In three extracts from his new book, At the Very End of the Road (Whittles Publishing), Phillip Edwards takes us from the arrival of the swallows to December’s birds on the foreshore in his West Country patch.
April: a hole in the sky
Today the swallows returned. Aristotle’s perceptive “One swallow does not a summer make” is as true today as it was over two thousand years ago, for the day is cold and grey with intermittent drizzle and summer still seems far away. Yet it is strange how amongst all the other signs of the changing seasons – the lengthening and warming days, the greening landscape, the spring flowers, the singing birds – that the sight of the year’s first swallows is the most palpable indication that summer is coming and sets a brief flutter of the heart in the breasts of men. These four swallows are strangers here. They will not tarry over the fields and hedges of the peninsula for their summer homes are somewhat northwards still, and the peninsula is just another fleeting vista to add to the many they have already seen. They are silent so bring none of the companionable chattering of those that will breed around the farmhouse all summer. They skim low over the pastures, their flight direct, yet while their passage is all too brief, they trail a thread of promise behind them in a way that none else do save perhaps the cuckoo.
Where did that swallow dream last night?
Slipped silently ‘neath fragile wings in flight,
That brought it northward back to these compelling shores?
How did it follow stars so bright?
Weaved its path ‘neath constellations of the night,
To skim verdant meadows seen just once before?
And while afar in sun at height
Did it delight
In heat and dust; did Africa excite?
Perhaps, yet nuptial lands proved too hard to ignore.
So north past minarets and sights
Silvered like a tempting dream that might
Entice; yet onward to the siren call once more.
And so, where e’er it was last night,
It just might,
Have dreamed of this softer morning light
That dawn brings dancing over England’s greener shores.
August: a field of dreams
The late hay meadow has been cut. It is like a corpse now, deprived of its soul; soft colours and shifting shades removed, flowers heads and seed pods felled and scattered. It has lost communion with the air above for the swallows no longer swoop through the reflected light of its sward. All is still and lifeless. Haymaking has always been a violent and savage act. Even in earlier times when not mechanised, the scythe still wrought the same effect, yet somehow it has been romanticised through the destructive sparkle of nostalgia. And the smell; that primal sweetness, instantly recognisable, dry and tickly conjuring warmth and comfort and well-being. Yet the very reason of the meadow’s existence is precisely the moment of its death and its subsequent afterlife. Cut, dried, spun into rows, baled and transported away, the vibrance of the summer has been distilled into the musty ambrosia of its fragrance to be unlocked in distant barns to give life to livestock in the dead of winter. And the lateness of its harvest is what sets this meadow apart from others on the peninsula for the seeds of the wildflowers have had time to ripen and drop. With fertiliser limited to only that from livestock which will graze it through late autumn, the limited nutrients mean that these wildflowers can continue to compete and thrive amongst the more nutrient-demanding grasses and paint the meadow with colour and butterflies next summer.
So, the tractor came and cut and spun, and the butterflies sought the dying flowers drying in the sun while overhead swallows twirled and reaped a short-lived bounty, filling the air with their liquid aqueous twitterings even while gorging themselves on the fleeing insects. Thirty to forty yellow wagtails, southbound from the water meadows of England, stopped by bringing life to the horizontal dying grass, a rhapsody of movement, tripping daintily along the edge of the rows, tails pumping incessantly. Most were immatures, off-white and washed-out brown with just an intimation of pallid yellow on their rear underparts, but amongst them, a few darker and greener and yellower females and a single male, still adorned in daffodil yellow, fading slightly from the abrasion of a long summer. All were foraging frantically on the bonanza that had been laid before them, fattening up for their southerly journey. A young fox came and watched them, sitting on a warm row near the middle of the field, the sun lifting the scent of drying grass to the sharpness of its black nose. It sat with its tail curled around its paws, panting gently in the heat, its body carrying the leanness of youth, alert and curious, its fur rich and glossy. Its eyes, recently turned brown from the blueness of cubhood, observed the wagtails intently, absorbing, learning. After a while it stood and trotted across the field, stopping abruptly holding one foreleg off the ground, its tail horizontal like a pointer, ears erect and twitching, then bolted forward launching itself in an arc through the air. Rabbits watched it from the spoil heaps of their burrows at the edge of the field as it slunk away disdaining its failure to secure a snack. But all has gone with the bales now. Only the frayed cut stems remain, hard and unyielding and jagged underfoot, the aftermath an alien acid green in a landscape of soft-hued alkaline colours. Until the sheep are put to their late autumn grazing, nothing but the rabbits will move here.
December: mud dancers
The afternoon sky is like wet slate, dark yet shining. Leaves have gone. The gnarled hawthorns and bare brambles hug the ground trying to evade the winter winds. Everything is horizontal, sky, sea, mud, reeds, fields, layered flat one above the other. On the other side of the Channel, the industrialised urbanscape leaps suddenly near from below the lifting cloud, as if by some tectonic trick its far bank has been magically transported to be but a fingertip from here; the wind- and rain-cleansed air endowed with a clarity that dismisses distance making the chimneys of the factories and power stations and the house-covered hillsides a startlingly intrusive backdrop to the bleak emptiness of the peninsula. Across the river, the ailing seaside resort lies shuttered. In between, flocks of waders are layered against the sky, fine nebulae of plovers high above loose weavings of lapwings above tighter sprays of redshanks and the eddies of the swirling dunlin. There is a wildness that only waders bring to a winter’s sky, the vibrancy of their flight and the poignancy of their calls raining from high above that seem to pine for the wide open places of the distant north; calls that transcend the banality of the dowdy shabby shorelines of the edge of England; the closed hotels and amusement arcades, the forest of empty yacht masts at their winter moorings in the marina, the squat rectangular brick buildings and metal tanks of the sewage works, the angular blocks of empty vacation apartments, the poverty of colour and the lifelessness of the windswept streets that the summer holidaymakers never quite see.
Out beyond the fields and the coastal reeds, the ridges and furrows of the mud have been conjured into limestone karst by the alchemy of the low sun. This is a place remote from us, a place we can never know for we cannot reach it to experience it. It remains a place instilled with fear and unease; the signs call it “treacherous” with good reason for people have drowned trying to walk on its soft sucking surface. Only the birds find safety and sustenance here. A male sparrowhawk flushes from the fringes of the foreshore grass, plumage damp and leaden. Wraith-like, he haunts these insubstantial edges of the shadowlands, eking out an existence hunting songbirds or ambushing small waders at high tide; an enigma both fearful and feared, glimpsed but rarely ever truly seen, always retreating from the eyes that seek him. Accosted by crows and mobbed by small birds wherever he may be found, he is spurned by all, despised like a leper, an itinerant outcast exiled to the margins, passing winter shunned and alone. Short wings beating rapidly, he rises into wind before gliding out low along the foreshore igniting a tumult of lapwings and golden plovers, fear contagious, yet it is he who is fleeing and they who settle once more to their watchful rest.
Phillip Edwards is a retired ornithological/ecological consultant who has worked on some of the world’s largest infrastructure projects, as well as major conservation initiatives for organisations including the United Nations. In his search for birds he has travelled to 106 countries on seven continents. He has been a microlight pilot for 30 years. At the Very End of the Road is his first book.
The photograph at the head of this piece and the illustrations are both by the author.