What do birds mean to you? Do they matter? How would you feel if they disappeared? Some years ago I was lucky enough to lead some ‘nature writing’ workshops with the naturalist Mark Cocker, author of the magnificent ‘Birds and People’. Mark helped me to understand how deeply birds are enmeshed in our cultural and emotional lives, in the very language and metaphors we use to explain ourselves. In particular, we use their flight as an image for some of the most elusive things we wish to express, the movement of the mind, spirit or imagination. Some of us still use them in a more practical sense, too, as calendars, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the first swallow in April or, here on the Northumberland coast, marking the beginning of autumn with the departure of the Arctic terns (in my sketch below).
Birds have been important to me throughout my life. I’ve written and spoken elsewhere about what the song of the blackbird has meant to me, from my earliest memory of lying in my pram before I could talk. The patterning of sound in those short phrases of blackbird song or in a skylark’s lengthy improvisations is fascinating to a poet. The brevity of an individual bird’s song, and the fragility of its life, contrast with the apparent timelessness and ubiquity of that song. Countless folk songs and poems, from Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ to the spellbinding work of folk singer and conservationist Sam Lee, capture a shared emotional response to sounds still just about familiar to most of us.
On the coast where I live birds are culturally meaningful in other ways. Fishermen I knew who were born before World War One used certain birds as weather ‘signs’. It was as if the birds’ sensitivity to atmospheric conditions gave them ‘knowledge’ of the future. The fishermen’s bird lore reminded me of how, in ancient cultures, birds were used for divine augury. For many of us, birds still carry a sense of mystery. Where do the migrant species go? How do they know when it is time to leave and how do they navigate over such vast distances? Birds shrink the planet for us, and seem to possess an insight that we do not. No wonder people in so many cultures have thought of birds as ‘go betweens’, messengers from elsewhere.
Below: sand martins nest in burrows above a 7,000 year old layer of peat at Hauxley.
In my lifetime, scientists have made vast progress investigating many bird species’ behaviour. Geolocators fitted to an Arctic Tern from the National Trust’s Farne Islands reserve recently recorded that the distance of its annual migration to and from Antarctica was the equivalent of twice around the circumference of the globe in one year. Even tiny birds like the goldcrest – five grams of feathers, a vivid eye and a rapid heartbeat – travel vast distances. Why? For how long have they done this? Instinct, now backed by science, suggests that birds are much older than the human species. Their lineage is Mesozoic, their evolution from a group of dinosaurs (theropods) evident from the fossil record, with clues visible from close observation: just look at their skeletons, their scaly feet. Perhaps we sense in their long evolution some clue to survival.
At the same time, we have become increasingly aware of the declining numbers of many species and the pressure of human activity on their lives. Where are all the urban house sparrows? The ‘peewits’ (lapwings) I remember from my childhood have almost disappeared from the fields. Meanwhile, other species, like grey herons, have proliferated on this coast. Certain charismatic species, such as the puffins, eider ducks and roseate terns which breed on the RSPB sanctuary of Coquet Island, are better protected than they ever were. Old industrial workings have been reclaimed and now flourish as nature reserves, as at the old Hauxley colliery site, reborn as the wonderful Hauxley Wildlife Discovery Centre.
These changes will be on my mind this autumn, as I write new poems for ‘The Bird Roads’, an audio collaboration with wildlife sound recordist Geoff Sample. Our collaboration will be part of ‘Amble Bord Waalk’ (Bird Walk), a project commissioned by Amble Development Trust, to develop ‘a bird-themed sculpture trail of national significance’, with physical and virtual-reality models, from Druridge Bay to Warkworth, aligned with the new England Coast Path. My poems will draw on my own observations along the walk, Geoff’s field recordings from the sites, fragments of local speech and comments, and observations by the sculptors on their artworks. Our six short audio pieces will be realised through an app which will accompany the Walk, and our intention is to lead listeners into connecting more deeply with the landscape and its wildlife.
The ‘Bord Waalk’ is partly aimed at creating jobs in tourism, as part of Amble’s very successful regeneration. I want my poems to be as much for local people as for visitors. Amble holds a special place in my affections. Thirty years ago I spent two weeks as ‘poet in residence’ in a number of Amble schools, including Edwin Street First School and what is now James Calvert Spence College. That was my first ever ‘residency’, and I shared it with a more experienced writer, Peter Mortimer, author of ‘Last of the Hunters’. My aim was to get the children writing their own poems, and for inspiration I took them to the harbour, to talk to retired members of the fishing community (see the picture below). The friendships I made at that time were the start of a relationship with the town and its fishing families which has shaped my work for three decades.
You can find my poems from that time in my first Bloodaxe collection, ‘The Lost Music’ and later Amble poems in ‘Two Countries’. Lines from my poem ‘The Sea Inside’ are carved into two roundels in the pavement of Amble Town Square (below):
Now the Amble ‘Bord Waalk’ brings me back to this lovely part of the coast. The birds we live alongside, whose calls accompany us, are a window into our wider relationship with our environment. They are indeed ‘go betweens’. I hope that the new Amble sculpture trail will make everyone, not only visitors, reflect on the importance of birds in particular, and of biodiversity in general. These things are immensely important in themselves, and we must do everything we can to protect them, whether that means reducing plastic waste or carbon dioxide emissions, energy or water use, or understanding more about our impact on climate change. They are also important to our sense of who we are. Perhaps the Ancients were right, and birds are auguries of our future. They are so enmeshed in our cultural lives that, as we lose our biodiversity, we also lose part of ourselves. By encouraging the interpretation of place through its bird life, I hope that the Amble ‘Bird Waalk’ will remind us all of this vital connection.
The Amble ‘Bord Waalk’ is funded by the Coastal Communities Fund, and will be unveiled in Spring 2021.