Sunday, 27 October 2013

Do You Remember The First Time?

Just a standard Saturday night. Several crates of ale and ten friends round. Pre-drinks until late then a tube to the cheesiest club in Oxford Circus. Ten quid entry fee; a fiver for a drink. Bright lights and bad music and the night bus back at four in the morning. Emerging at ten and staggering with the pallor of the freshly dead into the kitchen, frying a small farm’s worth of pig for bacon butties and remembering the night that nobody needed reminding of. Just a typical Saturday night and Sunday morning for the flatmates.

I went moth trapping instead.
It’s a hard activity to explain to those whose biophilia extends only to their own species. Most people can understand birds and butterflies. Dragonflies cause mild surprise. Moths? Scepticism, questions, outright concern. Not that I haven’t been sceptical in the past: I was not particularly enamoured by the small brown things that flew in through my window to land by my lightbulb and were repatriated after a disorientating, mind-boggling flick through the field guide. The first time you pick up a field guide and flick through is normally a dizzying, exciting feeling. With the moth guide… 1000 small creatures that generally lack distinguishing features. It was not the most promising of starts to not the most accessible branch of natural history.

Moving to the city started it. I began to look down as well as up. The borders between the branches of natural history dissolved: a birder metamorphosing into amateur naturalist. I caught myself looking at plants, scrabbling around in dirt photographing bugs and reading E.O. Wilson; which was one of the reasons why I found myself with a variety of bright lights, egg cartons and plastic contraptions in the passenger seat of Fiona Barclay’s car, stationary in traffic and watching the last hour of light slipping away from the day.

The day: as grey as the city, stuffy as usual and mild for October. This was apparently quite promising. The destination: Perivale Woods, a private nature reserve just by Central Line, surrounded by a fence and bordered by a canal, a railway track and the suburbs. Dusk had descended by the time we’d met up with David Howdon, moth expert, at the wood. In the growing darkness I unwound extension cables and laid them as a trail through the wood for one moth trap, lugged a car battery around as power for another and watched as five sheets of plywood and two bits of Perspex morphed into the third moth trap. Bright lights above containers filled with egg boxes was not our only method: we were also sugaring for moths, which involved painting a thick and sickly smelling solution of beer, sugar, treacle and amyl acetate on the same oaks, in the same places, once a month.

A cup of tea later and grey dusk gave way to an orange night, a sprinkling of weak stars and a full moon hanging just above the trees. We headed back out with torches down the black and muddy path. Trees in the torch beam take on a skeletal pale appearance and falling leaves appear like excitingly large moths. Spiders’ webs just don’t appear at all until too late. I was walking behind Fiona and David because I didn’t know the way, excitedly peering over their shoulders when something was found. A couple of Chestnuts (a small, dull brown moth with two dark spots) and a Red-lined Quaker (a small dull brown moth with two dark spots) were discovered, along with some Southern Oak Bush-crickets were found on the sugar. A tiny-winged carnivorous katydid that made its way here apparently via the channel tunnel, this bush-cricket was the most unusual thing we found on our dusk walk. With three torches trained on it, I attempted to take a photo...
The morning after: 7am, the Westway was empty and the rain torrential in places. Places such as between my house and the carpark where I was being picked up. In daylight Perivale Wood appears even stranger. A pristine slice of rural England hiding behind houses. I normally disapprove of private nature reserves – nature is free and should be available for everyone – but I’m willing to turn a blind eye here. This wood is pristine. Semi-ancient oaks, dense undergrowth and the only litter was one can of strong lager thrown over a fence from the canal towpath. In a city such as London it’s warming to know that we can still give nature a place mostly free from human disturbance, and that an old wood can remain an old wood without having a supermarket dumped on top.

In the traps? Numerous Barred Sallows, in the attractive pink and yellows of an autumn leaf. Several Red-green Carpets, like bewitched and trembling lichen. Chestnuts, everywhere, like flakes of wood, and a single Silver Y: a moth passing itself off as a well-marked piece of bark. Harvestman spiders with legs like tripwires and a selection of mystifying flies, the likes of which I have never seen before, and have no idea where to begin deciphering their identification. And one more Red-lined Quaker, that sat briefly on the fence post for a photograph, before flying off as an intense thunderstorm broke overhead.
Mothing is eccentric. Mothing is an intellectual challenge. Mothing is several thousand more living things that are in the process of entering my life. Several thousand attractive, misunderstood and under appreciated creatures. I’ll take that over quizzical looks cast by friends.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Scrubbing Up

It's good to feel a cold wind slip over skin again. Yesterday the first real storm of autumn blew several thousand Redwings over London and many thousand more over Kent and Bedfordshire. I was variously in bed and in the office and definitely not seeing any Redwings, despite living a street away from the local park, Wormwood Scrubs. The Scrubs is a surprisingly good place for birding, actually, if you can wake up at six thirty, avoid the hordes of dog walkers and wear binoculars in public without feeling slight embarrassment. The first, I can just about manage. The other two I'm still working on.

But this morning, with the death throes of last night's storm beating themselves out on the concrete and brick, things felt different to before. The air chilled, the drizzle harder, the path with a layer of freshly dead leaves, irresistibly crunchy to the soles of my shoes. Autumn is marked by the first storm that clears the air and strips the trees. It was late this year.

Between the hospital and the prison I slip out on to the grass, between the pitches and long grass left for wildlife. Above, concrete clouds turned pink with the first rays of sun. The wind whipped across the park, invigorating with a touch of rain. On the grass: crows and woodpigeons, scattered across the pitches as if spectators to a game of football not taking place. Carried in the air, parakeets, from the thousands strong roost at the very eastern edge of the park, careering wildly off toward Ealing. A dog barks. And above the noise seeps the sound of two Redwing, taking off from a clump of trees, and heading off towards the office. I carried on in the other direction, buoyed. Two don't compare to the thousands of yesterday but they were my two, the seasonal spring in my step.

Urban birding is an acquired taste. It is a matter of perspective that has to be learnt, from the initial recoil of birding between railway, hospital and prison. You work hard for the unexpected gems, the surprises that don’t belong here. You get used to ignoring the looks the pair of binoculars earn you, and instead you take in the Goldfinches swirling across the uncut grass with a yellow more vibrant than an autumnal aspen. You seek out signs of avian life and in a weird way it gives you a bit of life back. A kick. A thrill that Goldfinches hadn’t for a good few years.

Three Herons flap sedately over, from the blue and yellow east to a still solidly grey west. Not the first I’ve seen flying low around here either, I wonder where they’re going and where they’d been. The thoughts are running through my mind as my eyes are lazily still trained on the sky. It’s white clouds off to the north. A bird materialised in my line of sight – as they have a habit of doing – dark, dumpy and long-billed. Birding is an instinct, inasmuch as I instantly knew it was a Snipe, a migrant that had ditched into the long grass of the park to spend a night sheltered from the weather. As it disappeared over the railway embankment, and then over Willesden, it sunk in that a bird I’m used to seeing in rural wet Suffolk or displaying over Scottish moors, can also be seen a ten minute walk from my new house in deepest west London. And if I look back over my shoulder I can see the Shard underneath a big bank of grey cloud, a thin white halo and an orange morning breaking over the city.

With that, a Skylark, another flock of Redwings, it started raining. I turn my back on the rainbow arcing over the north and walk away, towards the office.

Thursday, 3 October 2013


‘‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

Ozymandias, Percy Bysse Shelley

Ozymandias is probably the most discussed 19th century poem this year. TV drama Breaking Bad – the inescapable Breaking Bad - referenced it frequently in its portrayal of the rise and fall of a crime-lord, sparking a number of articles exploring the poem. It’s a good poem from a poet I’m not particularly fond of. Shelley’s Ode to a Skylark, by contrast, does everything a poem can to switch me off. Instead, Shelley holds his subject in Ozymandias at arms length while showing us a snapshot of the consequences of the hubristic. The inevitable end of all things. Decay. Wreck. The vision of a bare wasteland.

That’s what gets me most about the ending. The wasteland, the dead civilisation in a land no longer hospitable; remembered only by its ruler’s desire to accumulate material things. That sneer.

I’ve seen that sneer before. It was on the face of the politician who says that global warming brings benefits, such as less people dying in winter due to warmer weather (if you don’t think about them drowning in floods). It was on the face of the politician who talks about fracking as if it were the second coming of the economic messiah. It was on the face of the politician who uses the language of environmentalism whilst delivering its polar opposite. Look on my works ye mighty.

I’ve read about the sands too. I’ve read about how the IPCC have 95% confidence in global warming as being caused by humans, and how Australia needed to create new colours for its weather maps to keep up with the summer heat. I’ve read how drought in the Sahel is keeping 10 million people in a state of famine and crushing poverty; and the correlations between climate change and violence. Look on my works and despair.

Poetry is truth in fiction. Poetry is not history, it is prescience not precedence. I’m aware that reading Ozymandias as an eco-poem is an eccentric thing to do from a literary perspective. But I’m more than keenly aware that reading global warming as a strictly environmental problem is no longer the right thing to do either. I also don’t have much in the way of answers. I was put on a cheap flight to France in September and have a dull ache inside where I know I’m part of the problem, despite my best attempts at recycling, eating less meat, and commitment to public transport (London to Orkney by train and bus is the feather in my cap). What we need is leadership and we need it quick, and certainly not with a sneer. And we need it before Ozymandias turns from prescient to prophecy.