Climate, seasons, Sheep farming, Wales

A Wind of Change!

As snow and ice cover the eastern counties of Great Britain, Wales is bathed in celestial light — for a trice.

It’s chilly with a strange east wind (of change, perhaps). The prevailing wind here is nearly always wet and westerly — it brings our weather from the Atlantic and snow storms from America — not so today, its coming from the Urals (I’ve got my Russian hat on.)

The sheep have not been gathered in, against the storm, but wait in disgruntled groups for fresh silage, the sweet smell of which precedes the shepherd on the crisp cold air.

Our valley is muted in the winter shade but the tops are bright, scoured dry by the icy wind.

which sends the turbines spinning and brings the snow ever closer — unless it all drops on England first!

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Birds, Ecology, Wales

Never Malign the Humble Starling

It could cost you an admirer!

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Starling by John Quine (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

 

I once had a very high opinion of a man for whom I worked, in a lofty Victorian hospital with what they now call ‘orangery windows’ in the roof of the long ward on the top floor. One day a bird that had strayed into the ward became trapped, flying up against the glass of one of these windows.  His frantic tweeting was disturbing the ward and distracting the medical students that my boss was trying to teach — it didn’t take much to distract a medical student.  Now, I knew he was an enthusiastic bird-watcher and early tweeter (nothing to do with Twitter — it was long before that).  Perhaps I thought I’d impress him.

“I’ll get the pole and let the bird out!’ I said and went to fetch the thing like a giant boat-hook that opened the sky lights.

“Good idea!” said he.

When I came back, they had moved along the ward, nearer to the bird and could see the flapping, squawking creature more clearly as it threw itself repeatedly against the glass in panic.

“Oh!  It’s only a starling!” said the boss ” Leave it!”

Crash!  There it was, shattered on the ground — not the window — not even the bird — but my shattered illusion — my respect, in shards on the floor of a paeiatric ward in North London.

Later, when the previously wise old patriarch, now demoted to a racist tyrant, was having his coffee, I went back and released the bird.

I remember this because it is the time of the year when flocks of these enterprising and social birds ‘graze’ our fields looking for something, I’m not quite sure what.  They alight (several hundreds of them), making a great stain on the hillside, chattering.

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Then they lift in a swirling cloud and swoop low over the pasture scattering the sheep  who are scared, they are convinced that this murmuration of birds is supernatural. Suddenly the cloud swoops into a tall tree, all talking, so that the Douglas Fir twitters with an invisible din.

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Then they are off again swirling, the ball of birds, tumbling up and down the valley, in and out of the morning mist, like a great ball of the lightest, flightiest, celestial dough, rolled back on itself and kneaded by an invisible force.  A splash of dough lands on the overhead electricity wires, then drips, bird by bird, back onto the grass.

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All the time more and more individuals are joining the throng then, suddenly, they are gone.  All that remains is the throb of a thousand wings as they pass overhead, there is nothing like it — perhaps the sheep are right!

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Starlings by Paul McGreevy (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

 Have a look at these murmurations: http://essexnaturalist.wordpress.com/2014/12/29/starlings/

 

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Birds, Poetry, Welsh culture

‘I am a man like you,’ but was he? R.S.Thomas (1913-2000)

 

Yesterday was one of those days that can’t be wasted — bright winter sunshine, long shadows on crisp all-day frost — a day for adventure.
We have been reading the poems and the entertaining biography, by Byron Rogers, of the Welsh poet, R S Thomas, referred to by Philip Larkin as Arsewipe Thomas whose personality was as fascinating as his poetry which was, though marvellously constructed, at times, patronising and judgemental of the Welsh ‘peasant’ (a strange concept in itself in the second half of the twentieth century).
Thomas’s enigmatic personality has intrigued me since I saw him speak in an interview on the television about Wales and the Welsh language, never had I seen someone’s subject so at odds with his delivery! His words were contradicted by all the non-verbal elements of his speech.

Thomas’s identity seemed caught between two cultures and isolated by  ‘intellect’, education and calling. He was ordained in the Church of Wales, the Welsh branch of the Episcopal Church, essentially the Church of England, viewed with suspicion by many Welsh, the majority of whom attended Non-conformist Chapels.

He was an Anglican priest who had adopted an affected upper class accent though he was born in Cardiff and brought up in Holyhead, North Wales, but he felt Welsh to his core, learned Welsh as an adult and was an outspoken nationalist.

Yesterday in the sunshine, we went in search of clues to his persona, not with much expectation.
We visited his church in Manafon, not far from here —

He was not the first poet to have had the living, the heritage board listed a whole bibliography of bardic priests — R.S. was only the last of many — did that egg him on to write in Welsh — his poetry in the Welsh language never seems to have made the grade which must have frustrated him.

The church was locked but the situation was idyllic with its rectory on the riverside, surrounded by meadows and tall trees.

R.S. Thomas wanted to see the beauty of this landscape reflected in the true Welsh people but they disappointed him seeming brutalised by the harshness of their lives.

You failed me, farmer.  I was afraid you would

The day I saw you loitering with the cows.

Yourself one of them but for the smile, […]

            For this I leave you

Alone in your harsh acres, herding pennies […] (Valediction)

Apart from poetry, Welshness and a preoccupation with the darkness of other people’s minds, oafs and yokels (The Country Clergyman), R.S. Thomas was a bird watcher — I suspect like an old boss of mine who expressed interest in a trapped bird, flapping itself to a frenzy against a closed sky-light — when I asked if he would like me to get the pole and open the window, he said, ‘Oh no, I shouldn’t bother, I can see now, it’s only a starling!’

The starlings yesterday in Manafon were making their presence felt if only by weight of number.  A vast murmuration had settled on tall trees near the church, the wide valley thronged with their chatter.  You could have swept them up from the ground.

 

We drove in a wide arch through the Banwy valley, skirting snow capped Snowdonia, to Eglwys Fach (Little Church) Thomas’s next parish, arriving at dusk, another church dedicated to St Michael and I am reminded of the lines

A little aside from the main road,

becalmed in a last-century greyness,   (The Chapel)

This was a Welsh speaking area close to the bird reserve at Ynys Hir but a lot of the parishioners were middle class English ex-pats.  In the church yard there are stones inscribed with names that are not Welsh —

Come to Wales

To be buried: the undertaker

Will arrange it for you.  We have

The sites and a long line

Of clients going back….

It ends…  Dirt cheap, a place where

It is lovely to lie.   (Welcome to Wales)

The church was locked — whether to keep God in or keep him out — one cannot tell.

They laid a stone trap

for him, enticing him with candles,

and thought he would come like some huge moth

out of the darkness to beat there…   (The Empty Church)

R.S. Thomas spent a lot of time waiting for God, but then…  The meaning is in the waiting. (Kneeling)  Possibly he was looking in the wrong place.  In his quest he moved ever Westward.

On the next irresistible day perhaps we will follow him to the far west and the Lleyn peninsula.

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Trees behind the church at Eglwys Fach in the last of the sun.

 

 

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