Engaging with the wild is usually an arm’s reach sort of exercise, if that. We observe things, they pass us by, they make an impression, we move on. That’s standard; unless your job brings you into direct contact with animals or birds – and very often licences and authorisation are required for such a thing – our experience is almost always distant or fleeting or both.
And when it finally does happen, when some conjunction of circumstance conspires to put you up against the actual wild, it can be genuinely shocking. There are some things you don’t buy a ticket for, you’re not guided to, certainly, there are things unexpected.
Have a comical example, I don’t mind being laughed at. When I was 6, we moved house and I was dropped wide-eyed and terrified into a new school. First day, in the playground, my twin and I stood in the middle of dozens of strange kids, side by side, nervous and not a little lost. Clarks shoes, shorts, a hooded quilty anorak. Very 1970. I looked like a Ladybird book schoolboy. Our tacit agreement, I imagine, was to keep it quiet and no one would notice us. This went swimmingly until a Jackdaw landed on my head.
Immediately I did precisely the worst thing I could have done at that moment and threw my hands up to the top of my head, managing to lock the bird to my skull under fear-clenched hands. It panicked; I panicked. I started to scream and the wretched thing furiously began pecking at my head. We danced around the playground like some sort of ghoulish special effect, making the world’s worst first impression.
I can still feel the cold bumpy feet, like hard bent vinyl-covered copper wire. The sudden unnatural natural, fast up against me; fiercely real.
The wild we want is the wild we know, it’s the wild we’ve tamed for ourselves. Or, maybe, it the wild we know how to be in. We’ve conquered it, we’ve conquered ourselves, so it’s ours. And that will do, thank you very much.
Most of us, and I absolutely mean me here, are happy with Thrushes cracking snails, water-boatmen, rabbits on the grass verges thrown into sharp relief by our passing headlights, or a Kestrel hovering above the hard shoulder. Close proximity snapping and biting, that’s a different thing. The only time I slept out under the stars without a tent or sleeping bag or provisions was the final night of a sponsored survival week out on some desolate Dorset heath, and despite the Nightjars and the glow worms, ten minutes after dark I wanted nothing of it.
All of this fell into place earlier when I tried to do my bit and rescue a trapped Woodpigeon. It had to be a Woodpigeon because I’d dollied them in anthropomorphic garb in the last post and then all of a sudden one arrived under my radar.
We work foursquare around a sunless grey courtyard, about the size of a tennis court. Often, birds find their way in and with three floors of glass and chrome surrounding them they have difficulty getting out. Recently, a Sparrowhawk has used the area for kills, presumably over the weekend because undisturbed its victims had been thoroughly dealt with.
And today a Woodpigeon was caught in the space and couldn’t get out, indeed it wasn’t really trying. It sat, hunched up in the rain, unmoving. There was a growing chorus of oohs and aahs and looks toward me. Might I try something? A friend, who is a much more accomplished birder than I, and a ringer, so knows how to handle birds, suggested we try to persuade it out, or maybe even apprehend it ourselves.
We were lucky, it headed into a corner as we approached and my friend moved quickly to intercept it. He held it as ringers do I guess, easily, restraining but gentle. Turning it over, it was clear the crop had come open. Seed, corn maybe, a bird table mix, was visible in a large hole in its chest. We took it quickly through the building and out into the carpark. At the bottom of the large hedgerow that grows along the borders we let it go. It ran off into the dry dark.
Was it a Sparrowhawk strike? Probably, a poor one, not followed up, or maybe disturbed. Maybe it had flown against the glass – there are often ghostly outlines where the bird’s feather dust leaves a perfect negative at the moment of impact – and damaged itself that way. I’m tempted to go with the first theory; enough damage to disable, but not enough to kill. Whatever happened, I felt, I was persuaded, it would have perished had we not managed to release it.
Oh, but I don’t know. It left me feeling pretty useless in the face of it all. If it was an attempted kill, did the Sparrowhawk and maybe fledglings go without? Was it really resigned and empty of willpower? Did it have a chance, injured like that, or would the Rooks and the Magpies be harrying it within minutes? Or a fox, or a cat from the housing estate across the road… I felt unequipped for any of that. Not invested in it, nothing like that, but so far from understanding any of it. Knowledge not mine, experience unconquered. Finally unknowable to me. Unknowable. Hopeless and unconnected.
The breadth and volume of that small shivering life seemed to take the wild further away in an instant. Is it that we ignore and sweep aside that which we can’t understand and afeared of that void of understanding we replace the gaps with our useless transferences?
Noble beasts? No. They just are. The problem’s ours. We’re scared of that deep intuitive wild, worse, we deplore it.