On migration

The loss of swallows.

The wind had backed off and swung around to the north. It was not the hard edged summer northerlies that leave you cut and dried, fearing fire, dusty eyed. This was a softer, rounder, wind. But still it grabbed, sticky fingered, at the pages of my book, trying to hurry me along, impatient to get to the end In defiance of the wind’s urgings I stopped reading and looked out into the surf, hoping for dolphins, but none showed.

Switching from a near gaze to a more distant one breaks the book bubble in which I am wrapped, and I noticed the air is filling with birds. Swallows. One, two three. Another group over there - four, five six. More - seven, eight, nine, ten. More - eleven, twelve. More and more counting until counting no longer makes sense and they become simply lots. Their speed and flightful movement, conscious, way beyond Brownian, makes it impossible to do more than estimate numbers; ball park at best. Buried within the sea sky of movement are a few Martins, cousins not brothers or sisters to the majority. Some bushes become favoured resting spots for the birds. Chatter points for calls and communication, meaningful tweets. Some high and open, some low and closed, others dead and broken. There seems no logic in their choices, and if there is, it eludes me at the time.

They swarm around the eaves of the house and land in a controlled stall on any flat surface – horizontal or vertical. No matter how hard I try I can see nothing else in the air around the house but birds. There are no swarms of bugs, no flights of flies to draw the birds here. They just seem to be here because they are here. Their movements project a kind of nervous energy, compounded by their apparent lack of trust in my motives. Any movement on my behalf sends all the perched birds back into the sky. For a second or two the house is hazed by a smoke of birds, until they disperse, chattering their disapproval. The longer I stand the higher they fly. When I sit down the birds slowly drift down as well, and after a few minutes they are back gathering on the eaves. Until I move that is, and then the game starts all over again. It’s a Wednesday afternoon, but by Thursday morning the sky is empty. There is not a swallow to be seen anywhere around the house, in fact I don’t see another one during the holiday. They’ve gone, headed north. Why the birds chose to gather around the house is a mystery. Or maybe it’s the other way around: why did people choose to build a house where the swallows gather?

Why they have chosen to go north is no mystery at all. It’s autumn. An evening chill more than creeps up on you as the sun sets, some of the trees – forced migrants from elsewhere – are losing the sheen of summer green as they gain their showy colours and shed their leaves. In the evenings you can find pockets of air that hold the delightful smell of wood smoke. Not the horror smell of a hot summer’s day, but a gentler, softer smell that speaks of warmth and security, and maybe even the memory of home cooking. The ritual of setting and lighting the fire with the rapid rattle popping of the dry kindles as much a part of the start of autumn as tree colour and gutters full of leaves.

The real mystery of the swallows for me is not the where of their migration, but the when. And not really the when of an individual bird, but the when of them all. These swallows left en masse, together as a group. How does the varied flock come to that single apparently unified decision that today is the day? How is that spread from bird to bird? Is it some form of flock sourced wisdom of the crowd? While we can talk about sensitivity to day length and temperature, the choice of day seems to be a collective rather than a bird by bird decision. Maybe it’s imagination on my part – and it’s not hard to think of a selective pressure that would encourage group migration – but it really does look like a group decision. You can hardly avoid the idea (heretical as it may be) that the birds landing on the bushes and twittering are involved in a collective decision making process. A kind of birdy democracy working out when enough is enough and it’s time to head to the warmer climes and insect rich skies to the north. Are some of the bold held back by the timid, are the less eager pushed on by the brave? All I really know is that the next day the cloud-full skies were empty of swallows. They had succumbed to whatever tip taps on the keyboard of their instincts. I could not but feel the loss of swallows. Nothing looks as empty as a sky that was once full of movement. Nothing holds as deep a silence as a sky that was once full of sound.

Closer to home.
I was born in the spring that followed the coldest winter in living memory. Snow sulked under hedge banks until March. The decade was young, it may have even been starting to swing in some places but I was too young to notice. I grew surrounded by the kind of soft greenery that never quite made the leap of grandeur needed to be considered landscape, but it was formative nevertheless. It was countryside in the pure sense of the world, unremarkable yet unique, the sort of place that defines an Englishness that may be unfashionable, but is deeply rooted and old. As was typical for the time and place I spent hours outdoors, wandering, lanes, footpaths and recently uprooted railway lines. For all the freedom that gave I felt the informal restraint of the local Parish boundaries. I had a patch and I stayed on it. The longest journeys were taken on school trips and to Scout camps.

There was a sense of slow decay about the village – and a sense of a far more rapid decay within the frame of our house. The hypnotic drip of a leaky roof and dampening chill of winter pushed the house towards repairs and renovation that were never possible. At the centre of the village, where three roads met and diverged, there was (and still is) a memorial to the dead of two wars. The coal mine and the railway had already gone, the small shops were losing the battle with the supermarkets, and the wood yard – Sheppard’s – seemed to survive more on memory than industry. Now it’s just a street name. In the 70s the lights went out, prices inflated and the value of everybody’s money shrank day by day. The optimism of my birth decade, the one that was supposed to change the world, gave way to a world weary cynicism and by the 80s the village felt old and small. England (or at least the populous south east) embraced the sort of change that had little regard for the small and delicate. You were either in or very far out. I knew to which of these groups I belonged. Whatever the future held, it would probably happen elsewhere. I needed to leave.

As the Thrushes of Scandinavia, Fieldfares and Redwings, were readying themselves to fly south away from the cold, I was getting ready to fly north away from what I knew. It was the longest journey I had ever been on. Twelve hours on public transport deposited me in Sunderland. Although I had no idea at the time, this was a migration of my own. Still restricted by the motion of my own feet, I explored the back lanes and broken beaches of the area. The empty coasts beyond the town remained unknown. Empty shops gap toothed the shopping streets. This was not a green place. It was suffering under the triple hammer blows of a changed world economy, a government that seemed to be focussed elsewhere and political impotence. I may as well have been on the moon. I stayed in the area beyond the demands of study and eventually found places that were green and in some ways familiar, but I was always a visitor. My voice confirmed this, and people took delight in reminding me. For the second I knew, I needed to leave.

This time I headed west. All my belongings were packed into one large box and a couple of smaller bags. I had not yet accumulated the volume of possessions that can hold you to one place beyond the reason of arrival. A couple of hours later I arrived in the Lake District. This was not a migration, more of a relocation, but the difference was profound. I could have moved from Greenland to Saudi Arabia and seen less change. The Lake District is as grand as landscape gets in England. Clouds still wandered lonely over fell tops as they did when they inspired poets. The ghosts of Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin and Jemima Puddleduck hang over the gentler south. There are National Trust properties and signs everywhere, although most people just use the car parks.

The land was rich with poetry and gardens, with books and shared (but never really experienced) memory. The Lake District is almost the collective imagined vision of the English countryside made real – only with a few added steep hills and a little too much rain. And for over four years I got to live there. On my days off I got to be in the place where people took holidays. I walked, climbed and occasionally paddled kayaks or canoes. I saw sun, rain, mist and snow. This was the kind of place I had always wanted to be – being there closed the circle of movement that had begun years ago in Somerset. I found what I had been looking for.

But I found something else as well – something unexpected, something that began with an unplanned collision of strangers in a work staff room. Something that grew and grew. Something that I would have to go half way around the world to keep.

Time Enough

The big horizon-wide windows faced south towards the sea. On most days they were still, but on some days you could feel them buzz as the wind from the west pushed across their surface. I would stand there at the start of each day just looking, waiting for the kettle on the stove to boil, waiting for that first, all important, cup of tea. A kestrel would often perch on one of the bushes between me and the sea, waiting just like me, but waiting for something different. It was a perfect place to stand and day dream, to plan the day ahead, to think about the day before, to wonder if it would be possible to get close enough to the kestrel to photograph it. It was a place to stand and for a few minutes – I never really could tell how long – become lost in the distance and the surf. I would be called back to the morning by the growing silver whistle of the kettle, sounding old fashioned, urgent and warm. Reminding me that, for a short time anyway, we were not connected by wires or waves to the todays of other people, that all the noise and movement around me were nature’s or my family’s. We were not really cut off, but in the morning, trapped in the spell of distance, you could believe you were.

All holidays take on a rhythm of their own. The morning walk to collect the paper and have a coffee. The daily count of kangaroos around the house. The arrival of children, slightly chilled by the cool mountain air, in the early light of the morning. Some are variations on the normal home day, some are special to the holiday. Each adds a still, predictable, start to the day; a foundation on which to build.

At Tide Lines, on Kangaroo Island, the routine became watching, or at least looking for, dolphins whilst having breakfast. Armed with a small telescope and a large pot of tea I would search the surf from the south facing deck. Some days I needed a thin jacket, every day I needed to refill the tea pot. The deck and its weather greyed table were just the right height to look over and through the dunes and into the breaking of the waves. A small rocky headland pushed out from the shore and funnelled the water into a rip. Beach scraps collect in the rip. The scraps attracted fish and the fish attracted the dolphins. Black shark like shapes were often the first things you saw, emerging from the water and quickly sinking back into the surf. Triangles with curved edges, fin blades knifing through the water. Strangely I only ever saw them swimming left to right, heading west through the bay, morning commuters swimming through a one way system. On one morning the pod of dolphins stopped and fished in the rip. Tails would break through the surface and you could see the bodies of these sleek marine mammals rolling in the water together. It looked like play, but it wasn’t. Fish, probably salmon, broke through the surface in showers, taking flight from the snapping teeth behind them. The dolphins were herding the fishing to the surface, cutting off most of the escape routes, to catch them. So here in the surf, visible from my own bed, was an animal that has been mythologised to the point where biology becomes almost invisible. Intelligent they may be, peace loving vegetarians they are not. After the splashing died down the dolphins, as ever it seemed, headed west into the rest of the bay. How many times would they have to head west before it became a pattern, before it raised itself about the level of coincidence? Would I be 95% confident that it would happen the next day, and what would it mean if it did not? Was I just being lulled by my pattern seeking brain, generation upon generation in the building, which finds faces in the curtains, songs on the wind and God in the clouds? Pulled by a construct building mind towards a pattern where one may not exist, created in an instant or just a few days What is really needed is the passage of a deeper time, a longer time on watch and quiet dispassionate observation. Once you have found such a place, such a record of passing time, you really can start to look for patterns.

The weather takes a turn for the worse, the windows buzz, and the New Holland Honeyeaters take cover in the bases of the bushes. A bird of near paranoid nervousness at the best of times, now it verges on madness. Calling to friend or foe alike with sharp, percussive notes, it dashes from cover to cover, seemingly blown by the wind, almost not in control. They seem more like windblown litter than a bird, the wreckage of a beach party or a Friday night football game. The wind keeps blowing as we drive, bumpy, down the rough dirt track to the road.

A Black Snake winds its way across the track. Even in a country where the fauna is of unequalled toxicity, a humble Black Snake still causes a rush of excitement. Just like the kookaburra, a snake is never just a snake. They have too much mythology to be just a snake. Apples, gardens and snakes; maybe the blood pressure spike they produce is hard wired, not just a matter of education and bad PR. We hurry out of the car to watch the back half disappear into the bushes. I shush the kids and we listen for the long rustle of movement that marks the difference between the scurry sound of a lizard and longer, slower rustle of a snake. As we stand and listen the snake reappears just down the track and heads for the other bushes on the other side. I hope it was the same snake; if it was not then the bush around our house must have been carpeted with serpents.

Gusts of wind send leaves bumble tumbling across the road. Sticks, mostly small but some surprisingly large, clutter the road. Occasionally they kick up with the turn of the wheels and rattle through the arches, a sharp scatter snatch sound. Trees’ branches wave, grass trees bend to the force, and the whole landscape is alive with movement; back and forth, pushed and released, the call and response of plant congregation and the minister wind.

When we arrive at Kelly Hills the wind is even stronger, the car park a pickup sticks of fallen wood. Normally shade is the goal, trees the target. But today, parking far from the trees seems like a good idea – parking in an open space is the premium, parking under a tree a way to increase your insurance premium. Even as the branches buck and weave a Forest Raven sits on a low branch and croaks its disapproval at our arrival. Its neck hackles puff out and show the white base to the feathers. A large spider rushes over the covered table. Everything seems shaken and uncertain in the wind. The woodland feels angry, and as the branches fall, distant and close, you can understand how the woods, the dark forests of the past, were thought to hold danger and lurking spirits. Today would not be a day for off path adventures, or wild wood camps.

A metal door shuts the entry into the cave, a dull sheen in the rough rock face. All around it are pictures of animals, some of which we have seen and others which have long since ceased to be found here. Tasmanian Devils, short faced Kangaroos, animals from the end of the last ice age. Here, in the mud of the cave floor is a history written for long enough, buried deep enough, to be able to track the changes of life and time, the passing of creatures great and small, and the change of the weather from year to year. I can’t read this history, but I know that there are people who can. The ice retreats and the continent dries and the impact of people grows. The mega fauna – animals that would put those from the Africa of today in the shade – slowly (or possibly rapidly) disappear and the world that is Australia changes for ever. Fire changes. Plants change. And the animals at both the beginning and the end of this change as well. The herbivores the size of small cars are all gone, so are the marsupial lions with their huge teeth, the giant birds and huge lizards. Across most of Australia their place has been taken by cats and dogs, foxes and rats, goat and camels. Kangaroo Island is a little different to the mainland, but even here the change is felt. It’s not been a fair exchange.

To step into the cave is to enter a world of calm. A steep flight of metal stairs leads down into the darkness, away from the light and the wind. A quick switch flick sends a yellow candle light out along the paths. People talk in whispers – the same way they do when they enter a church, even if they don’t believe. Maybe it’s the pressure of the rock roof above, maybe it’s the pools of darkness that hang in the corners, but even in the open caverns you can feel the gentle tug of claustrophobia.

If myth can be trusted, these caves were found when a horse, or possibly cow (or maybe a sheep) fell into one of the entrances. The caves have been found, but the horses’ saddle and tack remain lost. The rock in the cave is heavily decorated; stalactites, stalagmites, curtains and straws. Sometimes we pass over flowstone floors. All of the decorations are the product of the slow drip and evaporation of water. The water has long gone, the solid building up year after year. Solvent, solute and evaporation, the basic science of solutions, the basic chemistry of decoration. Some of the decorations have stored chemicals, picked up by the slow flow of water through gum leaves and soils, and show a red gold colour.

As a kid there were show caves less than an hour from my Somerset home, and latter on in life I took other people kids into the simple caves of Yorkshire. These caves were cut into limestone, solid and grey. These caves were wet, with reflective pools and stream beds. Long Churn was an underground river, and the through trip was almost always in water; you could leave the cave by climbing a waterfall that crashed into a pool called Dr. Banister’s Hand Basin. There was water everywhere. The caves at Kelly Hills were very different. The rock which the caves snaked through was formed from the compacted, ancient, windblown sand dunes and the cave was almost bone dry. The tinkle drip of water which was the background ambience to most caves I have been in was missing. Without the lights the place would have been completely dark, and without the water it would have been completely silent. Water had formed all the decorations but it had long since ceased to trickle through the cracks and crevices. The caves and their decorations were a ghost, a memory, of an older wetter time. The weather has moved on and left the caves low and dry. The decorations can be studied to find out about rainfall patterns and the past. These are the kind of views long enough to find patterns and flow, to give a better understanding than a single day, or even a lifetime. Our path returned to the metal stairs, and climbed back up to the wind and light, into the weather of now.

If anything the current weather grew worse as we drove into the wind and towards the western end of the island. Short, sharp showers rattled across the roads, the car skipped sideways in the stronger blasts. The temperature ticks down one degree, then another, then another. We start to take a mental inventory of the clothes in the back of the car. I wonder about the efficacy of wearing the picnic blanket, but under these conditions it would be more of a kite than a coat. We stop for hot chocolate or coffee depending on age, and then we press on, tacking into the growing wind. In spite of all this P goes to sleep and H looks heavy eyed but resists slumber as a point of older brother pride. The car park is, unsurprisingly, rather empty. My family has little interest in braving the tempest to look at some rocks, remarkable or not. So wearing a little less than I would have liked I walk away from the car and into the wind. “I’m going out, I could be some time”.

Bush tops whip in the wind. Children move sideways in wind powered vectors of slight and uncertain control. I arrive at the “take a picture here” spot and I’m pleased to oblige. I’m even more pleased to have a fence rail to hang on to. The Committee for the Sensible Naming of Tourist Attractions has been at work here again and the Remarkables laid out before me actually are. These huge, battered and weathered boulders sit on a small headland, open and exposed to the passing force of wind and salt, to baking heat, chilling cold and a deeper expanse of time than most of us can comprehend. These processes have sculpted the rocks into forms weird and wonderful – arches, pillars, caves and sheltered coves of rock. They call out to be touched, and this act gives them a greater scale and a sense of age. If the wind and the sea can do this to rock – to the unimaginable roots of the Earth – what could it do to the temporary flesh that coats my insubstantial bones?

To get close to the rocks you step off the wooden path and on to a gentle up slope studded with pockets where smaller rocks once were and where others still lie, encased. These are rocks spat from the vents of ancient volcanoes, explosive moments frozen into solid time of the cooling rocks around them. Xenoliths - alien rocks.

The crowds dance around each other to take their pictures and flash their smiles and peace signs. I see a familiar face among them, and I take a half hitch step towards saying hello – wondering if memory has failed me and when I say “Hello Helen” the person will look at me blankly, or worse still say “My name is David”. Thankfully, neither occurs and my memory is correct. We chat as if the 15 years and more since we worked together was yesterday, and then she has to go, driven by the tyranny of a coach tour timetable.

I wander close to the edge of the cliff and feel the full force of the wind. Some families let their children do the same. The children stagger in the winds blast and flirt with falling to land who knows where. Even here I can taste the salt in the air, feel it whipping into my skin. The wind picks at the loose and the unsound. The families continue to let their offspring flirt with natural selection on the cliff edge. I walk to a more sheltered spot. And in that moment I can tell that I’m seeing – as well as I can – all the patterns that I need to see to understand how the world came to be this remarkable. Natural selection, matter on the move, random collisions, chance meetings and the deep expanse of time. All other time scales are detail written into fabric woven by these forces. Remarkable as it may seem, I walk back to the car reassured by the forces that whirl around me.