Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Three Things I learnt at Sea.

“Place and mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered. I cannot tell what this movement is except by recounting it.” (Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain).

Every year great shearwaters circle the Atlantic like an ocean current. When the temperature on Tristan da Cunha — the remotest permanently settled island in the world — dips in autumn, they head to the Atlantic coast of South America, turn north, cross the doldrums and keep on heading north until they reach the north-east tip of North America. As the northern summer turns, they circle across, passing Britain on their way down the eastern Atlantic, back to find spring on a wet speck of rock in the south Atlantic. Stop. Breed. Repeat.

I was last amongst them in 2014. Not on land but in a RIB — a boat that’s several feet too small in every direction to be comfortable — floating for 30 hours, five miles out in the Atlantic. Several thousand miles in front of me was the American coast: behind me the jagged peaks of Madeira, the tips hiding in clouds of their own making. Around me, great and Cory’s shearwaters sat on the sea, waiting. The birder term for it is rafting — when they look like oversize ducks on the biggest of ponds. They took off, unfurling their wings, slapping feet on sea, and transformed. Their wings are long, thin and stiff. With them they catch the breeze like sails, and skim across the tops of waves. A stray wave, something irregular could wash them away, yet it never seems to happen.
Great (front left) and Cory's (front right) shearwaters

The meaning of trip’s experiences are still slowly unfurling, like a shearwater’s wings, over time.


Pterodroma petrels are birds of myth and mystery: what is not known about them vastly outstrips what is. The English name for the family is the “gadfly” petrels, which my dictionary says means “a person who annoys”. Though flippantly truthful, I prefer Pterodroma: ancient Greek for “winged runner”. Both capture the essence of the family, fleeting, elusive, frustrating.

Fea’s petrels were discovered in 1899 by Leonardo Fea. Not long afterwards, Zino’s petrel was first found — unknowingly — by Ernest Schulz. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Paul and Frank Zino rediscovered them breeding on the third highest of the Madeiran peaks, the Pico do Arieiro, where their mournful wailing haunts the high peaks. They sing slightly differently to the Fea’s which breed on the Desertas Islands and Cape Verde*. Both species are rare: there are over a thousand individual Fea’s petrels. There are somewhere between 100-200 Zino’s petrels depending on how successful the breeding season is, and where the wild fires that strike Madeira burn. In 2010 only one chick survived: thirty-eight others and four adults were burnt alive.

I saw my first Fea’s distantly, briefly, underwhelmingly. It was an encounter loaded with an excitement that the sighting — fleeting, distant, disappearing in the gaps between waves — couldn’t satisfy. Like meeting a childhood hero. The second, several hours later, was better.

Seabirds harness the wind to fly. Shearwaters sail elegantly, slowly. Pterodromas spiral up, hit their apex, dip a wing and shoot seawards at a shallow angle, like following waves through the air. We saw this Fea’s coming from far off, stitching sea to sky. It is a fast flight. Deceptively so. In seconds it was beside us, arcing up, wings flexed forward. Dove-grey back and a fainter black line, zigzagging down the wings. Its tail is paler — the bird fading out. It’s head darker — black-eyed, black blunt bill. It dipped its wing and vanished.

I have a video of that encounter: ten seconds of meeting a mythical seabird. It still sends bolts of excitement through my nervous system.

It wasn’t until the second afternoon at sea that Catarina, behind the boat’s engines, spotted a Zino’s. She shouted: all idle chat stopped. A boat full of binoculars all drawn to one bird. It is essentially identical to a Fea’s. It swung up, reached its apex, and sheered down alongside the boat. It took all I could remember and all I could see to note the differences. The whiter underwing, the thin black bar running up it. The smaller, lighter size, the bill not so brutishly big, the flight that feels slower. It sheered behind the boat, between us and the high Picos of Madeira, before flying away over the waves. We all watched it until it disappeared over the edge. And as it disappeared the feeling was part relief — the trip a success, the birds still in existence — and part awe that they exist at all.

Yet. As I look back on it now it all seems tainted with metrics. It is not because of their essential similarity to the Fea’s petrel — the two species have a very different essences — but because rarity is a fact that conquers all. Fea’s may thrill but the experience of a Zino’s is difficult to separate out from their sheer vulnerability of their numbers.


The third day at sea. Both Pterodromas encountered, we sailed to a different spot. This time in the shadow of the Desertas Islands: two great lumps of abandoned rock that intervene into the sea’s horizon. We sailed out there with a super pod of more than 100 Atlantic spotted dolphins bow-riding, accompanying the boat down the coast of Madeira. A flying fish leapt in front of the boat, wings shining blue-green, tail-slapping the water as it went, as though it had evolved legs as well as wings and could never decide which it would rather use.

Bulwer's petrel
The day was hot and long. Birds were scarce but for the Bulwer's petrels — bat-like in flight, impossibly slender, and much smaller than they look in the book — that were regularly flying laps around the boat. But it didn't need to be a productive day. It felt valedictory: like we were content (smug) enough with what we had seen. Maybe it was the heat but I realised then that what I'd miss most from this was a three-quarter horizon of sea, rolling away until the edge of vision, essentially to infinity. A horizon of freedom, no obstacles and nothing hemming in. I felt then the urge coming over me that nothing would give me greater pleasure than to dive headlong over it; to be a great shearwater, always heading over endless empty horizons.

I resisted. If only because I can't swim.


We stayed out until sundown. Behind the Desertas we were unaware that a fierce breeze had sprung up. We headed directly into it.

Waves thump into the boat and the spray breaks over us. Lips burn, eyes sting. The rolling crests of grey waves turn peach in the light. There is another type of wave: one we don't crash over, but one we pitch into and skid over, with a momentary feeling of helplessness. A feeling of being suddenly at the mercy of the sea. The sun sets completely. Night unfurls. The boat has a tiny light, enough to make out the edges but not quite enough to see the next wave until it hits and I have to spit out a mouthful of seawater. I begin to notice other lights. Either side. Trawlers and small fisherman and buoys. The spray of a vicious wave. The lighthouse on the edge of the island. A plane's headlights breaking through the night. A galaxy of streetlights strung out from Funchal to Canical, along the populated coast. The football stadium and the fish factories. The harbours and bars. The plane landing at Funchal international airport. I take my hat off and lean back and a voice whispers in my ear of the plough and other constellations. I see Madeira reflected in the sky. An unfathomable sky of distant stars and the smudge of Milky Way. I don't want explanations. A dolphin breaches as we enter the harbour. A Cory's shearwater circles under streetlights, calling, louder than the throb of distant parties. Spontaneous applause. Handshakes and smiles.

*A note about taxonomy. The Fea’s petrels of Cape Verde are the original Pterodroma feae. Those breeding on the Desertas Islands are thought by some to be a third species, Pterodroma desertas. Desertas differs only from feae in the measurements of its bill length and depth, tarsus, and, marginally, in the length of their wings. If desertas is proven to be a separate species, its population of 150 breeding pairs makes it eye-wateringly rare (and yet twice as common as Zino’s).

Monday, 24 October 2016

After The Fall

Easterlies, decaying. Overnight rain. Early morning mist, lingering.

Chaffinches scattering from the gravel track to the cliff-top wood. Redwings seep out of the hawthorns and oak — some landing, some leaving. Other thrushes (blackbird and song) call quietly, seemingly several to each bush.

Gravel becomes mud. Light becomes shade.

In the heart of the wood is a strand of sycamores. I stand underneath, disturbing nothing, becoming like an adjunct trunk. In the heart of the sycamore, three goldcrests — six grams of feather, bone and muscle — flit about the canopy, foraging invisible insects from the undersides of rusting leaves. Migrants too. From, not just the woods of Belgium and the deep pines of Scandinavia, but from beyond the Danube, the Vistula, perhaps the Volga too? We are still working out from how far east our goldcrests can migrate in winter. An advance at least on the often repeated old folk-tales, that could only explain their crossings of the North Sea by them riding on the backs of short-eared owls and woodcocks.

The tree welcomes them, wherever they’re from. Food and shelter before the leaves are stripped back by November gales and they move on, once more, driven by the need for food and shelter. The mist has burnt off and the sky is deep autumn blue. The thrushes vanish. Skylarks head over, high, in singles. Flocks of goldfinch determinedly bounce south along the cliff-top. The world keeps turning. A leaf falls from the sycamore. The goldcrests keep flitting.
A migrant goldcrest from Orkney, where ditches replace sycamores.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Field observation of an ocean sunfish.

If I had stared until it made sense I would still be there now, rooted to that Cornish headland, rain-washed and blinking at it all. Blinking at its fin, a blunt triangular paddle, the same pallid colour as the rain that had swept over the bay in waves all day. Flapping with, I don't know what, the tremor of the waves or the pleasure of a fish half out of water in the rain.

The waves washed it away. The fin disappeared in the grey dip between crests, only to surface a few feet further out. Fin and face, like a wind caught plastic bag drifting endlessly out to sea. I looked it in the eye, through rain-glazed binoculars, big and black and round. A plug-hole, soullessly expressive of depths and darkness unimagined. Unimaginable.

Ocean sunfish. Ocean-coloured sunfish. I knew it only by reputation. World's biggest bony fish, world's biggest niche creature. A once rare drifter in the warm water currents that now run like a river past the Cornish coast. I read later that it eats jellyfish and can reach a tonne. But it doesn't look like that to me. It looks like nothing I have ever seen before – much less understood.
Ocean sunfish, public domain image by Per-Ola Norman

Wednesday, 28 September 2016


My favourite sentence in JA Baker’s The Peregrine is “The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there”.[1] It comes at the start of chapter two, where Baker turns his attention towards a discussion of what a peregrine is and the data of his observations. The methodology, if you like, behind the book’s slow unhinging from the human world, to that of the falcon’s. It is my favourite sentence not because it encapsulates the bird or the book in its entirety but because it encapsulates the writing. You can read The Peregrine many times and it will change and shift. You will notice new things, new sentences, overlooked details. It is like going birding, repeatedly in the same spot, and seeing different birds every time.

I spent the summer working with The Peregrine exploring the archive of pollution in its writing, within the toxic context of writing about polluted places. As usual at the end of a long project I can’t retreat back into books. Instead on holiday with my girlfriend and her family in Cornwall, at the wet, salt-glazed selvedge of England, we retreated into wildlife and the basic elements. Sea breeze, salt air, granite and heather again. We found three peregrines. A big adult female skimming the fields between Cape Cornwall and St Just. A bulky swarthy juvenile bludgeoned through a rainbow off the Lands End cliffs. The most spectacular was another juvenile, a small tiercel, tussling with a raven: stooping at a bird it couldn’t possibly catch, flashing its talons, carving up the air every side of it. The raven rolled over, raised its claws and barked. The falcon thought again and circled through the air, tucked its wings in and fell to earth like a dead weight.

I never saw if it was a successful stoop. I think it probably wasn’t – it is not the first time I have seen a young peregrine repeatedly circling, hassling and stooping over prey it has no hope of catching, as if it was playing, practicing, sharpening its reactions on the whetstone of actual living prey. At the same time, if I hadn’t seen it, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. Peregrines playing with ravens? Yeah right. Once a birder, always an incorrigible sceptic.

When I first read The Peregrine I regarded it as the ornithological gospel truth. The second time I read The Peregrine I thought it was an extraordinarily written piece of fiction, unavoidably stringy (string: the birding slang for made up, hoax observations). Ever since then, every time I read it, I change my opinion about it. My inkling is that its more contentious observations will eventually be proven true, or at least possible. In the past few years urban peregrines have been recorded hunting woodcock after dark, which Baker mentions. I recently came across a short paper about a peregrine hovering – again behaviour mentioned by Baker that I had in the past regarded as being impossible. These behaviours might be really there, but the hardest thing to see. Baker is, in the terms of Immanuel Kant, an “enlightened” observer – committed to the truth of his own impressions, observations and thought, without relying on received wisdom – or myth.

Yet the question of authenticity and Baker never goes away, though I dearly wish it would. Nothing is gained or taken away by pronouncing on the veracity of a text with a rubber stamp of truthful authenticity or fiction. That is as bad as people who would reduce the text to being about one thing, confidently pronouncing on the meaning of The Peregrine as if it was a fixed, easily pigeonholed story.

Having spent the summer exploring it as a depiction of its time and place, I still think it’s a pre-eminent example of a portrayal of a landscape poisoned by “the filthy, insidious pollen of farm chemicals” (15), a place where for the falcons “foul poison burned within them like a burrowing fuse. Their life was a lonely death, and would not be renewed” (118). Derek Ratcliffe, the naturalist who discovered the eggshell-thinning effect of DDT, wrote in his monograph The Peregrine Falcon, that had the decline of the peregrine in the 1950s and early 60s continued unabated, “extinction of the Peregrine in Britain could have occurred by 1967”[2] — the year when The Peregrine was first published. It is important not to forget this, or forget about the persistence of chemicals in the environment. Due to DDT’s chemical stability it remains present in the environment to the point where in 2002 still “No living organism may be considered DDT-free”.[3]

Baker’s writing persists due to its potency. In its synthesis of science and poetry it is, I think, unparalleled – a pre-eminent example of how to write about nature. Six years ago when I first read of his aim to follow the peregrines of Essex “till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye” (41). I thought, for six years, that deep fovea was just a poetic expression of the materials of vision, one with a nice tang of Romantic mystery about it. It wasn’t until a week ago, reading Tim Birkhead’s excellent Bird Sense that I discovered falcons have two foveae. The fovea is the part of the retina where the visual image is sharpest. Where a bird has two, one works for close up and one does distant vision. In Birkhead’s words, “the deep fovea… acts like a convex lens in a telephoto lens, effectively increasing the length of the eye and magnifying the image to provide very high resolution”.[4]

The hardest thing of all to see… Baker attracts light. Writers Robert Macfarlane, Mark Cocker and the academic David Farrier have all discussed Baker’s prose in terms of light – as luminous, or flaring – as well as his use of light. Where we have light, vision follows. Macfarlane also describes Baker as having “an obsession (ocular, oracular) with the eyeball”,[5] adding that “One of the many exhilarations of reading The Peregrine is that we acquire some version of the vision of a peregrine” (154). The more I learn about peregrines the more I realize the extent to which Baker’s writing embodies them. Further and deeper than just the aerial perspective Macfarlane talks about. Baker’s writing is like the magnified, high-resolution vision of the peregrine’s own deep fovea.

[1] J.A. Baker, The Peregrine (New York: New York Review of Books, 2005), 19.
[2] Derek Ratcliffe, The Peregrine Falcon (London: T&AD Poyser, 1993), 324.
[3] Vladimir Turosov, Valery Rakitsky, Lorenzo Tomatis, ‘Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT): Ubiquity, Persistence, and Risks’, Environmental Health Perspectives, V. 110, No.2 (February 2002), 125-128 (125).
[4] Tim Birkhead, Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird (London, Bloomsbury, 2012), 17.
[5] Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2015), 141.

Monday, 27 June 2016

25/6, Norfolk: nature writing and brexit

A marsh harrier calls from a storm-cloud strewn sky. A cat-like mewing from high, so high up it took me longer than usual to spot its grey wings disappearing in clouds. It called again, tucked its wings in and dived. At the bottom of its dive, it swung up — somersaulted through the air — and dived again. Skydancing in June. It disappeared over the far side of the reeds that rippled like water in the breeze. Two juveniles took the male’s place in the sky, one with food, the other tussling for it. Presumably the offspring of the male; I can’t explain the skydancing. Raising young takes the whole season and raptors usually only have one brood a year. BWP later tells me that they will display if an unpaired female ventures into the male’s territory.

Underfoot, a grazing marsh which after a week of torrential rain was sodden. The peat is springy and sprouting purple marsh orchids. Damselflies flickering into life from reeds beside the ditch — sudden sparks of blue that disappear on rest. Norfolk hawker dragonflies patrol these ditches, their beat a constant, rhythmic back-and-forth just above the levels of the reeds.  They hover at the end, wings too fast for the eye to see, bulbous green eyes glistening. And I wonder if they can see me and know I’m something other than the highland cows at the far side of the marsh, clinging to the drier ground.

Retreat is not defeat.

The consolation of nature is a phoenix — every time it is killed off as an idea it comes back again, re-emerging as something new. Ever since nature became something to enjoy, instead of something to fear, fight, tame or cultivate, it has been used to echo human feelings. Hence we have pastoral literature and elegy depending on whether you were celebrating or grieving. Darwin posed a problem, but only once Tennyson had ‘faltered where he firmly trod’, writing roughly a decade before evolutionary theory: ‘Who trusted God was love indeed / And love Creation’s final law — / Tho’ Nature red in tooth and claw / With ravine shrieked against his creed’ (I.M. LV-LVI). But nature is bigger and more complex than that. The war poets invoked English landscape, in part to remember what they were fighting for, in part for escapism from a world breaking apart around them. In the mid-twentieth century things got melancholy and angry. Nowadays we know that nature is more beneficial for mental health than anyone could have guessed. This is a general gloss, of course. But there is another way that retreating into nature is beneficial.

On Thursday Britain voted to leave the EU. The pound plummeted to its lowest rate in my lifetime. I was born in recession, left school in recession and now my future, at my glummest moments, looks like it will be one long recession too. I fear for my ecologist friends whose jobs depend on EU money and EU environmental law. I fear for the Thames estuary, for which European environmental law stopped it from being turned into an airport.

It is often said that we live in a post-truth age. Post-truth politics and post-truth media. These phrases imply there was a time when this wasn’t the case; when everything was something other than rival, competing narratives. Beauty is not truth – not necessarily anyway – but beauty is a reminder of the fundamental importance of the world around us. I don’t think we live yet in a post-beauty world.

On Thursday as the news of the vote was sinking in, I was miserable beyond belief. I was tapping into my inner Tennyson. All was woe, despair, and plotting dream emigrations. I’d head off to Sweden, Iceland, Canada, anywhere but here. Then I walked out into an unbearably hot afternoon, muggy to the point you could wade through the thick air, and by a shallow fast flowing river I found a colony of banded demoiselle damselflies. I watched them for what felt like hours, flitting from reed to reed, four wings flapping slowly, uncannily like how you’d imagine a fairy would fly. I watched them change colour: blue to green, dark to bright depending on the light, and angle and action. I was reminded that there was beauty in the world, and the importance of it — and not just for the state of my mind. And that the environmental protection that EU law afforded protects not just them but the farmland surrounding the stream, and the mid-Suffolk arable aesthetic ideal. I was reminded that everything is political. 

Nature writing can feel like an ineffectual response at times. A luxury. Rhapsodising while the turtle doves vanish and the economy sinks. But it is also fundamental and in the light of our vote for isolation, I think we need it more than ever: a close focus on ‘nature’ (howsoever you wish to define and use that word), beauty and the often hidden, often elusive, stories behind it. The difference one person behind a desk can make to the existence of a species is an important story. But so is the sheer beauty of it, how it makes us feel and behave: the fundamental reason behind why so many of us love the environment.

I am terrified for the future of our environment. But now, while we still have orchids, odonates, marsh harriers, clean beaches and migratory wildlife, we need to write about them, and the love of them, before they become forgotten things.

Nature doesn’t much care for borders.

The group of waders called ‘knots’ get their name from Canute: trying to hold back the tides that the birds race and forage in. The red knot were mostly birds that had failed to breed successfully in the high Arctic, either in Greenland or the far north of Russia. A great knot – the fifth record for Britain – was what the lines of twitchers were parsing the flock for.
I spent yesterday afternoon and evening on Norfolk beaches trying to find it. The afternoon at Brancaster, under a fierce sun broiling the air and turning the distant wader flocks into a singular grey smudge, warping and melting a pair of spoonbills in the heat haze. Clean golden sand. Clean sea. The evening was spent at Holme, feet half-sinking in and sloshing in the tidal flats. Behind us, in the dunes, a turtle dove purred, and a storm cloud darkened the horizon. When the great knot appeared, out from behind a clump of seaweed the excitement travelled down the line of assembled birders. Instructions barked out, reactions whispered: fifty people united in glee. 
The great knot belongs in summer in the far north east of Siberia. Upon departing the tundra they migrate the length of Asia, to spend their winter in the Australian summer, forming giant flocks on beaches. Or, occasionally, getting that mammoth migration wrong by 90 degrees and landing in the right habitat, with a similar species in the wrong hemisphere.
Nature doesn’t much care for borders.

Friday, 24 June 2016


You fly like a man drowning. Frantically paddling, wings out of sync, legs akimbo, worried faces. Trajectory: downward. Down on your back.

Your natural reaction, I read, is to stay motionless — completely still — in the face of danger. I agree. So's mine. But being on your back at the bottom of Lewisham station stairwell is not where you evolved to be. Lewisham evolved around you. While you crept out at night from the dead wood pile, drunk on hormones and ready to wrestle, a city was built around you. Concrete towers grew tall and were felled. Metal and glass towers grew in their place. You stayed.

We guard you. People rush past, fear of the beetle in their eyes. We flip you the right way with our tickets. Your grappling hook feet still thrash for grip. Your movements jerky, like a clockwork toy that can't quite get going. Antennae waving — four points on the end, like fingers reaching out to hold onto air. Between your shields, gilt edges.

Down the stairs comes the only other person not afraid. He looks at us. Nice stag beetle, he says. They're rare now. We shepherd you to the edge. The bright lights behind you, the thick dark night of the undergrowth ahead. Your antlers twitch.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Lewisham Wildlife

A squirrel sat on a railing, holding a monkey nut in its paws, tight like a prayer.

A young heron in a bundle of sticks, peering out from a broken willow. Fluffy down around its crest. Swaying its stubby, dagger-ended head up, then down, striking out at nothing in particular. Dreaming of fish.

An adult heron walking tibia-deep in the water, wings folded with stately, hands-behind-backs poise, past three terrapins clinging onto a floating log. One half-mounting the other, maybe mating, maybe merely clambering over it in slow motion enthusiasm.

We followed the concrete rivers of South London just to see where they would take us. Heavy clouds hung low over dirty streets and the air was thick and stale with the smell of fried chicken. Spring in south London.

Lewisham does not promise much in the way of wildlife, but away from the high streets it can be found. We found the park by following the Quaggy: a concrete-sided river funnelling clear water north from here to Deptford Creek, where it meets the muddy brown Thames. The banks, as they are, are filled with daffodils and litter and out of the corner of my eye it wasn’t entirely clear which was which. A smashed up laptop beached in the middle of a gravel patch stayed until the next heavy rain swept it downstream. I’m used to seeing grey wagtails (as yellow as daffodils) in upland streams, not clinging to these lips of grey concrete, picking off the gnats hatching from the shallow water. In the grey neglected bits of London, nature has the colour. From a nearby tree, a starling mimics a police siren. Eight oranges and four apples floated downstream.

The river diverted underground, and we walked along the grounds of dilapidated buildings flourishing with green alkanet. A few lemon yellow blooms of cowslip, red-dead nettle and archangel in the cracks, surviving impolitely. Growing where they please. There is more to urban nature than crests of buddleia sprouting from every undisturbed surface. It was London where I came to learn my basic botany on the weeds that grow before the landowners come with chemicals to obliterate them, erasing their colour in favour of concrete.

I read the other day that the environmental philosopher Anthony Weston thinks ‘disconnection is not the root of environmental crisis but, most fundamentally, is the very crisis itself’*, and I think he’s right. Its why we should celebrate urban nature, given that 82% of British people live in urban areas. The herons, the parakeets, the wagtails, the alkanet that flourishes with neglect and is usually full of bees. It’s the pearl that forms around the urban grit. The trees clear the air. The flowers and wagtails introduce people to nature that’s not exclusive, not the preserve of the shires or a TV documentary. That’s not to say that London is environmentally perfect — though neither is the countryside — but biodiverse enough to make me rethink what nature can be. Or even should be.

*Anthony Weston, The Incompleat Eco-Philosopher (Albany: University of New York Press, 2009), p.132.