It’s the the end of an unremarkable day. You’ve spent the last few hours in the open enjoying the sights and sounds of the natural world. Your thoughts are starting to drift towards the cold beer that’s sitting in the fridge at home. You turn a corner and there in front of you is something that stops you in your tracks. A Sparrowhawk mantling its prey. Or a Tawny Owl watching you from a dead branch almost within touching distance. A Fox, facing you on the path. Suddenly you are looking into the eyes of a wild animal and everything stops.
It doesn’t happen every time you go out. But when it does, if you pay attention, it can tell you why you are here.
The Sparrowhawk is fully engaged in the mundane task of killing. We can’t know what is going on behind those yellow eyes. We have no privileged access to the bird’s psychology. But there are things we do know. We know the bird isn’t worrying about its reputation, whether or not we admire him, whether he’s a good husband or lover or hunter, whether he should have turned left rather than right when he left the roost that morning, whether losing that starling to a blundering rabbit is something he’ll ever get over. Instead the bird is fully occupied with the urgent business of being. Like all wildlife the bird exists in a perpetual now. What matters for us is that the instant we exchange glances the encounter hauls us out of the narrative of our daily lives and into the crucible of this shared present.
It’s not the murderous act that gives the encounter meaning. It is there too in the quiet pulse that passes between you and the fox, the moment each of you is seen by the other.
A moment like this is its own destination. Nothing further is required – either of you or the animal. It is utterly complete. This is entirely unlike the rest of our experience which is invariably coloured by the narrative noise in our own heads. The endless often mindless commentary, the time spent ruminating on the past, or worrying about the future.
All of our brain’s chatter, in a moment, stilled. This is what the glance can teach us. The message it has for us is always the same, always urgent, always important. It’s something we know but have to learn over and over again.
The voice of the reeds has changed since pre-lockdown days. On my last visit in early March it was a dry, papery susurration as the wind moved through the lifeless stems. The dead architecture of the phragmytes was vacant and drained of colour except for the odd Reed Bunting clambering about like a janitor in an abandoned building.
But today everything has changed. The bright green re-growth is visible and the whole swaying tenement is alive with Reed and Sedge Warblers. Every few paces a bird is noisily proclaiming its territory. Whitethroats in the bushes add to the cacophony. There’s something lapidary in all this bird song. It’s too substantial to be just moving air. Pebbles and bright shining coins are being tumbled together in the reeds.
On the water side of the raised bank that makes up the south wall a small party of Whimbrel – the Seven-Whistlers – are working away at the water line. They’ve dropped in on their way out of Africa heading north. Tomorrow or the next day or the day after that they’ll be gone making for their breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra, whistling as they go. Out on the water an Egyptian Goose is doing its donkey impression, braying asthmatically. Shelduck and Avocet and Redshank are busy in the wet mud revealed by the retreating tide.
On Fisher’s Marsh a pair of Marsh Harriers wheel over the reedbeds . A number of pairs nest along the south wall, dividing up the territories much as the warblers do. As the air warms Wall Brown butterflies appear on the path. A cuckoo starts up in the trees behind Church Farm Marshes. Moments later a second joins in from across the water.
And then a sudden flash of yellow on the slub piled up from the drainage ditches. A pair of yellow wagtails flickering across the drying spoil. Their colour is astonishing. As if the yellow mustard that grows in drifts here, has been distilled and poured into a bird.
I found myself laughing out loud at this unexpected lockdown gift, the sheer Maytime excess of it all. Instead of spring creeping up with the slowly lengthening days, marking its approach with the first migrants, and the slow warming of the air, suddenly here is was all at once, the whole delicious kit and caboodle delivered at my feet.