Nature Notes

Cowslipping, Part II.

Before the rain, we took a lesson in walking underwater, without getting wet. It is entirely possible to drown in the sensory celebration of a bluebell wood, even as they are almost over: the mist-blue haze floating at calf-height, lapping the trees; the sticky sappiness, the honey scent, the squeak and tangled shock of heads …

And then the rain did come, though it was sorely needed. Every puddle became a bomb-burst of birds on approach; birds bathing, drinking, soaking or collecting nest-building material. Chalky water ran like the spill from a cereal bowl off the fields, transporting the fallen bunting of blossom down the lanes.

In rainstormy weather, hares show up in unexpected places and the deep whickering rumble of a horse can sound like thunder. I’d gone to see the cowslips on the hill and even in dull, metallic light, they glowed. Careening hares slipped down the wet flank of the hill like out-of-control dragsters, all big end over front. Another appeared at the church crossroads, standing tall as a thoroughbred, straight-backed, long-legged, ears pricked.

In the days inbetween, drifts of birdsong came through like a feverish dream. Loud and clear, then indistinct; perhaps, imagined. A woodlark stopped me in my tracks once, and then a cuckoo. Songs to shock a heart desperate to hear them, before restarting it into a steadier rhythm. Birds as defibrillators.  

On the down in the sun at last, the cowslips form a sunshine haze. Millions of butter-yellow bells cover the broad expanse, resurgent from a long period of enforced dormancy from springtime overgrazing. Here is meadow saxifrage, too, and anthills; newly-worked castles of fine-sieved soil, transformed into blue pillows of speedwell and chalk milkwort. 

I expected the nectar-filled hill to be loud with insects and console myself that it will take time. There are whitethroats, yellowhammers, meadow pipits and the tented nests of skylarks, but my ears strain for the remembered key-jangle of corn bunting or long-gone turtle doves. There are swallows in the farmyard below, but just 2 pairs, not 12 like there were. When will there be none?

There is sad news that the last male nightingale on Salisbury Plain has failed to return. There were 10 in 2012. The last turtle dove was heard there in 2008. 

Unless we do something fast, these are our last years with the birds, as well as everything else. When the United Nations delivered their report on Biodiversity and Ecosystems recently, the news was grim and undeniable. It wasn’t just depressing, it was devastating.

Up to one million species, more than ever before in human history, are threatened with extinction. Some, within decades. Due to human activities, there is simply not the habitat for their long-term survival.

I think about my own ‘local extinctions’ since I started writing this column fifteen years ago. Roding woodcock, greenfinch in the garden, lapwing in the village fields, spotted flycatchers. House martins.

The UN calls for bold, collaborative action. But we can also act alone. Speaking up at any opportunity, threading the need for healthy ecosystems through everything we do. 

I stand among the cowslips and desperately want the volume back up. The range, subtlety, variation and loudness of spring is all diminished. I played a bit-part in bringing the cowslips back. Spoke up with a persistant, gentle insistence. A softer kind of activism, but an activism, all the same. Because, where the bee sucks, there suck I.


2 thoughts on “Nature Notes

  1. Beautifully written riot of colours and sounds and sights and smells with a particularly stunning photograph of the umbellifer in the rain – wonderful. Your quote on the last Nightingale on Salisbury Plain is particularly poignant as the usual nesting place for our local Nightingales was severely cut back, trees felled and undergrowth flailed three months ago with the expected result – no Nightingales. So very sad.

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