Old Nog

“What’s your movie?”

Is a the title of a song written by Mose Allison; I’ve got a (possibly bootleg) recording of him singing it at Ronnie Scott’s and I only mention this because Henry Williamson cornered the anthropomorphic market in herons with Old Nog, (who came to life in Tarka the Otter), and I hesitated to name my first thought when we passed this heron on the canal today. Anyway, the song asks a question that’s often asked of literary portrayals of animal life. The worst of them – dare I suggest Watership Down – simply transposes human emotions and dispositions into more or less cuddly animals – which utterly diminishes both the reader and the subject.

“What’s your movie” asks what film character we most identify with or act out – I often listened to its merciless takedown of human weakness on my way to therapy sessions. It always served its purpose in getting me in the right frame of mind for lying on the couch (oh yes) waiting for a word in the silence. A bit like saying your prayers except God was sitting behind you.

What’s your movie?

Are you the artist that’s misunderstood?

The bad guy tryin’ to do good?

Or just the nicest fella in the neighborhood

Mose Allison

So I really enjoy(?) the song but at the risk of trespassing on Henry Williamson’s territory, sometimes another life form – a heron for instance – irresistibly brings someone human to mind. Snakes, donkeys, foxes and butterflies are two a penny but I confess that this bird instantly became a member of an extreme Baptist denomination known as “the strict and particular Baptists“. Heaven only knows what remote root of the luxuriant tree of heresy divided the already strict from the not particular enough members of the original congregation but it must have been fun. I passed what could easily be their only church, driving to Southend one day. But I can find no hope in this heron’s unsparing gaze. He sits absolutely motionless for hours on one or another of his fishing grounds and strikes mercilessly at some poor dace like Amos Starkadder spotting a sinner in the third row of the quivering brethren; gripping the edge of the pulpit and growling “you’re all damned”.

Some animals; dogs for instance but not cats; robins but not peregrines; tench but not pike, can almost convince me that some communication is happening – some thread of negotiable common ground; but not so the heron whose launch into flight seems to defy the possibility of lifting off and yet makes a far better job of it than a mute swan that needs to run on the water before launching. I guess I’ve got nothing that a heron needs enough to bother learning how to flatter me.

I’d have said the the octopus was another creature that failed the common ground test, until we saw recently the remarkable documentary “My Teacher the Octopus” (on Netflix) which seems to suggest that we’re not trying hard enough. If you haven’t seen it you should try, but be warned, you’ll probably never want to eat another octopus. Craig Foster, who made the film (and another equally disturbing/stirring one about tracking animals for food in the Kalahari desert) is apparently now a vegan.

If we’re ever going to find our proper place on this planet we’re going to have to learn a great deal more humility in the face of all its other occupants, from moulds to mountain lions. I don’t, by the way, go for the conventional graphic of evolutionary progress from protozoa to humans, we’re so inextricably part of one another that once you start to zoom in it’s hard to see where one life form begins and another one ends – just ask my gut bacteria! So the poor old heron would have every right to resent being compared to a human preacher.

The daily walk continues to challenge and delight us as the very earliest foliage begins to emerge, intensely green, like a promissory note from the future. More and more of the winter heliotrope are coming into flower and so their elusive fragrance often has you wondering whether it’s the plant or a passer by wearing a tiny trace of perfume. I should stop and watch which insects are visiting, but kneeling down on the towpath risks the danger of being flattened by runners and cyclists locked in their musical islands and breathlessly pursuing their 10K dreams. There are loads of other sturdy beggars of the plant world strutting their stuff in the cold and mist. We’re so lucky to have this all so close.

We were looking at some crime statistics this morning and it appears that 70% of the recorded crimes in Bath are committed in our district. If you include the area immediately across the river it goes closer to 80%. Obviously the figures don’t include undeclared taxable income on property, or white collar fraud. Strangely we feel perfectly safe here and it’s a wonderfully diverse community where you can hear a dozen languages being spoken just while walking into the centre. We’re what happens when you cut whole sections of society adrift. Today we passed Ken Loach – film maker – remember Kes? on our walk. Madame said hello and the poor man looked startled although he’s seen us at any number of meetings. If we lived in the posher parts of Bath we’d have nothing but bedding plants and weed free grass to remind us of nature, but here – down amongst the social housing we can tell a ragwort from a tulip – although you’re more likely to see a red kite than a house sparrow, sad to say.

I notice that the BSBI (Botanical Society of Great Britain and Ireland) at their virtual AGM had a session on a year of plants growing in the pavement. I think I caught a radio programme on the same theme a couple of months ago – absolutely fascinating. Sadly only 66 people had accessed the BSBI video on YouTube. Does that say something about our national priorities?

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On hot nights and secret lives

It’s been as hot and sticky as a short story these last few nights. If I look at the sunrise time on my phone in the evening it’s a fatal invitation to be wide awake by 4.30am, and if – on top of that – I feel guilty because I haven’t posted for a couple of days, I’ll inevitably spend half an hour trying to go back to sleep before I get up and face the creative music. Trying to go to sleep is, of course, an oxymoronic concept like trying to fall in love. Then there’s the microscope, sitting on the desk next to the laptop in the most distracting possible way. I give it a half hearted stroke as if to placate it, but putting a new and important object on the desk demands something like the traditional way of training a hawk; you have to stay awake for whole nights, locked in a shed together until the resistance is broken and you can begin to work together.

During the past two unrecorded days we’ve been busy with our family. Babysitting duties were joyfully revived after a four month break – Zoom meetings might be OK for the office, but children don’t do them. Somehow, and without planning it at all, we took a break from constant work at the allotment and spent a good deal of time researching and seeking out new parts of the city and its surroundings. The sunshine has allowed us to explore further down the river than ever. There’s real joy in building up our understanding of our new home (of five years) by exploring all the interconnecting footpaths and roads that express its deeper history as much as they provide convenient short cuts. Behind the showy Georgian architecture – more closely connected to slaving wealth than we like to admit – there are visible remains of stone mining and coal mining. The canal was the trading motorway of its brief period, supplanted by the railway and now by the motorway that runs to the north of the city; and the Bristol/Bath cycle path which runs past our flat completes a wildlife corridor that runs almost uninterrupted from East to West. The upshot of all this is that you can see otters and peregrine falcons (if you’re lucky and persistent) in the middle of the city.

The tourists flocked to the Roman baths and the Jane Austin Disneyland experience (and of course the shops); and missed much of what’s most fascinating about our adopted home. Now they’ve gone, the shops pubs and restaurants are really struggling; unemployment is soaring in the occupations that onced serviced them and we can walk through a largely quiet town on sunny evenings and enjoy it in a way that’s become increasingly difficult over the past decades.

If you include humans in the wildlife of the city it becomes even richer. A couple of days ago we found a whole new north/south crossing of canal, railway line and river. On the river we watched a solitary wild swimmer making her way gracefully against the flow, but in the background we could hear the hoots and screams of young people having great fun tombstoning off the bridge and into the Avon. I think we’re supposed to disapprove of all this and remind them that this kind of mating behaviour is expressly forbidden by the notice. Yes it’s dangerous, and yes they might get into all sorts of trouble, and yes, I knew a child when I was young myself who drowned near here and yet ….. I think we both said a silent prayer for them and left them to their fun. These days of sunshine shot through with erotic desires and the certainty of living for ever don’t last. Tempus fugit and before we know where we are, we know where we are.

But don’t run away with the idea that only the young get themselves inflamed by a summer’s day. As we walked along the canal last night a middle aged couple met at the middle of the footbridge above the Widcombe flight – each coming from the different direction; and kissed one another with ferocious intensity. Well well, we thought, putting aside for a moment thoughts of the deceptions and misery that lurk in the hinterland of an affair. People watching is almost as engaging as spotting the cormorant preening itself on one of the chimney pots of the old granary, opposite the bus station or seeking out the fledgling gulls that make the most terrible screeching during those weeks when they’re just about capable of flying but still depend on a parent for food. Last night we spotted a couple of young peregrines touching base for a moment at their nest before soaring off again.

Thoughts of grass (not that sort!) have also been occupying me, and I discovered four and a half hours of a webinar on grass identification run recently by the BSBI and now on YouTube. They’re pretty chewy sessions but well worth the time if you’re at all interested in identifying these tricky subjects. The greatest challenge in combining botanising with walking is the need to identify things very fast. Too much kneeling down, rooting around, note making and photography can lead to friction in our perfectly harmonious (ho ho) relationship; and so the art of snatching a bit of material and identifying it without stopping needs to be backed up with a great deal of reading and study so that, for instance, I can finally nail the ragworts without actually getting caught botanizing – slightly less dangerous, I have to say, than kissing strangers on bridges, especially at my age!

The secret life of the City can be compelling, and a welcome antidote to the tide of lunacy that besets our politics at the moment. Whether we shall emerge from all this with a new understanding of how badly (and quickly) we need to reshape our relationship with the earth remains to be seen, but the parallels with Weimar Germany and the memory of the way that whole civilizations can perish under the weight of their own contradictions, is just another of the things that keeps me awake at night. Being human has never seemed so challenging.

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