I’ve paid a recent trip to Fermanagh, my native county. I miss it. I’ve lived for years in the Sperrins, in Co Derry, a bleakly beautiful landscape, glacier-scoured, stark, bare, a country of hill farms, raised bog. Fermanagh is softer, soggier, shaggier, its fields small, stippled with rushes, its hedgerows tangled and thronged. Its drumlins rise and fall without drama or ostentation to make a confined, intimate landscape, gentle and unassuming.
For years I wouldn’t have thought that landscape had character. It seemed nondescript in its backdrop. There was nothing superlative enough to be characterised as beautiful. Forget, for a moment, Lough Erne. Of course Lough Erne spins its own magic, but I want to get the landscape, not the loughscape. Where I grew up was three miles from the lough. It was out of view. It is not, surprisingly, what I first think of when I think of Fermanagh. I think of rushy fields, clumpy with tussocks; thin copses of hazel and birch; hedgerows thick with haw and sloe. Oaks, yes, but at the Omagh side of the village, there are rows of mature beech sentinelling the road, like the vault of a cathedral to enter in summer. At the other side, looking north west, you could see a stretch of bog flanked by a ribbon of forest. Shades of moss-green, lilac, the bog sometimes bleached to the colour of sand, sometimes speckled with cotton. When the showers came in, it was like a skein over the bog, and the trees seemed to melt into the rain. The whole landscape crouched under the clouds. The trees, the hedgerows, were full as them, and the sodden fields darkened with green. The place has understated grace. Modesty is appreciated at home.
When I no longer had a dog to walk the fields with, I fled to Castle Archdale. The forest, not the marina. You could walk there without a dog and not be thought peculiar. That is, except to my mother who for decades greeted every return from just such a lone ramble with “Did you meet anybody?” To say no was to confirm my oddity. To say yes was to confirm that even oddity has company, not that you’d want it. I entered the forest alone for the first time on my bike. By so doing, I began to truly absorb the undine beauty of the lough; as if I stumbled on the hidden treasure that is worth selling everything for; or some unrecognised part of the self that was never appreciated because never given the chance – until now. Of course I had encountered the lough many times before: trips to Enniskillen afforded glimpses; summer forays to Bundoran and Rosnowlagh required the adventure of the Boa Island and its triple crossings over three long bridges (work that one out) when the expanse of water, reeds, the Lough Navar in the distance, the arrayed islands, always took my breath. But I couldn’t reach it, not under my own steam.
The loss of a dog, the gain of a bike, a fifteen year old body broke my dependence on my parents and their car. I began to cycle regularly to Castle Archdale and spent a few years swooping along its paths, flitting in and out of the spruce-gloom, let my gaze rest on visas of silver water fringed with reeds. I began to tentatively watch birds on my own. Great crested grebe were almost exotic. The trees were thronged with songbirds. I couldn’t yet recognise many by voice. My interest in birds was fragile, and easily deflected. It was easier to read about them than to watch them. Those maddening little calls all sounded alike. Congenial company that might offer encouragement, direction, was, in fact, hard to find. And I was young, cared far, far too much about what people thought of me; couldn’t bear the stares if I was caught – and it did feel like I was caught – with binoculars.
Nevertheless, Castle Archdale became my new territory. I learned to drive, got my own car, stopped biking, stared walking. The slower pace suited me, and my surrounds. I came to know every sylvan trail, their characteristic lighting and shade, their smells, the gloom of the spruce, the dapple of the patches of deciduous, and on bright days, the gleam of silver water along the curving shores. Sorrel and lichen. The trees in the sumps so thick with lichen that I felt proud of them, the pure Fermanagh air they flagged with their grey-green beards. Long ago, I tried to do a terrible school project on birds there. Not much later, I completed a not-so terrible nature study project for my teacher-training course. So, last spring, when I was looking for sites to record my birds, Castle Archdale was a priority. In its favour: that I know it like the back of my hand; that it is quiet, with no major roads nearby, whereas every reserve near Belfast seems to run the gauntlet of motorway or airport, and their accompanying traffic. And it’s a big forest, lots of opportunity to get a spread of species. Against that: it’s a fair oul jaunt from Belfast.
I made a good call last year. On my father’s birthday, too, so I felt somewhat blessed. I got loads of birds including two rival song thrushes screaming at each other in the car park. Well, make that whistling and chirping, and fluting at each other. Song thrushes are great, a beautifully modulated song, so distinctive from any other thrush species, what ornithologists recognise as a continuous singer, faithful to their songposts, all of which makes recording easy. And protected by their elevated positions usually very close to the tops of trees, they are also usually quite unafraid of human attention. Especially when your dear enemy next door, has dared to start indulge in a little self-advertisement at the same time.
This year, it’s been quieter so far. But I’ve re-explored my old haunts, heard a few blackbirds, one of my targets, just beginning to get going. Recorded a single coal tit. Unfortunately no dunnocks, who are evidently working up to become my nemesis. But I’ll be back later in the year, when the warblers have returned from an African winter. Can’t wait.