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What to wear?

April 5, 2012

As we say in this part of the world, I’m a coul rife. I freeze easily. I have Reynaud’s syndrome, which means my extremities lose blood with the suddenness of a door slamming. Then I’m left with dead men’s fingers, which can make the operating of equipment (a recorder say; a pencil; the switch on the mike) somewhat problematic. Apparently this is adaptive, for those of us who live in cold climes. I can lose limbs but my torso will stay warm. I will not be able to do anything for myself, but I’ll be alive.

Unfortunately, and I don’t know if this is true of other Reynaud’s sufferers, I also suffer the converse. I warm up to easily. Exercise can have me roiling in sweat.

Thus, what to wear, on these cold spring mornings, can have me occupied with hours of speculation. I check the forecast obsessively. I have to try and balance: 1) the temperature difference between pre-dawn and post dawn, i.e., night versus day; 2) whether the sun will shine or not; 3) the contrast in my own activity; fieldwork is a classic case of ‘Hurry up and wait’. I can spent hours walking round sites. Then I hear a bird and I’m in the one place for at least 15 mins, often over half an hour. So the walking, and the weight I carry (equipment, people! Not adipose!), will have me gently glowing even on these barely above freezing mornings (and not so barely; I didn’t go out this morning, not just cos of the temperature; that north-east wind! How will the chiffchaffs survive? All the way from North Africa for this?). Then I have to hang around for ages, while all that accumulated metabolic warmth lifts from my body and I’m foundered.

I have three coats (no, I don’t wear them all at once). One is a parka, that I got for a wolf-watching trip to Yellowstone for my 40th birthday. Still going strong, and great for standing about in sub-zero temperatures, but 10mins walking in it, and I’m in a sauna.  Another is a fleece-lined waterproof, which is what I mostly opt for. Another is just a waterproof, and that hasn’t had a outing this year yet.

Then there’s the noise of clothes. As I divest myself of my array of equipment, the friction sounds like thunder in the crisp air of pre-dawn. Granted, only a preamble to the gunshot of switching on the recorder, or the machine-gun rattle of unzipping my bum-bag to retrieve notebook, GPS. I hold my breath, hoping my little victim is happy to sing through the noise. Often I think about the fact that the birds have no idea how their voices are being recorded for posterity, what that might mean to them. Talk about parallel lives. We live in such different worlds, all on the same planet, the same point in evolutionary history.

But I’m waxing lyrical on this tangent. Back to the mundanity of what to wear. Talking of Yellowstone, I’m with the Rick McIntyre school of thought when it comes to trousers. Keep it simple. Wear jeans. Yes, I know, they’re not waterproof, they aren’t lined (an issue simply solved with leggings); if it rains, you’re sodden and miserable. But tell me this, what other fabric can handle a barbed wire fence? And, I hear you ask, who’s Rick McIntyre? Only a man who has given his whole life to watching wolves. Talk about getting your priorities right. And take it from me, having seen him, in January 2004 plonked for hours in front of his scope, wearing jeans, just a sports cap on his head while the rest of us were happed up like Michelin men in salopettes and all that could possibly go with them, I come back to that central dogma. If your middle is warm, if you’ve a decent hat and gloves, the legs can cope. And, you know, as Rick said when he was asked, they just get cold. It’s not the worst thing.

Besides, back to the noisy clothes issue, any other legwear bar jeans, especially if it’s lined/padded/waterproof just creates that annoying whish-whish when you walk. And, call me contrary, while the birds are well aware of my approach, and, of course, any friction-noise of clothes is miniscule in the entirety of racket that I impose on them, nevertheless it seems only respectful to move as quietly as I can. I like feeling like a real naturalist, padding about while the rest of the world is asleep; following the dawn chorus; and revelling in the sun as it comes up. The great thing about my version of fieldwork, is that I really can only go out when the weather’s fine. Rain and wind interfere with the recording, and while that can make things unpredictable and frustrating at time, like this morning, overall it means that almost everyday I return buoyant from the outdoors, from the immersion, however paltry compared with other places, in the natural world.

So, here’s the general outfit: jeans, with or without leggings underneath (it’ll be with tomorrow); vest; long sleeved T; short-sleeved T; fleece; coat; woolly hat; sheepskin gloves. The latter are a treasure, inherited from my mother, ancient, beginning to come apart at the seams, but absolutely brilliant. Woolly gloves simply don’t work for me, but with the sheepskins, why I can hold the mike’s metal forever!

4th April 2012


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  1. I’m unfamiliar with Reynaud’s but you have given a good explanation of how it affects daily life. Given the concerns and obvious barriers and obstacles, your efforts at collecting birding habits and song is even more impressive to me. I’d be interested in learning what you do with your recordings. Are they shared with a larger birding community? Debra

    • The Reynaud’s is not a big deal, just an inconvenience. As for the recordings, they, or the analysis of them, will ultimately be shared. But I have a little more work to do before that happens …

  2. David Attenborough only ever wears that pale blue shirt.

  3. kileen permalink

    While I’m loving all your blog, my favourite phrase is this – “and the weight I carry (equipment, people! Not adipose!).” And I’m with you on the much frowned on jeans as outdoor
    wear- yes, they get soggy. So…

  4. Kileen, great to meet someone likeminded! Jeans always get such a rap from real outdoorsy people. But they are the original for outdoors, and personally, they’ll always get my vote.

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