Nature notes – Blackbirds sing of better days

Blackbirds are common in Beddington Farmlands

17 March 2021 – Beddington Farmlands, London

I have been suffering from a kidney stone. It’s an awful experience, as much for the limits it imposes on my freedom as for the pain it inflicts. Illness and confinement have defined my life for a year now, but as I walk into Beddington Farmlands, the mineral scent of damp earth turns my mind to fitness and freedom. Nature is a tonic: despite the furious ache in my right kidney I find myself feeling healthy again. Maybe this is illusory, but, for a moment, I’m happy to enjoy the illusion – because, for a moment, I can forget about past suffering, and concentrate wholly on better days.

Every walk here calls me back to a memory linked in some way to the wildlife and plants I encounter. It could be the slide-whistle call of a lapwing, planting me back on the Pennine Way where great monochrome flocks of the birds swept above Ickornshaw Moor, their passage marked by the audible hiss of wind over wings. Or I might find myself thinking of Japan’s Naoshima Island, where grey herons stalk rocky shores with the same intense, haughty demeanour I see in them here, just ten minutes from my front door.

Today, it’s all about the blackbirds. I count a dozen on my short walk through the Farmlands, mostly glossy black males whose fluting song has me pining for my family. I haven’t seen my Dad for more than a year now, and I miss him terribly. He feeds a breeding pair of blackbirds in his back garden; when I’m home during the summer months, their song will be as much a part of my life as late-night dinners, and shared vices of cheap cigars, good wine and bad jokes.

Dad has been fighting a long battle with an immensely fat wood-pigeon, a bulbous glutton that swoops on to the seed and oats he leaves for the blackbirds. He does his best to startle the pigeon away, but the blackbirds are often left with only a small share of the feast. Still, they sing their sweet, optimistic song all the same – as they do here, their bright verse insisting that I think of life beyond illness.

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