Sorting through some papers recently, I came across a printout of a piece I wrote in (I think) the summer of 2002, fresh out of a PhD and wondering what happens next, looking after the ailing family dog at my parents’ house in West Norfolk, playing with the idea of natural history writing. Short of cash too - this was intended for some essay competition or other, probably at BBC Wildlife, though it certainly didn't bring me riches, even if I actually entered it. I re-read it, a decade on, expecting to cringe much more than I actually did. Things have moved on since then - the dog didn’t last the summer, mum and dad have migrated to the coast, I know a few more birdsongs, and I’ve somehow managed to remain employed doing what I enjoy, pretty much continuously. But Sheffield is also rich in swifts, and their screeching arrival each May signals the start of summer, regardless of what the weather tries to tell me. It’s still nice to stand in a field and remember that ecology is about real organisms interacting in a complex, wonderful world, and not simply points on a graph. So, 11 midsummers on, here’s the piece, retyped with one or two minor edits, but essentially an authentic blast from my past. What I’m saying, I suppose, is: indulge me… SWIFT
I wouldn’t mind being a swift for an hour or two. The thought cartwheels into my head as I crane to count them circling, screeching, avoiding bedtime on midsummer’s night. I’m on a hopeful excursion, looking for a barn owl that I’d seen on patrol months earlier, on the shortest morning. Noticing earlier that the meadow next to the river - its meadow - was freshly mown, I’d thought that on such a luminous evening as a barn owl I’d be hunting there. But my own hunt, always vague, tonight is in vain. In fact the full statistics of my stroll would hardly excite an expert - not even a hare, a rare absentee in these fields, in this part of Norfolk.
But I do calm my nerves before tomorrow’s job interview. Manage to reassure myself that this is who I am, this is what I like, all of it is worth it. And I take my communion, on the bridge over the Wissey, watching the lifeblood of this rich land flow beneath me, suffused still with water-crowfoot blooms and guarded by stroppy moorhens. I follow the meanders, going with the flow a way as I used to daily when the dog was younger and more sprightly.
Tonight the newly airborn midges, mozzies, mayflies could sustain a filter-feeding zeppelin, though for some reason (I won’t complain) they decline to feed on me. A malaise trap might catch a million a minute; back home, I could magnify, tease out, count veins and setae and quantify this diversity. But that sounds like a day job, and this is an evening stroll, so I leave them in as much peace as their brief and frenzied adult lives allow.
Soon I annoy a more ponderous beast, a heron sighing as it lifts off and flaps further downstream. How to tell it just to let me past, or I’ll disturb it again soon enough, round the next bend, or the next? Usually, I consider the heron’s solitary, stationary, mobbed lot a poor one, feeling I would soon tire of holding yogic postures in chilly, drizzly esturine mud. But tonight I would happily stand an hour or two with toes in this lucid summer stream.
A field of cows on the opposite bank: a score of mums and leggy calves processing dinner, long faces panning as I progress. A young coot, grey and ugly, panics, setting a partridge chucking behind. A rabbit retreating rapidly from the water’s edge gets my binoculars twitching - my heart insists on associating mammals near water with the frolicking otters that would complete the scene. But I’ll not see them on such a casual amble, I know. With the rampant June vegetation even water voles are invisible, betraying their presence with squeaks from deep within the tangled reeds.
Level with the old willow that marks my usual turning point, I finally set up the heron again. He shows his disdain by projecting a great skein of bright white shit in my general direction, but happily I’m out of range - a friend’s car acquired an uneven but surprisingly thorough re-spray in similar circumstances. I turn and head homewards with more urgency, conscious that my bare legs are unlikely to escape the insect clouds a second time. Birds are still settling in the bushes, and I pick out the odd wren or blue tit. In this prime riparian corridor there must be others, and indeed I’ve seen a few - whitethroats, reed warblers - but I’ll need more sessions with the CD before I’m confident in my ear. This new world of song feels tantalisingly close, but for now with no-one to confirm otherwise I’ll assume the lone thrush is a blackbird and not a nightingale. Still, another excuse for returning…
Pausing again on the bridge - a habit since I once saw the day-making flash of a kingfisher there - tonight I see just bubbles. Perhaps chub? With the low sun I can’t make out shapes or count fins. My angling friend would have sized them up by now I know, determined optimal bait and tactics. But I’m convinced that a lifetime on river banks has left him with polarizing retinas.
Now back past the barn owl’s vacant paddock, into the village, to the contemplation of chasing, screaming swifts. Their action calls to mind a skateboarder: seconds of vigorous pumping affording a blissful few seconds of glorious gliding before a new input of power is needed to avert the risk of stalling. Trying to focus binoculars on them, I may as well try focusing on flames. But I’m sure they are smiling, exhilarated anew each day by the sheer joy of flight. And really, that would be a fine thing, wouldn’t it?