Thursday, 1 October 2015

GENTILITY IN FEATHERS

I was lured away from my desk one morning this week by the brilliant sunshine and went up High Pike instead of fiddling around with words and bits of paper.  The Lake District mountains vaulted away in the distance - Carrock, Blencathra, Helvellyn, Scafell, Skiddaw - but Scotland was invisible, the Solway Firth filled with haze.

As I approached the summit I could see the outline of two smallish birds, quite long-bodied, but not long-tailed.  They twitched intermittently, as if waiting for the moment when I would turn away.  Their bobbing resembled wagtails but I knew that if I could just manoeuvre enough I would see a blueish-grey head and back contrasting with darker wings and tail and the second bird a paler imitation of the first.  Sure enough, wheatears.  When they eventually flew off there was a white flash of feathers clinching their identity.

Wheatears are often the first summer migrants I see in February or early March and the last to leave, a few hanging around until the end of October before migrating to Africa.  I see them in my favourite places - open moorland in Wales and the Lake District, islands such as Bardsey or Mull where they fly up from the path ahead, that white flash giving them away each time.

A quick look at Birds Britannica informed me that their name is a bowdlerisation of their original Old English name hwit (white) aers (arse).  It struck me that although there are several poems about skylarks, nightingales, swallows, robins, blackbirds, swans I could only think of one poem about a wheatear.  Perhaps it is because we have imposed on those other birds such a freight of symbolism, whereas the wheatear just is.

The one poem is Michael Longley's 'Wheatear', subtitled 'Poem Beginning with a Line of J M Synge'.
You can read it at
www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/wheatear
It's a lovely deep breath poem - all one sentence as if the poet dare not exhale until the end of the poem.  It takes a while to get to the wheatear.  The poem begins with that line of Synge, 'Brown lark beside the sun', goes on with marsh marigolds, yellow flags, trout, ravens and then trapped in the very middle of the poem is 'A wheatear from Africa'.  She has flown into the cottage and is 'banging against the windowpane'.  How frightening for a bird used to flying thousands of miles.  The poet rescues and releases her and she flies away to a rabbit hole (her nest?) where she mimics 'My panic, my breathlessness'.  Such a simple action - removing a bird from a room - but in Longley's writing pure magic.

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