Sunday, 17 March 2013

Observations from Caerlaverock

In a blizzard the train pulls up outside Motherwell station. Beyond the embankment a steel security fence stands in front of the dark factories that dominate the skyline of the Glasgow suburbs. Birch trees as silver as the snow are growing here in a siding that’s stood untouched for a year or two now, I would guess. Standing between the rails and growing out of the rubble between the lines, I salute them. Nature hates a metaphor but human nature can’t resist them. I want to apply it to myself. Things have a habit of growing where you don’t expect them. Where nature finds an edge, a crack, it will seep in. Even if it’s just the setting sun over the distant mountains you see from the rails of life.
Galloway, from a train window

What is the purpose of March? Late winter is a stable time; spring, frenetic. March? Unsettled. In limbo between the two. Restless wildfowl are caught between leaving and arriving, the Whooper Swans make a racket, become flighty and fight amongst themselves; the Teal test their wings and fly laps of the marsh. Twenty one years ago I arrived as well; restless and noisy. The opportunity for birding was too good to pass up.

This is the corner of Scotland. It exists for about a mile of the firth in front of me. The other shore, the other wind farms, the other distant snowy peaks are England’s extremities. The border is arbitrary. There’s no particular reason why it should be this river instead of any other, but it is, and is reflected in the words. It’s a firth, after all, not an estuary. Caerlaverock not Castlelark. Merse not marsh. Barnacle Geese come here not because it’s the warmest corner of Scotland, but because the coast of Dumfries is flat and fertile. A liminal land on the edge of the Galloway mountains, the Irish Sea, extensive mud and the gently rolling waves of grassy fields.

There’s apparently a twelfth century castle here but it will be here a while longer. I couldn’t be sure of the same for the Green-winged Teal. The day before it had been posing on a pond for photographers like a tame Mallard. Today it had disappeared somewhere along the Solway. It might be an American duck but it’s not an exciting one. Take your standard teal and flip the white stripe along its side by ninety degrees and suddenly it becomes much more exciting, allegedly. It’s crossed the Atlantic but it’s not a species you can have much of an emotional connection with. It doesn’t do charisma, particularly. A normal teal is just as good, just lacking a line and a label and not something to tell your friends about. I try both anyway and succeed at neither.
Not a Green-winged Teal.
Still not a Green-winged Teal
Definitely not a Green-winged Teal
Maybe I just wasn’t bloody minded enough to find it. Too easily distracted. A friend texted me, asking what I was doing. Spiritual communion with Yellowhammers was my response. I let dad find a hide while I hung back between the hedgerows that reached over and created a sort of tunnel. Walking along with the flitting of the flock. Yellowhammers, luminous, in the weak winter light, freshly plumaged Reed Buntings easily lost in the tangled twigs. Hyperactive technicolour tits. Technicolour? Sounds like an absurd word to use, one that is almost completely, unnaturally wrong. No techni about it, just seasonal, hormonal vigour. Yet it was the first that leapt to my mind…

Mutual surprise.

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