by Jason Smalley
I was probably 6 or maybe 7 years old. A quiet little grub of a boy who always had mucky hands and scabby knees. My life was spent wandering the ‘backs’ of our terraced colliery town, exploring, adventuring, never naming. On this particular afternoon I was making a discovery, a moment of rapture was about to swell my tiny brain and influence my future in ways I couldn’t ever have imagined.
“It’s a starling mum!” Staring at starling from our dining room, watching him pillage the bird table in the back yard, I had successfully found his likeness in my shiny new AA Guide to British Birds. My dad, in one of his many moments of foresightful wisdom, had bought me the book for my birthday and I fell in love with it instantly. It sits on my shelf even now, 40 years later, one of those life treasures, a sigil of my path, a blessing that opened my eyes, my heart and my soul to truth.
This acquisition was soon followed by the AA Guide to the British Countryside, Reader’s Digest Marvels and Mysteries of our Animal World and the Animals of the World volumes 1 and 2. These too I devoured and still sit by my side as I type this story. Battered, backbroken and, in the case of the British Countryside tome, bloodstained from a childhood night-time nosebleed!
I gained great delight and fulfillment from identifying and naming the nature that crossed my path and it’s only recently that I’ve come to understand how that knowledge has coloured my life. This knowledge was embedded in my being and, for some reason, I assumed everyone had the same insight, at least to a certain level of competence. So, when I read on an online forum of someone seeing and recognising an oak tree for the very first time I was shocked. This person was overjoyed, ‘deliriously happy’ at this revelation of closeness and knowing of a particular piece of nature.
That’s what this knowledge does. Rather than being just a yellow flower in the lawn it becomes a buttercup, a celandine or a dandelion. And the knowing of that fact opens so many other avenues of exploration and awe. Exactly what is the difference, exactly why does it matter? Comparing a celandine to a dandelion is like comparing a dog to a horse. They really are that far apart! And it’s only by seeing them, really seeing them for what they are, that we can have a hope of connecting with the true nature of what accompanies on this journey.
Around my home I have owls. Does it matter that I have four species? Well yes, it really does. Knowing that the one I see on the moors during the daytime is a Short eared owl, is quite a rare sight, hunts voles in grass of a particular length, and has problems with forestry is quite empowering. Seeing the Little Owl on the telegraph post and understanding that it eats mainly worms and beetles, hunting at the ends of the day, feels really good. Spotting the ghostly white of a Barn owl, and experiencing a rush of excitement at a glimpse of such a special being is the stuff of life. And understanding why our Tawny Owls say toowhit toowhoo adds a certain fullness to my night time wanderings. If I thought of them as just owls I’d miss so much.
Obviously to some folk it doesn’t matter. Recently I asked the manager of a nature reserve if the migrant warblers have arrived back yet. He looked at me as if I was speaking a foreign language. Yet I bet he can work wonders with a spreadsheet; each to his own. However, for those of us who see the need to have a connection with wild, naming the beast does make a difference. And it’s so easy to make a start on brushing up your identification skills with a plethora of guide books and websites to help. Maybe the bigger pieces of nature are the best to start with, especially those that don’t move too fast.
Take trees for example. Make it a goal to get to know a few that live near you. Oak, sycamore, lime, ash and horse chestnut for instance. Find them in a book or an online guide and then find them in your place. But don’t rest there. Make it your goal to find out exactly what makes an oak an oak, how does it fit in with the rest of the environment? What creatures rely on oak to live? How long does oak live? What are its healing qualities? What are its peculiarites? Explore oak like you explore a new dear friend, until it really begins to live and breathe. And then Sycamore…. etc…..
Then choose five birds. Possibly Magpie, Great tit, Black headed gull, Mallard and Robin. Do the same again. Get to really know them. Give them room to breathe and to fluff out their feathers in your company. Then five flowers. Five insects. Five fungi. Then five more, until the countryside around you becomes alive with characters who speak their language to you and who grant you a wisdom and a connection that will bring tears to your eyes as you hear a charm of goldfinches tinkling overhead or find yourself granted audience with a flush of bee orchids.
Once their very being is ingrained in our consciousness our eyes will be opened to all manner of seeings and deep understandings. Last year, as I walked my dog I met a distant neighbour leaning on the lakeside wall, looking melancholy. His white bull terrier which looked so like him sat patiently by as I approached. His wife had passed over, a month earlier. Feeling awkward and at a loss for words I quietly joined him and followed his gaze out over the water. “My wife told me, just before she died, that she’d come back as a Swift to watch over me” he confided. “If only I knew what the bloody things look like!” I told him to close his eyes and listen. “What can you hear?” “Screeching birds” he said. “And what else…” “Wingbeats, cutting the air past my head” he noted. “Swifts” I advised him. Leaving him with tears on his cheeks, I knew that he had found a connection, a comfort in nature that had been with him already. But the difference was that now he knew.
First published in the Essence of Wild newsletter for April 2010. © 2010 Jason Smalley.
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