Some of my favourite lines by the Italian poet Eugenio Montale describe a flock of house martins flickering back and forth in the summer light between a telegraph pole and the harbour of a coastal town. This timeless, self-regulating sway of black and white bodies occupies only a couple of lines in a piece otherwise dedicated to human concerns, but it is essential to the poem’s success. Montale wants to show how his protagonists, preoccupied with their entirely personal drama, take no comfort from observing the lovely “sine wave” of the birds’ flight, even as they stand in the midst of a common miracle. Neither the grace of the martins’ perpetual, ordered motion, nor the scent of elder blossom that fills the air offers a remedy to the pain of a lovers’ parting.
It is a perfect choice of image. For, whether it is a murmuration of starlings swaying in their hundreds over a market town in the summer dusk, or a line of geese surging across an autumn sky, there is something about the flight of birds that can transcend our mundane concerns. This may have something to do with the shift in our perception of time that Rachel Carson describes in Under the Sea Wind (1941): “To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and the flow of the tides… to watch the flight of shorebirds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years… is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.”
My random musings on bird flight and temporal perspectives were prompted by a marvellous new book that appeared just before the holidays. Mull: A Natural History of the Island and its People by Stephen Littlewood and Martin Jones is an invaluable guide. Among many other attractions, it is packed with photographs and descriptions of birds in flight, from the short-eared owl (something of a success story on the island, despite worrying losses elsewhere) to storm petrels “skipping across the waves”, and the playful “food pass” in which the polygynous male hen harrier tosses a scrap of prey to one of his several mates in passing, which she then expertly catches, instantaneously, in mid-air.
Elsewhere, there is much to commend in the book, from snippets of island lore to reflections on the impact of invasive species, such as mink and rhododendrons, on a delicately balanced ecosystem.
Yet amid this feast of fine description and historical detail what struck me most was the final chapter, entitled “The Forever Future”. Remarking on the several opportunities for ecological reflection that lockdown has offered, Littlewood and Jones highlight just one of the many ways in which we are stupidly hurrying back to what we consider “normal”. In a passage that is as heartbreaking as it is infuriating, they note that, in this rush towards normality, “the region’s council chose to prioritise its annual midsummer cull of orchids and wildflowers, grassland mammals and reptiles, butterflies and moths (and their caterpillars) plus other insects, by cutting a swathe through their habitats along the roadsides. Species after species were casually removed from the web of life in the space of a few days.”
This passage – and indeed the entire chapter – offers yet another reminder that it was the old normal that brought us to where we are now, with communities across the world including “such diverse nations as Australia, South Africa, Israel, India, Spain and Belgium” already in danger of severe ecological catastrophe. By contrast, what lockdown did, in many ways, was to reveal how rapidly systems could heal if human depredation was suspended for long enough. To take one example, the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions dropped by 60 per cent during the Covid “anthropause” in spring 2020. Would it not be sensible, then, to propose that we develop a new appreciation of time, and abandon the old, socially unjust and environmentally degrading “normal” to the past?
This article appears in the 02 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going Under