(c) David Tipling

OPINION Gwyneth Lewis

NWR Issue 103

Can Larks Fly Backwards?

What has six legs, two wings, one beak and a vagina? A woman-bird. An obsession with the avian must be a sign of becoming older. I started off enjoying birds but not knowing their names. Then I bought reference books and a pair of binoculars. Now I find I’m trying to identify every flying creature I see. My last book of poems, Sparrow Tree, was largely devoted to birds, from the increasingly scarce passerine to hummingbirds I saw in California. What next? Will I be volunteering to rear orphaned cranes? Helping owl chicks to imprint on a hat? Breastfeeding flamingos?

It’s impossible for us to see a bird on its own. Because we’re always looking at other creatures through human eyes, what we perceive is a human/avian hybrid. A few years ago, ornithologist Mark Cocker published the magisterial Birds Britannica with Richard Mabey. A companion to the wonderful Flora Britannica, the book is ‘an attempt to describe the points of intersection between the lives of the humans and the birds inhabiting these same small islands. It is about our shared ecological history.’ Cocker’s recently published Birds and People has done the same for birds all over the world, a massive project involving hundreds of contributors. I’m proud that I have a credit (I think I sent some material about the hummingbird, some Welsh translations and an item about an artist who designed car alarms as birdsong.) Jim Perrin is thanked for a far more substantial sharing of his lifelong expertise in natural history.

I was once lucky enough to go out birdwatching with Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey in person, while we were all in Norwich at a conference. Mark has wider peripheral vision than the rest of us. We were walking along a marsh talking when he suddenly turned, pointed and said, ‘Bittern!’ It took me a full ten minutes to see the bird camouflaged against the reeds, but there it was.

This beautiful book can’t be read in one go but is to be taken up at moments of curiosity. For a poet, it’s an essential work of reference. Welsh birds are fully present from the beginning. In the ‘Introduction’, Cocker mentions that the Manx Shearwater in its Welsh burrow, say on Skomer Island, may make the return trip to the coast of Argentina a hundred times during its lifetime. When my husband and I were sailing, I remember hearing a harrowing tale about a couple who anchored their boat for the night to the south of Skomer and who were horrified by the sound of hundreds of birds returning to their nests in the dark, crashing into the rigging of the unexpected obstacle. The sailors didn’t know what to do, except wring their hands and hope the stunned birds would revive.

Cocker puts his finger on why birds are such a compelling subject: ‘they are fellow travellers of the human spirit, and have also colonised our imaginations, as if we were one further habitat to conquer and exploit.’ Perhaps that’s the explanation for my ever-growing interest: I’ve become a dependency. Mentally, I’m a suburban garden with a bird table and generous supply of seed...

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