reading between the lines

There’s a minor country lane, which we invariably take each weekend, and there we know we will very likely catch a glimpse of a splendid Barn Owl called Bernie. I know he’s called Bernie because, with typical confidence, my daughter has named him as such.


Pathetically, I have tried to excise this alliterative bent, suggesting that the owl might quite like to be called Graham, or Colin, but she’s not going to play that tune. I won’t push it; she is always thrilled to see Bernie (you never hear them, of course, being the ghost birds that they are) and he can quite frankly be called whatever she desires as long as her eyes light up with starry wonder every time he glides and hurls through the churning breezes that tumble across the fen.

The Barn Owl is, I think, the most exotic wild thing she has seen in all the time that she’s been interested in nature. For many people, I am sure, whatever they see, be it the rarest sighting imaginable or the most extravagant display in the whole of creation, these spectral, silent creatures remain the pinnacle of their natural experience simply because they are so heartstoppingly beautiful, and just so breathtakingly extraordinary.

For Hopkins, of course, it was the kestrel, “daylight’s dauphin”, and yes, I get that, too. They are a common sight, the true non-watcher’s bird; swift and cunning, almost glamorously acrobatic. And we anthropomorphise them shamelessly. Men, in particular I think, suffer just a moment’s transference, thinking they themselves inhabit a similar space where ruthlessness and guile touch. I believe there is a stirring among us – faint, of course, unconscious certainly, untetherable for sure, but a notion nevertheless – that up there, facing into the wind, hovering, and focusing on its quarry, a part of our past resides, a primal survivor that, as distant genetic ancestors, we must surely have shared.

Hopkins’s view was theocentric – the bird, in his customary pose, cruciform, and in his mastery of the medium of flight, was nothing less than a declaration that Christ was visible in everything, especially here.

North of Ely. The railway line fans out into three separate branches beyond the city’s modest boundaries and cuts ever-widening swathes into the countryside. Before the land between the tracks spreads large enough for the vast tilled fields of beets and cabbages and tulips, there is enough space for a little woodland to benefit from the rich soil. The hedgerows are teeming with life. It is the last days of their fledgling season and finches and buntings are making the bushes shake with purpose, bright parents feeding their presently-drab offspring. Threaded through an old hawthorn, a vast mass of elderberries is being taken apart by blackcaps and whitethroats. I do not know if the mothers and fathers of these birds swallow the berries and regurgitate them later for their children, but can only assume they must, for they are stripping it bare in no time. In higher branches, away from the dangerous-looking man with the camera, the chicks chirrup impatiently.

A mile away a raised straight bank indicates the Great Ouse, one of those scars on the map that, in this region, indicate just how managed this landscape, for all its clamour and furious nature, truly is. Juvenile Reed Buntings, have made their way across from there and constitute another raucous brood shouting from the sidelines. Yellowhammers, too. Goldfinches, Greenfinches. I am in the centre of a larder of life, swiftly working adults nudging their progeny forward. It is ever so slightly manic. I wonder what might be out on the river, and make off.

Crossing the railway line, a blaze of brilliant sunshine. Yellow Wagtails (brighter but less confident than the Pied); flava flavissima has declined rapidly in recent years. A hunter of insects on the ground, the increase in intensive farming has hit the biodiversity that previously attracted it to us. Nevertheless, in the borders where the towns end and the farming is less clinical, they persist. Kingfishers apart, they may be the brightest jewel we have.

Across another railway line.

The river is close, the flood bank rises ahead, but in this landscape of lines and barriers, there is a tear, a ripple of disruption pushing a wave through the grass. A fox pops his head up and stares at me. I stare back and we continue this for a ridiculous span. Foxes have inspired our imaginations for as long as we’ve had the ability to fashion rudimentary figures or likenesses against a cave wall. In Luke, Jesus calls Herod Antipas an ‘old fox’; in Aesop, in Japanese legend (the kitsune, the fox spirit), they abound. You can find references everywhere. One of the most common notions is that we can turn into them, and that they into us. The fox is a global brand, it is spectacularly successful; that we commemorate it, celebrate it and demonise it should surprise no-one.

There is a thought that if one looks into your eyes long enough, they will possess you.

He breaks the spell first. I figure he is bored more than anything. For a while, he hops around, trying to pounce on moths or crickets. He has done with me. After a few more minutes he takes off into the long grass and is lost. I imagine he has had a busy night.

But what is the point of imagining that? Is it possible that in the non stop sequence of life and death moments, violent encounters, parental impulses and intuitive responses, a fox experiences anything that might even vaguely resemble the flights of fancy in which we so freely and self-importantly indulge? Of course not. What would be the point of imagination for a fox? And yet we do it; in fact it is symptomatic of our vast distance from the natural that we can so readily display our own hopeless intuitions by engaging in those luxuries and romantic inspirations.

And so, yes, I needlessly imagine he has indeed had a very busy night, just as I have had a busy morning. My disruption is finished. The world continues to breath as | head back to my pettinesses and casual concerns. Through the tumult of nature there will be no tears, no laughter, just fierce births and fiercer deaths. And I will pack it away and hope for more of the same next time.

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