There’s only so much pathetic fallacy one can take: my soul, more lachrymose than most was particularly weepy after a rough week; the rain torrential. The sky was crying Niagara Falls and I wasn’t. The clouds ahead were brighter and I’ve always found it pointless to correlate weather with emotions. Your misery never matches that of this glorious British summer that doesn’t give a toss: you’re getting rained upon.
I needed my head clearing. I needed distractions, I needed birds, and I needed the salt-scented clarity of a sea breeze. I got Minsmere. Somehow, despite aquaplaning down the A14, I also got staid air and the heat-haze of Hades. Minsmere is at least good for birds. It has a sentimental connection too: for six summers ago, visits at either end of the season were enough to get me hooked on birding, oddly enough with a Cetti’s Warbler and a dip. A rebirth, if you want to think of it as such, after a spring where the birding ran dry. Though the only thing running dry now was the water bottle: the sky was hazy blue and north marsh sweated damsel and dragonflies. My back dripped. It was an atmosphere as cluttered and stuffy as my mind. A Red Admiral landed on the path, fluttering black and red, and as twee as it is, it made me happier. This damp year has been so rotten for them it’s good to see any, regardless of the joyful flicking of their colourful wings. It’s also good to see the dragonflies, though their mechanical straight flight is not quite so life affirming; their mysterious thoraxes only reflect back my own ignorance of their identification.
Pale blue waves lapped lethargically into the shingle shore. Up the beach and over the pillbox studded dunes lies east hide, facing back in land over the Minsmere scrape. An explosion here in the Second World War resulted in the explosion of birdlife we see many years later. Across the small islands scattered throughout its shallow waters there appears to be thousands of everything. My memory of the first time I looked across is something akin to a garden of earthly delights for birders. Thus it always disappoints. It can never quite live up to the expectation, that false image of my own making of the scrape as Aves eden. Today it was stuffed full of breeding Common Terns and Black-headed Gulls. That first memory from late May of a scrape overflowing with waders has been replaced by the truth, and things don’t get much truer than birth and death. Screaming terns mating, incubating, and grabbing the tails of terns that fly too close to the wrong nest or chick. The chicks are fat, grey and quite ugly, the parents are angelic white and elegant: or they would be on their apparently effortless migration, except they’ve abandon elegance in the hormonal frenzy of gene spreading. Chicks are born a wingbeat away from long-dead terns rotting in the sun, and are themselves one wingbeat away from ending up in the gullet of a larger gull. The scrape is not pretty but we watch it because it’s real. We watch birds because they’re real. Wholly other organisms living wholly other lives, unmediated, apparently untroubled by anything beyond their primal instincts. Perhaps subconsciously we harbour to be like them, to step outside of society… Becoming at one with nature though, it’s fraught with difficulties and your mother wouldn’t approve. Mediation and civilisation don’t seem so bad when compared with the squabbling mess of a gull flock. Both terns and gulls scatter through the air, becoming a blizzard of birds as a young heron flaps lazily over. I guess sometimes even the birds themselves can’t tell a hawk from a handsaw.
As I leave the hide, I notice that kids had taken a marker pen to the walls of the hide, decorating beyond the sightings whiteboard with what people doubtless think of as graffiti. Overhead the hazy blue of earlier had been scribbled on with lines of hair grey, gun grey, and impending-rain grey clouds. The sun still shone from the east, over the North Sea, with force. From the open topped, open sided public hide it struck with a sweaty intensity, as I picked out Little Gulls as smaller, neater, blacker-headed than the Black-headed Gulls. Failed breeders I guess, rather than extraordinarily late northeast bound migrants. The southern end of the scrape (and I have no idea why this should be) held more than breeders. Also returning from further north were Dunlin and scruffy Spotted Redshanks; the pantheon of Black-tailed Godwits had probably only swapped ends of the scrape to moult out of their brick red breeding feathers.
I carried on walking down the beach, down to the sluice controlling the end of Minsmere River. It’s unsightly but vital to the wetlands, and with a bonus nest of Swallows tucked under the roof. The Minsmere levels get rather ignored, as merely an uninteresting swathe of Konik Pony grazed marsh beside the more interesting beds of reeds. It’s probably true: I only walk down the footpath for a view of the bushes and pools in the reeds that you can’t see from the main track. It’s unfair though: the 12th century ruin of an abbey would be much more interesting to other people than the avifauna attending its attendant cattle. Halfway down the track it starts spitting with rain. A minute later and I’m seeking shelter by a small tree as the clouds snuff out all light: the rain falls vertical and vigorously, overwhelming my waterproof coat in minutes, crawling down inside my trouser legs, touching my toes. Ten soggy minutes later I was running to find a hide.
Later I would learn that 70mm of rain would fall in this hour – roughly double the monthly average. From west hide I found a seat overlooking the reedbed as the rain pelted down, ceaselessly. Forked lightening cracked less than a mile away over Westleton, Eastbridge and out to sea; the thunder sounding like a steel toe-capped boat kicking the hide’s wooden sides to splinters. Inside the benches are packed with birders damp to varying degrees of sodden. I can feel the water slosh about my boots in the way my own current misery sometimes floods my brain, and sometime recedes, yet always lurks. It seems both human and inevitable that rain should be seen the sky’s tears. If it is then it is so much bigger than my own. I guess it brings perspective. The sky is not crying, though if it could it would look down on the earth we despoil daily and unleash paroxysms of grief. The earth suffers more than I ever will: daily extinctions knock out more cogs in the system of life; global warming wreaks an ever-increasing havoc on our climate. It’s nice to know then that, relatively; worrying about what happens to me is a meaningless self-indulgence. My nest isn’t being flooded out; my feathers aren’t waterlogged. My problems are small, my solutions simple.
Eventually the rain clears up.
Outside, a Cetti’s Warbler sings.