Kamis, 31 Agustus 2006

Survival of The Cutest

It wouldn’t have been such a crisis if I hadn’t been about to go away for 3 weeks. I wouldn’t have felt such a desperate need to decide, to act. Now I’m back, this is all old news, but it seems right to say how the story developed:

Survival of the cutest #1
The day after I last posted I did of course crack. I Googled. I made phone calls. I scoured the local phone directory. I made more phone calls.

To feed a swift chick, take live mealworms, drown them in water, then feed them to the chick, using tweezers. (The tweezers are to save the swift’s sensibilities, not yours. And no, in this case we are not on the side of the mealworms.)

It was Sunday, of course. By the time I’d found one place in our small town which sells mealworms – dried – on a Sunday, my mum had been on the phone, too. It looked increasingly certain that all adult swifts in our area had reached their time for going, and gone.

It was warm in the loft, but not too oppressive, as we set up the stepladders. The corner stank comfortingly of nesting swifts, but there was no sound. Had I imagined it? No such luck. Once I’d pulled away the protective barrier of chicken wire and shone my torch onto the ledge, the twiggy silhouette I’d seen so often was starkly, mundanely interpretable. A neat nest – the starlings’ legacy – with two small forms slumped inside.

I was far gone on adrenalin and emotion. The stillness was ominous: had I left them long enough to starve, after all? Rapidly I reached in, picked up the larger shape in one hand, babbling incoherent words of love as it moved slightly. I held the wings closed, those lovely wings. Into the cardboard box, onto the softly crumpled tissue paper. I hovered my hand over it and reached for its sibling. Thank goddess for headtorches.

It’s true, then. Swifts go into a torpor during the day, waiting for food. All my fears of beak and claw and clifftop disasters came to just two sleepy, vaguely resentful little beings in a box.

We had the operation all planned out. Straight into the waiting car, leaving a message on the sanctuary’s ansaphone. I cradled the precious box for 45 travelling minutes, my heart drugged with love for the newness and beauty of the life inside.

The room in the sanctuary was awful. It stank of other animals, and was loud with their calls. But the people seemed kind enough, and knew more than I did. I watched in horror as my beautiful wild creatures were placed on a couple of scraps of blue paper hand towel. They lurked together, heads into the corner of their new cardboard box. Apparently wild creatures routinely cope with such treatment, learn to accept what humans can give, then go out again, as if unchanged, back into habitat.

All the way back I was shattered with guilt, weeping in the back of the car. I’d interfered, taken them from their splendidly appropriate wall-top home, where brood after brood had lived or died before them, and forced them into a place of bizarre stressful ugliness, and into dependence on yet more human interference. A friend rescued me with beer and food, and cheerful arguments of how life likes being alive, and how given the choice swift chicks would rather be alive than dead – especially if there was a bellyful of mealworms involved. Solitary midnight packing follwed, with the 8:45 am train to catch in the morning.

Survival of the cutest #2
The loft was desolate that night without the chicks. There was no sign of any adults, either, which was a little balm to my guilty conscience. Silence. I lay there, missing them.

Until 6am. "Skreep! Skreep!"

Goddess bless. No. It can’t be… I clumped the stepladder back out of storage, clattered up it, lurched towards the nest, blasting it with my impatient torch, demanding to find out what was there. A solitary dark, feathered shape hunkered down, mistrustfully, trying to get out of reach of this huge critter which had torn a hole in the sky, instinctively calculating that I was big enough to open my beak and swallow it whole.

I’d missed one. The humour was intellectually obvious, but I was too trashed to feel it. Not yet. The guilt, on the other hand, was instant.

I packed. Ate breakfast. Rehoused my fungus culture outside. Checked anything I could preparatory to many days away. Met my parents as soon as they emerged, broke the news. Bless them. They didn’t hesitate, declared there was only one thing to be done.
Another cardboard box. Another stash of tissue paper. We waited as long as possible to give the critter a chance to calm down, to achieve its daytime stupor.
Car ready. Torch on forehead. Stepladders up.

I ripped the whole nest apart, pulled away the surrounding insulation. Huge, intrusive human. No wonder I’d been so timid, watching them before from the shadows: I was afraid of the effect I could have, of what I could do. Determined to find the bird, I destroyed its entire home, effortlessly.

What I couldn’t do, though, was find the last chick. It remained wild – and presumably died soon after, of hunger and cold. That’s the Way of it. Small birds die – otherwise the ecosystem would be overrun with birds, and everything would die. And humans get emotionally attached, and mourn, and juggle their priorities. That’s the way of it, too. I could have searched all morning, but I didn’t. I could’ve stayed there the next night, listening. Instead, I just managed to catch the train I thought I’d given up, and I sat on it, writing these words, and gradually stopping crying. Words can soothe. It’s a human thing.

Swifts are simple. They do swift things, and when conditions are right, they breed and live on. When conditions are wrong, they die. It’s a system, it’s worked for a long time, and the beauty it produces is astounding.

Humans are adaptable, frighteningly adaptable. They evolve socially, skills and knowledge and technology, and there’s no knowing what they’ll do next – and the ugliness they produce can be appalling. It scares me, being human. I’ve spent much of my life frozen with the fear of doing the wrong thing – and knowing all the while that what I love is being destroyed.

This time I acted. Not out of deep love for ecology, but out of base sentiment. The sounds of those birds comforted me when I slept and when I woke, and I loved them, and I didn’t want them to die.

The emotions that drove me are jagged, and shifting. I almost feel better about the bird that got away, and died, than about the two I may have saved, in defiance of the Law.

In Oxford, many eggs were lost this year due to the cold, wet May. On our swift ledge, I found two old, unhatched eggs. The chicks that called in the night were a second brood, raised late – too late, it seems, for our shorter northern season. Conditions meant that they would die.

Checkout the swifts in the tower. It’s a great project. They let the swifts nest in their ventilations shafts, they observe them, they ring them, they record them, they let them live, and presumably they let them die. And yet when the swifts have a good breeding season, the human joy leaks right out through the terse diary on the website.

Survival of the cutest #3
The next morning I woke at 5:30, in a flat in Edinburgh. I heard birds calling, almost thought I heard swifts. I cried for an hour. Later in the day I did see swifts, flying below the window. Edinburgh’s high tenements should be able to provide magnificent nesting sites for them.

Survival of the cutest #4
It was about 10am when I got the phone call. The people at the sanctuary hadn’t forgotten my desperate craving for news.

They’d tried to feed the chicks, but all the freshly-drowned mealworms were regurgitated back up. Thoughtfully, the proprietor, an experienced man, checked out their feathers (did I mention the chicks’ lovely, glossy feathers?), noticed their plump condition, and decided to take them outside.

"It sounds awful, but the lawn is really very soft." The second chick, when thrown up into the air, fell straight down. The man tried again: same result. I’ve been told that a swift – even a fully competent adult – is helpless if it lands on the ground. He picked it up a third time, and threw it upwards. This time it flew, straight and sudden, hurtling out of sight with the flawless control that is the way of its kind. He’d seen other birds crash into hedges on their first flight, but not this one. Its boxed sibling had done even better, getting the idea first time. We haven’t found a feathered corpse below their nesting site, either, so can only hope that the third chick, the one I scared with my torch in the morning, slipped over the edge and found its wings before it reached the ground, three storeys below.

Just don’t do it
The moral is obvious. Follow the rules. Part of the law is this: if you allow habitat to exist, the critters will come. If you remove habitat, critters will die. Another part of the law is this: don’t get involved. I’ve no way of knowing how much damage I caused by traumatising those chicks, how much of their vital energy I cost them, whether they will survive or die, whether some sign of what I did will remain in the spring, warning the adults away from the ledge they’ve occupied for 30 years or more.
So don’t get sentimental about wildlife. It’s stupid, and often destructive.

The swifts had gone from Port Meadow in Oxford, as well, when I was down there, even though there were still chicks to be seen on the webcam. (Funny, that...)

But there were swallows. Looking at swifts, just for the pleasure of it, has somehow trained my fuzzy eyes to be more quick, or my brain to be more confident, at watching other bird shapes flying. Swallows have something of the same habit as my dark gothic loves, but are so different, too. How could I ever have confused the two? Swallows with those curves, those contrasts of light and dark. Their little tweeting sounds are quite distinctive, too – they’re beginning to stand out from the background of unidentified bird sounds and be a signal that grabs my ears and turns my eyes to the sky.

They are also, now I happen to notice it, very, very cute…

Sabtu, 05 Agustus 2006

Please Come Back

This will be my third night back in the loft again. Blessed cool weather meant at last it was possible. Ironically, my beloved swifts left the area at the beginning of the week, so I didn’t have any hope of my sleep being disturbed by their beautiful screams.

Now I want to hear them again, more than ever. As soon as possible.

I’ve checked the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s website. They have swifts in their ventilation shafts, how cool is that? They also believe in careful reporting of observed facts, which is not only cool, it’s one of the very best things humans do. (A form of love, even: paying attention to that which is, without false sentiment, and without wanting it to be what it isn’t.)

The swift webcam shows swifts. Right now. In Oxford. The charming brief diary called "statistics" tells me that this year’s cold May left some pairs breeding very late - while some of the young are already grown, 2 were still in their eggs in mid July.

It’s also not unknown for swift parents to be absent for a while, maybe blown off course by a storm while feeding hundreds of kilometres away: “observations at Oxford have shown that chicks can survive fasts of up to 10 days and a weight loss of up to 50%”. This is critical. It confirms what I was told by a rather lovely RSPB woman yesterday. She said that swift chicks have a unique ability to go into a torpor to conserve their energy, but she hadn’t said how many days they could survive until their parents returned.

She said they slowed their activity right down… she didn’t say anything about them making constant little silvery whistling noises, all night long, sometimes almost too faint to hear, sometimes loud and insistent. She didn’t say that at 6am they could make sounds sharp enough to make me hope I was hearing full adult screams.
It’s got to take energy to make that much noise. It works though. I don’t believe in interfering with wild creatures, or with the harsh pressures of natural selection. However, tonight I will be lying there, planning to ring a wildlife sanctuary in the morning, and wondering if I’m brave enough to try feeding the chicks. I am weak-willed and human, and those little plaintive piping noises are enough to make anyone want to give them a beakful of regurgitated flies.

I know what I really want, though. I want to hear swifts flying through the air, screaming. Soon. Please.

Minggu, 30 Juli 2006

Morality - An Afterthought

Having noticed I've just unintentionally managed to get "fanatics", "desert", and "plotting" into one post, I can't resist mentioning another, purely personal - and quite topical - opinion about morality:

Bombs. Bombs are bad. All bombs; anyone and everyone's bombs. Very Bad Indeed.

They upset the frogs. And they ruin the lettuces. :-( :-( :-(

Rabu, 12 Juli 2006

Bluegrass in The Backwoods

Last weekend, I finally got round to checking out my (fairly) local community woodland. There was some kind of annual festival on – you know, some sad little theme-park effort, with a few tacky craft stalls...

How wrong can a girl be? Some of the craft stalls were tacky, but many were superb, and most were convincingly woody – from the out and out bushcraft, thru an impressive range of atavistic green woodworking stuff, to top-notch native-hardwood furniture making. (The bushcraft guy, appropriately, didn’t have a website. But he had sold some bark containers to someone from the furniture makers’ stall. Good craft is good craft, whatever the genre.)

The public areas were cunningly carved out of mature conifer plantation, with the trees thinned out enough to allow light through for grass to grow for people to walk on, and, at the unmown edges, for tangles of undergrowth to emerge, limiting people’s wandering.

Working woodland works well as a venue: both main stage and bagpipes alike became just a vague siren call from the other side of a block. There were many entertainments. I ignored most of them, of course, because I enjoy being serious. Samba band, chainsaw carving demonstration, mountain biking display, acrobats, yadda yadda, whatever. I had information to hoover up: yum. In a brief, happy afternoon I found leads on half a dozen things I’d been wanting to find. And all within the comforting green of forest. But after I’d checked out names and faces from other woody events, fallen into intense discussion with a man who sometimes kills squirrels for a living, bought a clay plaque from another who lit up about his ancient hedgerow research, and gathered up a small mountain of contact details and leaflets, I leaned against a Scots pine tree and settled down to the serious business of listening to some really fine bluegrass music.*

For a few brief hours, I was in heaven.

There was room for improvement, of course. Pissing in a chemical loo in the middle of acres of woodland seems a little perverse, and the burger van really should have been selling venison burgers (and squirrel kebabs), garnished with some of the abundant wood sorrel, with forest mushrooms as the vegetarian option… but overall, the event was sheer bliss. I have seen the future of partying, and there’s room for a really quite surprising number of trees in it.

* Please insert your preferred taste in music here, and don’t be put off. Banjos aren’t, as far as I know, an essential part of forest festivals. I think the gods laid that bit on just for me.

Selasa, 11 Juli 2006

And the "news" is: Tony wants nuclear

I’m kind of motivated about climate change. If an informed, networked, intelligent society, after careful and cooperative study, decided that the only viable low-carbon energy production and consumption system for the near future had to be one that involved nuclear power in the mix, I would accept it, albeit with deep reluctance.

Instead, we have an arrogant clique, run by an arrogant man who clearly enjoys thinking of himself as a big player amongst world players, and who shows precious little love or understanding of either science or ecosystems. The kind of man who would start a war in the name of democracy, when over a million of his own people (and that was just in London) had taken to the streets to say – in a beautiful, peaceful, rather British kind of way – "well, no, actually".

I don’t want "strong leaders". I want truth, and cooperation, and genuine debate. And some intelligent, honest decision making, dammit.

I also want beauty and love, but the actions of world leaders remind me how to feel hate, on days like today. I listened to the news on the radio this morning, turned south, and spent the next minute or so visualising hurt and harm to that self same arrogant man.

It isn’t the right answer… Love is the answer, though applying it is way tricky. Gotta dismantle the ideas, and ignore the figureheads. World leaders are just another kind of life form: they possibly even deserve as much compassion as cutworms* do. But on days like today, I listen to decisions taken about the world I love, reckless, thoughtless decisions which seem way beyond my control, and what I feel is hate.

* See "Cutworm" post, Tuesday, May 23, 2006.
(You’re right, Ingaborg: this user interface so sucks – can’t find a way to back link to archived posts: yuck!!)

Sabtu, 01 Juli 2006

Ideas of Morality

Hauling full watering cans around is a pain in the back, and it’s no fun for my conscience, either. We’re too far north here to have a hosepipe ban – yet – but I’m still acutely aware of being part of a society that has drained the lands and channelled the rivers to a shadow of the burgeoning wild they could be, and that has managed to create a water shortage through sheer childish mismanagement.

I’ve been amused over the last few days to hear that a man of the Christian church has dared to suggest that air flights might be a moral issue, in the light of what we know these days. Well done that man, and, er – yes. What's taking everyone so long? The amount of attention his comment has generated, and the sharpness of some of the replies, suggests that the remark hit home; perhaps this idea’s time has nearly come.

I of course am at a loss to understand that there’s any question. How could a system of morality _not_ include our impacts on that which is
(a) mysterious, beautiful, uniquely alive, and (if you’re into that kind of thing) the source of many mystical and unplifting experiences; and
(b) our mutual life support system?
For most of my life this has left me where I’ve become comfortable, out on the extremes, but from now on – if I can manage to stand still while the world turns – I’m willing to enjoy my journey all the way over to the mainstream.

Meanwhile, I've found there is a plus side to all the watering: frogs. They hate being watered, but they love the places where I’ve been watering, over these awful dry weeks. They leap from my thickets of cut-and-come-again lettuce, and lurk accusingly under my alpine strawberries, as I drench the ground. It gives me a tired little surge of joy and pride (always a danger sign, in us fanatics) as I realise that, in this pondless desert, I have created habitat for them. I shall water on, plotting for the day when, in a saner system, my lettuce cravings won't need to be a problem at all...