Nature Notes

Black Kites, Bicycles & other Local News …

img_5535To celebrate our local newspaper’s 150th Anniversary, I show the students at school a short film from 1952 when Newbury (through its newspaper) was chosen to represent British life to the Commonwealth. It raised an interesting debate on the changing face of journalism, women journalists and the importance of local news – as well as how the town and its villages had changed. The film was sent around the world and translated into twelve different languages.

I was thrilled to see it featured Peggy Cruse; local reporter in my own village and the paper’s first female journalist. Peggy emerges from a cottage garden I know, cycles off to collect stories, and returns home to write them, as I am doing now. I liked her style. Her reports included local news and reviews, fashion – and when the first nightingale was heard. Peggy died last spring, aged 93. Regrettably, I never met her.

But I grew up reading the paper, some of her words and particularly the nature and farming columns including From the Hedgerows which inspired my Nature Notes (now in its 14th year).

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Deadline day is drawing near and I am wondering what to write about this week. I only get stuck when I have been stuck indoors; for inspiration, all I need do is step off the doormat. But then, just before dusk, I receive a text from my friend on the other side of the hill: rare bird, 50 guesses is all it reads. I give up after 3.

From the Land Rover, we spot it high over the valley, its positive id beyond my certainty. It was seen earlier by an experienced birder and my friend (who knows a thing or two). Black kite, heading for the trees: we slew sideways at speed over slick, just-thawed thin turf. It’s an exhilarating chase. We catch up with it at the kite roost, its comparative differences easier to pick out: grey-brown, slightly smaller (yet oddly larger looking, too). It flies through the carousel of dozens of red kites going to roost, its tail a clear fan, lacking the diagnostic wafer delta of a red’s. It’s a thrilling, rare, unlikely thing.

We don’t offer our sighting officially as, without a good photo, it would not have been accepted. Instead, I record it here.

Notes and records of intimate, local knowledge matter. Our impact, small, personal, impermanent: as easily undone as accidentally lasting, but a record, all the same. Words written and read (for clarity and action) are important. My friend keeps a blog, but makes an impact on the landscape too. Conserving it where he can, planting trees, hedges, woods, beetle banks, bird cover and nectar strips – and possibly, hopefully, reinstating dewponds that Peggy will have picnic-ed by. I am reminded by a quote from the poet Norman MacCaig, ‘Who possesses this landscape? The man who bought it or I who am possessed by it?’ Neither, of course, is the answer. I plant mistletoe in the trees that may appear years after I am gone from here. I like that mistletoe is a tenant, too and cannot be guilty of trespass.

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The mistle thrush sings now in the lighter evenings. A counterbalance of melancholy-joy delivered from treetops in Nightingale Wood (empty now of nightingales) and into the teeth of the gales that assail us. It is the same song sung down the centuries, its impact greater at this time of year. It’s a song that goes back millennia, linking centuries like a flock of long-tailed tits, spooling out through the birches and across years like bunting. It’s a record that all will be well again, that the snowdrops are up; that bluebell shoots are poking through the earth.

The 1952 Film from the Office of Information can be viewed here:
http://www.newburytoday.co.uk/news/home/20390/nwn-reaches-out-to-the-commonwealth.html

All complete copies of the Newbury Weekly News can be viewed on microfilm in Newbury Library, from its first issue in 1867.

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