There is a poem by Gary Snyder, called “How to Know Birds”, in which he lists all the details we might observe, on finding an unfamiliar species – the size and shape, patterns of flight, habitat, the sounds it makes, etc – before heading for the field guide and finally identifying it by name. It’s a light, conversational piece with a sly philosophical question at its heart, possibly inspired by the Zen koan tradition, in which an anecdote, or an unexpected question (the most famous being: what is the sound of one hand clapping?) sets the mind to work outside the usual societally imposed frames. It allows us to sidestep the doggedly “rational” policeman installed in us by our “education” and so make a direct connection with the world around us. I love the poem, and I sometimes recite it to myself inwardly when I come upon a hide full of twitchers, with their notebooks and expensive equipment, and am a little perplexed by their trainspotter mentality. The point of Snyder’s poem is, of course, that it’s not the moment you find the name of a given bird that matters, it’s all the steps you take on the way to “identifying” it.
Yet I have to admit that this is not the whole story, for most of us are not naturalists, we are just a lonely and somewhat bemused species living towards the end of a civilisation that has all but forgotten, but still feels nostalgic for, the other animals. I am happy to sit for hours watching birds, but my observations are not in the least scientific: I feel no need to fill a log book or take thousands of rapid-fire pictures and my pleasure derives as much from cultural associations as from anything else.
Take the grey heron, for example. Whenever I can, I escape the day’s grind and walk out along St Andrews’ East Sands, not far from my office, just to catch a glimpse of a bird that, in these parts, is far from “chaseable”. The reason I like to watch herons at certain times is clear to me, if to nobody else: I love their elegance, I love the colours (ranging from near-white, through a multiplicity of greys to almost-black). But what I am here for, really, is the combination of long stillness with moments of extraordinary speed and precision, as the beak darts out and plucks its prey from the water. There is a grace in this that I find nourishing, like watching a great cricketer make an impossible catch from short leg.
At the same time, I can barely see a grey heron without thinking of the opening to Dylan Thomas’s “Poem in October”, where he describes “the mussel pooled and the heron/Priested shore” – not just because there really is something priestly about the grey heron, but also because this image makes for a nice counter to Wordsworth, whose notion of his younger self as “Nature’s priest” has always left me feeling a little queasy.
The other pleasure that comes of naming is not so easy to define, and may sound overly bookish, but it can be enjoyable, on a rainy afternoon, to check the etymology of a recently observed bird and discover what some long-dead observer made of it. So, for example, the etymology of “heron” gives us: “from Proto-Germanic hraigran. Related to Old High German heigaro, Danish hejre, Old Norse hegri”, perhaps from a common root imitative of its cry. I know that none of this has anything to do with the heron, out there in the estuary, hunting for fish in the mussel pools, but it has everything to do with how I live, in what used to be called Natural History.
This article appears in the 13 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?