It’s been a while, but I am climbing out a morass of data. I’ve been toiling down the mines, working working working. No field work. My daily walk through the park to the office is virtually the only fresh air I’ve got of late. Mind you, I would’ve been having kittens (not that the birds would approve!) if I’d been doing fieldwork this spring, the season has been so long in coming.
The long winter has matched the gruelling labour of my analysis. Despite regular yoga, a biweekly swim, my upper back, shoulders, neck, ache constantly from the leaning into my work. My wrist is playing up a little, which is does when I use a mouse too much. At times, it’s felt like touch and go whether I’d get through it or not. I know I’m tired. But I’ve kept going, chunks at a time, not looking too much forward. Now, I’m beginning to get to the top, to get some perspective, to see the broader picture.
I’ve had to come to terms, however, with the fact that I’m going to run over. I won’t get this done for when my funding runs out; it’s going to take me longer than three years. Hopefully, not by much. I’ll certainly be completed all my analysis, but I really have to start seriously writing very soon. I’m always stuck in this perennial dilemma: trying to balance the requirement to get my analysis finished – and that analysis has taken so much longer than originally anticipated – versus writing up. I’ve also been somewhat disadvantaged in that my research has essentially comprised of a single massive experiment, rather than separate discrete ones. So it has been difficult to consider and discuss that in the absence of all the information being collated. However, my upcoming third year talk, next Tuesday, has somewhat forced the issue. It has driven me to distil my data for six of my nine species (omitting the blackbird – acoustic analysis complete, statistical analysis not yet completed; chiffchaff and robin – neither acoustic nor statistical analyses completed; aiming for all that to be done for the end of June), and while the patterns are not wholly consistent across species, there’s both enough consistency and enough variation to allow a decent argument to be posited. I have diagrams, graphs, pasted up in the kitchen of my flat, and I stare at them, waiting for their message to become clear. It’s starting to come into focus. As ever in biology, the truth is more complex than the original hypothesis allowed for, but the hypothesis is a sound starting point. Meantime, I’m enjoying the preparation for the talk. I’m not even that nervous and I’m looking forward to the feedback. After all this time down the mines, it’ll be good to be in the light.
Left the office early yesterday and on my way home, just outside Dungiven, there it was, sitting on a wire: 2013′s first swallow! Within an hour I was out walking in my local woods and had hardly entered the trees before I heard a willow warbler! Just a gap of a week between him and the chiffchaff, the classic interval.
Winter is over at last.
It’s been a while, and I seem to have been caught in some kind of late-winter lassitude as regards to writing. I’ve been very busy, but that’s par for the course. I’m still processing my results, got the song thrushes finished before Easter, began work on a thesis chapter/paper about them; abandoned it in favour of more analysis as my 3rd year talk looms (7th May – help!). I’m getting there. My proficiency at stats has improved enormously. I have the bulk of the work completed on six of my nine species. I still have to physically measure chiffchaffs and robins, but I have completed all the measurements on all the others, and have only the blackbirds to process fully. I would like to get them done for my third year talk but it’ll be tight. For all of its exhaustion, I miss fieldwork. I miss being outdoors. It’s been such a long, long winter. The land is so tired looking. You couldn’t call this an emerald isle at the minute. The fields are yellowed, brown, weary.
News of a death of a member of the extended family came through at the weekend, too late for me to go to the funeral which is at the other end of the country, and with the plethora of obligations this week, one fairly hugely personal, it is the right decision. Nevertheless, it has set me back. Childhood memories flood in. I lit a candle this morning, the morning of the funeral. Buried myself in analysis all day.
However, there has been a change in the weather in the last few days, and lo, on my journey home past Toome on Friday last, even from the car I could clearly see the fields empty of whoopers. They’ve left. Then on Saturday, I was out for a walk and I heard my first chiffchaff, at least a fortnight later than last year, but never mind. Another week or so and the willow warblers will be back too. It was my return journey to Belfast yesterday that confirmed the change absolutely. The hedgerows. The haw. They’re beginning to green! Just a faint blur for the moment. I remember my mother’s saying, from her own father: ‘when summer comes, welcome haw’. Sorely welcome today.
At a (fairly) recent Tuesday lunchtime seminar, the speaker was David Cabot, http://www.newnaturalists.com/authors/pages/david-cabot.aspx. I had heard David speak before at last autumn’s BTO conference but this was the first time I’d heard him speak to a purely academic audience. His talk was a treat. David is not a stereotyped one-dimensional academic and his experience of the wider environmental work lent his presentation an eclecticism and singularity that was stimulating and refreshing.
Before David got going however, I spotted a vaguely familiar profile in the audience. I knew I knew him but I just couldn’t place him. Then, as David made his opening remarks, he welcomed “Professor …” and the name came as a gasp from my own mouth. Michael Longley! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Longley One of our major poets, a distinguished guest indeed. I have some several connections with Michael Longley. We both read at the Poetry Now, http://www.poetrynow.ie/, Festival in Dun Laoghaire ten years ago. Michael, was of course one of the stars, whereas I was a new kid on the block, a nominee for a Young Guns award (a title I was more than a little mortified by, being neither young nor remotely interested in firearms. It smelled rather too much of smoke and testosterone than I was comfortable with) for my first collection, Black Wolf on a White Plain. Then, two years ago, I was invited to write a poem celebrating the townlands of the Glendarragh Valley by the festival committee of Ederney, the village where I grew up. Through that event, I learned of an upcoming reading in Ederney by, guess who, Michael Longley. He had a connection to the village also, in that as a child in Belfast he was looked after by a young woman from Ederney. Although I didn’t make it to that reading, those chance abutments, those meetings at a distance, were enough to have a tenuous connection to the man beyond the marvel of his poetry. Thus to recognise the man, the poet, in that audience of scientists, gave me again that pleasing sense of a convergence of my twin passions, poetry and science.
David Cabot and Michael Longley are clearly friends, no doubt as a result of their long sharing of the habitat of the Mayo west coast, a magical territory of rain-glazed sunsets and eye-loping expanse of barren beauty, the land tawny, umbral, with its pelt of bogland. While Michael may only summer there, David resides, and for the length of his long life he has conducted an intensely faithful watch on the Barnacle geese, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barnacle_Goose , which flock to the West’s empty spaces for its poor grazing which is nonetheless sufficient to sustain their overwintering, their hardy lives.
The epithet “long-term” hardly conveys the continuance of the surveillance that David (with help from colleagues and comrades) has sustained. Since his youth in the late fifties, like the migrants themselves, David has been drawn back to Iniskea http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inishkea_Islands , a place of mist and storm-swell, of famine-abandoned lazy-beds, of early Christian hermitage and heritage, to attend to these birds, these ambassadors of the arctic.
Barnacle geese derive their name from old legends, when their seasonal arrival and departure, the nature of where they might vanish to and spawn from, was a complete mystery; a time when hirondelles buried themselves in mud for the winter, the voice of the cuckoo caused, rather heralded, spring, and barnacle geese, named for their shellfish sponsors, either grew out of the barnacles as they were, clung to the rocky shores; or, rather more elegantly, if bizarrely, fruited from the uniquely medieval Barnacle Tree, forests of which sprout in monkish manuscripts, opening their hissy shelly mouths to divulge their feathery secrets in spring, swallow them up again in autumn.
The facts are almost as strange. There are three populations of barnacle geese that have been living their intimate and epic lives well beyond the traditional scope of human knowledge: Irish; Scottish; and west-European. In the last century, human travel and technology has harvested the information that these wintering populations summer in different places also: Greenland for the “Irish”; Spitsbergen for the “Scottish”; Russia for the “west-European” (it is difficult to apply such prescriptive identifiers for these nomads).
A previous seminar had pointed out that we simply don’t know the cues that migrant geese use to decide when to lift off and go. Barnacle geese spend their summers and winters essentially puttering about in flight terms, skimming from sleeping to feeding, or in summer, to nesting grounds, in short hops of 15-20 mins in the air at the most. They don’t train. Then suddenly, with no apparent definite signal, other than the gradual stretch or diminishment of light, the gathering or dissipation of ambient warmth, these slow continuous changes suddenly clinch into definite decision. Suddenly, one day, the flocks just lift off and go, almost without stragglers. And those daily jaunts, those short hops, are mutated, transformed, under the strive and surge of muscular wings, the fuel of fat stored out of the dedicated grazing that consumes most of their daily hours, the reach of those extended necks, those runabout flights are expanded into questing odysseys of 12, 15, 20 hours non-stop, and for the Irish birds, most of it, bar a brief stopover in Iceland, across the turmoil of the equinoctial Atlantic. Of course, this capacity must be rooted in their biology. All birds, even the most grounded, the ratites, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ratite, are aerial creatures, their morphology, physiology, inherently tied to their favoured, even if only ancestrally, medium of locomotion. Birds are riddled with air, their hollow strutted bones, the shafts and filaments of their feathers, the astonishing air sacs that augment the lungs to render their ventilation an efficiency that outstrips that of any comparable mammal; and the other adaptations that lighten their load, the keratinous bills, the absence of teeth, the substitution of the gizzard with its collection of stones that may be collected or abandoned as required. Whatever the details, the result is astonishing. These small dark geese, modestly sustaining the domestic, the familial, of summer and winter, can suddenly power into a night sky and traverse a threatening ocean to swap one world for another. And they do it twice a year.
Unlike the small passerine migrants which undertake their own uniquely epic biannual journeys across the line of the planet’s navel, geese don’t do it simply by instinct alone. Whatever assistance geese gain from the patterns of stars, the pull of oceans, or the gradient of the earth’s magnetic field, they also rely on the same senses as we do. They copy their parents. They learn landscape features and they follow them. They travel in family-groups, calling to each other as they go, and that family cohesiveness ensures intergenerational site-fidelity. They have their traditional routes to link their traditional their summering and wintering grounds. The “Irish” population includes those of western Scotland, who all migrate to Greenland; but in Scotland, there is obviously also the “Scottish” population, who are in fact the population of eastern Scotland who summer in Spitsbergen. In winter, these groups are separated by only a few hundred kms, peanuts to these birds, but they rarely intermingle and apparently never permanently.
Perhaps the migrant geese are so embedded in the Irish imagination because of their identification with the emigration of the old Gaelic nobility after the inevitable, internecine, treacherous, attritional, guerrilla-type wars that have typified Irish history (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Yellow_Ford; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Kinsale; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flight_of_the_Earls ). The flight of the earls occurred from another wintering barnacle goose stronghold, Rathmullan in Co Donegal, not far from where I did some of fieldwork over the last two springs at Inch Wildfowl Reserve. Cries of wild geese, of wild swans, are an intrinsic part of the soundscape there in winter, remain so now, in this unseasonally long winter: haunting bugles of sadness, mourning what is lost, never to be regained.
Not for the geese themselves of course. For them, those plaintive cries are simply a part of the social glue that holds the family group together, helps guide the adolescent goslings across the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, learning the skymarks, the landmarks, the desert of sea that is still somehow featured by the rhythm of tides, the pulse of magnetism below its bleak threatening depths. Year on year, winter after winter, the geese return to Inishkea, and their return draws David back too, winter after winter, year on year. Much of the information he has garnered over half a century of observations, shows that the geese are doing fine, holding their own. They haven’t shown some of the spectacular population increases that some of their Scottish counterparts have shown, largely, it is thought, due to the Scots provision of legal protection for their wintering grounds there. The “Irish” birds continue to rely on the stern remoteness, human-depopulatedness, of Ireland’s northern and western coasts and islands. The Iniskea islands are, in human terms, long abandoned, but the barnacles graze on their imprint, the overgrown lazy-beds. David and colleagues have a detailed ringing system, its low-tech long-term reliability and viability reminding me of Jenny Gills’s works on the black-tailed godwit (http://chasingavianvoices.wordpress.com/2012/11/20/bto-conference-2012; http://www.bto.org/news-events/events/2012-11/northern-ireland-birdwatchers-conference ) They’ve also used traps and cannon-netting to trap the birds.
Fro a science seminar this was a heady mix, and I suspect that not a few of my colleagues were a little discomfited as we were regaled with the details of early Irish Christianity, the whaling station, and the final flight of the island’s human populace in the 1930s after most of their young men were wiped out at sea. However, for me, much of this stuff was not out of place. We have finally achieved what Genesis exhorted and promised us: stewardship of the earth, and we’re really not making such a good job of it. Our ubiquitous, often downright malevolent control, means that our co-denizens of the planet, require our care, our awareness, our respect, more than ever. The ancient Irish migrated to the remotest parts of this country for a host of reasons; fresh territory; religious or political persecution; escape. But the type of escape exemplified by the old Christian hermitages, the likes of the monastic sites on another western Irish island (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skellig_Michael ) are what give us the history of the barnacle geese, at least as seen through human eyes, and illustrate that there is essentially no separation of the scientist, the artist, the contemplative. They all watch, attend, and may lose themselves in something greater than their own ordinary individuality.
The culmination, the cresting, of David’s study was an expedition he organised and sourced funding for in 1987, a quest the likes of St Brendan, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brendan, could only dream of. He followed the Barnacles to their other home. Traversing glacial moraines and arctic rivers, the group found the “Irish” birds, now securely fastened in their Greenland identity to the sides of sheer cliff faces, tiny ledges lined with their own down, precarious nests for these small, but stocky geese. The advantage for the geese is that the arctic foxes can’t reach them there; the only real threat to the goslings’ is that of the disdainfully glamorous gyrfalcons. However, once fledged they must, like the young gull in Liam O’Flaherty’s His First Flight, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liam_O’Flaherty, literally leap into the air and let themselves parachute down to the barren plains below, where, shepherded by their parents, they make their way to small lakes, again to evade the ever-present arctic foxes. There they remain until they, and their parents, during the fortnight-long summer moult, gain the capacity of flight. It must have been a stunning adventure, as confirmed when David subsequently sent me a copy of the monograph of the entire trip; all the more when David was not funded by a traditional academic institution.
I went for coffee with David and Michael after the seminar. Michael told lovely stories of poetry and awards. He quoted a line from one of his own poems regarding that caught my breath at its exactitude at so many levels, the wren’s “brain-rattling bramble song”, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2006/oct/14/featuresreviews.guardianreview26 , a line I would kill for. It made me think of how to get a poem for the song – the song mind, not simply the bird – of each of my nine study species. That will require a more research of a different kind. Has anyone written a poem about the song of the willow warbler for instance? Or will I just have to write it myself?
It was a wonderful encounter with both men. Their meeting of minds and hearts across the fields of art and science, the boglands and sea of Mayo, could almost feel almost like an invitation to the future.
When I was young, between the ages of about eight and thirteen, I had regular horse-riding lessons. I was crazy about horses. Indeed, for many of those years I was a horse. I practised whinnies, snorts, head-tossing, eye-rolling, nostril-flaring, along with my bipedal version of trotting and cantering. I read Black Beauty over twenty times, devoured the Pullein-Thompsons, the Silver Brumby and the Black Stallion. I lived for that Saturday lesson when, alongside a dozen or so similarly-aged children, I was deposited for a hour at Chambers Riding School in Omagh, where for that short time I got to sit astride a bored, often recalcitrant pony, and try to cajole and bully it into becoming the steed I dreamed of.
The routine was the usual circumlocution of a paddock, ours being walled and sandy for all weathers. When we got beyond the basics – learning to sit (yes, you do have to learn to sit properly on a horse), the rising, then the sitting trot – the next big step was the canter. A totally different gait, its three-beat rhythm entirely contrasting with the simple two-beat of a trot which was essentially the same as my own running, just four legs instead of two. The canter propelled me to a new plane, its swinging rock demanding an escalation of my seat as I learned to swing with the pony’s movement, grip its torso tighter with my thighs, become part of that rocking motion. Contact was maintained, flesh against flesh, even through the saddle’s leather, the fabric of my jodhpurs, the pony’s hide.
However, to get to that thrilling point we had to break through the trot barrier. As I said, most of the ponies we rode were old hands, tired stalwarts of Saturday lessons, who responded reluctantly, if at all, to our bumbling diffident commands. So when urged to transition from trot to canter they mostly reacted, firstly, with ostensible incomprehension, marked by a rapid flicking back and forth of ears (What can you possibly mean? I’m trotting aren’t I?); then by determined disobedience – ears laid stubbornly back, a surly dismissal in the ludicrous rapidity of the trot (Forget it! This is as fast as I’m going! I put up with enough with you on my back in this insufferable routine!); but then, with enough persistence on my part, especially if I happened to be fortunate enough to be mounted on Likely Lad, who was lean and young, not yet worn down by years of this pastiche of equitation, rather than Buttercup, whose bovine name hinted at her depth of obstinacy behind a superficially placid exterior – suddenly, suddenly there would be a change. It always happened just when I thought that the frantic slap-slap-slap-slap of the mad trot had to give, but that I was going to suffer the humiliation sinking back to a walk without ever achieving the liberation of the canter; suddenly there would be the gear shift and I would feel it somatically, viscerally, as the Plunge. It was fleetingly announced as the pony’s head pulled back, a thrust as the hindquarters gathered underneath for the push, but then would come the absolute confirmation: the leading foreleg would hit the ground with a definite thump; simultaneously the pony’s head would tilt forward, and its whole body would momentarily collect, suspend, over the pivot of that single foreleg as the animal propelled itself to a whole new level of motion that soared beyond the pedestrian trot, felt almost like flying.
The Plunge marked the change. I could feel it in the pony’s body and hence in my own. We were one. The pony had finally obeyed, and that obedience was a lesson in confidence and trust. The pony had deferred to me, trusted me enough to obey; which meant that I carried within me enough authority to elicit that trust.
The image of the Plunge has been around me a few days now. Initially I couldn’t identify the source of the familiarity of the feeling; I just had the feeling. It’s connected with my work. Since Christmas I’ve been heavily involved with my song thrushes. You may recall that I’d planned to have completed the acoustic analysis of my nine species by the end of January. Well, I’ve completed the family-level analysis and was left with two congeners: the song thrush (cf: blackbird); and the chiffchaff (cf: willow warbler); and the robin bringing up the rear as I’ve already done a lot of work on them. So with these last three species I had planned to just do a partial analysis. However, once I started on the song thrush, I found it tricky. They often sing more or less continuously, making it difficult to discern the individual song unit. So it took me a while to work that out. Then, while working it out, I noticed something that is potentially important. I couldn’t let it go. I’m almost done, but it required a full analysis even if it took me twice as long as I’d originally expected. I’m anxious about the fact that my funding runs out in October. I’m almost overwhelmed by the amount of work I still have to do; but I also feel, however tentatively, precariously, that I’m hitting my stride. All the busyness of the past couple of years have just been like the frenzy of a fast-forwarded film. Now I’m at the point just before that foreleg whacks the ground, declaratively, definitively, to plunge me from frantic trot into an energetic but ultimately serene canter that will surely carry me to a different level, forward into a new future.
I first really encountered poetry in 1978, at Mount Lourdes Grammar School (http://www.mountlourdes.com) in Miss Reihill’s English class. Of course I’d been exposed to poetry in primary school, but my vague recollection now is that it was the kind of whimsical doggerel that is customarily used to patronise children, engaging the senses rather than the emotions. My first three years at grammar school were a desert of dullness, enlivened only by a Touchstones anthology where I discovered an excerpt from John Masefield’s Reynard the fox (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/38052), which I sneaked readings of under the desk while the rest of the class laboured through whatever novel it was that the teacher insisted be read aloud. I, of course, had long since read to the end of said novel, and was withering with lassitude and boredom as a result. Thus, entry to Miss Reihill’s class to begin my O’level English courses (I remember vaguely that she didn’t teach juniors) was a little like joining the army. Suddenly there was discipline, order, exactitude, imperative commands that demanded instant obedience, sweeping glances that quelled us; and ferocious attention require because what we were doing was very important.
The biggest weapon in Miss Reihill’s armoury, the one that floored me utterly, was A Choice of Poets: an anthology of poets from Wordsworth to the present day, chosen and edited by RP Hewitt (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2743792-a-choice-of-poets). I still have my painfully annotated teenage copy, pointing out the likes of ‘irony’ with such conscientiousness that methinks I must have had no sense of it. However, I also dimly remember that sense of not really knowing enough to get it; that recognition of a whole new world opening I was just on the threshold of it. Looking at Choice of Poets now, its deficiencies are obvious, legion. The teenage girl leaning, Wordsworthian-like, on a bridge, gazing pensively into the mid-distance, is the only female representative therein, or should I say thereon, excepting, of course, wives, girlfriends, mothers, sisters, daughters, muses and highland lasses. No Christina Rossetti. Staggeringly, no Emily Dickenson. No Edna St Vincent Millay. No Stevie Smith. No Sylvia Plath. Nothing to indicate a woman might write the stuff. All white males. But, my god, these white males were good, dead or alive (and in 1978 one or two of them were still alive). These white males grabbed my attention, held me captive, brought me sometimes close to tears even in the middle of a classroom. I was all theirs, have been ever since.
Looking back, it is shocking at just how few of them we studied in depth, but I can still recall the names: Wordsworth; Keats; Hardy; Hopkins; Owen; Frost; RS Thomas. Astonishingly, poets I now could not imagine life without, poets who are in the book include Eliot; Edward Thomas, Auden. But of the poets that we did study to a reasonable degree, two stood out for me, one solidly traditional, the other, dazzlingly innovative; but both employing great sensuality of rhythm and rhyme: Hardy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Hardy) and Hopkins (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerard_Manley_Hopkin). Hopkins overwhelmed me, his syntactical and rhythmical originality, totally coherent and convincing in the blaze of his outrageous talent. Too things shone: his passion and his discipline, and the tension between them enervates his poetry with an awesome power and brilliance. In his life, of course, these opposite poles caused him crippling self-denial, heartbreaking depression, that weep out of his terrible sonnets; and terrible they are. No-one has written of despair so succinctly, so devastatingly accurately.
Hardy was a different matter. I fell in love with – there’s no other way to describe it – The Darkling Thrush (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/dec/28/poem-of-the-week-the-darkling-thrush-thomas-hardy). It was certainly one of the poems that had me on the edge of tears, stanched only by the prospect of public humiliation. It was also probably the first poem I ever learned by heart totally involuntarily. Despair is at the heart of this poem too, albeit despair of a more modest type in the form of Hardy’s famous pessimism, that lowness of spirit, the atmosphere of sadness, tragedy, that pervades all his work. It is a despair moderated by a certain self-distancing, resignation in the face of forces too great for the individual self. However, Hardy’s affinity for the natural world, his fine observation of apparently inconsequential details, that drew me into his poetry more generally – ‘The bars thick with drops …. Like silver buttons ranged in a row (At a Middle-Field Gate in February). That he was a man who used to ‘notice such things’ (Afterwards) made me feel not quite so alone and foolish in my own noticing of such things when I tramped the winter fields in the after-school gloom. Hardy’s voice – modest, resigned, attentive, was one I felt a kinship towards, looked to for affirmation of my own solitary wanderings among Fermanagh drumlins.
But back to that simultaneous assault on both my senses and my emotions by The Darkling Thrush. The poem hearks to Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, with its darkling, its full-hearted evensong echoing full-throated ease, and given the intense meticulous notes I took on both poems, I’m sure that the absence of any reference to Darkling’s intertextuality is true to my memory: Miss Reihill refrained from making any such connection – possibly she didn’t want to overload us; we only studied two poems of Keats, after all. The bleak landscape that Hardy sets as background for the eruption of the thrush’s blessed Hope intensifies its impact, makes it even more authentic. Hardy wanted to hope, wanted to trust, but his reluctant pessimism acts as a break to his first impulse. In Darkling, there is a tension, a triangulation strung between the land’s sharp features, the thrush’s ecstatic carollings, and Hardy’s own feelings, his consternation, even anxious concern, for the bird’s vulnerability in fling(ing) his soul/ Upon the growing gloom. However, even through that consternation, Hardy is moved to reflect that this aged frail gaunt creature must have a greater awareness of Hope than he himself does; the thrush in all its frailty, its blast-beruffled plume, its happy good-night air, appears to have a profounder connection with the imponderable trustworthiness of the Universe than does the fervourless Hardy himself. Hope trembles, but holds. The third point of the triangulation is a doubting envy.
For years I assumed that Hardy’s darkling was a song thrush, largely from his application of the adjective small. Excluding blackbirds, we have only two resident thrushes, the song thrush and the mistle thrush, and song thrushes are the smaller of the two. However, The Poetry of Birds (edited by Simon Armitage and Tim Dee) (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Poetry-Birds-Simon-Armitage/dp/0141027118) classifies Darkling as a mistle thrush, despite that ‘darkling’ may mean simply dark one, which doesn’t really act as a species-identifier. But for all that I’ve heard song thrushes singing in winter Belfast parks, generally, in the countryside, in the absence of city light and warmth, the mistle thrush is one of the first announcers of spring; and while happy good night air, and carollings, suggest to me the more measured tempo of the song thrush, the fact that the carollings are ecstatic, flung, implies the wilder, harsher, more abrupt song of the mistle. Mistle thrushes shout, demand, that spring arrive. Song thrushes merely celebrate its arrival. So, while my jury may be still a little out on Darkling, a clinching argument is the temporal setting of the poem. The arrival of the new 20th century, the new year of or 1899 or 1900. Given the date, more likely on balance to be mistle. I will therefore yield Darkling to the mistle thrush. However, there is compensation: in the same volume, I discovered a gem that is so completely song thrush there is simply no argument.
The Throstle is by Tennyson (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred,_Lord_Tennyson). For all that he is featured in A Choice of Poets, and has thus been harboured in my possession for over thirty years, I do not know Tennyson at all. I have perhaps avoided him as someone of privilege, of undoubted talent, but who, in their class and in their contemporaneous praise, had passed into the category of the sentimentally bland and obvious. Not real enough. Not gritty enough.
Perhaps I was too harsh. After all, what is birdsong but a celebration of the ornate as refined by generations of sexual selection? The Throstle (it’s an old English word for thrush, of the same pedigree as the German Drossel for the same species) had me laughing with delight from the first stanza. In fairness to A Choice of Poets, while it is merciless in its description of Tennyson’s faults (“bogus medievalism … surface beauty but little real depth … shamelessly complacent and contemptuous of the poor and the foreign”), it is unequivocal in its praise of Tennyson’s “exquisite ear”. Nowhere, may I say in my very minute sampling, is this more evident than in The Throstle. The poem translocates the singing of a song thrush into the English language near-perfectly. Certainly far more intelligibly and beautifully than conventional bird guides – my Svensson et al (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Collins-Bird-Guide-Lars-Svensson) does the usual impersonation of Finnish: kucklivi kucklivi tixi tixi tixi, pi-eh, truu, truu, truu, tixifix, chu-chu-chu, kokukiklix, kokukiklix. Does that make any sense? I ask you. Even the generally infallible Geoff Sample (http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/Collins-Bird-Songs-Calls-Geoff-Sample), who shows great flair and aptness in his descriptions, (eg: ‘plaintive’ for the robin – could anything be more true?) that marks him as a poet in another life, can only manage a summary of the well-known triplicates of song thrush singing; characterises the refrain as “Pretty dick. Pretty dick”. How rude. If, admittedly, accurate not only on the aural level but also, somewhat ironically, on the ultimate raison d’etre of birdsong.
Anyway, back to the poem. The Throstle is gorgeous. If you don’t know the song of the song thrush, it’s just a light pretty poem, and it is that. If you know the song, the pleasure is magnified. In some ways Tennyson chose his subject well. The song of the song thrush is deliberate in tempo, its delivery a good deal more measured and slow compared with the blurring rush of syllables that characterises so many other species, at a speed far too quick for the human ear to process. The rate of spoken English and the rate of a song thrush singing converge relatively closely. Nevertheless the poem is a fine aural achievement.
‘Summer is coming, summer is coming,
I know it, I know it, I know it.
Light again, leaf again, life again, love again.’
Yes, my wild little poet.
Sing the new year in under the blue.
Last year you sang it as gladly.
‘New, new new, new!’ is it then so new
That you should carol so madly?
‘Love again, song again, nest again, young again.’
Never a prophet so crazy!
And hardly a daisy as yet, little friend,
See there is hardly a daisy.
‘Here again, here, here, here, happy year!’
O warble unchidden, unbidden!
Summer is coming, is coming, my dear,
And all the winters are hidden.
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
A fine rendition and interpretation both. A proper translation.
I made it back to Belfast for the 3rd, not without struggle. I didn’t appear in the office till the afternoon, where a very few others had also gathered, returned from the south, the States, London. There was almost an hour of chat, of catching up, which is fairly unusual. All of us early-returners are third years or more, with tight schedules and theses to produce in the very near future. None of us are up for whiling away the hours.
I have plunged into my song thrush analyses. Over the Christmas I had, in fact, decided to not do precisely this. I needed a break from measuring measuring measuring. My eyes ached from staring at the monitor. Distance was blurring in an alarming fashion. It was bad enough for me to get my eyes checked over the holidays, and I’ve a new pair of glasses ordered (I got the original pair just over two years ago, and only because I had starting ringing training – bird ringing, that is, or banding as its known to my swathes of North American readers – and the numbers on those shiny metal bands were just too tiny, and carved into a too-reflective surface, for my middle-aged vision to cope). But I didn’t really need glasses, you understand. Certainly not for reading. Well, it’s different now. The optician confirmed that my declining sight is that of the obligatory age-related type, combined with the strain of staring at a monitor for 8-10 hours a day. Reassurance came with an interesting fact: too much computer work strains the eyes because we blink up to two-thirds less when staring at pixels. Our eyes become fixated in a way that they don’t when staring at natural images, real things. I now have eye drops to manage the dehydration that accompanies staring into glare.
Anyway, as I say, I’d planned to give myself a break from measuring measuring measuring, and amuse myself with some stats, but, lo and behold, the licence for the SPSS stats package has expired on my computer, and the computer tech is still on leave, so that settles that. Back to birdsong in the raw. Then a chance encounter with a postdoc alerted me to the fact that R classes are starting on the 5th February. Oh dear. R is a programming language that can be used to do stats. It’s all the rage, and all the bright young things are really into it. It invokes in its followers Messianic complexes, an urge to convert the masses to its truth on a vast scale. Not without some merit. It’s free over the internet for one thing, so there’s no inconvenient licence agreements to maintain. So it’s eminently portable for students and academics on short-term contracts moving from institution to institution. For those who have the time and inclination to learn it, it’s apparently marvellously powerful and flexible. That is, for those who learn it. At my supervisor’s behest, I did a five-day course in it, the first summer of my PhD. So, I should have learned it. I didn’t learn it. I found the course stressful, the language tedious, the execution of commands convoluted and trap-setting, inviting me into endless mistakes and frustration. I wasted a week of my life. As a (very) late returner to science, my statistical prowess is not brilliant at the best of times, and between the famous Paper, nine months of fieldwork (including all the prep), and the debate about the technical and methodological issues (http://chasingavianvoices.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/the-pursuit-of-objectivity/), that prowess really hasn’t had the chance to develop much. Indeed, I have so much analysis and writing to completes, that even with ferocious self-discipline, it’s going to be difficult to finish for October.
Self-discipline for me doesn’t involve a lack of work-ethic. I have work-ethic coming out of my ears. I use work as remedy for outrageous fortune’s slings and arrows, and, more to the point, I enjoy work. I like being busy and stimulated. Where I need to exercise self-discipline is in not overcommitting. I’m inclined to unrealistic expectations of myself. I drive myself too hard, often ending in a weeping heap of insomniac exhaustion. Where I need to learn self-discipline is in how to cut back. I can’t do a PhD, write poetry (not to speak of my back-burner novel), get a ringing licence, keep the wheels of various personal stuff turning, maintain relationships, supervise an honours student, explore what to do post-PhD, all at the same time. Ain’t possible. Astonishingly, for a large part of me, this is still news. I have to keep breaking it to myself.
Over Christmas, I did manage to bring myself to make a few decisions in this regard. I am not pursuing getting a ringing licence. It takes three years, one has to handle hundreds of wild birds. Completely unfeasible. Weekends are far too short as it is. Yes, if I stay in research, in ornithology, it would be wonderful to have licence. I know all the arguments. Individual identification. Population studies. Blood samples. Genetics. But, coming to terms with limits again, I have to prioritise. And getting a ringing licence, is like another layer of symbolic redemption on top of doing this PhD, where I find myself with the opportunity to re-do my youth. But second chances can be dangerous. They give the illusion that it really is all possible, eternal return and renewal. The chance to do this PhD has wonderful, has restored, repaired, so much for me. But it doesn’t wipe out decades of my life. I’m not 25 or less, just starting out. I turned 48 over the holidays, and while becoming a professional scientist or ornithologist may not yet be out of the question, such a move will nevertheless be shaped by my history.
Back to R. I feel guilty because I’m suppose to have learned it. And I haven’t had time to learn it, I didn’t enjoy the course, and realistically, mastering SPSS is probably enough for me at present. Doing the first course wasn’t my idea, and I don’t have to berate myself for not having the wit to say no. My supervisor’s motives were good, but I’m his first PhD student, and I’m obviously not typical. My strength is in writing. I have to get my analysis completed, I have to provide myself the time to write. I don’t want to use that time to learn a programming language which can be learned another time, if it turns out that that would be the wise thing to do. But, another perennial difficulty for me, I’m finding it a difficult decision to make. However, at least I have a few weeks to come to terms with it.
The other decision I made over the holidays was to turn down the creative writing work I’d been offered in a local school. It wasn’t a firm offer, but I had felt obliged to accept out of some sense of social responsibility, and to ‘keep my hand in’. But my stomach was turning over, at the thought of open-ended public ‘performance’, given my relative lack of practice in such activities over the last few years, added to my perennial control-freakery and inability to wing it. I withdrew, and I’m glad I did. I congratulate myself for the time saved, not only in the delivering of the sessions but also in the preparation. I made a good call.
I’m trying to give myself credit for making these decisions, even if they are a struggle to make. I still want to do everything! But I need to focus, hone, pare down to the main priorities, if I’m to have any hope of finishing for October, Christmas at the latest. That’s a year or less. I can do this for a year or less.