It is the day of my father’s cremation, and I am more than five thousand miles away, in China, walking the banks of a river whose name I do not even know. The river is around forty or fifty feet wide, shallow in this season, but still fast-flowing and clear; mountain water. The valley rises to wave after wave of pine-clad hills, billows of stone that roll away into the mist, overlapping; each successive wave its own shade, from greens to blues to greys. Directly across the river the mountain is closer, and taller. I cannot see its summit; its head is in the clouds.
The valley here is broad and fertile, and fields of ripened corn ready for harvest surround the Bai village where I am staying, up to the point where the land begins to rise too steeply to cultivate and the forest takes over. The village is a stopping place on the ancient tea horse trail, little remembered now compared to the much more celebrated silk road. Yet for centuries this lost trail was a vital trading route that stretched from the tea plantations of Sichuan through the mountains to the Tibetan plateau and finally on to Lhasa, with tea going one way, and horses the other, over snowbound passes five kilometres high. A long hard trail that must have taken its toll in many lives.
All around me as I walk are wagtails, bobbing away from me in family parties; white wagtails, of which the pied wagtail of the British Isles is our own local version, rather than a species in its own right. Travel to the tropics, or to the South, and almost all the birds you see may be altogether unfamiliar – even working out what families they belong to may be a puzzle. But here, far from home though still in the Palearctic zone, the birds provide a satisfying blend of both familiarity and novelty. On the gravel banks exposed by the low waters are common sandpipers and little ringed plovers. The plovers in particular are the exact same colours as the river stones; when they stop still they just melt away into invisibility, only to reappear the moment they jerk back into life. I could almost be on a riverbank in England were it not for the plumbeous water redstarts.
Redstarts are favourite birds from home; one of the few birds that I am used to having in the hand. In a Welsh wood the males at least are particularly striking. They have a crisp, rakish look, a brilliance that is a little unexpected, even exotic, here, with their clean lines of black and white and brilliant orange breast and tail. The females are less showy, but are still pretty, bright-eyed birds in their own right. Start is an old word for tail, but like the robin redbreast they are not really red at all, much more orange. But when these birds were first named the colour orange did not yet exist; it was not invented as a colour until the fruit first arrived on our shores. It is hard to appreciate this; it seems self-evident that the colours are all there, fixed, waiting for us to perceive them, but it is not quite so. When we see a rainbow we all see seven colours – or six at any rate, if like me you have difficulty separating indigo from violet – but the fact is we only see those colours because we have learned to see those colours. The rainbow is a continuous spectrum of the whole range of visible light. We can draw the lines anywhere we choose, the spectrum can contain as many colours, or as few, as we decide. And of course when I see red I can never really know that what I am seeing is the same as you. People may go years, decades, without knowing that they are colourblind, assuming that what they see is what everybody else sees too.
Back home I had learned how to bait the redstarts, by tinkering with my nesting boxes. In a standard bird box they would find the hole a little too tight a fit, and a little too round, so I would saw down to make the O a U, or perhaps a V, more like a natural crevice, and that was all it would take to draw them to me. One hand over the entrance hole to prevent escape, and lift the lid. Then reach in to the sitting bird, a cupped palm to pinion the wings, legs held in place for ringing between middle finger and ring finger, and lift her off her clutch of eggs, or her brood of young. A small bird in the hand is so vital, and yet so light as to feel almost weightless. It is like taking hold of a heartbeat.
It is understandable how the eggs of many birds are coloured for camouflage; the eggs of a wader, mottled almost to invisibility in their scrape on the moor. But why should a hole-nesting bird, a bird that sits in darkness, have such beautiful eggs? A hundred years ago bird books would be full of the beauties of birds’ eggs, but then the realisation that some species were being seriously threatened by relentless collection meant that birds’ eggs, and birds’ nests, began to drop out of the record like a guilty secret, as though they were not a fit subject for appreciation. Yet still they are beautiful, regardless. The redstart’s egg is a perfect unmarked blue; not the greenish cyan blue of blackbird or thrush, but a much purer blue, like they have stolen a fragment of the spring sky and smoothed and shined it to perfection.
This redstart, the common redstart, is a summer migrant, and favours the sessile oak woods of the west. I used to look out for them in season, in my childhood home on the south coast of England, but they were just passing through on their way to Wales. Britain has one other redstart too, the black redstart; a mountain bird, a bird of the wild places, that I have watched many times in its natural home on the scree slopes of the Alps, and in the high Atlas. In Britain they come mostly as winter visitors or passage migrants, though since wartime small numbers have remained to breed, finding a strange facsimile of their natural home in the bomb sites of the city. It seems inappropriate to us, but birds do not see things as we do. Our town pigeons are descendants of the rock doves that live on the remotest of sea cliffs. To a pigeon, a terrace of houses is just another cliff.
In my own home town of Portsmouth there were one or two pairs of black redstarts. Portsmouth was a war widow of a city; even when I was growing up in the sixties and seventies every row of terraces seemed to have one or two missing spaces, like the gaps in a trucker’s teeth. The bomb sites have all finally been tidied away now, but the black redstarts have clung on in the industrial sites of our biggest cities. The archetypical view of a black redstart in Britain does not have a mountain behind it, but a gasometer.
But while at home there are just two quite dissimilar redstarts, one in the woods of the west and one in the city, I now find myself in a place where there are at least ten distinct redstarts to tell apart. In the hillside woods I have been watching redstarts that look not unlike our own common redstart, and yet cannot be, not here, and trying to distinguish Hodgson’s from Daurian. Identification shouldn’t really matter, should make no difference to the aesthetic experience of seeing a bird. If it looks the same, acts the same, sounds the same regardless, why should it matter whether or not you can put a name to it? Yet somehow it does feel as though it makes a kind of difference, as if by identifying a bird you are paying it more respect, acknowledging its uniqueness, the qualities that make it just what it is.
At least with these birds along the river the identification is less of a challenge. Plumbeous – looking like lead – trips off the tongue but does no justice to the bird. The females may be dull enough, brown and white like miniature dippers as they bob at the water’s edge. But in the sunshine the more elegant males are a gorgeous metallic blue, more cobalt than lead, with a rust-red tail and rump much darker than the orange of our own redstart, which of course in any event is a bird of the woods, not of the water. They look decidedly exotic after all the more familiar birds I have seen this morning, and remind me that I am a long way from home, in a far country.
It is early in the day and I have the river to myself apart from a gaggle of children playing at the little stepped stone bridge where an almost-dry stream joins the river. On this side the bank has been built up to protect the village from flooding during a spate, and I stroll along the top of the wall as I make my way upstream, a couple of metres above the water, or more usually above the exposed gravel bed of the dry season. As I walk, there is a pair of hoopoes ahead of me on the wall, in pastel orange and with black and white barred wings. They are utterly distinctive with their long curved bills and their matching crests that are like the claw of a little hammer as they pound away at the earth as they forage. They are strangely confiding; as I approach closer and closer I begin to wonder if they will ever flush. Finally they lift off, spreading wings so broad they look like the wings of a butterfly, and so dramatically, crisply barred that they look like the sudden flash of a mask. And like a butterfly, too, they do not disappear into the distance but fly just a few yards further ahead, and wait for me to catch up with them. They always seem to do this.
As they alight, they give a little whoop, for this is one of those birds that is named for its call, like cuckoo, curlew, chiffchaff. Even its scientific name was chosen to echo its call rather than honour its extravagant appearance. Upupa epops. And as they call, their crest rises like an opening fan, long orange feathers, black-tipped, giving them a startled expression. Over two thousand years ago Aristophanes depicted the hoopoe as king of all the birds, ruler of cloud cuckoo land, for this extravagant crown, and the Persian poet Attar similarly chose it as leader of the birds for his epic of Sufism The Conference of the Birds. Elsewhere though, it has been considered a harbinger of war, or of death. It is a bird so striking that it has had some kind of cultural impact wherever it is found.
Later, at the appointed time, I return to the river with Xia Zi. We set off from the friend’s house where we have been staying – she seems to have a friend in every village – and make our way along narrow flagstoned and cobbled lanes and through archways towards the riverbank. On our way we pass a small bed of chrysanthemums outside a traditional Bai house. These houses are very attractive; wood-framed, whitewashed walls with small black and white murals at head height. This one features a pair of magpies, considered a bird of good fortune here. Xia Zi picks a single flower head and hands it to me. They won’t miss one, she says.
At a few points along the riverside, the bankside wall is interrupted by a series of steps that lead down to the water’s edge. They remind me a little of the ghats alongside the Ganges, but these are here not for religious purposes, I think, but for economic ones; to allow fishermen access to the river. There are a couple of men out there now, who have waded out mid-river. They have small hand nets and are reaching into the water and turning rocks. It is not fish they are after at all, but something else altogether, something lurking, perhaps freshwater crayfish.
I squat on the bottom step, right at the river’s edge, and pluck the petals slowly from the head of chrysanthemum, here the flower of grieving, and cast them onto the waters. There is an eddy in the river just by these steps, and the petals swirl in a circle beside me, before they break away, sometimes singly, sometimes a few together, and are caught by the current. I watch in silence, in thought, as they waver away into the distance, like a flotilla of a hundred tiny boats, while Xia Zi stands beside me and sings a song in Chinese. A song for the dead.
It feels right, and it feels respectful, but nonetheless I wonder if I should have been there for the cremation in spite of everything. The slight pang of guilt I feel is not so much for my father. He always said that he wanted no fuss, and certainly nothing with the faintest whiff of religion. But I feel bad for my brother, that it has been left to him alone to carry the can. Literally.
At the river crossing there is an island midstream that divides the river into two channels. On the near side the waters narrow and race as they squeeze through the gap between bank and island, and are crossed by an old stone arch that rises in an almost perfect semicircle and is flagged with misshapen stones, fitted roughly together like crazy paving. It is a lovely old bridge, that looks as if it should have a troll living beneath it, and we pause at the apex, lean on the wall, and look down at the waters beneath.
A kingfisher dashes along the riverbank, then stops on a pin at an overhanging branch. They never seem to slow down to perch. Kingfishers have only two settings; full speed and stop. There is a hawk slowly working the beat, a soar and then a circle, not so high above the riverbank trees. Against the open sky I cannot judge its size and take it to be a sparrowhawk, but as it passes over our heads I see that it is in fact a goshawk, from its heft, from the slow powerful beat of its wings rather than the winnow or flicker of its smaller cousin. It takes me back to my time in the mountains of Wales. Of course there should be goshawks here, with pine forests stretching to every horizon. As it passes low above us we both throw back our heads and watch in silence as it follows the river out of sight.
The mountain across the river is cleft in two, riven by a deep gorge. Drapes of cloud still hang over its summit. About halfway up the mountainside I can make out a tiny mountain temple, hanging right on the brink of the gorge, in the midst of the pine woods. So many of the mountains here are dotted with temples; some busy, working temples, some guarded and maintained by a solitary, some neglected and falling into disrepair. There is no road up to it, no visible path, no obvious route, but the distance and the climb look manageable, and the setting is enviable. ‘Look,’ I say to Xia Zi and point it out, ‘I want to go there.’ I ask her if she thinks it would be possible to get there and back in a day and she says yes, it looks like it could be done in a few hours. ‘I will go there,’ I say, ‘tomorrow I shall go there.’
As we walk back to the village along the riverbank, the hoopoes are there again. Once again they allow us to venture unexpectedly close before they take flight, and then just flutter a short way ahead, as if we are gathering them up as we go. It reminds me somehow of the summer fields that surrounded my childhood home, of wading through the long waist-high grasses with all the grasshoppers springing forward a little way with each step, bouncing ahead of me as I walked.
© Neil Ansell 2013
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Read another Neil Ansell essay, ‘Diaires’.