I would not describe my son Eddie as a prodigy – except, perhaps, in the speed with which he can demolish a banana – but at fifteen months he has developed his own taxonomy for birds:
- Owwwllll (owls; other raptors; miscellaneous birds, including puffins and stonechats)
- Ack-ack(-ack) (longer form for magpies; shorter form for crows, jackdaws, and rooks)
- Blet it (blue tits and various small birds)
- Arrk-arrk (ducks; swans; geese)
- Eeh-ooh (cuckoos; sometimes used to refer to pigeons and doves)
Many of these birds he has only encountered in books, or through an app on my phone. The species that he has had the greatest opportunity to observe directly is the blackbird. Strangely, he has yet to find a place for it in his system, although he registers the appearance of one in our garden by pointing and uttering ungh ungh: a common Eddie phrase meaning ‘that interests me’ and/or ‘I want it’.
Eddie lives with me and his mother, Alys, on an estate in north Leeds. At the front of our three-bedroom house is an unkempt patch of lawn, with a Tibetan cherry at the edge. The back lawn is treeless, although since moving in we have added several small bushes, a slide, and a swing. Just on the other side of the back fence is a weeping birch that belongs to one of the houses in the cul-de-sac behind us. The rather depressing uniformity of the estate is lightened by its setting below Woodhouse Ridge. From our bedroom window at the back of the house, Alys and I look out beyond the buildings and cars to an inviting expanse of trees.
When we first moved in, we thought that the estate’s ecosystem consisted of three species: humans, squirrels, and magpies. We have since become more observant. Certainly the magpies are in charge and occasionally congregate on the roofs around our cul-de-sac to discuss important matters affecting the parish. But, in the three years that we have been here, we have also seen or heard house sparrows, blackbirds, dunnocks, mistle and song thrushes, tits, robins, carrion crows, jackdaws, wood pigeons, red kites, chiffchaffs, nuthatches, greater spotted woodpeckers, swifts, and foxes. However, the lack of nearby cover and the density of housing makes it hard to attract birds to our garden. This was not something we considered when we bought the house. In middle age, I’ve found the sensations of urban life increasingly hard to tolerate and was desperate to escape from a flat where we were exposed to the voices, music, and occasionally the marijuana of our neighbours. A little family home in a quiet cul-de-sac seemed a good solution.
Eddie’s growing interest in birds has coincided with a period of cold weather and of increased activity in our garden. Two pairs of blackbirds enjoy the mealworms; a robin sometimes hops from the gutter of next door’s garage to Eddie’s swing to the food trays; and wood pigeons, crows, and magpies pop by. A particularly cocky squirrel struts to the patio door and eats from Alys’s hand. We spot a wren on the fat balls, although this proves a one-off. We put a new feeder on the tree at the front of the house and it attracts coal tits, great tits, and blue tits. The mornings are dark, but Eddie insists on waking early. Alys, whose nights are more disrupted than mine, breastfeeds him before I take him downstairs while she sleeps. It is not an easy period. We are tired by the routines of work and nursery, and by the succession of infections that Eddie brings home with him. Still, he and I relish the dawn. We eat breakfast, marvel at the moon, play and read together while we wait for the sky to brighten and the blackbirds to appear. (They are always first on the scene.) We watch the garden’s inhabitants converse and scuffle. And we admire their deftness: the squirrel who effortlessly shins up the feeder pole; the magpie who flicks snow away with his beak to find the seeds underneath.
Despite the cold, I often take Eddie out in his pram: through the estate, along the busy Meanwood Road – at which point I invariably worry about what particulates might be doing to my son – and to one of the nearby patches of green space. One snowy afternoon, we are surrounded by a flock of redwings, a species for which I have a particular affection as they were first introduced to me by Alys. They are less skittish than usual; Eddie and I can register their eye stripes and ruddy flanks. During this long winter, his birding lexicon expands. New species include pidgy, bak-bak, hairo, croo, pngh-mngh, teagel, and wreee. He calls my phone owwwllll because of the birdsong app. His favourite is the short-eared; he does a reasonable impression of a tawny. I show him a video of a heron trying to steal food from a buzzard, which he finds exciting. Out one weekend, I draw his attention to a laughing birdcall and he identifies the sound of a pecka.
As the weather improves, my mood worsens. Pressures of different kinds pile on and I struggle to cope. I wake up early, before even Eddie, and work obsessively. Alys has her own problems and we find it hard to communicate. Because we are both busy, we tend to do our parenting separately, so that one of us can get on with other things, and are therefore rarely together as a family. We mostly succeed in remaining upbeat and patient with Eddie, but the strain tells. Neighbourhood children emerge bright-eyed from winter hibernation; in my sensitised state, I find the noise of them enjoying the warm weather and long evenings intensely irritating. Our house, with its unenclosed front lawn and open-plan downstairs, seems exposed. Most evenings, an ice cream van works its way through the estate, ending just outside our door. Its melody raises my heart rate; I fantasise about bribing the driver to stop somewhere else. I tell myself that buying our house was just one of a succession of poor choices, even as I know that having such choices is beyond the reach of many people in our grotesquely unequal society. I look at my life and career, privileged as it may seem from the outside, and all I can see is failure and tedium. I start to lose interest in everyone and everything.
Eventually, I manage to see a GP, who prescribes an antidepressant. I have taken a different variety in the past, but it makes me too sluggish in the mornings to look after Eddie properly. The new one works differently. I feel sick, headachy, spaced out. My sleep gets worse. The anxious knot in my stomach intensifies, to the extent that I can hardly bear to leave the office in case it is noisy when I get home. Work is also a problem; I have too many commitments and am struggling to keep up. One evening, I collect Eddie from nursery and take him to a park to look for song thrushes and blue tits. Once the traffic has subsided, we drive home. The weather’s beautiful. Our estate looks peaceful. I start to relax. We turn into our cul-de-sac. It’s chaos. There are small children everywhere: playing football, dropping rubbish, running across front gardens. I navigate the car around them and park in front of our garage. I am sobbing and shaking and struggling to breathe. I wrestle Eddie out of the car and into the house. I thrust earplugs into my ears to block out the noise from outside and try to give him his bath. I tell myself that I’m being stupid, that this is just a minor irritant, that I am lucky compared to most people, that in the past I have dealt with genuine crises, but I can’t control my breathing or my heart rate. Whether he is simply tired, or responding to my distress, Eddie is intractable. Every stage of bedtime is a battle. Kicking and wriggling with surprising strength, he won’t let me put on his nappy after his bath. I shout at him, venomously. I have never done that before. I text Alys and tell her that I am not coping. I have never done that before, either.
I see a private psychiatrist, who diagnoses ‘moderately severe depression’ and ‘moderately severe generalised anxiety’. I am now on two types of antidepressant. He suggests that I take some sick leave but I fear that I would get worse if stuck at home all day. I engage with the children, who are normally much fewer in number, and are perfectly friendly. But Eddie is too young to understand how to play with them: when he sees a football, he usually picks it up and runs off. My mood makes it hard to deal with unpredictable interactions. One evening, I bump into my next-door neighbour, who seems to hold me responsible for the old doors that someone has left in his drive. My panicky protestations of innocence only make him more suspicious. I am so distracted by the accusation that I lose sight of Eddie for a few seconds: just long enough for him to wander dangerously far from the house.
Near our house, on the other side of the Meanwood Road and behind a recycling centre, is an urban farm. When Eddie was six months old, he and Alys encountered a fledging robin there that took food from his hand. I often take him there in the early evening. He travels in the pushchair, greeting pigs, alpacas, and donkeys as he goes, until we arrive at a garden area surrounded by trees and fields. The birdsong is almost loud enough to block out the noise of the traffic and the dump. Often there is no one around. We play hide and seek, chase a tennis ball, and Eddie walks along the walls of raised flower beds while I hold his hand. I point out birds to him: dunnocks peering at us from the tops of hedgerows; the bright flash of a bullfinch; magpies feeding among the cattle. We admire insects and languid frogs in a nearby pond. In that place, mundane as it is, I feel a kind of lightness absent from home and work.
Because of the warmer weather, there is little bird activity in our garden. The feeder on the front tree keeps falling off – whether due to squirrels or pigeons or football, I do not know – and eventually I don’t have the energy to put it back.
One Saturday morning, I drive Eddie to a local garden centre, which has an excellent playground and is well located for hirundines and raptors. We turn down the access road, and a white blur materialises to our right. Barn owl. There is no one behind us, so I perform an emergency stop and put on the hazard lights. I pick up Eddie and we watch the owl quarter gracefully across a meadow. Owwwllll! Then, a few seconds later, diggah! He has noticed some minor roadworks further up the road, including a small excavator. “Look at the owl, Eddie!” He turns back to the meadow and repeats the word, but with rather less enthusiasm, as if humouring me. This way! He points imperiously towards the roadworks. A crow starts to harass the owl, which interests him briefly, but he turns back to the diggah as they fly further away. We can’t leave the car where it is and so I have to wrestle him back into his seat while he has a tantrum. He only calms down after we have parked properly and I have carried him over to see the roadworks.
At twenty months, Eddie is still interested in birds, but they now have to compete with larger and noisier entities for space within his imagination. It’s hard to draw his attention to the pied wagtails flickering around the park as trucks thunder past on Woodhouse Lane. He is particularly fascinated by diggers and similar machines; I buy him a couple of picture books and we are both introduced to a new bestiary comprising backhoe loaders, excavators, motor graders, and so on. As a child, I was never much interested in vehicles, with the exception of spaceships, but I was fascinated by all kinds of creatures. For the first seven years of my life, we lived in rural Kent. Accurately or not, I remember it as a time of happy plenitude: a series of encounters with frogs, toads, grass snakes, slow worms, woodlice, lizards, shield bugs, bullheads, and newts. Within our family mythology, our move northwards in 1981 is understood as a kind of Fall, which led eventually to break up and financial problems. For me, it was also the start of a forgetting in which I became semi-oblivious to the creatures who share our world.
Nature writing by middle-aged men is often in danger of confusing environmental crisis with existential angst. I know that I am temperamentally likely to trust catastrophic narratives. But the fact that I am naturally inclined to be pessimistic does not mean that such a stance is necessarily wrong. Becoming interested in birds has enriched my life. For a long time, I walked around as if with blinkers. Now the world – even the traffic-marred cityscape – is more vibrant. In another way, it has impoverished me. I feel like I am falling in love with someone who has a terminal disease. I have learnt most of what I know about birds from Alys’s cheerful and pragmatic father. But even he acknowledges the decline of many species in recent years. So the joy that I take in hearing a cuckoo, or seeing a short-eared owl (for the first time this year), is tempered by my knowledge that we are in the middle of a severe crisis, not only of biodiversity but also across all cultural-environmental systems. I have some sympathy with antinatalist philosophers who view bringing a child into being as an act of monumental irresponsibility.
As the evenings darken, the estate quietens. My antidepressants have kicked in and I am functional, at least. I wish that I could be more like my son – more open, more spontaneous, more alive – but I feel diminished by what I now realise are years of worry and dissatisfaction. Eddie is about to turn two. He is delightful and infuriating. His favourite word is no and his standard reaction to being asked to do something is to run away in the opposite direction, giggling maniacally. He has short but savage tantrums, sometimes for no apparent reason. His anarchic sense of humour rebels against all forms of organised fun. Alys refers to looking after him as ‘wrangling’; a fitting term for an unruly beast. Eddie has seen lapwings whirl and whoop at Golden Acre Park; kestrels dropping down like meteors at St Aidan’s; jays cackling raucously on Woodhouse Ridge; a huge starling murmuration at Fairburn Ings; crows mobbing a buzzard over Adel Village Green; gannets massing at Bempton Cliffs; a kingfisher speeding across Meanwood Beck; jackdaws calling with their inimitable staccato above Sugarwell Hill. In and around our small back garden, he has seen at least ten bird species, as well as ants, slugs, snails, spiders, beetles, and bees. I have learnt to love the moments when he points at something and says (with exaggerated intonation) what’s that? As he gets older, he will have to learn about loss, as we all do, and the losses endured by his generation are likely to be severe. I don’t know if Alys and I should have become parents, or if Eddie will eventually blame us for bringing him into a chaotic and deteriorating world. In my darker moments, I sometimes wonder if it would be best if human beings were to die out as soon as possible, given our remarkable capacity to engender suffering in ourselves and others. But in our son I see other capacities, too, and the possibility, however remote, of a future in which they might flourish.
David Higgins is an academic at the University of Leeds, where he specialises in Romantic literature and environmental humanities. His current research includes the Land Lines Project: a collaborative history of British nature writing and a book on philosophical pessimism and ecology.