Walking with a purpose

I have some dim idea why I love these little characters so much because they were the first gulls I learned to distinguish out of the group which I had always just seen as “seagulls”. I was puzzled enough by their red legs and beaks with black tips to get a bird book and find out what they were called. That was years ago and so now I know they’re black headed gulls – which caused a many a problem because it turned out they were only truly black headed in the summer. But they turn up here most winters; sometimes they stay and sometimes they go on somewhere else, and since I first noticed them I’ve learned a good deal more about them, but I love their delicate flight; the way they make the herring gulls and lesser black backed gulls who also live here look a bit lumpy – and, they’re here at the moment. These two were on the river bank immediately below the church where we often see peregrines – there was one there today. This isn’t unusual, we also saw wagtails, robins, blackbirds, pigeons, moorhen, mute swans and a lone Canada goose. The heron has been missing for a couple of days but he’ll show up again in one of his favourite haunts.

It was here on this walk that I learned to separate the ragworts; to find pellitory of the wall and half a dozen other medicinal herbs growing wild; here I noticed winter heliotrope and not – as I first thought – coltsfoot. Here too the wild lettuce that doesn’t look the least bit like the stuff on your plate. We do the same walk pretty well every day; come rain or shine. It’s about 8 Km which gets us over the 10,000 step line and passes a couple of local shops that we use. That means that we walk around 10 kilometers most days and it’s not in the least boring because it’s never the same two days running.

If I was trying to make it sound a bit posh I’d call it a transect – an ecological technique that helps us to understand an environment by walking the same path as regularly as possible and recording what you find there. It takes a while but eventually you kind of make friends with it, to recognise the old stagers and the newcomers and to rehearse their names so often that they stick in your mind. Depending on the season we could focus on birds or plants; insects (not too sharp on those) or butterflies and if anything the walk becomes more interesting each time we do it. Naturally there are other walks in much sexier places where we can marvel (gawp?) at five star rarities but there’s nothing in the world to beat finding one of them in a dark corner of a familiar place. We know the proper names of some of the fishes that congregate near the surface of the water in the summer, we watch the river in spate and at its lowest time in a dry summer. There are things we’d love to see – like otters – and I’m sure one day we will. The local natural history society – there’s a link on this page – runs a great facebook group where we can see things we’ve never seen ourselves and check out an identification with some hardcore experts if need be.

Walking is the most tremendous activity when you want to think. Our days are pretty standard; two hours of walking, three quarters of an hour of weights, two or three hours of writing and the rest on the allotment, cooking, eating and reading. When I write it down it looks almost monastic and yet it doesn’t feel that way. Walking grounds us, gives us a couple of hours when we can talk or be quiet and where we can find a perspective on the troubles and worries of life, and it provides me with an endless source of reflection – much of which finds its way on to the blog.

Nietzsche, Rousseau, Thoreau, Santayana and a host of deep ecologists, poets, writers and pilgrims have all found comfort and inspiration in walking, so I reckon the evidence is in. I’ve always kept notebooks and sometimes the notebooks became journals and they’ve been the most important source of inspiration for me. So often, reading back on an everyday, common experience can suddenly flood it with light – “oh so that’s what was going on”. A walk can be an almost symphonic experience that might one moment be prayer, or contemplation, or remembering, or just filled with wonder and delight or perhaps a simmering grouse, or an anger that’s needing to be dealt with. Let them come, and let them go. And that’s not to mention the fresh air, occasional sunshine and the natural history waiting to be recorded.

It’s November, almost official winter and yet today we saw herb Robert in flower, winter heliotrope with its odd perfume, so difficult to describe; nipplewort; a couple of vagrant marigolds on the canal bank and the initial rosettes of a dozen pathside herbs that look lovely even as they are. It’s so easy to be sniffy about ragwort but really, its leaves are lovely in their prime condition.

Sitting on my desk at the moment is a piece of lichen that I picked up last year. If I sprayed it with water it would come back to life, and under the microscope it becomes a miniature world; a kelp forest an inch across. There are bits of dried grass and a pencil sharpener; with all the books and apparatus I need to continue the walk in my head later. It’s so much bigger and richer than just boring old exercise; making up the 10,000 steps. Oh yes, walking is good – good for the legs, good for the mind, good for the spirit too. It takes some ordinary – you might say thin – time of course, but renders it thick, rich and deep like good soil. Sure you might add the biochemical changes and dismiss it all as so much dopamine and you’re free to do just that; but I prefer to think of each walk as another voyage of the Potwell Inn Beagle.

*If you want to explore the philosophy and history of walking rather than read books about routes you might like to look at Rebecca Solnit’s “Wanderlust”. I thought it was a superb book when I first read it and I’d recommend it without hesitation.

How dare you stare at my binoculars?

For the last, probably three, years we’ve been puzzled by an apparently invisible bird that’s almost always heard on the grass covered clifftop between the cottage we stay in and Nefyn to the East. Now I’m not about to reveal anything here except my own ignorance, so if I were a less combative person I’d beg your indulgence BUT …..

Being an autodidact, that’s to say having studied nothing formally except ceramics and theology; everything else that’s crammed in my head is stuff I’ve learned informally, over the farm gate as it were. The downside is that I seem always to be running to catch up with the people who really do know what they’re talking about. However the upside is that for me, every little discovery is an amazingly exciting blast. Not being an expert turns out to be a boon because I get to see things in all their strangeness; I can make connections that institutionalised knowledge might forbid – and – of course I can flatter the intelligence of the cognoscenti by mispronouncing latin names and asking a lot of silly questions.

So to get back to the invisible bird, I probably need to say that the tiny trickling spring of an idea that started this blog began one bitterly cold morning in January five years ago as we leaned over the sea wall at St Ives in Cornwall and looked at a seagull. We had retired four months previously but those four months had been marred by long delays in getting the flat to a habitable state, and a family event that threw us into turmoil. After the worst Christmas we had ever experienced, we fled to Cornwall to try to recuperate and found ourselves staring at a seagull.

I’d been keeping a very personal private journal for several years while I was seeing a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, in fact I’ve kept notes and journals on and off all my life, but that day I made two decisions that have had the most amazing repercussions. Firstly I resolved to find out what sort of gull we were looking at, and secondly I resolved – hubristically as it turns out – not to allow myself to pass anything that I couldn’t name – ever again. It was, by the way, a black headed gull we were looking at, and my first lesson as an aspiring birdwatcher was that black headed gulls don’t have black heads in January, just the smudge of a grey crescent at the edge of the place where the black will appear later in the year. It was a useful lesson in ambiguity and so I wrote about it in my journal. Then, of course – given my ludicrous resolution to name things – it all snowballed, the restless lists began to get longer, and my working knowledge of things, lagging a couple of years behind the moment of recognition, slowly got better and it all found its way into the journal.

Then the software I was journaling with was updated suddenly and I found that half of my equipment stopped communicating. I emailed the company responsible and they loftily suggested that my equipment was obsolete and I needed to spend a wad of cash just to stand still. I told them to piss off and moved to WordPress. Months and months later, after I’d got the hang of it, I took the blog online.

So – clifftop plus regularly heard bird sounds that sounded more landlubber than seaside had us scouring the clifftop with our binoculars looking for the unknown bird. Then two things happened. In amongst the generic seagulls I spotted something completely different but definitely seabound. For no apparent reason the idea that they could be terns popped into my head (thank you Adam Nicholson) and so I noted it and, as I said yesterday, scoured the books when we got back to the cottage to get a better picture in my head. The second thing was that having lifted my eyes from the clifftop to the sea I discovered that the unknown sound was moving in the same direction and at the same speed as the group of possibly could be terns.

Is that what you call a lightbulb moment? I can almost hear the Oh for God’s sake groans of the experienced birdwatchers but for me it was a blast, a triumph, a decisive blow in the war against ignorance, and as is always the case, once I’d made the connection all sorts of other new knowledge was waiting. When we walked along the beach yesterday there were herring gulls and black headed gulls in abundance, and in amongst them were common terns – completely different in the way they flew, in their elegance, in their sounds, in the way that they could hover and dive. They made the herring gulls look like overweight bouncers outside a nightclub.

Later we watched a kestrel hunting the exact terrain we’d hoped to find our mystery bird in. Kestrels are rarer these days and if you ever catch a look at one from above, the chestnut brown colour positively glows in the sun. These moments of recognition are almost transcendent. Overnight the trailcam finally got a decent video of a visiting fox – ignoring my carefully scattered peanuts completely and walking up the stream’s edge to find something decent to eat. Since we arrived we’ve been filling the birdfeeders with seeds, fat balls and peanuts to attract as many as possible while we find the best place to film them and after 36 hours, while the birds overcame their suspicions, they’re flocking to them in huge numbers. It’s been pouring with particularly wet Welsh rain today so the bedraggled birds have been grateful for easy pickings. Out of the blue, a pair of ring ouzles appeared out of the thicket of sloes and sallows that line the stream, fed briefly on the fat balls, and disappeared again as suddenly as they arrived. Sadly the trailcam was recording another feeder. Oh and I added chamomile and woody nightshade to the list of plants in flower.

It’s not for nothing that one of my favourite poems at school was Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts”!