The day began with a flash. A brown flash. Or should that be a streak?
Word selection has suddenly become much more important. I’d nipped back to pick up the metal watering can outside the back door, when a fair sized bird sped past me, dipping down, hugging the contour of the Cotoneaster covered bank and swerving to avoid my awkward silhouette with the can held prominently, westwards, as it headed along the side of the whitewashed building. Female blackbird? I thought idly, as I stood, mind momentarily disengaged. Perhaps 30 seconds later the swallow alarm calls drew my eyes skywards, in time to see the culprit – probably having doubled back after an unsuccessful snatch and grab attempt in the yard.
Bigger than a blackbird, but now in relaxed flight mode and viewed from beneath, plain to identify, rather than in its accelerating predatory sprint, straining for its’ prey. And since they can fly at up to 50 kmph, it explains why it seemed to me just a brown flash. Or streak. It’s surprising how often you find small birds on the open gravel of the yard – finches, swallows and at this time of the year, pied wagtails. 3 years ago, I’d described seeing the actual demise of a wagtail there, plucked from the ground as it was distracted by my conversation with a visitor. We’ve never fed wild birds in the garden, in part because we’re suspicious about encouraging this sort of predatory hit. This year a pair is nesting under the cowshed eaves, close to the big doors, and so, many times a day, you’re treated to the classic nest protection and distraction tactic of the parent. Stray too close and with a flurry of wings, the bird explodes from between the rafter’s ends, at eye level to your right and flies to the ground perhaps 10 yards ahead. You follow, and with a distinctly hunched, and injured appearance, it runs ahead of you, always taking the same route, across the yard.Pausing to check you’ve been taken in, and then down the cobbles in front of the house. Every time I’ve witnessed this ruse, just before it reaches the front door, and you’ve dutifully followed, keeping the same distance, it deems it’s fooled you and flies up, now relaxed, and sits bobbing on the slates’ drip line. To return to its offspring when the coast is clear.Thomas Hardy’s take on this bird’s wariness of humans, in his poem ‘Wagtail and Baby’, ends with:
A perfect gentleman then neared;
The wagtail, in a winking, With terror rose and disappeared;
The baby fell a-thinking.
By midday, we’d packed and were off to the Hay Festival. And the first talk we’d booked in to hear? Helen Macdonald and her much applauded book ‘H is for Hawk‘. Hay is a brilliant event for us, since it seems that for once the cultural buzz of metropolis UK decamps to this glorious setting nestling amongst the hills of border country – and it’s just a short drive away. Though with my Grumpy Hobbit hat on, I’d thought beforehand that it’s really just a good wheeze for authors and publishers to shift more stock. However, this was a riveting one hour of readings from her book and a sensitive Q and A session with the chairman of the judges for the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, which is one of the awards that the book has scooped.
For a taste of the event, do click here to listen to Helen describing the moment when she first met her new goshawk, Mabel, who was to become pivotal in the lengthy journey of restoring her life’s balance after the death of her father. Following on from this was an equally enthralling session with Robert Macfarlane discussing his recently launched book ‘Landmarks’ with Horatio Clare. The book includes a collection and dictionary of old or local words, from around the regions of the UK celebrating features of our landscape and natural phenomenon. It also highlights a worrying trend. Recent editions of the Oxford Junior English Dictionary have removed words like acorn, buttercup, conker, fern, heather, newt, otter, pasture (the list goes on), and replaced them with hashtag, broadband, bullet-point, cut-and-paste and voice-mail. In this book, Robert explores the notion that these changes, involving removing words for the outdoor and natural, and replacing them with those for the indoor and virtual, are a reflection of the simulated lives many of us increasingly live – particularly youngsters. More than this though, it’s a celebration of language and our landscapes. And there in the middle of the talk and discussion with Horatio Clare, was another hawk for the day. A peregrine falcon. And an even more amazing coincidence of timing. But do click here, to let Robert explain the details of the peregrine’s sighting, and admire his wonderful literary device of describing the event in 3 different layers of literary clarity.
Then, after racing out of the big tent, and joining the short queue, we managed to get a copy signed in an appropriate way. And delightful to finally meet him, since he’d been very generous years ago, in reviewing my film ‘Epiphany In Translation’, based around my brother, Mark’s, poem. This small endorsement was, at the time, a huge boost to my subsequent creative endeavours, and Mark had indeed been one of Robert’s English tutors in Oxford. And Robert is clearly held in very high regard by his readership – an hour and a half later he was still signing his books, with a queue stretching to the tent’s door. And I shall record here that an iconic pied wagtail created an important bit part towards the end of my film – only obvious to me once I was editing the scene where Mark reads his poem. A wagtail was sitting on the chimney pot, for fully 3 minutes, as though listening intently. As Mark paused for effect before the final stanza, the little bird bobbed down, and hovered momentarily like a little Tinkerbell fairy, just in front of him, before leaving the scene stage right.Just thinking again about this, as I write, brings the airs on the back of my neck up.
With a planned cottage garden group trip to Monmouthshire the following day, we’d opted to stay at a B and B in Crickhowell overnight, and thanks to Fiona’s choice, breakfast conversation with Sue our hostess the following morning, turned, and I really can’t remember how, to the subject of hobbits. Sue had for a time been the Brecon Beacons tourism ambassador, and so was able to inform us that JRR Tolkien wrote some of the text for ‘Lord of The Rings‘ (LOTR) whilst staying at the nearby Buckland Hall, and that Crickhollow, which also features as a place name in his text, is a thinly veiled corruption of the town we were staying in. I later discovered that Tolkien was in fact born in South Africa, leaving at the age of 4 after his father’s early death, with few memories other than an encounter with a big spider. He later became an incredible linguist, and even though his teenage years were based in the West Midlands, Welsh and Finnish became his two most favourite languages. These later were pivotal in him creating his own Elvish language, which subsequently in a slightly strange route, led him to create the complex history and landscapes that developed into the Hobbit, and later in more detail, the Lord of The Rings. Click here for more from the Tolkien society. In our days of weekend trips from Bristol to West Wales and back in the early 2000’s, we frequently had Howard Shore’s fabulous LOTR sound track playing as we drove through the majestic scenery surrounding Crickhowell, Bwlch and Brecon, oblivious to how influential it had clearly been in the creation of this globally massive popular fantasy creation. Now we know. And so on to the borderline gardens visited. Firstly High Glanau, a privately owned listed house and garden (click here for limited opening time) with a fabulous wild flower meadow as a car park, stunning views towards the Hay bluff hills, and an impeccable setting for a house, nestled just beneath a high ridge, but surrounded by mature trees, bar the open views West, and formal terraces. And even a good selection of small plant nurseries selling unusual stock, at a rare plants sale. And then after a local pub buffet lunch, much more of a unique experience with a visit to the gardens at Veddw. (click here for opening times). The creation of Anne Wareham the self styled ‘Bad Tempered gardener’, and her photographer husband Charles Hawes, the garden again sits in a special location amongst dense woods and rolling hills – do take good directions to get there, or be prepared for long scenic detours on tiny country lanes. A selection of images will give a flavour of this visually striking place. A couple of weeks ago a flash of orange disappearing into a gap of masonry at the change in levels of our rear cottage walls alerted me to a redstart’s, Phoenicurus phoenicurus, nest. We’ve often caught glimpses of these small, smart migrant birds around the garden, but never before identified a nesting site so close to the back door. Camera at the ready, I quickly discovered that they’re not as easy to photograph as some other birds, so a camcorder time lapse was tried from above the bank. Then we realised that the near constant dawn to dusk sound, which we’d been hearing recently in our under the eaves bedroom, was in fact generated by the redstarts. I’ve always found phonetic attempts at imitating bird songs really tricky – a little like trying to use words to describe the taste of a wine. But after much experimentation, my best effort is a short, repeated Ttsoooweeeep, where the tone rises at the end of the phrase. Thanks to another birthday book, I discovered that the great poet John Clare, in his poem “The Firetail“, renders his attempt to capture the song as ‘tweet tut’, as follows:
Around the old and ruined wall,
About the dead and hollow tree,
The firetail’s ‘tweet-tut’ fretting call
Keeps up a teasing melody.
Click here for more on the poem.
I should add this benign, all day long, simple call does change slightly, when perceived threats are near, with the addition of 2 to 4 ‘ticks’ as a suffix. More on this later perhaps.
Eventually I twigged that by raising the Velux roof light a little, I had a chance to photograph the birds as they paused on fence, or catenary line, still managing to Ttsooweeeep with a beak crammed with insects, before dashing in, to feed the hungry, hidden chicks.
I shall end, as is often the case, with some photos of the garden in early, and remarkably still midge free, June. But not before returning to “Landmarks”. Along with the prose, and glossary of landscape words, Robert Macfarlane has left a couple of blank pages for the reader to add their own selections of words.
I really like this idea, so along with the above Ttsooweeeep, as the call of the Redstart.
I’m also adding in my own glossary:
Buttercupboozer, as: another descriptive common name for Micropterix calthella, or the Marsh Marigold Moth, which can be found right now in creeping buttercup flowers in huge numbers, and
Meadowing, which I’m defining as: the simple activity of spending time outside in a wild flower meadow. Whether working, observing, dreaming or just contemplating. A slow, action word.
(part of the stunning meadow at Blaen Tir below)
If you want to read more on how the idea of meadowing came into being, then click here for a fuller explanation, on the Carmarthenshire Meadows Group site. A pristine Scarlet tiger moth, Callimorpha dominula, from our lower meadows.And an unknown snazzy bee. Ideas anyone?
The weekend sounds perfect with the b & b and garden visits! I think the bee is Osmia bicornis or a red mason bee. You can actually see the little horn just above the mandibles. I can see the scopa for collecting the pollen so I would say a female. Amelia
Thanks for the ID Amelia,
I thought you’d probably come up with an ID. I’d always thought RMB’s were smaller, so I shall have to look again at the smaller ones I’ve seen, to try to work out what they are. Or do you get different sizes/castes? The weekend was great, but for me picking up a bug – probably from the Hay Festival! Still, well worth it.
Another fascinating ,interesting and enjoyable blog on so many topics . I certainly broaden my knowledge when I read your blogs! I am amazed to read about the words being left out of the Junior Dictionary…words fail me!! Thank you for showing the gardens you visited I’m keeping a list so we can have a day or two out and visit them this summer.
I never know how many people will have read/ heard about this, but the loss of words really is scary. Robert explained that its done by OED in an entirely scientific computerised trawel of 40 million words used in lots of contemporary publications – they pick up on word frequency of use, so the idea is that the dictionary ( and language?) is kept contemporary and evolving. But I’ve just read more of the book where he describes the eventually successful fight on the Isle of Lewis to protect the inland bog/moor from development with a 250 plus turbine wind farm. The developers claimed it was just a blank/sterile wilderness. The local opposition including gathering a lexicon of local Gaelic words to describe the complexities of this ‘blank wilderness’. Without the language, how can you love, appreciate and so defend a concept? Remove the words, and what is there to value? This is why what he has done in highlighting language loss relating to landscape and nature is, I think, invaluable. Quite a challenging book verbally for me in places, but well worth it.
We must get to Aberglasney again soon – and see the Thalictrum trial!
I am guilty of judging the book by its cover, Anne’s garden is a revelation, just followed your link. The tittle did for me and I could not look further previously, glad you showed your trip there. Your own looks lovely as always and we should all be meadowing at every opportunity. The Hay festival looks interesting, I have made a note of H is for Hawk, a book I would really like to read, thanks for the recommendation.
Thanks for the comment. I’m really glad that we went to see Veddw. I think the bad tempered bit is combination of a differentiation marketing idea, as well as a reflection of the hard graft of gardening …particularly as you age. It’s well worth a visit, though for us, there maybe weren’t enough flowers… Hay is definitely worth putting in the diary, for a mini break, since there are so many other lovely places to see round there, and the fabulous scenery. Thanks for your comments on meadowing …the other site will be a bit of a slog and long term effort to create anything worthwhile, but I feel passionate about raising awareness of these special places. I’m about to start a gallery of Carms. Meadows locations, and I kid you not, the 2 I’ve visited already this last week are quite mind blowing in their splendour – Look out for a ‘gallery page’ on the site in due course.
I have just started to volunteer with the NPMS and last week went on a grass identifying course, there is a group of tricky plants. My area designated to identify is part water meadow and part low grassland. This has opened a whole new level of appreciation for me, I have always loved meadows and really look forward to seeing your photos.
Now I’m showing my ignorance, but what’s the NPMS? I think this is part of the thing about meadows though – they can be enjoyed at so many different levels of observation, and like many aspects of life, probably the more you understand, the more you marvel, and also then realise how little you REALLY comprehend
National Plant Monitoring Scheme, they are the new body pulling together in one place previous plant surveys from different charities such as Plantlife. http://www.npms.org.uk I think you would be very interested in their work. This is the first year, so a few teething problems, but an exciting project to be involved with.
Thanks very much for that Julie, I shall follow the link and explore!
I was truly in shock reading about the changes in the dictionary. I see no sense. These “new” words are evolving and get old and eventually replaced as technologies change, but a Newt or Fern, or Acorn will stay hopefully forever, so why don’t give our children a wholesome, lasting knowledge about the world?
Thanks for the comment. It is indeed tragic that these words have gone – maybe they’ll never return? Or maybe there will be a move to expose more children to the beauties of the natural world, and so that these words will once more feature in common usage. Let’s hops so. BTW I did write a comment on your blog – on the melancholy post from last September, but as sometimes happens WP seemed to delete it after I thought I’d posted it. Anyway I really liked the posts I’d looked at – a great mix of lovely photos, intelligent writing…and those inserted You Tube clips ….I can never seem to manage to get that to work, which really frustrates me,
Tragic indeed. Let’s hope for the better. Glad you have found my instructions. Let me know how it works.
Inesephoto summed up our loss of words quite nicely – I only hope that our natural environment is indeed able to withstand us. Sadly, we seem to be losing touch with the natural world; more and more involved with technology. I can’t help but wonder if there’d be a lot less trouble in the world if more people took a few minutes out of their ‘busy’ lives to feel (not just see) nature in all her glory.
Still, all in all, another heart warming post – thank you 🙂
Thanks for the comment. I think you capture the dilemma of doing a blog like this nicely… using modern technology and spending time crouched in front of a computer screen, to try to raise awareness/describe what people are missing if they don’t slow down. But written of course from a very privileged state of being where we have consciously opted/ and to a degree, can afford to slow down. I’m not alone in thinking that West Wales seems to have quite a high number of like minded folk who have other priorities in life to the frenetic pursuit of material gain. Sadly though we’re at an extreme end of a spectrum, and not the movers and shakers – so the frequent lurches to melancholy that crop up here, are perhaps, influenced by a conviction that the natural environment will not be able to withstand our species’ current ways of existence …at least not in its present state. Anyway, as the sun rises higher and some heat arrives to perhaps dry out some very soggy cut grass/’hay’, we shall gird up our loins for a push to rescue it before the new amber warnings for disruptive thunderstorms tonight arrive … nature really always has the last laugh …