Wild, wild horses
Monday June 8
Not a terribly wild day, save that all horsey days have their wildness. We had to move a horse to the other side of Norfolk: load him into a trailer, cross the county, unload. Which required some adequate horsemanship from me and some superb driving from Cindy. And all went well.
There some ways in which horses are like gardens, as mentioned in the pervious day’s blog: one of those meeting-places between the wild world and the tame: places that we human seek in so many different ways. Because with horses you’re not entirely looking for tameness.
No: docility and stoic acceptance of all that human life throws at you is not what we look for in a horse. We are keen on speed, flight response, volatility. Riding a good horse is one of the wild connections we seek.
And it’s also about biophilia. The human need for non-human species. Have you ever smelt a rose? Patted a dog? Then you know exactly what I mean. Even in New York, the most citified of all cities, they have Central Park. It’s there to appease that need for the non-human in the most humanised landscape on earth.
We tend to think that wildlife conservation is something we do as a favour to the wild world: something we afford, when we can be bothered, out of the infinite largesse of humankind. And this is a desperately wrong-headed view. We need to conserve our wild creatures and wild places because of our own immense need for them. We human aren’t complete alone.
Fear and loathing in Edinburgh airport
Tuesday June 9
My plan for to today was to write some words about the wild glories of northern Scotland, but instead I can tell you about the glories of Edinburgh airport. Travelling to Inverness from Norfolk via Gatwick was never going to be a fun day, but things got worse when the elastic band on the plane broke. We had to divert to Edinburgh and wait seven hours for them to fix it.
But there are momentary vignettes that ease things, at least a little. A couple of little egrets glimpsed from the train window as we crossed the Stour. And there was a kestrel hovering over the grass by the runway at Gatwick: not as classy as the secretary bird I once during take-off at an airstrip in Africa (they too like hunting over short grass) but still pretty good.
They loaded us back onto the plane at last at Edinburgh, but then there was another complication and we had to spend another couple of hours on the ground. I was getting stir-crazy by this time and went to stand on the aircraft step and in such circumstances you try and build a bird-list. What else can you do?
So I had swallow, pied wagtail, crow and black-headed gull. Not a great list, but it was damn sight better than none. It would be an exaggeration to say that it kept me sane, but at least they didn’t have to send for the straitjacket.
And that’s one of things about the wild world. Glimpses of the wild help you better to enjoy life: but they also help you to endure it.
Out in bear-country
Wednesday June 10
I woke up in a cottage on the Alladale estate in the highlands and looked out on the snow-covered tops and green hills and stepped out to get closer to it. I was here to write a piece for the Daily Mail, for there is a long-term project of engaging craziness going on here. The owner, Paul Lister is involved in a vast tree-planting programme; he will have planted 900,000 trees in a dozen years by the end of this summer. He also has an ambition to fence the place in and then release bears and wolves.
Which is all very well, but I also had to engage with the place as it is. And I was at once mystified by a sweet call that seemed like the essential voice of the place. But I couldn’t nail it. In an unfamiliar environment you are always a bit tentative in the way you understand what’s going on all around you.
I walked about and listened and the calling birds were all just a fraction out of reach: disappearing as soon you get the bins on them. Then one of them held the call and the pose for a mite longer than usual and all at once the scales fell from eyes, on one of the classic moments in which to must forcibly strike your forehead with the heel of your hand.
Meadow pipit. Obviously.
And a strange thing happened. It was like getting the focus right on the binoculars. Suddenly everything in the landscape made sense. Suddenly I understood where I was and what I was doing. A key had been turned, a door opened. I was no longer peering at the place, I was part of it.
Birding isn’t just about spotting rarities and showing off your ID skills. It’s way understanding place and times and life.
Too much charm
Thursday June 11
Just a lightning glimpse, but always a great moment of joy. Squirrel. Red. Two of them, on a feeder. There’s been a red squirrel reintroduction programme at Alladale – not exactly bears but a damn good start. They brought in 36 a few years ago, and now there’s a couple of hundred.
No animal brings us a sense of loss quite like the red squirrel: a classic example of what we can lose by straightforward stupidity. The red squirrels are a symbol of human folly: and a trip to the highlands is like gazing at a vista of regrets.
Imagine a museum dedicated to all the mistakes you made in your life: each item on show an example of what you did wrong, what you could have done better, what you would have done otherwise if only you’d known what you know now. For most of us – certainly for me – you’d require all the floor-space of the British Museum.
A museum for all human folly would have to be somewhat larger – as big as New York, perhaps – or big as the planet — but there’d always be room for a red squirrel. There with his glowing colour and the absurdly over-the-top- charm of those ear-trusts, he would stand as an eternal reproach. You could have had me in your garden and in your local park. But you messed it up again, didn’t you?
So why are you still messing up?
Great Man theory
Friday June 12
I got back from Scotland late Thursday night, but at least with a rather decent present for Eddie. And as soon as he had gone to school I was off again, this time going to Cley, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s great nature reserve of the north Norfolk coast.
The reserve had been extended thanks to a brilliant acquisition of adjoining marshland: there is now an unbroken coastal strip of eight miles all managed for wildlife. So here was a great bunfght for the opening, and Sir David Attenborough was there to do the honours.
I’ve got to know him through work for various charities we both support in different capacities, mostly the World Land Trust. So I was able to improve this best-behaviour occasion by telling him an improper story. You can always gauge people’s generosity by the extent to which they are prepared to other people’s jokes. This one went down a storm.
We later posed for photographs – I’m writing this up for the Independent – and once again, there’s a picture of me and Sir D laughing our heads off, though I’m probably laughing at my own joke. We could see spoonbill in front of us, and hear Cetti’s warbler all around.
The occasion was rounded off with a great Attenborough rallying call to the 200 or so conservationists gathered together for this occasion. And I wondered just how many of us were there because of David Attenborough.
Me for starters.