I wonder how we ever got the idea of the countryside as a place of peace. As a place where we leave the stresses and dangers of life behind and find a world of gentleness and calm. The song of the warblers, the jinking swallows overhead, the butterflies: Maytime and the livin’ is easy…
Try telling that the small arthropods that share the air with the swallows. Every jink from a swallow is death: death to some midge, micromoth or floating spiderling. A swallow can’t live and breed without hundreds of little deaths every day.
And the willow warbler that soothes your soul as he sings from clump of alders: he’s not feeling gentle or calm. This is the great crisis of his life. He is singing to establish a territory, find a mate, see off other males and get on with the essential task of making more willow warblers. This sweet scrap of song is a clarion call to battle, a fearsome threat and a shockingly lecherous come-on. It celebrates the great hope of all life: to become an ancestor.
It is nothing less than the song of life, and this tiny bird has flown all the way from sub-Saharan Africa to sing it, risking death every flap of the way. This is the culmination: now or never. Get it right and his life is forever meaningful: get it wrong and he has lived in vain.
And there in a flat-out charge along the hedgeline comes a male orange-tip butterfly, pelting along in a mad search for drink and sex. He got through the boring eating stage of his life as a caterpillar, now he needs nectar to fuel the unimaginably tiny window in which he can find a female and mate.
A female, less active, less gaudy, can be hard to find and is likely to attract some serious competition. Everything in his life depends on these few little days. Sun brings the best chance of success: prolonged rain might be disaster. So might a thousand other things: things like brutal mowing, lavish weedkilling, or the latest construction project.
We’ve lost touch with the idea of the British countryside as a dangerous place: and so we fail to understand the real meaning of what’s going on. Perhaps it all dates back to the destruction of our large predators. If we had bears, wolves and lynxes back in the woods we’d have a better understanding of life.
You can still find peace in more dangerous wild places: in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia, for example. Here you can always feel a hint of Eden in the morning – knowing all the while that such peace is an edgy and difficult thing. It’s infinitely more precious for precisely that reason.
So let’s try this as a mental exercise: next time we savour the perfect loveliness of a May morning, let’s try and imagine that there’s a pack of wolves in the next valley and a bear in the neighbouring wood. Then we would feel a bit less like a member of the audience, and a bit more like a participant.
And understand the joys of it all a little bit better.
- I should add some apologies. Sorry I have been silent here for a few weeks: work and life and stuff has been rather hectic. I’ll try not to let that happen again.