Two months ago, we moved from the market town of Castlewellan, bristly nestled beside the busiest of roads and a forest park, to the Mourne Coast Road. Down the road but different worlds, really. Normally, as an autistic teenager, I would have found this change profoundly upsetting, but not this time.
There is less noise and more space. Our garden will house future food, and is a welcome resting space and seeding place for nature and wildlife. Every day my hair is salt-sticky, and my shoes are sand filled. Even though I am divided from the sea by another busy road and yet another holiday home, I have only felt this close to the elements on Rathlin Island; although admittedly, I am no seasoned traveller. I prefer the wildness found close to home and oh, there has been no shortage of sparkling moments.
As I write, I watch baby goldfinches, crownless and giddy. Fanatically flapping wings, beckoning for food from their more glossy and striking parents. Their bubbling call, swirls with swallow song. A waterfall of sound, brightening the sky and quickening clouds, away. Over the last few weeks, I have observed the careful construction of a swallow nest in our woodshed. One thousand there and back trips with mud-filled beaks. As intricate and dense as a cathedral. At this very moment, from what I can quickly count, there are three pairs of closed eyes swallow hatchlings.
The parents, constantly skimming sky and grass for insects, oscillating between outside and the dark nest. I can hardly believe that I will, hopefully, bear witness to something I have never closely observed. Swallow fledglings strutting about the roof, practicing for the work ahead. I’m glad my school exams, finishing off my first year of A levels, are over, and I can be around them for as long as I can.
Many first brood chicks will have fledged the nest now and in many gardens across the island, hyper bird babies will be flapping about any garden that has nurtured a population during the winter and early spring. A family drama playing out, right in front of our eyes.
I worry though, that these wondrous moments go unnoticed by most. The connection that is bound between humans and every other species, fractured. Ignored. Watching birds through a window, listening to their song which fills skies, forests, gardens and, us. It is pure joy. Birds ask nothing in return, only to be left to sing and fly. Or to be fed, because food sources grow invisible with diminishing hedgerows and habitat. Yet, they can teach us so much about diligence, nurture and dogged determination.
Swallows migrate from Africa to Ireland in spring, covering 6,000 miles. Navigating an invisible pathway, magnetic hardwiring, governed by the poles. An arduous and perilous journey. Yet, when they arrive here, heralding warmer days; we repay them with spiked gutters, barricades and wire. It’s not all bad though, Twitterers on social media in their thousand’s welcome swallows back like diaspora, long lost relatives. Old friends.
I take a daily brief stroll across the road and down the lane, flanked on both sides by hunched hawthorn, battered by coastal winds, thorny arms still hold tight to heady blossom. The smell of it as the not-too-distant sea energy blasts and disperses spicy almond scent, mixed with the incoming smell of seaweed. Intoxicating. I know the blossom will soon be gone, replaced with fruit, a wildlife larder.
On our walks around Co Down, I have noticed sentinel hawthorns in the middle of citrus fields, ringed round with stones. A protective circle, a shield against the otherworld, or a hat-tip to the days when tree knowledge and fairy lore were orally passed from generation to generation. They stand hunched over or sprawled out like a tutu. Whilst carefully and gently checking for nests, I discovered hawthorn smothered by privet in the line of hedges that separate our garden and the field behind. When bird nesting season is over, the privet will make compost and the hawthorn will breathe out and take its rightful place.
When the lane ends, the dunes begin, and the view opens out to vastness. On a good clear day, the Isle of Man emerges from the haze, floating on the horizon. Gannets, torpedo at 60 miles an hour, splashing celebratory spray before rising up again. Black tipped wings arrow stiff, catch the wind and carry its energy once more into the waves.
A pair of Stonechats perch on either side of the path down to the beach, sitting on the gorse, scattering glass beads of brief notes. As tame as robins, they don’t fly away when I come close to touching distance. The male’s little copper breast swelling, wispy wing feathers touched by the breeze, it sings its little heart out. On the mixed sand and shingle beach, I sit on one of the larger stones and just, stare out. Eyes momentarily distracted by shapeshifting wading birds, mostly whistling redshanks, disappearing in and out of seaweed and sand, perfectly camouflaged.
Butterflies, little flashes of coloured light are spreading out their wings and flying now, here at the coast and probably wherever you are. Our buddleia bush is very late flowering this year, but hopefully soon the bushy blossom will be full of tortoise shells, peacocks and red admirals. Having a little wild corner in your garden can provide a summer home for a whole host of insects. If people ask me for one piece of advice, it’s always that – have a little wild in your garden – it brings wildlife with it and that can only be a good thing.
Living beside the sea, I feel winged, like I might fly off, propelled by this new expanse. The road, although busy, if you trick your brain and close your eyes, could be waves. Standing on the bank at the top of our back garden, I feel the stirrings of a voyager. A new landscape to explore, to dive into and disappear, for a while.
Like these words in this column, a new beginning. I hope you’ll walk the path with me, I don’t know yet where it’s heading, but with youthful naivete and hope, it will go somewhere.
I am often asked if writing as an act can “Help Save Nature”. I think it builds a bridge of reconnection, of new joy and wonder. I don’t have any expectations though. I’ll let you be the judge of that, and if it sets seed in you, a different appreciation of the living world, then I’ll be happy.