Philip Womack

The Nature of Time

In Search of One Last Song: Britain’s Disappearing Birds and the People Trying to Save Them, Patrick Galbraith, William Collins, 2022, pp. 320 £18.99 (hardcover)
Belonging: Natural Histories of Place, Identity and Home, Amanda Thomson, Canongate, 2022, pp. 320, £16.99 (hardcover)

This morning, as I sat at my desk, a magpie poked its head up from under the windowsill, checked me out through the glass with a few headturns, and then flew off, displaying his gorgeous colours. A flock of dunnocks (I think – they are, er, small and brown) inhabits the hedge of the garden in the square where I walk my dog. I like to watch them, their family interactions, their chirpiness. Parakeets, now a common sight, mob in the trees on Hampstead Heath. Whilst this may seem like an indicator of the ubiquity of birds, it is a sad truth that they are massively in decline, and soon we may lose entire species: turtledoves, grey-legged partridge, kittiwakes, all vanishing. Children will grow up never having heard a nightingale; never having seen a lapwing. Our poetry and song are imbued with avian life: from ‘loud sing cuckoo’ to the sparrowhawks of Michael Longley and Geoffrey Hill. Birds are essential to our ways of seeing; in their not-quite-like-us-ness, they let us dream. We stand to lose something profound.
         The two books under review here, Patrick Galbraith’s In Search of One Last Song, and Amanda Thomson’s Belonging: Natural Histories of Place, Identity and Home, are both keenly and thoughtfully attuned to nature in general, and to birds in particular. Though they come from very different places, the two share much in common, not least a deep appreciation of simply being within the natural world: the walks in the woods where nothing much happens, but you see an interesting dead tree, and then when you look again later, you can’t find it; the capercaillie that you hope to catch sight of; the dawns, the sunsets, the frozen fingers.
         Galbraith, who is in his twenties, is the editor of The Shooting Times, a magazine that has been in print since 1882; while (obviously) keen on the sport, he is also, like many in the field sports world, deeply concerned about the preservation and conservation of species, and the ways in which shooting interacts with the landscape around it. Beautifully written, with an anecdotal, interview-led structure, In Search of One Last Song sees Galbraith travelling the country to meet people who have devoted their lives to birds. He hopes to talk to ‘animal rights activists… gamekeepers, regenerative farmers and scientists’, trying to show that, though people might come at things from different angles, they all have the same end in mind. Galbraith, an energetic companion, is an unintrusive presence, allowing his subjects to talk with quiet passion, while also lacing his prose with references to poetry, and showing us how birds transform our ways of seeing and thinking. As Tom, a poet and disciple of Basil Bunting says, ‘with birds there’s suddenness and a spontaneity… It’s immense joy, and I think birds allow you to mediate on the impossible’.
         Galbraith’s journalistic eye picks up interesting titbits: kittiwakes are the souls of dead children, it is said; the Ancient British used dead-hedging to stop the invading Romans. His interviewees are devoted to their feathery charges, whether they like to blast them out of the sky, count them, or watch them. Some have farmed the same land for generations, or pass down their skills – we meet a fifth-generation gamekeeper – or work in woods that have existed since the thirteenth century. The sense of being part of something greater than yourself is palpable, and also of time, immense in its reach.
         Rob Duncan, who dreamed of nightingales as a boy, moved to Suffolk to ring them: ‘No two nightingales are the same,’ he says. ‘People say they look boring… but those people are crazy.’ A coppicer, Andy Birnie, recalls listening to the radio at dusk, when a nightingale’s song was played.
‘I suddenly realised a real nightingale in the wood was calling back… It was magical.’ Galbraith ponders the sad connection between the lonely bird and its electronic counterpart. We get a sense, too, of the beguiling mysteries of birdlife: Ilka, an ornithologist, studies kittiwakes: ‘we see just the tiniest proportion of their lives. The rest of the year they’re out there and God knows.’
         The problems facing birds are manifold, and not always obvious: people, raptors, deer, cats, foxes and badgers are the main culprits; the latter, in particular, prey on lapwings. But doing anything about it is difficult, as badgers are a hot political potato, and no politician will be seen to go near the issue. The questions are complex: newbuild houses push out lapwings; but where are people supposed to live? Rearing partridges for shooting causes particular upset: do they harm or help the environment? Galbraith lets his subjects talk for themselves, and rarely offers judgement.
What’s very clear from the book is that everything depends on everything else, and even the smallest environmental change can be devastating: cows, for example, help lapwings to thrive: their grazing provides the
perfect length of grass for nests. A case in point is the muntjac. I see them all the time in Suffolk. While I find them peculiarly ugly, Galbraith finds them delicate and pretty, and indeed there is something elegant about their hoofs. We can thank the Dukes of Bedford for their arrival in the United Kingdom: they introduced the deer onto their estates, which became immensely successful. Deer culling can’t bring the numbers down enough, and often muntjacs are left to grow to full size, which means they have plenty of time to eat the plants that, otherwise, nightingales would feast on; and so the nightingales wither and die. Having muntjac on menus might help: it is odd that it’s cheaper to buy venison imported from New Zealand than to procure it from the United Kingdom.
         Galbraith is a precise writer, particularly about place and light, and there are many vivid and amusing moments, such as when he goes in search of Colin Simms, a poet and disciple of Basil Bunting. Colin lives off-grid, and only responds to letters: having arranged to meet him, Galbraith turns up at his remote cottage, only to find nobody there. He scribbles a note: ‘Colin, I wrote some months ago and I came today but you were gone. There was a red squirrel in your garden. I wanted to know more about hen harriers and the time you went for a walk with Hugh MacDiarmid, when he pissed on the dyke where the council built a bench.’ (There is a lot of earthiness here: very welcome in nature writing, which can tend towards the abstract and the pretentious.) He never meets the poet, and it seems a fitting image, highlighting the elusive nature of song-makers. This is an understated, gentle book, but it is also a powerful reminder of the fragility of our avian companions’ habitats.
         Thomson and Galbraith might agree about the necessity of protecting birds; but they certainly wouldn’t about fieldsports. There is a moment in Amanda Thomson’s graceful, wise, and thought-provoking memoir, Belonging, where she describes being taken deer-stalking. I have been stalking, in Scotland, more than twenty years ago: I remember well the frozen mountain, the blur of brown in the sight as I wobbled, the report; the hind falling to the ground, its fawn fleeing, and being shot by the ghillie, as they cannot live on their own.
         I dragged the carcasses, alone, by their legs back down the mountain, and waited for the pick-up to fetch me. I sat in the back with the still-warm bodies of the deer beside me. I think about it a lot: the snow, my breath ragged, as we’d stayed up late drinking the night before, the small boots I had borrowed as I’d left mine behind in London (later I would take them off and find my toenails had blackened), the trail the carcasses left behind me, the blood the ghillie smeared on my cheek.
Thomson writes of her experience: ‘It was the first and only time that I had ever seen someone shoot a deer and I still can’t get my head around it even now. I was unable to write about it at the time, and it is too long ago now to try.’ She never mentions it again. It seems odd, to highlight something so clearly central to her way of thinking about the world, and then to avoid it; but then the book is full of such evasions. Thomson is an artist who works with landscape, and she says in the introduction that she enjoys ‘art and writing that complicates, shatters, reconstructs, but doesn’t necessarily provide any or all the answers’; but such an approach in a memoir can be frustrating. I wish she had tried to write about it, as I’m sure she would have done it brilliantly.
         Thomson writes about what she calls ‘belonging’ – ‘what it is to care about land and about people – what is here, what has been, what we’re moving towards’. Though she talks about her intersectionality, the book is (thankfully) largely free of jargon, and is instead focused on people and place, with a sense of deep and careful roots.
         Black, and a lesbian, she grew up in a small town in Scotland, surrounded by her mother’s (white) family. Her mother has lived in the same house for seventy years. ‘I think I come from a modest place and from modest stock, contained lives, perhaps unremarkable.’ Yet she succeeds in showing how remarkable even the most apparently ordinary lives are: thinking, working beings living within their times and places, their identities half-obscured. She delves into what remains of her family’s records, unearthing photographs and ferretting out snippets about their lives. Sometimes the photographs don’t have labels, so she isn’t necessarily even sure if the people in them are relatives: but a picture is built up nonetheless. We learn of the terrible conditions endured by her forebears, who lived in tiny cottages with no inside lavatory; of their hard lives – her grandmother did the housework for her many brothers and sisters, and one arm became thicker than the other thanks to ‘all that washing’. Her grandparents’ generation learned how to swim in a canal, into which dead cows and sheep were sometimes thrown.
         Thomson felt very much at home, growing up among her large family, and writes warmly about how they used to explore the landscape. But there was casual racism: she writes of the teachers who would only offer her the part of Nerisa to read out from The Merchant of Venice, or who said that people like her didn’t go to university. Even today she is often mistaken for Jackie Kay, as if there can only be one black lesbian writer from Scotland. Sometimes, as she walks in nature, ‘My race, gender, class, age, the rest of the world, seemed to fall away from me, just a little’.
         Thomson’s art is measured and slow: she leaves metal discs in the wood, allowing them to rust and take on impressions from leaves; she walks in the woods, and records the walks, and traces them on GPS, using the resulting maps to make artwork. Her prose is the same, slow-moving, but at the same time affecting. She can also be very funny, as when writing about an aunt who inherited a family house: she ‘subsequently went to a fortune teller who told her she would “meet her fate along east”. Looking for love, she sold the house and moved to Stenhousemuir. Where, it has to be said, she remained unmarried for the rest of her life.’
         As with Galbraith’s book, there is a strong understanding of the vast stretches of time that nature contends with. Thompson mentions a lovely project called Future Library, by Katie Paterson. The artist planted 1,000 trees in 2014, near Oslo, and these trees will provide paper for an anthology that will be published in 2114. Margaret Atwood was the first to contribute. We won’t be around for it, but goodness I’m jealous of those who will be.

Philip Womack is the author of several critically acclaimed novels for children: The Other Book, The Liberators; the Darkening Path trilogy, comprising The Broken King, The King’s Shadow and The King’s Revenge; The Double Axe, a reimagining of the Minotaur myth. The Arrow of Apollo, also set in the ancient world, was published in May 2020. Wildlord, his first teen fiction was published in October 2021. How to Teach Classics to Your Dog: A Quirky Introduction to the Greeks and Romans (for adults) was published in October 2020.

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