Follow the flight of the blackpoll warbler

Diversity is a mark of richness and environmental health - and birds are its flag-bearers.

Bird variation set both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace on the path to discovering natural selection and its role in evolution. Wallace observed it on the Molucca Islands, Darwin on the Galapagos. Diversity is a mark of richness and environmental health and birds are its flag-bearers. Their disappearance, like the collapse of the canary in the mine, is our warning signal.

Yesterday, wondering where blue tits and great tits have gone this summer (am I providing the wrong kind of peanuts?), I found the Shakespearean phrase “nature’s riches” used for a site explaining the rich geological pickings of the Arctic, now being unlocked by global warming. It could equally refer to the tropical forests being destroyed to make monocultures such as palm oil. Maybe only migrating birds know (though it must be a special kind of “knowing”) the true force of the paradox that areas of greatest biodiversity are also areas of greatest conflict – and how fast biodiversity is being lost in our time.

This is true above all between Arctic and tropic. These words first occur in the late 14th century. In Greek, arktikos means “belonging to bears”. Not polar bears: people knew the night sky and the constellation of the Great Bear. Tropic, from the Latin tropicus and the Greek trope, meaning “turn”, refers to the daytime sky where the sun, after reaching its northernmost or southernmost point, stands still (solstitium) and turns back.

If all birds stayed in the tropics, many would die out through competition for food and nesting sites, so species evolved to migrate. As resources regenerate each spring in the north, millions of birds trade tropic for Arctic: less competition for insects, longer daylight hours to find them. When Arctic food dwindles in autumn, they return to the replenished tropics.

These journeys are risky but better than the alternative. Blackpoll warblers winter in Venezuela, then fly north in spring over the Gulf of Mexico up to Alaska, where they build little cup nests in fir trees. They take a different route back: they fly south-east over the Great Lakes and from the New England coast some follow the shoreline down to Florida, some island-hop to South America, but most fly east to pick up winds hurling them over the Caribbean non-stop, day and night, for 88 hours to Venezuela. Four days over the Atlantic in peak hurricane season, facing spiralling winds, clouds, rain. Many crash exhausted in the sea. Yet it’s worth the risk because this route is 1,500 miles shorter and survivors establish a winter feeding territory earlier.

Nature is prodigal, said Darwin. So much waste. “The face of nature may be compared to a yielding surface, with 10,000 sharp wedges packed closely together and driven inwards by incessant blows, sometimes one wedge being struck, and then another with greater force.”

His understanding of the conflict driving nature’s apparent harmony was triggered by reading “An Essay on the Principle of Population” by Robert Malthus. This led him to the concept of natural selection and also to ideas about the evolution of instincts and human psychology.He was young: after South America, his mind was racing. “The principle of population is strife”; “All forms compete against others”; “You can understand the true conditions of life only if you use your imagination to hold on to a sense of the ruthlessness of the natural forces that could waste the bright surface.”

This side of his work inspired Freud’s insight into psychic conflict and the origins of human aggression. “The human mind is shaped by its animal past,” said Darwin. Nature’s ruthlessness is ours, too: our bodies, our psyches.

Unlike a blackpoll warbler, we can’t fly away when resources are gone. In our time, it seems, Arctic and tropic will change their meanings again. But biodiversity may no longer be part of the equation.

Good migrations: macaws fly over a river in Peru. Photograph: Frans Lanting / Gallery Stock

Ruth is a British poet and author with close connections to conservation, wildlife, Greece and music. She has published a novel, eight works of non-fiction and eight poetry collections, most recently The Mara Crossing, which mixes poems and prose to explore migration. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Council Member for the Zoological Society of London.  See her website for more.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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