Thursday, 14 May 2015

Notes from the Hortobagy

Nagy. In Hungarian it means ‘great’, pronounced with a nasal ‘oi’ sound for the vowel, and with tongue to palette, spitting out the G sound. I can’t pronounce it the same way twice, but the result is surprisingly intelligible to waitresses, bar staff and our guide Tamás. It’s hard to know who is more surprised, me that it works or the locals who seem to be unfamiliar with English tourists trying.

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Ahead of me is the puszta. The great Hungarian plain and the westernmost stretch of steppe in Eurasia. In the very distance — unfathomably flat and far — trees shimmer, shake and levitate, a fair distance above the clear sky swimming beneath. Clear spring skies. The air is hot and heavy. The soil says it hasn’t rained in weeks.

I thought I knew Hungary but I didn’t. Like it’s language, it never seems to stay the same. It is not settled, easy to master. I had it as Cambridgeshire on a vast scale: fen and farms. Flat, wet and traditionally kept — grey cattle, Racka sheep, the Mangalica pigs — an East Anglia with a better range of birds. I recently came across the poet C.P. Cavafy in a great piece by Amy Liptrot:

    You shall not find new places; other seas
    you shall not find. The place shall follow you.
    And you shall walk the same familiar streets

I was, the first time I was here, an East Anglian abroad in East Anglia: all wetlands and thin copses, and birds half-familiar. Though I did see a Black Stork and think it was, in that sun-addled moment of it sailing over on effortless wings, the most magnificent thing.

I was wrong. Away from the old fish ponds and reedbeds, there is a vast expanse of even older grassland. The flat sublime. A landscape impossible to take in in its entirety.

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The woods here are not of nature’s doing. We drove up to one, firmly attached to the ground, though it probably levitates too if you look from the dusty red-roofed town on the edge of the horizon. Under communism swathes of the Hortobagy was dyked, irrigated and ploughed. Damage that is slowly being repaired. The trees that were planted here were, oddly, American. You can find Aspens with rookeries and Nightingales in them, and it is bizarre, incongruous and not as ecologically useless as you might expect. For although the Hortobagy is a natural grassland, these trees provide nesting grounds for lots of birds that would otherwise struggle, such as the Rooks. The Rooks have to compete with the Red-footed Falcons returning from the very south of Africa, who take over old Rook nests. In this hot, bare wood the Rooks croak. Spring is black and guttural. The falcons perched in the trees shriek like London parakeets. Grey males and orange females seeing the Rooks off their stolen nest-spaces and snatching insects over the grassland.

The grassland here is Sousliks scurrying, worrying amongst the brown waves and white ribbons of chamomile flowers. A Saker — large, so large — hunts overhead. Another of the Souslik’s predators, the Long-legged Buzzard, spirals on the thermals overhead. More of a fawn and orange than the Common Buzzards that sit on every fence and motorway sign here. The Sousliks never settle.

The falcon and the buzzard bear a familial similarity to British birds. It is a subtle exotic, the familiar yet different. It leads to a kind of uncanny birding where slight differences make different species, whilst the wagtail in the long grass has a blue-grey head, long yellow stripe above its an eye and is the same species as our Yellow Wagtail.


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That night from the track outside our hotel on the edge of the Hortobagy, we watch a distant storm in the south west horizon. Lightning raking the sky. No rain falls on us, but the warm storm wind blows anyway. When the lightning flashes it lights up the serpent-like sidewinding of dust down the track.

The Nightingales sing regardless.

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Two days earlier we were somewhere in eastern Hungary. Somewhere off the map in our hands, navigating by Tamás’s head into the land beyond the plain. If you had unfair stereotypes of Hungary, here is why they are manifest. A landscape of intensively farmed fields, flat and hedgeless. A colourless place and a ferocious sun — we drive past a man strimming the verge while wearing only his pants. For every absolutely gorgeous part of the country, Hungary has these places that feel neglected, run-down and unloved. We take a couple of minor roads and end up in the middle of a desert. A ploughed field that extends all around into a panorama of dust and dirt. There is no cover other than a few meagre, stunted trees by the road. All is arid and brown. A vision of over-farmed hell. An uncared for land.

‘When we discovered this place there were 50 pairs here. Now there are 2.’

It’s hard to imagine what 50 pairs of Short-toed Larks in song, rippling across this barren place would be like.

Tamás pokes the soil with his tripod leg.

‘They need this dry, dusty soil. They used to be a speciality of the Hortobagy but in parts it is under grazed and they don’t breed there now. Same with Kentish Plover and Collared Pratincole’.

The worth of a guide is that he can navigate to places like this. It begins to feel a little like cheating when after five minutes you’re watching half the Hungarian population of Short-toed Larks, crawling between the furrows, a tiny sandy speck in a vast brown plane.

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The next evening it spits with rain. Grey clouds rolling in over the steppe, promising future storms. A big sky, bigger than I’m used to. We sought shelter by a ruined farm, riddled with bullet holes. We passed a T34 tank on a plinth by the road: a monument to the Battle of Debrecen, when the Hortobagy was a front for a tank battle between the broken and soon to be defeated nazis and the red army sweeping through eastern Europe. Or perhaps from the Soviet occupation of Hungary — the Hortobagy is just inhospitable enough for forced labour camps.

A Barn Owl detached itself from the farmhouse and slips into the gathering gloom. It is not used to people being there for large parts of the Hortobagy are restricted access and to get onto the plain requires a guide and is strictly policed. I have mixed feelings about this but it indisputably provides Great Bustards with the space to thrive — and all the other open grassland loving wildlife of the area.

The landscape is charged with absence. The bullet holes in the farmhouse chill. The trees have no leaves. There are no people, nobody working, other than lorries thundering past a road just visible on the horizon. It is a haunting, inscrutable place in these overcast moods. Not East Anglian in the slightest. Whilst we are stood there nothing arrives and nothing leaves. A couple of Roe deer bucks leap from patches of long grass to long grass, the only movement, the only thing other than a vast still quietness.

And then we pick out one, three, then six Great Bustards out in the grass. Not too far from the Roe Deer in size, a fabulously eccentric bird with a fanned tail that almost reaches its head, a tigerish mottled orange and black back, whiskers that fan out from its grey, turkey-like face. When it shakes, it ruffles its entire plumage, flashing white like a can-can dancer.

It is an absurd bird. A relic from Europe’s past as a flat and open and remote country; a bird for Europe’s future where places like this remain protected for their self-evident qualities.

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