I was looking for something else when I came across some of the extracts I made from Richard Jefferies’ “The Gamekeeper at Home”, first published in 1878. Ian, a lad I once taught, had an ambition to become a keeper, and enjoyed reading this book together, despite the sometimes old-fashioned language. He had the capacity to stand and stare that Jefferies describes here. The book is available at Project Gutenberg.
Often and often, when standing in a meadow gateway partly hidden by the bushes, watching the woodpecker on the ant-hills, of whose eggs, too, the partridges are so fond (so that a good ant year, in which their nests are prolific, is also a good partridge year) you may, if you are still, hear a slight faint rustle in the hedge, and by-and-by a weasel will steal out. Seeing you he instantly pauses, elevates his head, and steadily gazes: move but your eyes and he is back in the hedge; remain quiet, still looking straight before you as if you saw nothing, and he will presently recover confidence, and actually cross the gateway almost under you.
This is the secret of observation: stillness, silence, and apparent indifference.
Abel was riding behind Grandad, across his favourite bridge in the old Tannery housing estate. A few yards on, he announced, ‘I saw two baby ducks.’ Grandad did not see them, but Abel missed out on the grey wagtail chick with its parents, (or was it two chicks with one parent?) by the Glebe. He missed our blackbird cock feeding a chick as big as himself on the scraps of fat fallen from the fatballs that the starlings have been telling their chicks all about, very noisily.
But we’ve all seen the baby robin who is already as tame as its parents, here perching on the bike’s handlebars. Spring is fun when you are nearly four or even nearly 70.
No, I was not best pleased to be woken, well before dawn, by a loud conversation under my bedroom window. But when the two men had moved on there came a burst of song from the bushes next door – not a robin, but a wren Follow the link to the RSPB website to hear the song I heard and see a portrait of the little bird. Was I reconciled to my rude awakening?
The previous day we had watched one foraging along the river bank, in and out of crevices, decimating, we hoped, the number of insect pests ready to attack the garden come Spring.
And come spring, as she certainly looks like coming, will there be a wren’s nest here, in a crevice in the brick wall, hidden by the weeds and ferns, all but inaccessible to any predator? Let’s hope so: there was last year! This is Solley’s Orchard, a little open space in the centre of Canterbury. There was a flour mill nearby, hence the foaming water from the old sluices.
Robert Browning is writing to Elizabeth Barrett, his secret fiancée. She has told him of her dependence on morphine, as prescribed by her doctor, who is reluctant to take her off it, but agrees to do so, ‘slowly and gradually’. Robert is keen for her to get out and about, for she has been housebound for a long time, and offers her some encouragement. He writes this day, February 6, 1846. His home at Camberwell was still in Kent then, while Elizabeth was in Central London, under the jealous eye of her father.
‘Slowly and gradually’ what may not be done? Then see the bright weather while I write—lilacs, hawthorn, plum-trees all in bud; elders in leaf, rose-bushes with great red shoots; thrushes, whitethroats, hedge sparrows in full song—there can, let us hope, be nothing worse in store than a sharp wind, a week of it perhaps—and then comes what shall come—”
Elizabeth (‘Ba’) had written of when the drug was prescribed:
I have had restlessness till it made me almost mad: at one time I lost the power of sleeping quite—and even in the day, the continual aching sense of weakness has been intolerable—besides palpitation—as if one’s life, instead of giving movement to the body, were imprisoned undiminished within it, and beating and fluttering impotently to get out, at all the doors and windows. So the medical people gave me morphine, and ever since I have been calling it my amreeta* draught, my elixir,—because the tranquillizing power has been wonderful. Such a nervous system I have—so irritable naturally, and so shattered by various causes, that the need has continued in a degree until now, and it would be dangerous to leave off the calming remedy, Mr. Jago says, except very slowly and gradually.
The drink of the Hindu gods, conferring immortality.
from “The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846”, available on Kindle or online.
The Apricot is also in bud now, and will soon flower, leaving us to fret about late frosts killing off the developing fruit. Comes what shall come …
The great bell of the Cathedral was chiming the hour, but that was not the sound that caught Abel’s attention. It was a blackcap perched on a fence about eye-level to both of us – Abel was lifted up on the bike seat so could see clearly. And hear and ask, what’s that bird?
When the little bird had ceased warbling, we looked up in the trees around the theatre and Dominican and spotted a pair of wood pigeons. We had been talking about them a few minutes before, when we saw a few town pigeons foraging outside a café.
There’s no need to be 3½ years old to marvel at the blackcap or the robin, blackbird or thrush’s song. Listen out, and be grateful!
We, the half-barrel group of gardeners at L’Arche Kent – had been looking forward to the Big Bird Watch since Christmas, so it was good to gather again at the Glebe to see who might fly in.
The moorhen just walked in from the river alongside, otherwise the rest flew in. Four robins were twice as many as we might have hoped for. The bird table must be shared territory, but one of them was prepared to chase all comers – except his mate – from the feeder by the river gate. Even the bird table was only grudgingly shared and there were a few ruffled feathers when three or four robins were there together: rights to the table had to be asserted!
There were at least seven sparrows, that being the most we saw at any one time. I think that was more than last year. The highlight for L and G was seeing a pair of dunnocks. They managed the feeder but were happier pecking about on the ground. But two dunnocks were two more than last year, and they were too shy to present themselves for the photoshoot a couple of days later.
What else? blue tits, great tit, wood pigeon and collared doves, blackbirds, and a blue-green Kubaburra bird-man flapping his wings and frightening the others away.
Having fed the birds, the humans fed themselves and looked forward to a new season of gardening. Watch the weather and watch this space!