Blog post by Ellen Bradley & Phillip Edwards
The impact that the natural world has on our air quality, our soil fertility and our water purity is, by now, well understood. But what about our culture? For millennia, the wildlife around us has been inspiring poets, artists and writers. Without the astonishing array of plants, animals and natural landscapes around us we would lose a core part of our cultural heritage. If we were asked to describe Britain, we would surely think of sitting on the beach cradling fish and chips wrapped in paper, of a dry, sarcastic sense of humour that understandably baffles anyone who didn’t grow up here, but also of our native wildlife: hedgehogs, oaks, robins, foxes and of course, curlew. Few creatures have such an evocative impact as the curlew. The Seafarer is one of only four surviving manuscripts of Old English poetry, in which is written “I take my gladness in the… sound of the Curlew instead of the laughter of men”. The celebration of curlews in literature is a tradition that will continue for as long as there are curlews calling and writers listening.
At the Very End of the road is a book published by author, Phillip Edwards, and is a recent example of how the influence of that eerie call has been captured on paper.
Phillip Edwards writes: “The book was written to try and paint small literary pictures, what I term vignettes, to describe the vast array of landscapes and wildlife that can be found within a tiny area – just twelve pasture and hay fields and an area of saltmarsh, bounded on one side by a river and on the other by vast tidal mudflats. Good descriptions enable a reader to build mental pictures of a subject, but such descriptions are almost always singular and hence provide just a snapshot of a place. Yet a place has many moods and wildlife interactions; it is always subtly different. So, what if a place is described a hundred times as the months change? How much closer would that bring a reader to capturing its soul? That is what I set out to do in At the Very End of the Road. And within these descriptions, curlews and whimbrels feature numerous times because the former are important components of the avifauna here, with flocks of six hundred or more being present through the winter months, the anguished melancholy of their winter calls haunting the shoreline, changing to the thinner and longer accelerating strings of ebullient tremulous bubbling presaging their summer move to the open moors of the north. Similarly, whimbrels mark the spring and autumn passage, their wittering sounding like a seamstress’ precision-sewing machine trying to repair a rip in the air.”
Phillip has kindly sent Curlew Action some excerpts from his book, click the button to find our more about his book.
Excerpts from At the Very End of the road by Phillip Edwards
Excerpt from November – where the curlews call
Is there any call in of all of nature so melancholy, which speaks so hauntingly of loss, of distant lands and forgotten times, of the wild places that frequent the remotest corners of our minds? Far, far out on the unformed horizon where the land has no right to call itself land, where it is liquefied, reforming from the sediments of the river, and the mud won’t hold the weight of a man; out where the balance between erosion and deposition hovers on the cusp of accretion for now; at the very edge of the land where the waders come twice a day on the lowest spring tides to feed on the plentiful ragworms; where the birds call calls that dissolve on the wind before ever reaching a human ear; in a place of shifting uncertainties where the inability of toes to find purchase launch bouts of fluttering until the half liquid is half solid enough to tread once more …
Out on the edge of our memory,
Of the lands we can barely recall,
Where lost love is now just a yearning,
Is the place where the curlews call.
When the hurt is no longer hurting,
And the loss has left nothing at all,
There will still be a tug on the heartstrings
When you next hear the curlews call.
A place where the longing is wistful,
A brief moment on winds or a squall,
A touch on the heart beyond consciousness,
Is a place where the curlews call.
In the mists where the mem’ry grows weakest,
And the mud holds the teardrops that fall,
It is here that the echoes have vanished,
Except when the curlews call.
Stand here on the edge and listen,
For what memories remain now are small,
Over waves and through loss you will hear them,
Whenever the curlews call.
So listen and try to remember,
From the memory’s dark fickle hall,
The lands and the loves that have perished,
When you next hear the curlews call.
Excerpt from December – mud-dancers
A front has brought warm air that has chased the snow into the deepest recesses of the shadows, but the ground remains cold. The resulting fog has dissolved the day, the details of the land still swaddled at midday in an intimate cocoon, the edges fuzzy like torchlight in darkness or faith through a glass darkly. So wildlife is come across as if by surprise – a buzzard on a fence post that displays its anxiety by leaning forward to emit a white snake of waste before taking wing to fly just a single post away; a robin trickling its glassy rivulet of sub-song softly over the brambles that drops deeper away into their cover; a weasel standing on its hindlegs on the track that bolts beneath the bushes; a blackbird, shiny from the wet grass in which it is feeding, that panics away, half-hopping half-flying, scolding in alarm; a moorhen that rushes frantically with flailing wings from open grass to the dense reeds of a rhyne – away, always away, from the ever-present toxicity of humanity that has come too close upon them. The scent of death pervades our shape and sound. It is perhaps the saddest thing for those who love wildlife that such love is almost always unrequited; that wish to be closer, to see and to observe is never reciprocated, our interactions are mostly fleeting. Perhaps it is this that makes tameness, when it occurs, so endearing and memorable. From somewhere in the greyness, the aching haunting of a curlew’s call trembles the silence, ascending, quavering, enlarging the sky like the dawn light.
Excerpt from June -monsters on the stairs
Colour drains from the sky as the light dims. Blackbirds chink the foreshadow of nightfall that in high summer comes slowly, the gloaming clinging to the sky, refusing to melt into night. The river glows deep blue as if it has been soaking up the colour from the sky all day and is now releasing it. Low tide, the sea hushed; the heady fragrance of drying hay rising on the soft warm air, thick and heavy, stirred by the lightest of breezes, and silence so deep that you can almost touch it. Flies shimmy in swarms in the lee of bushes like a Brownian ballet. A solitary bat, uncommon here, flutters silently in the indigo air on the desiccated parchment of its wings. In the warmth that never quite seems to dissolve into the chill of night, sedge warblers still etch the air with their jagged chatter. A pregnant moon, swollen and yellow, performs mitosis with its river reflection and cleaves into the translucence of the darkening sky as yet too pale for stars, the twin glimmers of Mercury and Jupiter still the only celestial beacons. Breaking the silence, the kleeping of an oystercatcher, softened and sculpted by distance, ululates from the river’s mouth. The wavering song of a curlew skirls through the warm summer night in a forlorn search for answers across the darkened fields. With the light well-nigh gone and the colours muted to a luminous glow, out of the stillness on noiseless wings a little owl beats rapidly across the field to land abruptly on a fence post. It bobs up and down on its feathered legs and stares around, head swivelling like a ventriloquist’s dummy as if surprised by where it has materialised. A brooding tension touches the twilight. Its incendiary yellow eyes, lit by an internal fire, flare in the monochrome stillness, searching, searching … and then it is gone as hushed and sudden as was its arrival. And the night relaxes.
Excerpt from July – cogitations of the divine
From high over the riverbank come waders’ calls, burning from the unconscious registration of sound to the conscious recognition of whimbrels. Piercing the quietude, insistent as a morning alarm yet insubstantial as a dawn mist, their stuttering ripples skitter from the fraying shrouds of grey, telling tales of the tundra. At first the sky is empty, but slowly as the calls grow louder the southbound flock becomes visible, farther away than expected, the ventriloquial and penetrating quality of the voices deceiving the searching eye. Smaller and shorter-billed than their curlew cousins, the loose flock of thirteen birds is effervescent, buoyant and mobile in form, seemingly bound together only by the continual tittering of their taut calls. They are the quintessential sound of movement, of temporary being, for this species is always but a fleeting visitor, the birds rarely staying more than a few days, always at the edge of land and water, the sounds always at the edge of consciousness, always tremulous, seemingly brittle as if each might snap before ending. At the point, over two thousand shelduck loaf on the glittering sand, their numbers rising ahead of their annual moult. At the edge of the waves, fifty-seven curlew and a single dunlin, its belly still ink-stained, stand sleepily, some more arrivals back from northern lands where they have probably failed to breed successfully.