold-and-emerald treasure from out of its rush couch.

Since that moment a jack snipe has gifted me, through these negative details, an understanding of its identity each subsequent time that we have met. The process of acknowledgement by one species unto another, observer towards the observed, is for me the greatest privilege enjoyed by any naturalist. I recommend it to everyone. It peoples every day with so many live encounters; it has crowded a lifetime with ‘friends’, and around each of their names has accumulated a deep well of memories. So that an hour by a muddy pool with a little bobbing bird is part of a life steeped in meaning.

(The lovely photograph is courtesy of my good friend David Tipling, the wunderkind of British nature photography  The short article is taken from my Guardian country diary. You can find it on 29 October 2019. Confines of space meant that it was cut and part of the article’s real significance was lost. I’m posting it here so I can restore it to the original.)

 

 

 

 

 

(Ivy) Bee Aware

DSC_1250Here is a short visual essay on a wonderful addition to our parish. It is ivy time again and the lane down from the house has a hedge smothered in it. I always love to stop and examine the plethora of insects, which are intoxicated by its pollen and nectar. Last autumn I found a gorgeous addition to the village community called ivy bee Colletes hederae. This week I find it is back in even greater numbers.

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It is recorded as larger than honey bee but it looks to my eye about the same size. What is distinctive is the pattern of five pale hoops around the abdomen. The precise colour varies depending on the state of the season, as you can see below.

In fresh condition – right now (early September) – they are a gorgeous warm bright ginger on the thorax and the lines on the abdomen are a citrus orange. Both the front, sides and top of the head, as well as the sides of the legs, are all covered in fine blond downy hairs. As the bee wears and bleaches, the creature is still strikingly bright and more distinctive than any other family members in the ivy hedge, but the colours fade to washed-out sandy beige.

Bizarrely no sooner had I found the insect for the first time ever, I then located a small breeding colony elsewhere in the village. Like many solitary bees they burrow in soft sandy earth, often many together. The females then presumably provision the eggs in the nest chamber with quantities of ivy goodies (nectar and pollen?). Their entire ecology is tied to ivy and they occur only during the time of hedera blossom. They are gone by early November.

Let’s take one small step back to look at the host plant itself, which is one of the miracles of the European hedgerow.  Here is a typical flower cluster that is in full blossom, but

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begins as an unprepossessing raceme of minuscule fig-like lime-green balls (just visible below main flower head). Even these unopened flowers are hugely attractive to insects and I notice all manner of bees, wasps and flies, scrape and lick the surface of the incipient buds. What are they getting from them?

The unopened flower then develops into a triangular cone topped by a nipple, from which peel away the five sepals. Eventually the flower opens and out burst the five tiny, sepia serrated stamens. This whole unit has a magnetic effect for so many insects. Ivy’s only competitor as a concentrated source of food for invertebrates is probably sallow blossom in March and April. It is worth thinking about the importance of ivy, incidentally, when you plan your wildlife garden. But back to the main story.

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The ivy bee is, like the Greenland glaciers, the hurricane in the Bahamas and the 2019 hottest July temperatures on record, an expression of climate chaos. It is remarkable to contemplate that this insect was not known to science (I learn from the fabulous Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland, by Steven Falk and Richard Lewington) until 1993. Nor was it recorded on the British mainland until 2001.

Rather like the newly spread tree bumblebee Bombus hypnorum, the ivy bee has subsequently colonised large areas of southern England. In a year it has substantially increased here but the species is also passing northwards at a high rate (now in Anglesey). The Bee, Wasp and Ant Recording Society have a website with a mapping project for this species. If you find it yourself then perhaps pass on the record here.

Before closing I urge you to take a close look at the nearest patch of flowering ivy. It is a wonderful source of fascination. Our patches are presently smothered with bush crickets, butterflies, bumblebees but also some rather exciting predators. The most abundant is the field digger wasp Mellinus arvensis.

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This rather flat-bodied wasp does seem to enjoy the vegetarian delights of the ivy but it also runs among the foliage and inner core of the hedge, manoeuvring about in the twigs and leaves with almost primate-like smoothness, to hunt stronger meat. Every now and then, amid the more even drone of busy insects, there is a shrill outburst as another poor victim succumbs to the digger wasps embrace. It too, like the ivy bee, is provisioning the nest chamber, but in this case with fresh flesh. Imagine having to face your assassin in this near-sexual embrace:DSC_1225

There is also at present a more striking killer in our hedge. It is another wasp called rather appropriately the bee wolf Philanthus triangulum. Here it is – notice the very distinctive facial pattern and orangy brown edges to jaws (and also at the back of head).

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This species specialises, as the name suggests, in honey bees and can apparently have a substantial impact on whole hive populations. Mercifully, so far, in our village, it seems the lion and the lamb have found a way to lie down together (bee wolf and ivy bee feeding on ivy).

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A Kitchen-sink Drama

I am a naturalist of almost 50 years continuous practice, but I am still not entirely sure what to make of these moments. Maria and I were having our customary pot of tea when just before 8 o’clock there was a murderous shriek, which we had heard last year when I DSC_8623 (2)

plucked a rather dazed immature starling (alive and well; see my Guardian country diary here) from our wood-burning stove. This bird was clearly in a different danger and, sure enough, just beyond our back kitchen door, on the concrete strip that bounds the garden, jammed up tight against a low perimeter wall, was a young sparrowhawk with an adult starling.

For all their timidity when in the presence of humans, sparrowhawks with prey are remarkably persistent and brazen. You might have thought two agitated humans passing just 3m away, albeit behind thick glass, would have spooked him (actually I am not entirely sure which sex this sprawk is and would welcome feedback; it looked small enough for a male but was decidedly brown, had no grey above, except one single moulted feather visible in the image below. That it is last year’s bird is fairly sure. See the pale tonsure and rufous hind crown, as well as the yellow irides, which turn orange in adults) but he was unrelenting.

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The other thing that was so apparent was the air of indifference to its victim. I chose my opening picture because so far as I know there was nothing there to elicit that upward  stare by the sparrowhawk . And notice how, as it kneads the life out of the starling (next two images), it barely looks at the other bird. Yet the starling is yelling ‘No!’ in its face, but it looks everywhere but at the victim. Of 30+ plus shots of this moment, only one suggests eye contact between the two. Of course the sparrowhawk must keep itself safe from its own predators as it persists in this rather vulnerable state, but you might also have thought that watching for that long yellow starling bill, would have been wise.

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The other striking thing, aside from the sparrowhawk workaday ‘pitiless’ spirit, was the sense of pure terror that must have assailed the poor starling (see below). What made its plight all the more alarming is that this spring, as in every spring i can recall, I have starlings nesting in my office roof, just above where the pictures were taken. Even as I type now I can hear the chicks making their sneezing, wheezing begging calls and occasionally I see a parent fly into the roof cavity with food. Could that bird beneath the hawk be one of these parents? i cannot say. Will my chicks survive if there is only one parent? I probably will be unable to tell because i am due to leave for a trip. But I can tell you that throughout the latter stages of the whole drama, while i was rushing back and forth changing lenses and finding other vantage points to photograph the action, my starling nestlings in their nest were completely silent. Had they intuited or been informed that there was imminent danger?

DSC_8671 (2)Eventually the sparrowhawk carried the near-dead starling to the back wall of our back garden and proceeded to pluck and eat it. I continued to photograph the developments from an upstairs window and was mesmerised by the thoroughness of the sparrowhawk’s feeding method. The part first eaten was the head cavity, including the brain and both eyes. The work was done so thoroughly that eventually I could see almost the whole bare skull. DSC_8809 (2)The other thing that I would like to convey is the muscularity of this little hawk, who may not weigh 200 gm and just double the starling. Eating and plucking was a process that involved the  whole body and one sequence in particular which i produce in its entirety shows the sheer physicality of the process of eating. The ten images (to be read in sequence) represent less than 30 seconds. Look at the intensity of action, the whole body including that entirely elevated, pointing-in-the-air tail, working to prize food from the tough skin for which starlings are well known.

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Here as a reprise in greater detail is that central shot when the bird is at its most focused.

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Finally I would say, as a moral commentary on the experience, just moments after it flew off I was placing our fish supper in the fridge for tonight. Is there any moral or attitudinal distinction between us and the sparrowhawk? I think not.

Painting Africa: Martin Woodcock 1935-2019

P1160359The birding world woke up last Sunday morning to learn that Martin Woodcock had died after a short illness. He and Barbara have been friends for more than quarter of a century, from a time when I was on the council of the African Bird Club, along with John Fanshawe, Gary Allport, Eng-Li and Paul Green and many others. Martin was our chair and later president of the society. Both he and Barbara were often fabulous hosts to meetings at their Kent home. Those occasions were always memorable. Later the Woodcocks moved to Blakeney in north Norfolk and for many years Barbara was our go-to girl for framing our paintings and art.

Everyone will tell you the same thing. They were, they are terrific people: kind, warm, modest, funny and lovable. This is a small tribute to Martin, on whom I wrote a short piece in 2005. Here’s the text:

“Some people are 50 years old and some are 70 years young. The wildlife artist Martin Woodcock might have the physical age of the second but he has the vitality of the first and has crammed into his three score and ten as much as most of us would achieve if we lived to be both ages added together. His work is currently part of the Norfolk Open Studios programme, which gives us a rare opportunity to meet the man and enjoy his artwork display at his Blakeney home.

My immediate impression on seeing the exhibition is the sheer variety of styles and materials. There are lovely loose pencil field sketches, intensely colourful oil works on wood, freer and more expressive water colours of Norfolk birds, such as a barn owl ghosting across an autumn landscape.

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Perhaps my favourite is the painting of a small group of yellowhammers, whose dry metallic song – once known to every schoolchild as ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’ – was once one of the defining sounds of drowsy summer evenings in north Norfolk. The yellowhammers are painted in acryllics, a medium with which the artist has a love-hate relationship (apparently the paint dries too quickly). Although it is typical of the man that despite these reservations he plunged headlong into experimentation with acryllics.

The result is a detailed and deeply intimate portrait that, because of the darkness and enclosed feel to the surrounding vegetation, intensifies the sulphur yellow of the birds. I also love the way in which the subjects’ brilliant colours are picked out, one by one, in the lichens and foliage detail of the setting. Despite the seeming incongruity between the yellowhammers and their gloomy deadwood perch, there is, in fact, a beautifully harmonious interplay. The work exemplifies the way that much more is often happening in a Woodcock painting than might immediately strike the eye.

The current exhibition gives a good insight into his artistic versatility, yet it will tell you very little about his passionate understanding of music, his attachment to reading – and writing – poetry, his love of photography. Nor will you find any hint that by the age of 40, this Kent-born naturalist wasn’t a professional artist at all, but a stockbroker in the city. Although his passion for wildlife had been in the blood since he was four and his first ever published drawing, exactly 50 years ago, was notably of a bird seen in north Norfolk.

 

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a plate from a late book Safari Sketchbook: A Bird Painter’s African Odyssey, in which I had a small hand

His big break came when he was commissioned by the publishers Collins to produce the plates for a field guide. It was, in a sense, in his guise as illustrator, that I first met him 15 years ago in the forest of Thailand. He wasn’t there in person, but he was present in the latest of his book, A Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia, and indirectly he helped me to identify every bird that we saw throughout our month in the country.

Field guides are intriguing documents. Some become such close companions, particularly during a long journey, that they are much more than written accounts of a group of animals or plans. The relationship is well captured in Redmond O’Hanlon’s wonderful book Into the Heart of Borneo, where the author treats his copy of ‘Smythies’, his guide to Bornean birds, more like a sacred text. These books get covered in hand-scribbled notes and are so loaded with memories about the creatures that they helped you to recognise and the context  in which they were encountered . And the more thumbed and battered the guide, the more one treasures it later as a personal memento of the past. Eventually one can also come to regard the author as a sort of friend by proxy.

 

(Part of a couple of Martin’s plates for The Birds of Africa)

It is in this context that so many of us know Martin, because he is one of the most prolific illustrators of field guides in our time. His titles include a Handguide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, The Birds of Oman, and the Gem Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. This last shirt-pocket-sized work has been in print for a quarter of a century and has sold perhaps as many as 500,000 copies.

Undoubtedly his most important contribution as an illustrator is his work for the seven volume The Birds of Africa. Just the vital statistics of the project should indicate the scale of his achievement. It took him more than 25 years to complete, it includes 220 plates of more than 5,000 bird figures and covers all the species of the entire continent. The quality of the workmanship evolved over the course of the project, but the whole set is remarkable and the plates in the final volumes include some of Martin’s finest work.

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When I hear about the work of great nineteenth-century wildlife artists such as John Gould or J J Audubon, I am left in awe at the sheer stamina they showed for such huge multi-volume projects and wonder how on Earth they managed it. The Birds of Africa is a work created in much the same fashion. The key difference is that its artist is still very much with us and for one more week you can go along and meet him and ask how it was all done.”

 

I have two very fond memories of Martin and Barbara. One is from when I gave a speech of appreciation from us all when he stepped down as Chair of  African Bird Club. The second comes every time I lift my binoculars to look at the next wonderful wild creature or plant. Because a few years ago I bought Martin’s old Swarovskis. All naturalists will tell you how treasured their ‘bins’ are; mine are now doubly so.

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Postcards from the Solomons No 1 Sharks at Fatboys

Before I saw Fatboys Resort, just east of Gizo in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands, the name made me think of nightclubs and loud music on tropical beaches. It conjured images of suntanned young things with cocktails and leisure. Yet it wasn’t like that.Fatboys P1140051

The bar and restaurant were on a raised platform entirely surrounded by sea, approached by a jetty running 50 metres into the shallows. At the other end was a beach fringed with coconut palms. By day there was a kind of light show where the impossibly blue swell of the South Pacific, refracted and intensified against the white-coral sands, glanced up and played in shadow on the underside of the thatched roof.

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There was also leisure and at lunch I liked to order a beer at the bar and walk to the restaurant’s open side to watch the reef fish. Mostly they were black-banded snappers (tosi in the local language), hand-length fish with inky blue stripes and yellow patches along their dorsal areas. They swayed beneath the platform, the colours quaking as they moved. Occasionally staff tossed breadcrumbs and what had been a loose shoal wandering through the water column became a writhing knot of sunlit colour and movement where the tosi massed at the surface.

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By night, Fatboys was a lozenge of light over warm water, where we could relax amid after-dinner conversation and the click of the pot balls as the staff paced to play around a faded pool table.Fatboys P1140013

Yet a standard ritual of the evening was for spotlights to be turned on at the back and, as if summoned by some electrical messenger, the intended recipients suddenly seemed to gather before us. At first they were just dark shapes looming out of a wider darkness. These then hardened into fish, a metre and a half in length, shining grey like highly polished sandstone.

Their pectoral fins were long and scythe-shaped and, with their caudal fins, they carried black margins like edges ground into long blades. When the fish moved, the limbs swayed back and forth. Yet there seemed a disconnect between the sweet leisure of the parts and the quickness of the whole organism. The animals passed from one edge of the light to its furthest margins in a fraction of a second.

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And when the fish guts hit the water, all converged. Half a dozen of them in one extraordinary melee of hunting prowess – perfected by that slow-chipping chisel wielded across 400 million years of evolutionary development – came together as a circle of black-finned reef sharks.

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They were just a body’s length away from where we leaned to watch. They swerved and merged and crossed one another as smoothly as layers of oil. Their heads were thickened meat wedges. Occasionally a glass glint from a tiny eye shone up at us. They looked weaponised – precisely like the monsters that have haunted the Western imagination for centuries – but I was struck by none of the generic anxiety, nor the violence of their frenzied feeding. What hit me most was grace and beauty. Whenever they swept into the food, the speed of their movements created an effervescence where the water in front and around them was displaced. A momentary sheath of fizz curled about each fish, but it also survived as a fast-dispersing ghost of its last passage. Second by second the effects of all this changed but it wreathed the sharks in light and water and then played out on the surface of their sandstone bodies as a secondary set of fractal shadows.

Occasionally a dorsal fin broke the waters and fired a spray of droplets up at us. I caught one splash on my lips and could taste the salt of it. P1140046

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For Sale, Nature Reserve – One Careful Owner

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For the last eight years Blackwater Carr has been a major part and a central adventure in our lives. Yet things change, we change and now Maria and I have reluctantly conclude that we have to sell it. It has absorbed an enormous amount of our energy and planning and, in return it has given us great fulfilment, not to mention an unending supply of firewood for the woodburner. Our hope is that we can pass it on to someone who will love it for much the same reasons as ourselves and will continue to work with it to enhance its wildlife potential. It is presently on sale with Forests.co.uk and visits are managed by its staff member Bob Liles (click here).

However I thought it might be helpful to give any visitor or prospective buyer a virtual taster of it through the seasons so you can appreciate what it has to offer. If you can get to see it only in winter it is hard to imagine the extent of colour and the richness of wildlife that emerges in spring and summer. What’s so striking about Blackwater is its dynamism as a place, changing dramatically between the seasons.

The site was originally two fields of grazing marsh that started to scrub over with disuse after the war. The first field of about two acres, which I call Sallow Carr, is now well wooded with willow and increasingly alder. I am leaving this area to develop more completely into carr woodland and focus most of my interventions on what I call Oak Meadow. Even so Sallow Carr is a great place for butterflies, grasshoppers and bumblebees, all of which enjoy the stands of mixed flowers including meadowsweet, angelica, flag iris and great hairy willowherb which flourish every year.

Sallow Carr is really excellent for wildlife. I love to get down to Blackwater in April and find the first Willow Warblers and Blackcaps of the year, usually singing in the encircling alders. Both of the birds breed at the site. The flag irises that flourish near the entrance  flower in May and their great tubular flowers are a real draw for several types of hoverfly but also Garden Bumblebee. This beautiful creature has a tongue long enough to get into those deep iris nectaries.

From high summer through to autumn  Sallow Carr is  a favourite area for hunting dragonflies including both Scarce Chaser and Norfolk Hawker. The track runs through the tall vegetation and they like the corridors of warm air where insect prey are gathered. Perhaps the most beautiful, as well as one of the most common, is the Banded Demoiselle. Here’s a photo I took of a male in Sallow Carr, while the other species are Hairy Dragonfly (above: they are often the first dragonfly to appear in spring) and then Scare Chaser.

At the far side of Sallow Carr is a dividing dyke where I have recorded minnows. Its bank have grown thick with Goat Willow and i have freed up from encircling scrub a number of bird-sown Hawthorns and a single Ash tree. In the clearing, which has also become a great spot for Fleabane and Marsh Thistle, both much loved by insects especially bumblebees, I have also built and installed a site for solitary bees and wasps. You can see it on the right as you pass through from one meadow to the other.

Another detail in this area are the flowering hawthorns. They have been a major draw for a moth called Black-headed Gold pictured below (left). This is among the scarcer species found at Blackwater, which may have yielded more records for the moth than anywhere else in Norfolk. My other speciality is the Black-bordered Piercer, which turns up in early/mid April on the trunk of my Oak and nowhere else. I have scoured other areas in Norfolk for this unobtrusive little oak specialist but not found it anywhere.

Oak Meadow is the larger of my two fields (c3 acres)  and the place where I have concentrated a lot of my efforts. It is quieter and more secluded and the area on the far dyke gives you a great sense of being immersed in nature. It is the place where I camp or have barbecues and which is great for some of the children’s activities that we have run at Blackwater.

A major part of the work is cutting about an acre of meadow, firstly with a specialised mowing machine belonging to the Hawk & Owl Trust, then latterly with Austrian hand scythes, here operated by my brother Andy.

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The L-shaped meadow has also been sown with Yellow Rattle, a hemiparasitic plant occurring naturally in many British meadow types. It saps the energy of the coarser grasses and allows more delicate plants to flourish. Since I started the annual meadow cut seven years ago a whole range of insects and plants have moved into the shorter sward. Marsh and spear thistle hardly occurred at all before I bought Blackwater, but have particularly increased and both are really welcome as important plants for bumblebees and other specialists. Click on the pics to make them larger. They are in clockwise order from left (ruby-tailed wasp, Gorytes laticinctus a Red-Data wasp, and an ichneumon a parasitoid wasp on marsh thistle laying its eggs probably in the larvae of  some kind of thistle gall fly.

 

Other plants that have flourished with my cutting are, of course, the Yellow Rattle itself, Ragged Robin, which was not present before, Fleabane and Greater Birdsfoot Trefoil. It is wonderful to see how the dried seeds become the flower-rich patch the following spring.

 

All the cuttings that we take off the meadow are put into a great fertile heap that maintains an elevated temperature in winter and is a fantastic refuge for small mammals, including voles and shrews, but also spiders especially tens of thousands of little wolf spiders. But it is also great for Grass Snakes that have started to lay their eggs in its depths.

Finally the veg pile known as ‘Slub Mountain’, which rises to 4 metres at the end of the hay festival, is great for people. Here are Andy, MC, Oscar and Rachy after a final session.

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And here is the forest school group brought by Rosie Hoare to help with practical tasks but also to help put Blackwater to good use.

We normally try to combine work with pleasure and the hay cut usually involves a routine barbecue and beer.

Blackwater is a fantastic microcosm of the Broads National Park which surrounds it. To date I have recorded well over 600 species of plant and animal and am in no doubt that it would eventually produce a list of thousands. Encouraging experts in all sorts of fields has been part of the fun. Here are the lovely Helen Smith spider specialist with her friend and former county recorder on spiders Pip Collyer. Then Jackie Fortey with her husband Richard who is an acclaimed author as well as a top mycologist to boot, helped me sort out a few of my mushrooms.

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All of this goes to show that Blackwater is great for nature and great for people. To date I have used it as a place to work, to camp, to gather wood, to teach writing, to catch and study moths, to inspire poets, to encourage children to work and play, to learn and to relax. I am hoping all of this can be continued. IMG_7022IMG_4830

Here finally is a poem by my friend and poet Matt Howard who has played an enormous role in enhancing the patch for wildlife. His glorious Crome, which was inspired by Blackwater, appeared, in turn, in my book Our Place. Matt’s last line resonates powerfully throughout the entire book as a statement of what we need to do.

I cherish the idea of Blackwater inspiring people, who inspire action for places like Blackwater. I am hoping to find someone to continue the virtuous circle.

 

to cast a tool of ash and hooked iron

to take care in boots at the edge of standing water

to throw from the shoulder, then heave from the lumbar spine

to clear a dyke of leaf-fall and slub from the past three decades or further

to feel a suck and pop of sedge-roots tearing from bog

to spit splash-back of festered water from one’s lips

to wretch one’s balance of vows and curses where no one else is listening

to imagine a cut of clearer water

to haul deeper with long-drawn tines

to blister then callus both hands in unfavourable conditions

to consider the phased wing-strokes of dragonflies

to listen to the short, descending arc of willow warbler song whilst working

to see sunlight on the nodes of a Norfolk hawker’s forewing

to act with the whole body and mean it

 

‘Crome’, Matt Howard

The Nature of Nature: a brief inquiry?

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Here’s a scene from nature that many will recognise. The setting sun, the colour-smeared sky and birds passing to roost. Actually a flock of cranes, wild clarion-voiced migrants from the north. But here’s the thing – which parts of this scene are also parts of nature, and which are not?

The cranes – one of Europe’s ultimate symbols of wilderness – for sure. But what about the clouds and the air, that mixture of nitrogen and oxygen, at a ratio of about 4:1 parts, then there’s the condensed moisture of the clouds and what about that big bright falling star, whose light takes just over eight minutes to reach Earth from its place at the heart of our solar system 150 million kilometres away? Aren’t these more intangible elements also parts of nature too?

Then what about this scene below. _DSC4972

Which of these details are ‘natural’? The ducks, ok. But the glass bottles are derived from the commonest element on Earth, silicon, while the discarded plastic, the human-made scourge of our modern oceans, is ultimately made from carbon laid down in the rotting forests of the Carboniferous?

And if we are not sure if they are all parts of nature what about this scene? Liverpool Street is both a marvel and the kind of ‘environment’ that drives me instantly back to the sticks where I live. Yet, isn’t it – aren’t we humans – at some level, representative of the same vibrant life as shown in the first image?  IMG_4950

The reason I ask the questions is because I was recently at an event at the Green Party conference in Bristol. It was a panel discussion entitled ‘For love of nature’. (I must first say that it gave me an opportunity to meet two heroes. Caroline Lucas, one of the great parliamentarians of our time,  carries upon her shoulders the political aspirations of the 500,000+ people who voted for her party last year. And what about the 2015 election when the Green Party got 1.3 million votes and we still have to rely on this one remarkable woman to make our case in the House of Commons). Hey ho.

Also there was Jonathon Porritt, whom I have listened to and been inspired by since I was in my twenties. Present on the panel were the hugely impressive Mary Colwell (twixt Caroline and Jonathon) and Laura Mackenzie of the Soil Association: far right. (And me looking rather tired after 136 nights on the road or may be it was the night before at Tim Dee’s bat cave, celebrating his fabulous new book Landfill!)Conference nature panel

What was striking about the event, which was packed and hugely stimulating, was that each of us made a case for nature, but each of us had different versions of what we meant by ‘nature’.

A good example came from Mary, who has written a superb book Curlew Moon on the plight of this wader, which is now threatened with extinction in these islands, and whose decline partly results from predation. (At the Bird Fair in August, where we spoke on a similar panel, Mary made a brave case for the need for predator control if we really want to retain our curlews. I think she’s right but not everyone on that panel would have been in agreement.)

The point, however, is that ‘nature’ in her presentation was the stuff we could see through the window, largely in green. And a big part of her campaigning this year is for a GCSE that focuses on that kind of nature. The things – animals, plants etc – which require species recognition and which were once the staples of the school nature table.

In contrast Jonathon and Laura talked mainly about it in terms of the carbon content of our cropped lands . This has been terribly depleted by intensive agriculture. They also focused on agrochemicals and the threats they pose to soil structure and microbial content. Equally they spoke of how carbon leached from the land was then added to the sum of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which, as we all know, drives global climate change.

My own version of nature was, of course, partly centred on those things visible through the window. The nature out there that referred to as ‘wildlife’. But I made a plea for recognising a wider version that included the gut flora present in every single one of the people that was there, that included the ancient Carboniferous sunlight as expressed in the electric lights overhead, and included the paper on which all participants were busy scribbling. I suggested that we have to see ourselves as part of nature because only by owning and recognising our participation in the wider, larger nutrient cycles described by Jonathon or Laura can we start to own our responsibilities for the rest of life.

The central point to make, however, is that each was talking about quite complex but separate versions and it struck me that the confusion and imprecision as we speak of our ‘love of nature’ are a problem and challenge.

There are broadly two campaigning groups in British environmentalism and they focus on

1. non-human nature (ie wildlife) and what you might call

2. ‘human nature’, or perhaps more precisely the parts of nature in which humans play major ecological roles (climate change, nutrient cycles, plastic pollution etc) .

1. and 2. are represented by the Wildlife Trusts and Friends of the Earth.

Here’s a picture to summarise both. The red colour behind the tree was the side of a metal container lorry. Which part of nature do you see? The relentless human traffic in the Earth’s resources as part of our global economy, or the spectral outline of a photosynthesising, oxygen-producing plant?_DSC5248

I think we need some baseline clarity on what we mean when we talk about nature, instead of talking past one another – even among friends – with our overlapping but separate versions of the whole process. We have to see ourselves as within nature which is the key starting place for people like Laura Mackenzie and Jonathon Porritt. Those who focus on nature as ‘out there’, like Mary Colwell and me, need to start talking about nature that includes ourselves.

I suppose the best single illustration of that specific issue is the strapline currently used by the RSPB, ‘giving nature a home’. No one sensible would question the organisation’s commitment and championship of nature. Yet in these 4 words are summarised a fundamental schism between us and nature that dates back to the Old Testament and which some see as the core of our problematic relationship with the rest of life. We can no more give nature a home than we can separate ourselves from the carbon cycle that  drives climate change. We and it are part of one process.

Similarly those organisations and individuals who take enormous pains to recycle, or to avoid flying, or campaign on climate change; equally those newspapers or TV correspondents that talk about the ‘environment’ and ‘environmental issues’ when they really only mean issues that entail human ecological processes (nature 2), and have almost no awareness or concern for species loss and wildlife depletion;  they need to recognise that their version of nature is partial too.

The day is almost done here in Claxton. So here is nature in all its complexity: con trail and ivy tod, pyrrocantha and carbon consumption. I will add finally that my friend Jeremy Mynott is working on a book about the nature of nature. We need it urgently. Because when we talk of nature we need to know  precisely what we mean.

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A View to a Thrill

An exciting development is a new link with the optical company Opticron, whose binoculars I have been recommending to members of birding classes or  tour groups for more than two decades. Now it is official. Link here.Opticron Logo (347)

So I wanted to test-drive Opticron’s headline-grabbing Imagic 8×42 binoculars for myself. Where better than Aigas Field Centre and my week-long Autumn Birds programme. Not only did the bins face the kaleidoscopic light conditions of the Scottish Highlands and the night-vision requirements of Aigas’ badger hide but, as always, we were looking at creatures as varied in size as wood ants and bottle-nosed dolphins.

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The binoculars passed all these tests with flying colours. I found the robust feel and weight of them really comfortable. They are a little lighter than my previous 8×32 binoculars. One glitch was that they focus towards infinity with the focus wheel running anti-clockwise and both of my previous binoculars work the other way. It entailed a little bit of adjustment. And I also found the attaching and adjusting of the main lanyard unnecessarily fiddly. But where it really matters – optically – they are superb.

So too the Opticron MM4 60 ED telescope, which I tested with a 12-36x zoom lens. In fact the first bird that I and the group looked at through this little gem was a pair of  adult White-tailed Eagles over their eyrie. It was a wonderful thrill.

The Aigas rangers all have Swarovski equipment and superb it is, but I was hugely impressed that this little fellow held its own. It truly is excellent. Obviously you are gaining hugely from its tiny size. For example my other scope weighs a hulking 1.9kg (4lb 4oz in old money). The Opticron MM is just 950gm (2lb 2 oz), less than half the weight. On this occasion I had a pretty robust tripod for those blustery Scottish conditions, but the scope’s light weight and compactness made a huge difference to my shoulders. I could easily imagine using it with a monopod without much loss of stability. it really is convenient.

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Yet what was most impressive was the clarity of the image. It is pin sharp and the light-gathering of the 60mm object lens owes nothing much to the far larger telescopes of the Aigas rangers. One detail of the Opticron MM4 is the additional fine-tuning focus knob next to the main wheel. At first I found it a little confusing, but once I worked out the advantages and function of it, it was really helpful. Another bonus is the 12x minimum-magnification option, which gives you a really wide-angle image. That is very helpful especially when clients are playing with it for themselves and are unfamiliar with the intricacies of scope-use. Essentially they can find what they want to look at. Then zoom in.

The real merit of this Opticron kit comes into tight focus when you look at the price tags for upper-end binoculars and telescopes. Anyone paying close to £4,000 for a high-end ‘bins-and-scope’ combination has every right to expect the sine qua non. But I think both of my new optics stood up in all field conditions, even when the North Sea was pounding ashore at Fraserburgh in northerly-backed black winter waves. The bins loved it. In terms of value for money they are absolute winners.

Here are some wildlife highlights for good measure: (top) gannets off the Grampian coast at Rattray lighthouse, (middle) pink-footed geese over the same spot and (btm) one of Aigas’ delightful regular pine martens.

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Big birds on the table – Extremadura style

Last year in Extremadura I was a guest of Helios Dalmau of Photo Raptor at his company’s dedicated vulture-watching hide in the Sierra de San Pedro. It was one of the wildlife highlights of last year.

Vultures in flight have long been renowned for their aerial grace, but perhaps more overlooked is the powerful impact of these birds on the ground. Part of the thrill is the sheer proximity of so many big volatile creatures, which can suddenly turn a feeding ground into a seething force-field of avian mass and muscle.

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The maelstrom of heaving bodies is accompanied by a comparably unstructured cacophony of hisses,  squeals and yikkering notes that are hardly euphonious, but for any observer they carry enormous emotional impact. Vultures in such feeding frenzies also demonstrate behaviour that is highly theatrical but, perhaps more unexpectedly, is enormously beautiful and full of humour. I would place the spectacle among the finest in all European ornithology.

A British birder who has never seen it can probably get a sense of the impact if they imagined a big flock of starlings. Think of all that fizz and intensity and those stabbing, bickering birds, but increase the size of each one by a factor of 100. The larger Gyps and Aegypius vultures are well known to exhibit a structured pattern of activity when assembled at such feeding sites. Despite the aura of chaos, vultures will wait their turn if a food source permits access to only limited numbers. Older and larger birds invariably get first turn but it is thought that digestive enzymes trigger aggression impelling younger, less-experienced birds to force their way to the front. The individuals that have fed well then concede ground and so feeding opportunities are rotated among the full assembly.

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Griffon Vultures deploy a stylised threat posture when they sally forward in these situations. The very long neck is extended in a way that emphasises the bird’s reptilian ancestry. As the formidable meat-cleaving bill snakes ahead of its owner, so the enormous wings are often unfurled to full span and held at 90 degrees to the body, so that the bird advances on the broadest front. Or the wings, like the head and neck, are driven forward as part of a three-pronged assault. This heraldic-looking creature then processes in a slow, mincing goose-step that is one part controlled aggression, one part fabulous comedy.

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An indisputable attraction of vulture restaurants in southern Spain is the opportunity to observe Cinereous Vultures in good numbers. At Sierra de San Pedro there were several dozens and it is hard to overstate the impact of this glorious bird at close quarters. Mature Cinereous Vultures stand over a metre tall and possess an enormously deep bill with a long dagger-like nail that is equipped to carve open the hide of fresh carcasses.

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In adults the basal gape and sere are mauve-blue, but in immatures it is chewing-gum pink (see the pic above this one). At all ages the species possesses on the chest sides, front and back, a series of spiky neck quills that rise and fall as a perpetual barometer of their owner’s changing mood. In older birds the neck itself is often bare and the chest hackles paler and more luxuriant, making the effect of this ‘courtier’s ruff’ even more impressive.

In all interactions that we observed Cinereous Vultures appeared to be dominant over the more numerous Griffon Vultures .DSC_2642

The way in which the former species displaces any rival at a food source involves two characteristic manoeuvres. One entails an individual vigorously leaping forward, shovelling its huge yellowish feet foremost, followed by two-and-a-half metres of stiff flight feather in a formidable dark arc of aggression. The bird literally bulldozes opponents out of its path.

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Another displacement technique that has more finesse – and is comparable to the Griffon Vulture’s goose-stepping advance – is even more captivating. In this the wings are drooped and pressed back so that bird acquires a broad-shouldered, flat-backed posture. The head is lowered, the scapulars stick upright and the tail is raised and fanned giving the bird a curiously turkey-like profile (you can see something of it in this Youtube footage I posted here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kc40xISr7Q). The vulture then proceeds with an exaggerated foot fall that pitches it from side-to-side in an awkward but muscular swagger. All at once the bird looks ancient, magisterial and very funny.

Here it is (next two pics) if you cannot for any reason access Youtube. But I recommend you see the three pieces I posted because they really convey the joy of these birds.

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A striking element of all the interactions is that the birds seem super-charged with aggression. Altercations between pairs or groups flare up constantly and vultures going full throttle at opponents will occasionally fall over with their wings stretched flat to the ground like feathered rugs (the two pics below capture this).

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For all the drama, however, there appears to be little meaningful violence. In short, vulture aggression is mainly for show.

Vulture restaurants do far more than provide arresting theatre for human observers. The three larger European species  have enjoyed a revival of fortunes partly because of SFSs. Bearded Vultures have roughly trebled in France and Spain to 164 pairs. Spanish Cinereous Vultures have also gone from 250 to 2,068 pairs and today the single Extremaduran range of Sierra de San Pedro holds more breeding pairs (300) than all Spain in the 1970s. This success has inspired the French to their own reintroduction projects and there are now 24 pairs north of the Pyrenees. It is the revival of Western Europe’s Griffon Vultures, however, that offers the most impressive figures. As recently as 1999, Forsman in The Raptors of Europe and the Middle East proposed a Spanish figure of c7,500-8,000 pairs with a total number of individuals of c23,000-24,500. Just 20 years later the breeding population for Spain is 30,000 pairs and, if one uses the same ratio of pairs to total individuals as cited by Forsman, then the country may hold c88,000 birds.

Aside from their positive effects on the birds themselves, I think these vulture-feeding sites, with their unique opportunities to see such large creatures at close quarters, are good for people too. They help us to realise that vultures are truly magnificent.

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