Flung back to an early dream
The start of my second fieldwork season has finally prompted me to do this. I’m not altogether sure why. I don’t read many blogs. I keep a diary/journal. I don’t quite understand the need to tell this part of my life in this public forum. Except that I’m a frustrated poet who doesn’t have time to write poetry. And so much of what I’m experiencing in this work cries out for poetry, and the writing that I will eventually do about it in a professional capacity, will not admit it. Ergo, I’ll write about it here, which will not be poetry either, but will be at least a record. Something that allows me to say what I experience in the doing of this work.
I did not expect to be doing a PhD at the age of 47. Doing a PhD was an ambition of my youth that got thwarted, diverted, derailed. I had given up on it entirely, had switched to writing as the lifetime’s ambition into which I could house all my passion about nature. I had just succeeded with the publication of my second collection when my father died. And suddenly there was no poetry, only grief, and no sense to the world. So I did what I did when I was young, and turned to science, to the bedrock of fact, to steady me. I embarked on a Masters in Animal Behaviour, out of that came the offer of a PhD, and last year, in my first full fieldwork season, following the worst winter of a generation, I found myself rising at dawn for months to record songbirds during the dawn chorus.
It was exhausting and exhilarating. I had a ton of equipment to carry and manage, co-ordinate, in terms of recording, and the playback stimulus. I worried about how my bad back would cope, and upped my practice of the Alexander technique to compensate. I was sleep-deprived, lost my appetite and a corresponding amount of weight, was manic and running on adrenalin. I had eight species of bird to record, 160 individuals in total, and not all of them were prepared to hang about and continue to sing while I lumbered up on them, laden like somebody out of Ghostbusters, and disrobed myself of tripod, loudspeaker, microphone, sound meter, set up the equipment, all the while recording. All in all I’d about a 60% success rate. By June, I’d a decent sample size for seven of my eight species.
I had been all over Northern Ireland, and even Co Donegal. I’d seen a partly-white Irish hare in Tollymore forest, legacy no doubt of the previous winters. I gained insight into the ‘’personality” of each of my eight species. Willow warblers emerged as an unexpected favourite, their tolerance of my unusual behaviour and activities, having very little impact on their singing behaviour. One glorious April morning, I was in Gortin Glen forest, near the top of the hills where you can see all the way across Tyrone and to Muckish mountain in Donegal on the horizon and I watched and recorded as a male willow warbler slipped in and out of the top branches of a young spruce, dipping and curtseying as he foraged, singing that lovely descending phrase of his, and in the sunshine, in the expanse and greenery, I felt only the happiness that health and feeling at one with nature can bring; and I felt lucky.
But I didn’t write about it. Partly, because I didn’t have the time. Partly, because I felt that to write about ‘myself’ was a bit of an ego-trip. But mainly because I worried about the exposure, the invasion of privacy. I was a shy child, who grew up in a small village where my father was very prominent. Then I worked for years as a teacher, where I too was a public person. Doing the PhD has turned out to be the first time in my life I’ve had the opportunity to be entirely private in my work environment. And I like it, the way I loved walking the fields with my dog when I was young. It was the absence of monitoring, at a personal level. Why on earth would I risk that to blab about it on the net, where god knows what or who I’d encounter?
Except, as I said at the outset, I love to write. Creatively, as well as scientifically, and this turns out to be something I really want to write about. It is possibly the biggest adventure of my life, the turning of a corner into a vista that is familiar but astonishing. I have in my attic a home, still unframed, a painting of the Serengeti (another thing on my to-do list!). It shows the herds and herds of animals against a balsam-coloured landscape, with a blue sky and a benevolent sun. It is paradise. The turn my life has taken, is like being flung back into an early dream when the world was young and full of such animate possibility. It is like the garden of Eden re-opened, and the voice of the serpent, which is the voice of ancient wisdom, whispering, “Come home, come home”.