January 19, 2014

To the fen country

I do all right in London, but I leave the city and I feel ignorant. We drove to the fens yesterday where the birds were unfamiliar: a kingfisher, yes, and a heron; greenfinches and goldfinches and the usual robins and tits; collared doves, grebes, coots, mallards; two lovely green woodpeckers, a skylark in faint song and a stag-headed oak full of roosting and heraldic cormorants – but what are all those waterfowl on the mere, and those, and those, and those? How to identify that flock of pale finches flashing past overhead? Which raptor was that banking away over the stubble?

The hedges were full of unfamiliar song, and with no leaves on the branches much of the scrub and carr was hard for me to identify – though I can do most of the major trees, even in winter. Some of the fields were newly ploughed, the earth heavy and brown; but some were baized with newly sown crops that were too young still for a city-dweller like me to identify.

Taxonomy is not an essential part of connecting with nature – far from it. Some people actively prefer not to put names to the living things around them, seeing it as an act of dominion that creates distance, rather than closeness. But it bothered me not even to recognise many of the birds and plants I saw, let alone know their names; I felt enlivened by exploring a new place, but also subtly unmoored by being in a different kind of landscape to the ones I am used to, in which I was less able to understand its processes, or come into relationship with it myself.

The more I learn, the more I discover that I don't know – and the process of accumulating that knowledge is a joy. But I worry sometimes that one lifetime isn't going to be enough to take it all in, to come to know the English countryside in the way that I need to: not just intellectually, but deep down, and in my bones.