Gathered from the grass, it was
robbed from the box
early by the cat
and toyed with in
Tentatively he picks it up
in his hand and climbs the
tree to put the baby bird back.
© Daniel James Greenwood 2015
South Moravia, Czech Republic, July
I’m standing in the street waiting for Moravian ornithologist Karel Šimeček. From here I can see a serin on a TV aerial across the road, and from over the houses I hear a golden oriole releasing a few phrases of its fluty, unmistakable music into the morning air. In the road is a dead animal, a common sight, and an indicator of just how much wildlife there is here. Another common image, especially on the roads leading out of town, is squashed hedgehogs. In England we barely have dead ones anymore. A car pulls up on the other side of the road and out steps Karel, binoculars round his neck, eye pieces covered by grey duct tape. He crosses the road, making sure not to be run down like a hedgehog. He shakes my hand and turns to the squashed animal in the road:
‘Turdus philomelos,’ he says.
A song thrush, my favourite bird. We get into Karel’s silver Peugeot estate with Radiohead’s Kid A on the stereo, a welcome reminder of home, and we set off. The roads are mostly empty but then it is 8:30am on a Sunday morning. I ask Karel about his interest in wildlife.
‘I became interested in birds as a boy when my mother bought me a book,’ he says. ‘I have been watching birds for more than thirty years. But there are not as many as there used to be, when I look at my notes I can see that there are less birds now.’
Why is that?
‘Different reasons. Agriculture is very important but it is probably the main reason,’ he says.
I was astonished to see how large the fields were in South Moravia. My host is conservationist Zuzana Veverkova, and she told me that the average field size is 500 hectares, meaning that small-scale, sustainable farming is impossible. Young people cannot find a way in other than through inheritance. And there are reasons why farms are so large: inspired by Stalin’s collectivisation of Russia’s agriculture, the Czech communists did the same, forcing farmers off their land and into prison if they refused. Today you have the corporate farming practice with monocultures of what Karel calls ‘the yellow evils’ of wheat, corn, sunflower and rapeseed. In some places, there are miles of these plants and nothing else.
But back to birds. I’ve never seen a goshawk and have read they are one of the most common raptors in the Czech Republic:
‘They are at 20% of what they were when I started,’ says Karel. ‘They are hunted and poisoned by people who think that anything with a curved bill and talons should be killed.’
‘Do you know the hunters?’ I ask.
‘Yes, I know them, and there is no reason for their killing of these birds.’
‘And are goshawks protected by law?’
We pass out through the fields, a pine wood on the horizon.
‘A few friends and I managed to get the pine forest protected as a nature reserve,’ says Karel.
That was not enough to save its most unique resident. 20 years ago it was home to more than twenty singing male ortolan buntings. Today there are none. Karel laments this fact as we take a swerve in the road, our passage halted by a pair of white storks treading through a field. Karel reverses and I photograph these graceful birds. They watch us, too, turning away and moving further into the pasture.
Arriving at Mutěnice fish ponds we stand on the rickety wooden footbridge where the River Kyjovka dams, the water splitting off into the ponds. Leaves cover the surface, a red admiral arriving to bask on the enforced stillness. Karel points to a stand of dead poplar trees on the other side of the river.
‘That’s the beaver’s work,’ he says.
They’ve been here for thirty years. About five years ago the manager of the ponds attempted to eradicate them, but he failed and so the beavers remain. They arrived here from Austria from the Morava, the river that gives this district its name, running the border with Austria and reaching the Danube in Slovakia. When they first appeared here one beaver was captured and interred in the local zoo. It escaped within 24 hours and returned to the fish ponds.
Turning to step off the footbridge, over a few missing slats, Karel glimpses a kingfisher as it lands on a rock in the Kyjovka. I lift the camera to it but can’t switch it on in time to get the shot. Off it goes, electric blue bolt into the willowy shadows of the river. And as we trample through the long grass alongside the river Karel picks out the calls of young kingfishers and a perch that bears the signs of the birds, no leaves, just bare and worn.
One abiding memory of these ponds will be the stench of the water. It’s nasty. More than once Karel has stopped and pointed at the water’s edge and said, ‘this is not water, this is coffee.’ It’s brown, frothy and pungent so not far off. We continue along the Kyjovka, the large pond on our left meeting the path which we’ve already passed down this morning. Karel has seen something up high in the hazy summer sky:
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘White tailed sea eagle.’
Through the binoculars I see a huge animal beating its great wings, with primary feathers so long they look like fingers that could dictate some deep, magical changes to the world below. But no animal is safe or indeed at peace for long on Earth. Karel has seen alongside the eagle a marsh harrier attacking it, and moments later another appears. I set my camera and start clicking. The eagle looks overdressed in its Gogolian greatcoat of brown feathers, its white head and neck protruding out from under, yellow talons dangling out below like down-turned coat hangers. The marsh harrier strikes again and again, forcing the eagle away from the sky above the huge pond and towards the trees, until the battle is over and all three have left my field of vision.
‘We had no idea that the eagles were here,’ Karel says. ‘A Swedish hunter had a permit to hunt in the forest and when he was leaving he said, “I see that you have eagles nesting in the forest”. Our response was, “we didn’t know that!”.’
We tread the path already taken, a dead bat splayed on the ground, its deathly grin drawn wide and rotting. It’s our waymarker. A small van rolls along the track, a Czech man with short black hair and ski-glasses steps out, handing Karel a metal tag that reads ‘Budapest’. They discuss something and then say goodbye, the man getting back into the car and driving away. The ring is from a young cormorant that was shot the other day. It had been ringed by ornithologists in Hungary and died here at Mutěnice. This seems familiar to Karel:
‘The migration patterns of cormorants are well known,’ he says.
Farthing Downs, London, July 2014
We leave the chalky, wooded hollow and appear in an ocean of field scabious. The sun setting in the west catches the pale, lilac petals of these daisies. In the other meadows across on New Hill and in Happy Valley greater knapweed has begun to flower, that deep purple gives me the sense of summer’s final movements, splayed florets that say: this is it. The meadows, too, abound with the motorised flight of burnet moths that were not here two weeks ago. Many of them are mating, one pursued by a pair of skippers unwilling to share a flowerhead. I wonder, what harm could a butterfly do a moth? Anthropomorphism excused, their quarrel does have the feel of a playground spat. That landscape is behind us now as we return along the crown of Farthing Downs. The sky is split in half to the west, smears of rain hurrying our return to the urban landscape. The liquid song of the skylark pours from the sky and we search for its shape. After giving in and then locating it I see it some forty-feet up in the sky. My companion can’t quite believe how clearly its song comes yet from so high. We stand, our exit delayed, the two forces of incoming weather and skylark display gluing us to the soft turf of Farthing Downs.
Nunhead Cemetery, London
Farthing Downs, London, September 2013
Standing on the track leading into Devilsden Wood I look to the ground for dryness, somewhere that hasn’t been soaked by this perpetual rainfall. I see fallen ivy leaves that appear like cuts of leather when really they are crisp under foot. Dog shit, too, the new waybread for the modern ancient footway. I hate the stuff. My waterproof sheds its load onto my jeans and it’s wait and become cold or move and receive woodland raindrops, some chucked from the canopy of mature yew, ash and beech, some fifty feet up. When they get behind glasses, these droplets shock the senses.
It’s fungi season, the signpost of falling temperatures, not too cold but a shift from the sultry summer. I gawp at log piles with an explosion of mushroom caps, marked by striping and shapes that would define them to those who understood them. But still, I spy an oysterling appearing from a rotting trunk and feel that in two years of woodland obsession I have at least learned something about this magical animal that appears so fleetingly it could almost be through the fabric of time, a monitor on how we’re doing. Checking the sole of my boot again, we’re crap. I wipe it off in a mud puddle. The rain has not lessened. I head back out from the dark, autumn-beckoning woodland and onto the wet warfare of the Downs. The change in mind is clear, the atmosphere of a woodland changes you. It is not like the open land, so much a canvas for human experimentation, our impact on woodlands is never so clear as the plough’s to the open landscape. A woodland to all but a minority could have been in that state for millenia, before human time. The wood is a wild city, with nature’s social housing, swimming pools and fast food. It was our home once, too. There is the semblance of a summer out here, yellow rattle not yet rattling, knapweed funked-out in pinkish purple, even a bit of scabious. These wildflowers have something of January’s left over Christmas decorations about them. A car passes along the lane. Woodpigeons are striking through the rainy sky, turning their wings and bodies at an angle – to avoid the direction of the rain? – always as individuals. These birds cut several different figures in a year – hurried, panicked on the wing, or else male birds cutting arcs out of the sky as they display to females long into the summer recesses. Now they could be migrating, they could be hunted. Mostly they are gorging on elderberries outside my bedroom window.
On the Downs a flock of goldfinch are startled into the sky like pieces of a broken vase put back, its smash rewound and fixed. They sit in a small hawthorn bush and I look more closely. On the end of a branch, clear and possibly not so fearful of man is a juvenile, all grey on the head, interested in looking but unaware of the perils of being watched. My advances fracture them once more and I’m left with a snapshot of their escape into the landscape captured on my camera.
First published on the Earthlines Review
Co. Mayo, Eire, April 2013
Last night we arrived to watch the mountain burn. The flames licked up from behind the plantation at the end of the field, capturing the tinder of last year’s heather. I thought of how dry that wood was, how it would go up in an instant. The farmer ghosted down the lane, no knowledge of who could have set fire to the mountain, or why. He always strikes me as part wild, so accustomed to the lay of this land that he has partly-merged with its bogginess, its giant boulders and streams, in the way I am accustomed to the wildness of streetlamps and new woodlands, how they impact me. Seeing an Xbox and satellite TV in his house a few years back diluted that idea. This isn’t the first time the mountain’s been set on fire, five years ago it happened. Waking up this morning it’s as if last night was a dream brought on by the exhaustion of a long and early journey from London, across the Irish Sea from Holyhead and then from Dublin. At the foot of the Ox Mountains this morning I see no sign of fire, no people, no animals. It must have been much further away than we thought it was. The bracken lies dead and dry, concealing crevices between rocks. How quickly this could burst into flame. The ground is dry at the foot of the mountain, the sphagnum mosses and reindeer lichens spreading as I climb with the wind. A herd of feral goats watch me from the top, filing away, perhaps in disappointment that I’ve blocked their path. Turning to look to the west I see Nephin in silhouette where the valley of farms and gorse-covered bog ends. I head south-east and up into the Ox Mountains.
Trees are sparse, only a hawthorn or a mountain ash in 100 metres, bedraggled and gnawed by the animals that graze between the rocks. The heather is growing again, and where there is some dampness a cladonia cup-lichen pouts its miniature red lips on pale blue stems. I search along the south-facing banks for wildflowers and find dog violet and wood sorrel. Being a woodlander at heart, it draws me back home and to the question of origins – did woodlands once grow on the Ox Mountains? They must have. Looking around me, I am not convinced. But early or common dog violets do grow in ancient woodland in south London, and wood sorrel, too. One of my holiday reads is Oliver Rackham’s Woodlands. I will be tearing into it on my return back to the cottage.
A small bird is calling, barely audible above a wind that’s gained momentum as I’ve gained height. Two giant boulders sit like mountain fauna and all I see above and between them is sky. The ground is boggy, covered by the papery yellow grasses and red mosses. A goat path is indented through it all. I take it, stepping up into the goat hoof clefts and up between the two boulder gods. Though unseeing, they will have presided over a valley wrought by famine in the 1840s, worn only by the deep breaths of time. Last night they will have been coloured by fire, unmoved. To be rock is to be asleep.
The rocks are beneath me now, a plane of damp dead grasses and moss pervades. The wind is stronger, still. How strange that even on a tree-less moor of a mountain the movement between rock and mound can feel like entering somewhere new. I sit on the rocky deity’s scalp. Down below, the plantation is crossed by bare larch trees, and in the distance the blue promise of Sligo Bay. Further west, in the realm of the imagination: America. But I’m hungry, and the basic desire for food always wins out over beauty.
I wander across and down, away from the sheer drop. At least the fall would be into a mattress of bog. A raven calls out, kronk, kronk, kronk, but so bare is the mountain the call could be a thing of the distant past, or my imagination. I grab onto heather forgetting that the soft ground will give and I nearly tumble bearing yet-blooming flowers, but a goat print saves me and I land on my backside. Gradually the song of a robin replaces the mountain wind, the images of sheep return to life and the mountain looms again, forgetful, triumphant.
It’s evening, the weather is warmer here than in England but when the wind blows it cuts through you. I have been reading Rackham’s Woodlands. In the period between 1350 and 1500 woodland cover expanded in the United Kingdom in the wake of the Black Death. England’s population declined by 1/3 and so too did global warming. Why? Less trees were being felled and burned. The woodland came back and captured the carbon. I wonder when that will happen again. Today we visited my grandfather at his nursing home in Kiltimagh, it’s an old estate with pollarded horse chestnut and beech trees. On the hillside wind turbines have been built. They do not look a scar or a slight on the land. But granddad never leaves the house to see these things, most of the people there drift in and out of sleep and eating, the radio playing in the background. It was Aerosmith when we arrived. He used to live in Ballindine, crossing the motorway to the shop, forgetting how many times he’d been. He always asks me when I’m going to get a haircut. I feel a little apprehensive about visiting the home but when I get there I enjoy it, the people are friendly even if some aren’t in their right mind and there’s a welcome warmth about the long faces, slow gestures and blazing radiators.
After a day spent in the car I decide to visit the mountain again. I’ve never been to the top. Me and my dad nearly got up there a few years ago but we didn’t feel the desire to. I take to the path again, passing the sheep in the field, the caravan shot to pieces, a lace curtain blowing through the hole where the window once was. I climb up the track again and feel no desire to reach the summit. I turn into a small cove where a stream runs down and the path becomes sphagnum moss, soft, white and red. I sit on a boulder and look up at the sky and the mountain. But for the stream there is no sound at all. All my thoughts come in and out again. Having had my fill of silence I return back down. On the way I see Nephin traversed by the sun setting behind clouds, the trees silhouetted on a hill before it. I can’t help but think of those who used to live on this mountain and in this valley who were shackled and degraded by famine. How did they view this overbearing rock and heathland, the sight of Nephin and sunsets like these? Surely they couldn’t have had the energy or mind to even think about it. It would not have mattered. I was reading a book called The Great Famine last night. When one ship carrying food and aid from England arrived in Ireland during the famine, three went the other way. At times I feel torn between my heritage, between my anger for the cruelty wrought by the British and the suffering inflicted upon the Irish. I do not feel completely one or the other.
On the way back down I have a sudden desire to remain, to sit against a rock and enjoy the fresh Atlantic air. I remember hearing a cuckoo a decade ago, but it hasn’t returned yet. After my breather I continue into the valley and meet the farmer on the track. I ask him if cuckoos still come here. He doesn’t understand me. I sometimes forget that my accent isn’t clear to everyone. He eventually realises what I mean and points to the plantations growing on either side, comfortable with the knowledge that they come often.
‘But it’ll be too cold for them here now,’ he says.
From Woodlands, page 206: ‘Ancient woods are not the place to look for ancient trees. Indeed, the presence of ancient trees, unless they are boundary pollards, indicates that the wood is not ancient, but has grown up around freestanding trees (in-filled savannah).’ There are no ancient trees at the foot of the Ox Mountains, there are barely even trees. I still have hope of finding something.
We aren’t visiting granddad today. We drive to Westport to see what they have in the bookshop there. On the river a grey heron is mobbed by black headed and common gulls. They stand on the wall having their pictures taken by everyone, including me and my family. We drive to Achill Island for the day, the sun beating down but the cold wind still lingers. It’s snowing in London. The views from Achill are astounding, rock pipits merge with the winter grasses and silver boulders as they feed at the cliff’s edge. Spring is still not with us, the leaves are not on the trees, no swallows nest in the barn and no cuckoo calls from the wood. The bogs on Achill are strewn with rhododendrons, thriving on the acid soils, clearly admired by the locals for their unusual pinks and purples when in flower. I bought The Story of Ireland by Neil Hegarty. This quote from Oliver Cromwell stuck with me:
‘For to what purpose was it to plow or sow, where there was little or no Prospect of reaping? – To improve where the Tenant had no Property? This universal Neglect of Husbandry covered the Face of the Kingdoms with thickets of Woods and Briars; and with those Vast extended Boggs, which are not natural but only the Excrescences and Scabs of the Body, occasioned by Uncleanliness and Sloth.’ (page 136).
It’s what I love about Ireland, the bogs, the boulders, the ‘Excrescences’, the 1970s Opel car rusting in the ditch. In Mayo the Irish are not erasing their visual history, the ghost towns of the 1990s are still standing and the eerie cottages of the times gone by are still decaying at the roadside. In England we are obsessed with tidiness.
Today has again been spent in the car, imprisoned. I haven’t been able to contend with the landscape other than through the camera. It’s evening and the sky is broad and blue. The children are playing in the fields, traversing the margins and fence lines. Now I feel the need to see the mountain’s top, I want to know what’s on the other side. I make it to where I stopped the other day, no need of silence or thought, I continue up through the goat clefts, driving shin-first through midge clouds. A wren is singing up above me as I dip in to the path as it bends around an alcove home to boulders that have become dislodged and crashed down over time to sit in the vegetation, cool. I pass back out and the track becomes more steep, the heather creeping across. Now I can see another fire in the south, the smoke blowing to the west across the glassy Roosky lake. The field lines are clear from up here, the margins deep and defined. I turn and clamber to the top. The zenith opens out with a gust of a cold, cold wind. I put my hood up and watch as a meadow pipit raises aloft, calling, a single peep, escaping on deep undulations. So that was the little bird I’d heard the other day. The top of this mountain is peat bog, the feral goats see me and disappear over a peat bank. There are lines where the peat has been removed in the past, a practice which is now criticised by environmentalists because so much carbon has been stored in the bogs. To the Irish who cut out this peat it was just a local and available fuel, it was not an evil act. A trough in the heather is full with water reflecting the sky. The wind ripples the surface. Frogspawn sits in large clumps in one corner. It’s only the second lot I’ve seen this year, here and on Exmoor. I decide to head back down the mountain
A meadow pipit appears and clings to a sprig of heather. I watch it through my binoculars as it looks from side to side, its speckled breast twisting. I pass the winding path again and overshoot, taking the wrong goat path this time. I spot an unusually verdant green peeking from behind a boulder. And here we have it, lesser celandine, wild strawberry. Woodland indicator species hiding behind a rock. So, could it be, did the Ox Mountains once have ragged woods rather than heather? How long ago? I think of how I came to find these plants, by following a goat path. There will be no woodland as long as the goats roam these moors. A man is standing on rock down below covering his eyes, looking around in a fashion not far from the meadow pipit’s.
‘Have you seen a sheep and a lamb passing up these ways?’ he asks.
I haven’t. I see the smoke plumes again. ‘Who is setting fire to the mountain?’ I ask.
‘Just cats,’ he says.
I walk up to the top of the mountain again but with my family this time. I want them to see this view. I see how much good the walk does them, out of the car, not worrying about granddad, if he has enough clothes, if he remembers us, if he’s happy.
Stepping off the main road we tread carefully over the rocky steps to Lough Conn, the water lapping against the rocks as it flows under Pontoon Bridge. On the opposite bank the gorse is flowering at every opportunity. North of Foxford it’s bright orange, the dry weather and warm sun has lit fires across the Ox Mountains, this morning the sun shone through the smoke and lit everything brown. It’s not arson this time. In the nursing home they mentioned it on the radio. This place feels like the whole world, the only place. In Pontoon the cars passing at 50mph on the road are not regular enough to dominate the soundscape. I listen – no birds. To the left is a pile of rocks and boulders, leading to a shoreline of reeds, grasses and willow. Beyond the water’s edge is woodland, rising into a lip that looks out over the lough. To me, from here, that is an ancient wood. I look through my binoculars and I’m sure I can see oak buds against the blue sky, growing amidst the straggly birch trees.
How can I get there without drowning? It’s a family holiday and my parents are with me, so dad suggests climbing across the boulders to the left. When we were on holiday in West Cork in the 1990s he would go fishing off rocks our mum deemed dangerous. My sister and I would sit at the window waiting for him to appear on the lane, unsure if the ocean, a shark, a giant squid might have captured him from us. He risked it, and so I’ll do it. The water isn’t deep immediately below the boulders but a cold soaking isn’t on the cards when I’ve got my camera with me. I clamber up onto a big boulder, leading with my feet, stepping onto smaller, and sometimes shifting rocks. I bring my right arm round and the sleeve of my coat unclips my lens cap – and off it goes, somersaulting into the brown water. I can’t help but think of Leonardo di Caprio disappearing into the sea at the end of Titanic. This feels like one of those times when things go a bit wrong. I slip down onto my backside and try to drag the cap towards me with my boot. The lens cap begins to sink. I fish again and drag deeper, I pull my boot away and it’s there, I snatch at it and zip it away.
I climb across the final few rocks until the water has receded and a sandy shore is under foot. This route is rarely taken, it’s blocked by crouched willows and twigs that are so dry they snap as I move. Further along the shore is a stone hut with an iron roof. It looks old, really old, but renovated. The ground is sandy, boggy, midges and mozzies frolic in their respective mobs. Cutting across the marshy path towards the trees I get my first view of it – the green of an Irish rainforest. Everything is vibrant with moss, the tongues of ferns and decrepit trunks of birch and oak trees. At last, I’ve discovered one of Mayo’s ancient woodlands. A chiffchaff is singing from over the bank of collapsed oak and rock, the first of spring. There’s a slender path through the moss, leading to the lip I’d seen from the other side of the water. I wave to my family and call across. It’s ancient! It’s like entering into a new kingdom, a homecoming, a piece of land that hasn’t been twisted and torn by the plough. But there are signs: the stone hut on the shore has a back window (open casement) with a bar running through it, inside it’s dark and wet like a medieval prison.
A swing has been tied to an oak and some clothes are hanging up like the sails of a ship moored in this wood. I feel as if I’m trespassing, like in Frances Horovitz’s poem ‘Winter Woods’: ‘we have encroached – /this is not yet our land.’ There are signs of people yet I’m alone. A flock of long-tailed tits pass overhead, one holds the body of an insect and its sprawled limbs in its mouth – spring is beginning to move now – I wonder if that’s for a baby bird. I take one last glance at the mosses, a script lichen etched into hazel bark, the wood sorrel and ferns and head towards the water. A path through some heather leads up and out to the main road. I needn’t have scrambled after all.