Originally published in The Irish Times
The willow tree outside our house is curved towards the east, its branches bent, a natural Degas painting. The prevailing winds have picked up on the Mourne coast and I can see first-hand the moulding of trunk and branches.
Our first summer in this new house has come to an end and I have watched in quiet admiration, the small cyclical changes in any spare moment. Hawthorn flowers have now given way to miniature candied apples. Haws that can be made into food for us, but we’re leaving them for the birds as the weather will speedily harshen.
The fuchsia bushes are discarding their flowers fully in bloom, and the ground outside our back door is a flower path, unswept as yet because it looks so lovely. The ragwort, now half-dying is filled with hoverflies, clinging on to the faded petals that have withstood the voracious appetite of the cinnabar moth caterpillar. Sacred Rowan trees are resplendent, boughs heavy with not quite ripe scarlet berries.
The hedgerows lining the lane to the beach are festooned with blackberries and we have, on every gallivant, eaten far too many. Competing for the best ones, all elbows, purple-stained lips and fingers, a never-ending supply, we appear to have the run of them. The coming of autumn is filled with abundance here and probably where you are too.
The ivy flowers are almost ready to burst out, soon the clusters will be full of pollen-tipped threads, the last big meal of the year for some insects before they hibernate for winter.
I think I have seen more butterflies these first couple of weeks in September in our garden than I have in all my summers of observation combined. All at once small tortoiseshells, red admirals, peacocks have flickered onto hedges and hydrangeas, hawkweed, and hebbes.
One sunny Saturday, our garden mimicked a sky-ceilinged butterfly house, like some portal was opened up and they, clattering at the entrance, sprayed out. Many of them came to land on the scrape dug by our dog Rosie, beside the back hedges. The sunniest spot, of course, has soaked up all the heat of these rainless days. I looked on in astonishment as one after the other, they got their bearings there, resting a little before flitting off.
One, in particular, stopped me in my tracks, a painted lady, the longest traveller of all butterflies. Each year they make an intercontinental migration completed in six successive generations, an epic journey for food and survival. This is the first time I’ve seen one at home and I hold out my finger to see if it will land on the tip as dragonflies do. Perhaps lured by an earlier gorge of blackberries, it rests there and then crawls over my hand, the tickle of it leaves behind a giddiness that lasts the whole day.
The starlings have also descended in their droves. The day I returned from the first full school day, I started noticing their cumulative gatherings. High, hoarse whistling that now plays along as I ready my books to start homework. As their music grows ever more loud and manic, it’s my cue to forgo the work for a while and get some fresh air, even though it’s rush hour on the road.
The field to our right has become a dazzling evening dancefloor, the sheep standing aimlessly in the wings whilst hundreds of starlings take centre stage as the light starts to slip. In crisp formation, they drop in synchronicity from the electricity lines, and not quite touching the stubble a small hovering cloud starts to arc, elevated by invisible swells until they take to the sky like a vortex.
Leaning over our granite stone wall, the wind of them lifts my hair a little. A clan of about 50 birds remains on the wire, egging on agitated wings with singing. I don’t know how long they’ll stay with us, so every day I go out and watch them, their only audience if you don’t count the sheep.
A few years ago, when we unsuccessfully searched for a starling murmuration in the Mourne hills near Slieve Croob, standing on the side of a darkening road, a lady in a car asked us our business and continued to bemoan the “vermin”. She told us we needed to see the red kites instead, “they’re much better birds you know”.
Now if you know anything of me, you might already know my love of and work with red kites here in Co Down, but her words unnerved me. I resisted the urge to say that historically they were hunted to extinction and the birds seen now are reintroduced to replace the long loss. That attitudes like hers are a reason why birds disappear.
We found the murmuration later that winter a few miles away, perhaps the congregation must keep moving on like pilgrims. Settling, then constantly unsettled, pushed on and on until, what if they have nowhere else to go? I feel blessed to watch this mini murmuration and eavesdrop on their gregarious chattering. There is always joy in seeing, but it is so easily overshadowed by fear. That moment when something is there one day and gone the next: a tree, a hedge, a bluebell verge, a field of orchids, a raptor nest; the witnessing is heartbreakingly endless. At times, fear holds me back from revisiting somewhere beautiful. I have seen enough destruction to know this isn’t a ridiculous thought, it happens constantly.
Still, hope remains ever-present and I hold onto it at every opportunity. Without hope, we are paralysed, driven to nothing but despair or worse, apathy. The world is so full of the sufferings of people and place, but I implore you to find space within grief for wonder. To see beauty in species beyond our own, to love what we have left, fight hard to preserve and protect it.
This is a mantra I need to keep repeating to myself also because the tsunami of helplessness can crash and split, tear down our own good intentions; and goodness knows we need all of those and more. And if your good intentions are observation rather than action, small regular acts of compassion rather than meaningless grandiose promises, of witnessing rather than rushing, then I’d say that was no bad thing.