Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

Tuesday poem: Fred D’Aguiar

Monday, May 20th, 2013

Vulture Red Letter Day
by Fred D’Aguiar

Vulture days when she feels there’s no wet in the rain

When no two wingbeats sound alike

On such days she should just chill on a ledge and watch worlds fly by,

But no, she be vulture and she won’t let nothing go nowhere,

Not without her say so.

In her mood she pushes from her perch into a breeze full of sweet things.

The moment she leaps she knows she made a big mistake

But one thing leads to another and other things take over

Before she knows it she’s in the thick of a carcass set upon

By a crew drawn from miles around by a smell as rich as any seam,

Crack, crevice, fold, mold, groove.

She pins flesh with feet, lowers head, fails to hear the engine approach.

I’m fortunate to be this week’s Tuesday Poem editor, where you’ll find another poem of Fred D’Aguiar’s displayed in the main page. But when I contacted Fred to ask if I could use one of his poems from his new collection, The Rose of Toulouse, he generously sent me two and asked me to choose between them. And I loved them both, so ‘Saturday, Ocean Creek’ is in the main spot, and ‘Vulture Red Letter Day’ is the one I saved for my own blog.

Fred’s poetry – like his novels, short stories and plays – moves and engages me in resonant and complicated ways. I think that’s partly because of my attempts to make sense of my somewhat chaotic and dislocated life, as well as Fred’s huge talent for shaping recollection and experience into writing that’s both profound and witty. This poem, above, is a perfect example, and I feel I have often been in that vulture’s situation myself!

I’m honoured and delighted to present two of his poems simultaneously, and also to count him as a friend. Thanks, Fred.

And so the season begins

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

The very best thing about Orford Ness is that it really belongs to the wild birds. The Ness opened again to visitors two weeks ago, but at this time of year ‘open’ means only on Saturdays, and even then you can do only one of the three designated walks; the others are closed because of ground-nesting birds. The first boat across from Orford Quay is at 10.00 am, and the last one back is at 5pm. After that, and for the next six days, the 16 kilometres of shingle spit is returned to the ownership of wildlife – to the birds and the hares and the wind, and the sounds of silence. (The Ness opens more frequently in August and September, but after that it’s closed completely until the beginning of April.)

This characterisation of humans as strictly controlled, temporary incomers gives me enormous pleasure, and I believe it’s these restrictions that give the Ness its own distinctive character. That stretch of shingle has a particular and unusual beauty that I find both moving and inspirational. The loveliness is more than the sum of its parts, although each of the parts is so individually beautiful, and so intensely ‘other’, that it takes your breath away.  And although this was my third visit in recent years no memory quite prepared me for the feral joy of its diversity: the reed beds thrumming with wind and bird song, the rolling marshland where larks and swans nest, the harsh salt marshes where this time we glimpsed not only hares but also one of the rare water deer, and the steeply shelved shingle beach where just about every single one of the thousands of pebbles seems a distinctive and natural work of art worth individual attention.

Orford Ness has a long history of supporting secrecy. In the 13th century it protected the port of Orford from surprise attack, but more recently, and most notoriously, it was used for a sequence of top-secret military research and development programs during the 20th century. It was finally bought by the National Trust in 1993, and the Trust aims to preserve past evidence of the site’s use while also allowing natural process to run their course – which means the slow decay of the remaining military buildings and leftover junk. Some visitors, I’m told, complain about “the mess” of decay and rust: I love it.

We saw: a barn owl, oyster catchers, lots of gulls (I’m no good at identifying one gull from another, but some were black-head gulls and others might have been skuas), larks, swans, redshanks, shelduck, cormorants and a skein of geese in the sky. We also saw hares and a water deer. I heard, I’m sure, a cuckoo – but the call was coming from the mainland and not actually on the Ness itself.

This is a water deer, but not my photo.

The only wildlife I managed to photograph was this caterpillar.

And I was struck by an incident I witnessed on Orford Quay, waiting for the boat. Two tourists had driven on to the Quay and parked their car, despite notices that ask you not to do that (there’s a visitors’ car park close by, and the working fishermen own the parking spots on the Quay). One of the fishermen prepping his boat asked them to move, and when they argued he patiently explained the rules. And after he finally won the day, and the visitors had grumped off to move their car, one of the fisherman’s friends grinned at him and said, “And so the season begins.” You have to wonder if that sentiment is shared by the Ness wildlife.

Ten things to miss about Waiheke Island

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012


  1. The crisp top layer of sand on Onetangi beach and the way your feet sink through its slight resistance into the soft sand underneath. It reminds me of the sensation of biting into a genuine Italian semifreddo ice cream; it’s that kind of feeling – but on your feet instead of in your mouth. Sweet.
  2. The saltiness of seawater. I always forget about that because I spend most of my swimming life in indoor pools, but the sea is very salty in the nicest possible way.  Buoyant. Tangy.  Delightful.
  3. Watching the ever-changing patterns that wind and tide make across the surface of the sea. It produces mysterious and entirely transient layers and streaks of colour, from bright teal to soft silvery grey. I could watch moving water for hours at a time. And sometimes I almost do.
  4. The call of the tui  – Woodside Bay tui don’t imitate the sound of microwaves or car alarms, they only produce that characteristic liquid gurgle.  It’s lovely. They splash around in our birdbath in the late afternoon, too, which is even lovelier.
  5. Pukeko. I know: farmers hate them and they can be a general rural nuisance, but they have a firm place in my heart: the sheer absurdity of them. And oh! baby pukeko, all fluffy feathers and staggering on unreliable and uncontrolled long red legs.
  6. Kumera. Not any of the recent varieties, please – only the old fashioned purple kind that my Uncle Clive used to grow which are a taste and texture sensation. You can sometimes buy kumera at the shop under New Zealand House in London – the word goes out when a shipment arrives. But sometimes isn’t really enough.
  7. Hand-reared cattle in the field next to the house, all turning their heads in synchrony when they hear the farmer’s truck bumping down the track. They look like Wimbledon spectators.
  8. The view.
  9. The view.
  10. The view.

    Home again?

    Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

    The truth isn’t quite that. Not really. I’m not truly home again, I just wish it were the truth – at least, I wish that in one sense. But I also believe that anyone who, for many years, has lived away from where they were born and grew up doesn’t belong anywhere much, any more. Maybe I feel that because I’m a natural-born outsider – an observer rather than a belonger (I’m the most unclubable person I know). Or maybe I feel it because of a deep-seated ambivalence about the nature of identity – my own and others.

    But still. Being back again on Waiheke Island (it’s out in the Hauraki Gulf, 35 minutes on a fast ferry from Auckland: North Island: New Zealand. As if you didn’t know, right?) feels like a homecoming. I love it passionately. I talk about “my” island – would that it were – and feel soothed and invigorated by it. I’m suddenly back to writing up a storm every day; I’m walking every early morning along the headland; I’m loving everything about it – the particular pitch of the neighbours’ “coo-ee!” call, the background buzz of cicadas, the bird song, the smell of the sea and the land, the curve of these hills.

    And I’ve posted this poem before – two years ago on the Tuesday Poem blog, I find – but I can’t resist posting it yet again. It’s the poem I loved most when I was at Auckland University and it still holds such a powerful resonance for me.
    But first, here’s a photo of the headland I walk around at dawn, with the paradise ducks flapping off in a panic, complaining that I’ve woken them, and the cattle staring moonily, and the sheep ignoring me. All great.

    And here’s the poem. Enjoy.

    R. D. Fairburn

    “Weep ye not for the dead, neither bemoan him: but weep sore for him that goeth away: for he shall return no more, nor see his native country.”
    Jeremiah XXII:10

    Pine for the needles brown and warm,
    think of your nameless native hills,
    the seagulls landward blown by storm,
    the rabbit that the black dog kills.

    Swing with the kelp the ocean sucks,
    call to the winds and hear them roar,
    the westerly that rips the flax,
    the madman at the northeast door.

    Dream of the mountain creek that spills
    among the stones and cools your feet,
    the breeze that sags on smoky hills,
    the bubble of the noonday heat.

    The embers of your old desire
    remembered still will glow, and fade,
    and glow again and rise in fire
    to plague you like a debt unpaid,
    to haunt you like a love betrayed.

    And while we’re talking poetry, why don’t you look at what the other Tuesday Poets are offering here: if one of the posts on the sidebar mentions a Tuesday Poem you can be sure there’s a poem in there somewhere.

    Arrowtown, and how I got here

    Thursday, December 15th, 2011

    One hundred and fifty kilometres.

    Count them slowly, effortfully and sweatily, one by one – I certainly did.

    One hundred and fifty kilometres on a bicycle. There were times when I thought the whole journey was a compelling argument in favour of the combustion engine.

    In four and a half days and in blazing heat – though I’d rather have had that, than rain or snow. At times we pedalled with a significant gradient to climb, which was exhausting, but at other times we freewheeled down slopes with the breeze behind us, which was utterly exhilarating. And at all times the journey took place against the background of the most sensational scenery in the world: Central Otago in the South Island of New Zealand. It’s the Rail Trail bike path, which runs along the route of the old railway line that used to go between Clyde and Middlemarch.

    Clyde. Alexandra. Galloway. Chatto Creek – great hotel. Omakau. Lauder, which seemed to take for ever to appear. Auripo. Oturehua, and then struggling on to Wedderburn, after which it’s mostly (but by no means entirely) downhill. Ranfurly – unusually bad coffee. Waipiata. Kokonga. Tiroiti. Hyde. Rock & Pillar. Ngapuna. And finally, at last, Middlemarch!

    Would I recommend it to you? Well, yes and no. It’s very hard work, and most people don’t admit that when they’re boasting about their feat. They also say anyone could do it, which just isn’t true. Everyone warned me about bum ache but I didn’t find that the worst part – it was the gradients that did for me and my knees.

    Also, I fell off – skidded in some loose gravel and slipped sideways, none too gracefully. My shoulder and neck seized up for days.

    But did I love it? Yes I did, yes and yes again, especially the sense of achievement: that and the extraordinary scenery. Coming through two tunnels and over a viaduct over the Poolburn Gorge and seeing the lush Maniototo plain stretching away like a vision of the Promised Land was something to treasure. Fields of wild lupins, roses blooming everywhere, sensational contrasting layers of hills and rivers and trees. Birds all the way, and glorious birdsong all day.

    And frankly, I’m proud of myself for having done it at all.

    Would I do it again? Nope. Not if you paid me all the gold ever found in Arrowtown, which is where we have ended up for a week’s R&R, and where there’s another almost-150 to mark because gold was discovered here in 1862, and the Arrow River became one of the richest sources of alluvial gold in the world. About 8000 miners arrived to pan for it during the 1860s, but now it has a population of about 1200, mostly involved in tourism. It’s the prettiest little town imaginable with many of the original nineteenth century buildings still standing, all surrounded by huge shady trees that were planted by the early settlers. We’re staying in a little cottage built somewhere between 1875 and 1877, where the first Town Clerk lived in 1878 – so a bit grander than a miner’s home. Here’s its website.

    I planned to post the poem that the late great Denis Glover wrote about Arrowtown. I’d have thought it would be displayed on every street corner here but the helpful young librarian in the Arrowtown library hadn’t even heard of it. She has now, and a copy is coming from the National Library Service, and when it arrives I’ll post it!

    The end of the golden weather – not!

    Sunday, August 28th, 2011

    Our climbing beans have slowed down their remarkable production skills and the leaves on our squash vines are tinged with yellow. I’ve given up swimming at the Hampstead Heath Lido and have moved to the heated indoor pools in Kentish Town. Hot soup suddenly seems a sensible choice for lunch instead of salads, and last night I needed an extra layer on the bed.

    But we haven’t given up on summer – not yet – and so it’s time to chase the sun south for a few weeks. We’re heading off again next week, driving down through France to Italy and then into Umbria where this glorious organic farm awaits us in all its beauty, along with projected temperatures that make you gasp and stretch your eyes, and imagine that you remember how summers used to be exactly like this in the Good Old Days (yeah, right).

    Tomatoes. Figs. Plums. Peaches. Fresh mozzarella. Eggs from the farm’s hens, olive oil from their trees, and wine from their grapes. Salami made in the local salumeria. Breakfast on the front terrace watching the swifts and swallows gather on the power lines and have chirruping conversations about their coming journeys – I imagine them swapping route advice like the worst travel bores in the world.

    Swimming in a pleasingly warm but unheated pool.

    Walking up to Montegabbione in the late afternoon when everything’s turning pink and gold in the sun.

    Drinking prosecco bellinis on the back terrace in the evening and watching the sun set behind Monte Amiata.

    How wonderful is that?

    Tuesday poem: The fat white woman bites back

    Monday, August 1st, 2011

    I spent two hours this morning walking the Suffolk coastal path north from Orford, where we’re staying once again for a few days. It was a lovely walk in glorious weather along a lonely stretch of coast, with the Orford Ness sandspit to my right and Aldeburgh far ahead. The birds mostly flew too high to identify but there were swallows and larks, and lots of wild flowers to admire as well as farm crops ready to harvest.

    And there were absolutely no trains at all, not for miles, but suddenly this strange poem by Frances Cornford popped into my head and wouldn’t go away.

    To a fat lady seen from the train
    by Frances Cornford

    O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
    Missing so much and so much?
    O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
    Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
    When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
    And shivering sweet to the touch?
    O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
    Missing so much and so much?

    Maybe it was this wheat field that did it? I had just seen someone walking along its edge…

    Or maybe it’s the poem’s metre? That triolet form is damnably insistent once it’s got a grip in your head. Either way this poem seems to me such an oddity; a curious mixture of romanticism and mean-spiritedness. But when I got back to the hotel I looked on Google for G. K. Chesterton’s surprising reply, below. (Well, this rejoinder of his still surprises me, anyway; it’s an unexpected note of support for the poem’s subject from such an infamous old misogynist.)

    The Fat White Woman Speaks

    by G. K. Chesterton

    Why do you rush through the field in trains,

    Guessing so much and so much?

    Why do you flash through the flowery meads,

    Fat-head poet that nobody reads;

    And why do you know such a frightful lot

    About people in gloves as such?

    And how the devil can you be sure,

    Guessing so much and so much,

    How do you know but what someone who loves

    Always to see me in nice white gloves

    At the end of the field you are rushing by,

    Is waiting for his Old Dutch?

    And then I also remembered Jenny Joseph’s poem, that most famous one called ‘Warning’, and its mention not only of wearing purple and red hats, but also of summer gloves! I love to think that the poor old “fat white woman” is really a defiant Older Woman having a ball and behaving disgracefully. This is the bit I mean:
    When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
    With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
    And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves…

    And now you might like to look at what the other Tuesday Poets are offering: if one of the posts on the sidebar mentions a Tuesday Poem you can be sure there’s a poem in there somewhere.

    Skylarks, and Orford Ness

    Friday, June 10th, 2011

    Arriving on Orford Ness is like entering another sensibility, or like encountering a parallel universe that turns out to be one you’ve always longed to inhabit. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere so strange, and so hauntingly beautiful.

    The three-minute boat trip from Orford harbour across to the Ness isn’t long enough to adjust to the differences, even if you knew in advance what they would be. But as you begin walking in the otherworldly quiet you hear larks all around you, rising from the marshy ground with utter confidence as if they know they are the most celebrated bird in literature. It isn’t every bird that can boast both Shakespearean and Keatsian connections, and it isn’t every bird that sings as larks do with such a piercingly sweet sound.

    The ten-mile-long shingle spit of land that is Orford Ness has been a nature reserve since 1993, when the National Trust acquired it.  One of its greatest joys for me is that for much of the year you can visit the Ness only once a week (on Saturdays) because of the many nesting birds that need protection – little terns, ringed plovers, redshanks, lapwings, and of course, larks. The Trust has to manage a delicate balance between protecting the fragile habitats and wildlife and giving access to visitors, and it does that through carefully managed restrictions. And don’t you love the idea of somewhere that you can’t get to easily, or often?

    Some, perhaps many, visitors are there because of the Ness’s strange military history. It was a secret weapons testing site first acquired by the War Department in 1913, and heavily used during the 1930s and during World War II, and the now mostly derelict military buildings certainly add to the strange otherness of the place.

    But for me it’s the isolation that gives the Ness its appeal. That, and the larks.

    We first went there this year, at the beginning of May, and we plan to return at the end of July. I don’t think the second trail will be open by then but we’ll be happy to walk the Red Trail again and stare in an abstracted way at the muddy lagoons and the shingle plants. To get right across to the famous lighthouse this time (originally built in 1792 and still in use). And just to sit for longer in the midst of all that wild peaceful beauty.

    David Watson – one of the co-owners of the glorious Crown & Castle hotel in Orford itself – is a brilliant photographer, and he’s given me permission to use this photograph.

    You can see other samples of David’s work here. And if you want to find out more about the Ness here’s a link to the National Trust’s website page about it.

    Tuesday poem: Thaw, by Edward Thomas

    Monday, January 10th, 2011

    I’m a great fan of Edward Thomas and I’ve posted at least one of his poems before, but this one seems especially appropriate for London weather at present, which is cold and dark and wet, with the threat of more snow an ever-present undercurrent to the forecasts. I’m lucky to be leaving it next week, for the sunshine – I don’t usually mind winter weather, but this one has been, is still being, troublesome and difficult and spirit-lowering.

    I particularly like Thomas’s imagery in these taut four lines – and the use of perspective – the rooks’ perspective versus our own. And if the snow is thawing, then maybe spring can’t be far away …

    Thaw by Edward Thomas

    Over the land half-freckled with snow half-thawed

    The speculating rooks at their nests cawed,

    And saw from elm-tops, delicate as a flower of grass,

    What we below could not see, Winter pass.

    You might like to have a look at other poems on the Tuesday Poem page – if the post titles in the right hand side bar say ‘Tuesday poem’ you can bet there are poems somewhere about!

    Tuesday poem: ‘Send out your homing pigeons, Dai’

    Tuesday, September 28th, 2010


    Send out your homing pigeons, Dai,

    Your blue-grey pigeons, hard as nails,

    Send them with messages tied to their wings,

    Words of your anger, words of your love.

    Send them to Dover, to Glasgow, to Cork,

    Send them to the wharves of Hull and of Belfast,

    To the harbours of Liverpool and Dublin and Leith,

    Send them to the islands and out of the oceans,

    To the wild wet islands of the northern sea

    Where little grey women go out in heavy shawls

    At the hour of dusk to gaze at the merciless waters,

    And send them to the decorated islands of the south

    Where the mineowner and his tall stiff lady

    Walk round and round the rose-pink hotel, day after day.

    Send out your pigeons, Dai, send them out

    With words of your anger and your love and your pride,

    With stern little sentences wrought in your heart,

    Send out your pigeons, flashing and dazzling towards the sun.

    Go out, pigeons bach, and do what Dai tells you.

    ‘Send out your Homing Pigeons, Dai’ by Idris Davies is one in a sequence from ‘The Angry Summer, A Poem of 1926′ which appears in The Collected Poems of Idris Davies, Ed. Islwyn Jenkins and published by Gomer Press, and I’m grateful for permission to use it.

    I love this poem, and I don’t even like pigeons – well, not city pigeons anyway: racing pigeons are a different thing and probably if I met one, I’d admire it. But most of all I admire this poem, and Idris Davies himself, the great Welsh socialist poet now best known for writing ‘Bells of Rhymney’ which was set to music by Pete Seeger in the late 1950s and has since become an iconic folk standard.

    Davies (1905 to 1953) wrote poems about the South Wales valleys and about the coalfields – he began his working life as a miner at the age of 14, and later qualified and worked as a teacher. His work, in both English and Welsh, reflects the idealism and protest of a people during a time of great economic, social and religious change; in particular the growth and decay of the old iron and coal town of Rhymney in Monmouthshire. T. S. Eliot, who published Davies’s work at Faber, thought that the poems had a claim to permanence as ‘the best poetic document I know about a particular epoch in a particular place.’ I was introduced to this poem by my friend Frances Thomas, in whose 2010 poetry diary this appears. I love everything about it, including the contrast between the declamatory beginning and the intimacy of the last line’s whisper.

    Do have a look at the other poems on the Tuesday Poetry blog.