20 March 2018
Claxton, Norfolk: Even now there are several roadside heaps of it where the snowdrifts had been so high that we were entirely cut off for three days. These vestiges hardly conjure the power of that extraordinary storm, but it was fascinating to track the whole system as a single organism right down to its final details.
The most notable thing about ‘the beast from the east’ was the speed of its evolution. For example on the morning it left it was astonishing how the natural world responded. Suddenly there were life sounds everywhere – starlings or greenfinches singing, a woodpecker drumming and sparrows re-immersed in their hedgerow palaver as if nothing had ever happened.
The snow that morning was entirely different. Every step raised a cleat-pressed pancake that snapped mid-point as it fell back into the footprint. The going was heavy and so unlike the snow at the height of the storm, when you could walk through it as if it were water. That virgin stuff was so loose it had blown deep into the heart of the vegetation and created a landscape so monochromatic that it was hard to distinguish photographs taken in black-and-white from those in colour.
On the marsh itself I experienced one of the rare occasions in lowland England where I thought: ‘you could die out here’. The cold from the wind and horizontal snow left burning sensations at your temple and cheeks. Nothing stirred and the only warm-blooded life I saw, two swans midfield, were just curvatures of white enfolded in whiteness.
The storm’s most powerful effect was its silence. The whole world became a sound-proofed closet, but for the relentless static from the easterlies and the faint-scratched footprint of every new flake. This atmosphere, however, triggered its own emotional impacts, for out of it, at one point, swung a lone blackbird, over the gate and into the boundary oaks, until its passage was obliterated by white. To see that bird, to know it was still here – that little feathered dinosaur, inheritor of the Jurassic, bringer of spring, announcer of dawn – among all that whitened silence, was as comforting as a flame in the dark.
21 April 2015
Claxton, Norfolk: Every morning over the past few weeks and with the arrival of that ambiguous grey glow of dawn there comes to me the blended song from all of Claxton’s blackbirds. As I lie listening to the daffodil freshness of it I try to separate out what makes their collective music so moving at such an early hour.
Is it the fact that in order to produce it, air must rush over each bird’s syrinx, in and out, as it makes music but also as it breathes? That same stuff – basically two parts oxygen and eight parts nitrogen – serves also as the medium bearing the sounds in waves across the garden and through the window to my ears. Yet it is also what I can hear passing in and out of me, as I lie listening to my blackbirds.
It is our air – and only our air – that lets blackbirds sing and brings the music to me and which the birds and I share with every living thing wrapped around the world. How extraordinary to think that, if I set out this dawn and could walk Spiderman-like up the sheer wall of this atmosphere, then within just three days of my departure I would reach the edge of its territory, in a layer we call the thermosphere. You would not find it after what is roughly the 120 kilometre marker. All beyond is just darkness and the dead music of the stars.
As a child they always led me to believe that heaven was somewhere up among all that nothing. Even now we should bear in mind, when next the astrophysicists bid us spend our billions venturing out into the dark vault of outer space, that the thing they really seek is all here coming out of blackbirds’ beaks.
Spiders have been recorded sailing their silk at an altitude of five kilometres, and penicillin spores were found flying at 77 kilometres, but most of the things we should value are in that infinitesimally thin air layer, perhaps 100 metres deep, where birdsong is best heard and where you and I usually sleep. I know now that there are no such things as angels, but were I ever allowed to name them, then all mine would be black with orange beaks.