Across history, birds have bewitched poets and scientists alike. Photograph: Ruggero Maramotti/Gallery Stock
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Hope is a thing with feathers

Birds are all around us. They appear and disappear; they go between worlds as we never can.

We read so much into birds. The canary down the mine whose death warns miners of gas and the dove with a green twig that tells Noah the flood is receding feed into a feeling that birds are sign-bearers, omens, the gods’ messengers. Across history, across cultures, birds are also an image of escape. “Oh, for the wings of a dove,” says King David, so he could fly to the wilderness and be at rest.

Birds spell renewal. Children in ancient Greece welcomed the swallow as a messenger of spring. “Hope,” Emily Dickinson writes, “is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul” – and when I hear a wren singing in the freezing cold of the early morning (how can something so small fill the backstreets of Kentish Town?), my heart does something that approximates to lifting.

But all this is just our imagination, as we plunder nature for symbols. In biological reality, birds are even more extraordinary. They are evolved creatures, programmed by their DNA, adapted to a particular place or trajectory, which fulfil the destiny written in their genes through behaviour that bewitches poets and scientists alike.

I spent Christmas and New Year in Assam, India. In the grasslands, I was thrilled to see a rare Asian otter climb out of the river among grazing rhinos and stand up like a periscope to look over reeds. On Christmas Day, I saw a tiger stalking deer. On New Year’s Day, I watched the red sun rise through strata of blue mist from an elephant’s back.

All of that was wonderful but, for me, one of the most exciting things was seeing bar-headed geese graze among wild buffalos. Their migration, a story of fortitude, risk and adaptation, demonstrates how ancient birds are. Their migration routes record the shift in the planet’s tectonic plates. Bar-headed geese nest in central Asia but they winter on the other side of the Himalayas and cross Everest to get there. The oxygen a bird needs to keep flying is 20 times what it needs at rest. The air over Everest has a quarter of the oxygen available at sea level. The haemoglobin of these geese absorbs oxygen faster than most other birds’ and their capillaries penetrate deep into the muscle, so the oxygen reaches further and they get more from each breath. The geese evolved like this because they and their route are older than the Himalayas. As rocks rose across their path, they didn’t look for a new route – they just changed their haemoglobin and went where their DNA said.

Birds are all around us. They appear and disappear; they go between worlds as we never can. They speak to us of distance, other countries, other ways of being. The medieval alchemists had a mystical language of birds which translated what was divine and of the air into the base earth of humanity. That’s why, curating this summer’s new writers’ talks at ZSL London Zoo, I picked the tropical bird house. Each writer will read a specially commissioned piece on an endangered animal in that animal’s presence, alongside one of ZSL’s conservationists. Helen Dunmore will take the Sumatran tiger; Glyn Maxwell has the Majorcan midwife toad; Mark Haddon has the Galapagos tortoise. Jo Shapcott began on 14 May with the slender loris and Andrew O’Hagan ends the series with Malaysian tapirs. I’m concentrating on bleedingheart doves, whose homes in the Philippines are vanishing as forests are cut down.

One of the main roles of the zoo is to fund conservation projects carried out across the globe by the Zoological Society, supported by research from its Institute of Zoology. This conservation work is the envy of the world but also, surprisingly, one of London’s best-kept secrets.

Today, the wren singing in my garden is doing its bird thing, giving me hope as I write – hope that these writers’ talks will light a few candles for urgent conservation.

For details of the writers’ talks at ZSL London Zoo, visit: Ruth Padel’s book on migration, “The Mara Crossing”, is published by Chatto & Windus (£14.99)

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 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State