Thursday, 3 April 2014

Jackdaws & Pheasants & Rape: Thoughts On Looking Our Best

April is meant to arrive with "showers sweet" but by a meteorological novelty, we seem instead to have skies full of dust from the Sahara, combining with European pollution, to mix with our own home-grown, higher quality, English pollution, to make a few days of Asthmatics Beware. Coming back from church yesterday, it felt rather romantic that the dust I was wiping off my glasses, and sucking into my lungs, might have come from exotic places I shall never visit. But then, being so close to the crematorium here, you never know.

Would I have noticed the dust, the different quality in the air, which superficially was just slightly misty but taller, if I hadn't heard about it on the radio? I'm not sure I would. It's often pointed out to us that despite our immense intellectual superiority in all things, human senses are feeble compared to almost any other animal's. You can't help noticing a dog's sense of smell, or the eyesight of a goose, and wondering what it must be like to be bombarded with so much information. For some of us, even a bus journey is too much information. And I don't just mean the smell.

In Spring, whatever kind of creature you are, no matter how attuned your senses, nature makes things easy - everything is decked in its Sunday Best. The flowers start it, then the birds, the trees, the fields. A friend of mine who used to be a botanist before selling her soul to the devil and making a grown-up living as a lawyer, used to say "if human beings did with their reproductive parts in public what flowers do, they'd be on a register". And if you could get a literal translation of what those birds are actually communicating at the top of their tiny voices in your garden, you'd report them as nuisance neighbours. But what we see, and hear, is beauty, and we don't dwell on the lurking furtive motives of sex and territorial conquest that lie beyond the colours and the songs.

Walking through the streets around Bury Knowle Park yesterday I was struck once again by the preponderance of jackdaws in this part of town. The day before, in Risinghurst, I'd seen seven all at the same time - not a flock, they're not that kind of bird, but within my line of vision on one street. In the Wimbledon of my childhood they were a rarity, known mainly from books. We don't generally think of the black crows as very pretty - the magpie and the jay have cornered that end of the market, although the raven is majestic and the carrion crow has a certain sinister charm - but it might be because, sensible fellows, they usually don't let us get close enough. Peering over a low front garden wall yesterday, however, I was perhaps no more than two yards from a pair of truly handsome jackdaws, sporting that silvery grey buzzcut that is their distinguishing feature in even sharper definition for the spring. They reminded me of those nearly-bald men who spend more on a haircut than men who actually have hair to cut, the epitome of "less is more" and making the best of what you have. And they can be handsome too, but the jackdaws get there with neither effort nor vanity.

Another recent sighting, on the walk back from Risinghurst, which borders farmland, has been a magnificent cock pheasant. He too is surprisingly tame, and when you get closer, you realise what a festival of camp excess his plumage is. The closest I've been to a pheasant's feathers has been when skinning it for the pot, but by then a certain lustre and sheen has worn off. Feathers, like skin, look better on the living. If pheasants had mirrors, rather than lady pheasants, to admire them, one suspects the species would swiftly die out.

For the plantlife, in field and garden, this season's colour would seem to be yellow. Here I am hampered by my ignorance of flora, and an inability to retain their image long enough to find out what they are when I get home. Forsythia and dandelions I do know, though, and most welcome they are. Give me the wild careless largesse of a dandelion over a hot-housed chrysanthemum any day. The path to the fields has been boggy for some time, but a few days of sunshine have dried it out, and it was possible to inspect the new corn crops that have been planted. Again, until they develop ears, I won't be able to tell what they are, but their deep green is very pleasing to the eye. At the edges of the field I was reminded of a school friend who on a drive into the country at certain times of year would piercingly shriek "RAPE!" on seeing a gorgeous field of yellow from the crest of a hill. Oilseed rape was very unpopular at one time, I think perhaps because its colour is too explicit for pastel English tastes, but I like it, and I believe it does the soil good, as well as being useful for cooking oil and animal fodder. The foliage of the plant is a rather indifferent green which needs to be redeemed by the riot of the yellow flowers.

The change in weather brings a season in human attire too, and yesterday the prevailing fashion seemed to be "leggings". It's not a word to inspire confidence, and the mere sight of skin-tight clothes is enough to make me feel sweaty and uncomfortable - not, alas, from wanton desire (usually), but because that's how I think I'd feel in them. Very few people have the elegance of form to carry them off. They accentuate curves, of course, but the curvey mountains come with deep valleys of flaunted creases. You need to be in very good nick to be able to flaunt a crease. The only thing on a person that should be worn skin-tight, is their skin.

And doubtless next year there will be a new fashion, and last year's leggings will be thrown out, as too embarrassing even for the charity shops, and more novel adornments will be sought. But Mr and Mrs Jackdaw will be sporting their bargain basement buzzcuts once again, and Mr Pheasant will be saying "oh this old thing? I just gave it a wash and threw it on", and there will be dandelions in the lawns and rape in the fields, and they will look their best, with no effort at all.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
April 2014


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  3. The lustre and sheen do tend to wear off the feathers of dead birds. You have keen powers of observance for an intellectual type. Crops! You remind me of my husband.

  4. A great post and very observant. Perhaps you should write a nature study for a living?

  5. Absolute wonderful description of spring. We're only a good month behind, but we'll be there too.

  6. Thank you three kindly! I don't suppose there's a living to be made from my meanderings, but I do like to notice things. And "the lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground", so there is much loveliness to notice.