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Delightful nature; the nature of delight

Farming is serious stuff, of course. But even farmers must find it hard sometimes not to chuckle at goats. There is something clownish about them.

The goats we pulled over to watch (and goats are a rare sight in Britain these days) were a motley tribe.

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They reminded me of those gatherings of children and teenagers you see in country towns on Saturday nights at a collective loose-end. Billies and nannies and kids, hairy and smooth, sandy and brunette, little and skippy, larger and somewhat sagacious, middle-size and totally undecided, they wandered about the meadow with no idea of what to be up to next.

Grazing was clearly not an option. That's for sheep and cows. So, haphazardly, they thought they'd eat the trees over the fence. That this was impossible (the leaves being out of goat-reach) was no deterrent at all. What they actually had in mind wasn't food at all. It was ballet. The foliage was a pretext - just so they wouldn't look completely ridiculous doing pirouettes, pas courus, and jet├ęs in mid-field.

While we were enjoying this rural diversion, I grew increasingly aware of another element in that field. A smaller element. A flying element - a display of glide and sweep, of steep banking and sudden turning, of swiftest fall and rise. The air was alive with swallows.

These deft, enchanting birds must be one of the world's most appreciated creatures. Few cultures see them as anything less than welcome.

In one part of Britain (Cornwall), their appearance is reputedly celebrated by men jumping in the air. As annual migrants, the swallows are a stimulating sign of returning spring, harbingers of summer.

In Africa, where many swallows find their mild, nonbreeding habitats after incredibly long flights, they are presumably considered seasonal in a different way. Do people there have a saying that "one swallow does not make a winter"?

Along with house martins (and, at one time, swifts, then thought to be closely allied), swallows have long fascinated naturalists and ornithologists in Britain. More than a few words have been spilled about them.

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It may be that such interest was encouraged by the fact that these birds seemed mysteriously remote in some ways. (Where they went in winter was long a puzzle; some claimed they lived in the bottom of lakes, and one wild theory had them flying to the moon.) Yet in other respects, they were close neighbors or almost intimate members of the family.

Swallows nested in barns and outhouses, and even more close at hand, in chimneys. One of the names they were given was "chimney swallow" (not today, suitable chimneys having largely vanished). House martins, sometimes known as "martlets," typically built - still build - their mud-and-grass nests under windowsills or lintels, sometimes so that the house's inhabitants can see the brood through the windowpane. In my Yorkshire, England, house they regularly allowed me this privilege in the bathroom.

Before fall migration, swallows gather. They perch in large numbers along telephone wires. Again, humans have provided them with a convenient artifact. Before such wires existed, they had to make do with roof ridges, rocks, or dead trees.

Admiring the aeronautical acrobatics of the swallows in the goat meadow, as they caught their insect-food on the wing, was so entertaining that I had no difficulty in thinking the show was staged for our visit.

My attitude would be unacceptable to real naturalists, of course. Statistical, scientific observation of creatures, plants, and environments almost inevitably disallows such human feelings as affection or delight. Everything has to be seen as so terribly serious, so functional.

Now and then, however, there is a chink in this armor. One involves the question of "play." Even play tends to be viewed as an exclusively serious business. Yet if play or playfulness may sometimes seem to have no other motive than joie de vivre, then human observation of nature as pure pleasure might not always be misguided after all.

In his informative 1981 book "Swallows," ornithologist Peter Tate cites one particular case as play for its own sake. He writes: "... a swallow has been seen to pick up a loose feather and let it fall and then swoop and catch it again in midair, repeating the process for quite a few minutes. The bird in question was an adult, so this was not a case of play being used to teach young birds to catch aerial prey." This observation is an unusual concession.

If you read some of the older naturalists, though, it is a different story. The Rev. Gilbert White, for instance, writing about the swift in the 18th century, said: "I have regarded these amusive birds with great attention." He saw no contradiction between finding them "amusive" and observing them with objective exactitude.

Richard Mabey, in his 1986 biography of White, remarks (a touch apologetically, perhaps): "It would be foolish to deny that Gilbert was thoroughly soft-hearted about his 'martlets,' and sometimes he seemed to ascribe human emotions and purposes to them."

Mabey quotes White's description of the way martins construct their mud nests in limited stages, about half an inch at a time, to avoid collapse, "by building only in the morning, and by dedicating the rest of the day to food and amusement, [the nest is given] sufficient time to dry and harden."

Mabey points out understandingly that "such reflections seem not so much anthropomorphic as an affirmation that there is a core of experience and challenge which is common to all life." White suggests that humans may have copied the birds in the primitive states of architecture, rather than that the birds behaved humanly.

What modern naturalist would catch himself suggesting that a bird (or, for that matter, a goat) might dedicate some time each day to "amusement"?

Yet, who can positively deny the possibility?