Hidden by reeds

My Dad used to say, ‘There is nothing there in the darkness that was not there in the daylight.’ This is OK for a 6 foot 2 mountain, but when I was a bite-sized mouthful, for the monsters that lived under my bed, in the darkness, it was not OK. Anyway by now I have learnt, as you probably have too, it’s not even true.

It was worse at my Grandparents. I would spend much of my summer days dreading bedtime. By then I was old enough to go upstairs alone. I would turn the landing light on from the bottom of the stairs. This illuminated the landing and the toilet, but cast shadows down the corridor to the middle bedroom where I was to sleep.

I would slowly climb the stairs, careful not to stand on the stairs that creaked. From the landing I would run the three yards down the corridor, turn on the bedroom light jump onto the bed and dive under the quilt. Then, when I felt it was safe, I would turn on the bedside lamp. Reaching blindly for the switch I would keep my head under the quilt. This was followed by a jump off the bed to turn off the room light. Jump back into bed and listen to the house breathe. If I awoke in the night the lamp had been turned off. I could not see my hand in front of my face. Those nights I never went back to sleep.

The days though were always summer and being of a certain age my Nan had time in the afternoons to play. I grew up moved away and saw her as often as the distance allowed. She lived with her aging dog Jasper. He was grey at the front end and windy at the other.

I moved back for her funeral. I was the only one who had the time to move into her house to look after Jasper and stop him going to the vets. No-one had room for an old dog. He was destined to be discarded with much of the contents when the house was cleared.

It was the first funeral I had been to. I was unsure what to do, what to say and just felt uncomfortable. I felt guilty in not having visited in the last few weeks and slipped away from the graveside.

I made my way back to the house that was no longer her home. The wooden gate rose on its hinges and as it shut made its usual sound as the latch clicked behind me. The sound and the smell of roses near the gate took me back to childhood. I put the key in the door and then the smells of the house grabbed me. The musty rack of coats, unworn in years, the leather sofa that had seen better days and the smell of dog.

‘Jasper. I’m home’. He had become old and slow and there was no need to get out of bed just because I was back -but he did. I could hear his claws on the wooden floor as he padded towards me. I waited for the grey muzzle to appear under his amber-coloured familiar eyes, as he rounded the corner. Then as he appeared he started to growl, bare his teeth and after a few seconds, bark. I had never seen him like this.

‘Hey boy, it’s me’. But this did not calm him down. In fact it made things worse. He was becoming ferocious and I was frightened. I began to back towards the front door that was still open. This just made things worse and he ran forward. I slipped and fell down banging my head on the skirting board. However, instead of attacking he ran past, barking wildly from the doormat for a few minutes and then stopped. The garden gate shut on its latch.

After such enthusiasm there was a certain amount of wind so I took Jasper to sit outside in the July afternoon. He returned to the placid old dog and slept by the garden bench. I lay watching Swifts hawking over the garden. I did not want to be in when the family called after the wake. I needed to be alone.

Jasper had been doing the ‘rabbit catching’ sleep, with all his legs twitching in anticipation of the chase. He awoke without any embarrassment and we decided to explore the garden. It was long, but thin. There was a place to sit; a place to be self-reliant from produce, now over-grown with weeds; and a chicken coop, long since silent of Penny and her clan. At the far end there was an orchard –five apples, two pears and four plums, possibly Victoria, but there was no one to ask now.

The conclusion to the garden was a fence in which there was a gate. It was unlocked by wriggling a bolt at the top and bottom. Both proved stiff and rusty, I wriggled the top one loose, but the bottom was too stiff and the gate came away from its hinges. Jasper and I continued our slow walk down the lane to where a track joined the lane to the lake. It was wide enough to carry our dinghy through the reeds to the wide, open water. This had always been a great place to play, but the entrance to the track was now barely shoulder width.

There is always enough breeze on the marshes to move the reeds. A fluid motion with leaves rubbing together drowned most sounds , leaving the sound of reeds. At the entrance in the reeds Jasper stopped, his hackles raised. A growl came from deep within. He began to bark. He stood his ground as if he was to fight a fierce and well-rehearsed battle. There was a pause. Then he ran forwards with the same ferocity he had shown in the house. I chased after but soon the path that had been shoulder width became clogged with reeds bent over at chest height.

Ahead I could hear Jasper barking, but distant. He remained in full flight as I wrestled to get through. For each handful I separated, more reeds contrived to block the path. My pace slowed to a stop. Still Jasper rushed on. His barks became more distant. Then there was a yelp. There was no more noise of dog. It was replaced by rhythm of reeds as the wind grew. It pulsed across the seed heads moving like shallow breathing.

I waited but still no dog. I got down onto my hands and knees and crawled along the path Jasper had taken. Above me was distant blue sky through a canopy of reeds. On either side were dense, impenetrable reeds.

I reached the lake. There had been no side passage through the reeds and I was sure I had followed Jasper’s trail, but here the reeds abruptly became open water.

I called. The wind and the reeds deadened the sound. I called again. I could hear the warblers singing, but no dog. After a third call I felt like I was making too much noise and drawing attention to myself. I waited. Nothing.
With my back to the water, the reeds became a dense moving screen. I crouched down and tried to search for the tunnel that had brought me here. There was no hole, no start point for my journey back. I could feel my heart beat faster and the blood pounded in my ears. I pushed and tugged, but could not find the channel to the outside. It was lost. I was lost. I forgot there was no sound of dog.

I pushed and shoved. I panicked. There was no clear way back. It took its toll on my arms and legs. There were times when I felt I was held above the ground by reeds, floating, but at no point could I see over.

I eventually fell into the lane long after the blue sky had paled; evening was well underway. The reeds continued to sway. Hiding the way I had just come, they went back to being the impenetrable wall. Half way up the hill I turned. The wind blowing through the reeds gave the impression of people wading towards me.

I did not run, but I did not slow for a second look. Through the orchard, past the chicken coop and abandoned veg patch I stumbled into the house. I hoped Jasper may have come home by himself.

He hadn’t but someone had been inside. Things were different, altered, not the same. Some things were missing. In their place there were some wrapped sandwiches and cakes on the table. They must have been left after the funeral.

The rooms were nearly dark. I went upstairs to the toilet. I turned on the light. With the door open it illuminated the landing and almost to the bottom stair. The house cooled, sighing with regret over the day it was leaving. Or was it fretting over the night to come. I finished, washed my hands and contemplated things I could no longer see.

I grabbed the quilt from the middle bedroom and retreated back downstairs into the gloom. I locked the front door and left the key in place. Jasper was not coming home. I checked the back door was also locked, then used two dining chairs to secure the living room door against my imagination. I lay on the sofa not wanting to close my eyes for an instant. But it was of no use. The grief and the trauma had taken its toll.

It was after midnight; the room was lit only by moonlight. It flickered as the Silver Birch was wafted by the summer breeze. My arms were firmly across my chest and refused to move. I could smell roses like those by the front gate. I heard footsteps. Were they in the house? No. Maybe? I shut my eyes to listen more intently, but there was no sound except for the wind outside.

I kept them closed rolled onto my side and settled back waiting for sleep to return. I could sense shadows. The moon was bright and as the branches waved the shadows played on my closed eyelids. They tapped into memories and took root. I opened my eyes to shake them off.

There was someone outside the window looking in. I sat up. The hairs on my neck stood up. I sat bolt upright, but the shout in my throat froze. The person ducked down. We both knew we had been seen. I listened. The wind was louder. It was inside the house like a window was open. Or maybe it was a door. I waited.

It was well into morning the next I knew. Light filtered in. There was no more night. I felt safe to check the house. No doors or windows were open or unlocked. I peeled back the Clingfilm a cucumber sandwich in my left hand and a piece of chocolate cake in my right was to be breakfast.

It was not a good combination of food. Feeling a bit sick I reached for the quilt to take it back upstairs. There was a slight thud and jingle. There on the rug by the fire was Jasper’s collar.

Phragmi reds (1)

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Five Swifts.

Silently

seven swifts

scythe shapes.

Store sunshine;

shadows;

suspicious sentients.

Scathing subversive script.

scandalous shifting,

Baselines

swift immage

I haven’t got time for this nonsense.

 

Kettle boiled. Juice poured. Cereal bowled. TV on. Rain in the North. Snow in the East. Athletics in London. Shooting in Gaza. Rail travel up. School investment down. Motorways delayed. Child dead. Health scare. New store opens. TV off. Cold air. Dunnock sings. Car warms. Office cocoons.
**
Beyond the shopping centre a sky bruised by torment sulked. Winter still had its grip, the first drops fell, cold as ice. It was a usual lunchtime chicken-run from office to sandwich shop and back. Don’t get stopped by a ‘Chugger’. The young fresh faced enthusiasm, tabards colour varying by organisation week-on-week. They had the same intent -get as many people to commit a monthly deposit to the cause. Last week it was multi-faith non-binary whale-pandas against the war. Pigeons swirled in the air. They mirrored the crisp packets and free news-sheets, spiralling before dying in a corner.

‘Have you ever considered helping save the life of a child in Syria?’ The High Street ran at a slight incline giving the clipboard more authority over the sandwich. Always promising to get fitter made this an imbalanced conversation for the sandwich.
‘Surely, as you look at these pictures it must move you.’
‘Not fast enough’ was the exhaled phrase.
‘Knowing, that at any time, flight to a refugee camp, may have been delayed for too long. They don’t want to leave Syria, but what choice do they have?’
‘They don’t have to come here’, blew down the street with the tumble weed.
‘Imagine if this was your children. You do have children, don’t you?’ A reflexive nod betrayed the sandwich to the clipboard. ‘Imagine if they were standing, in freezing rain, not knowing if their home was still standing; their parents alive.’ The dark eyes in a photo were revealed for effect. ‘Imagine that. For only £3 per month, less than the price of a sandwich’ pen tapped on a clipboard, ‘you, can make a difference.’
‘I haven’t got time for this nonsense.’

This response elicited more questions. Food, education and environment became a cocktail of buzz words. The bank account details remained concealed and with one last, ‘Perhaps, tomorrow, you may wish to consider £2 per month?’ The clipboard turned to review messages on a screen. The sandwich felt relieved that tomorrow it would be far away.

**
The case was full, personal ephemera crammed against personal ephemera. Everything needed to flee; migration driven by the need to escape. Security –documents for inspection; the inquisitorial eye; the suspicion. Not just from the uniforms, but from fellow travellers. Why have they got that? Why them? Why us? What’s that? Bottles of water are taken and confiscated. Marshalling staff funnel, corral and cajole; into one spot, this spot; nervous laughter hiding insecurity. Moving forward in groups controlled the progress. It prevented a stampede, but not the jostling for position. Some people brought their own food. Seating allocated by number restricted contact between groups to distant noises; a child’s scream; and a random smell.

It had been an early start under the cover of darkness and tiredness set in. With eyes closed and thoughts on better places, the journey passed. After about four hours the journey stopped. The travellers became separated into groups -some would travel on; and some who would not. Again lines, queues, marshals and instructions. These instructions were delivered by a foreign tongue with gestures commonly understood. Onward travel of nearly two more hours dragged some down to their lowest ebbs. Gathered belongings. More documents checked. Hot sun beat down on clothes stained with sweat. They had reached Antalya with their first world problems.

**
People arriving from the North will see Antalya squeezed between the mountains and the sea. It would appear as pomegranate syrup to someone raised on dry crackers. Antalya is both classically beautiful and stylishly modern. At her core is the wonderfully preserved old-city district of Kaleiçi -‘within the castle’. Her visitors would be dazzled by finely restored Ottoman houses on her winding lanes that hide the scent of food cooked behind thick wooden doors. From here she trails her long fingers languidly down to the harbour and dips them in the far east of the Mediterranean. Many from the North circle this jar of distilled sunshine; fearing the exotic they return to the familiar.

Roman-era harbour with clifftop views of hazy-blue mountain silhouettes. However, this does not have to impact on people wishing to just escape to sunshine from Northern Europe.

The tourism investments starting in 1970s and changed the fate of the city considerably. Millions of tourists each year from around the world discover its fabulous mix of great beaches and traditional Turkish culture. Many do not even have to touch the city as they arrive on “all-inclusive” holiday packages. Taken from the airport to the huge resorts lining the coastline there is no need to learn a language or carry lira. It is possible to stay until the end of their holidays without the need to escape via air-conditioned coaches to any of the nearby archaeological sites. However, kids would love the Beach Park -a waterslide-fanatic’s dream. They can also see dolphins, sea lions and white whales from the Arctic.

People do not arrive in Antalya from the East.

More than 2000 miles, the bottle of sun protection cream had travelled so it could lie beside an ultra-marine pool on its ‘linen-fresh’ towel, refreshed every day. From 10am a blue sky contrived to boil the cream. High above the sundeck thousands of white birds, with black wings and long red legs and bills circled on thermals, pushing north.

White Storks, like many large migratory birds, use these thermals of hot air generated over land to drift without active flying. North in the Spring and South in the Autumn, all their genetic material in one proverbial boat floating over land. They have exited Africa through Egypt to keep water crossings to a minimum; no thermals tower there. They pause in the evening as the air cools, but during the day they look down on Sinai sand; Palestine Ghettos; Israeli prosperity; and Lebanese olive oil. Syrian conflict stops where they circumnavigate the Mediterranean and into Turkey over people poolside towards the isthmus. They push on further north to nest and continue their linage. It has always been so; the land beneath them changes.

The White Stork has always been an important element in the European culture.
As a messenger of prosperity, storks are welcome over most of their range. To those sitting quietly poolside without headphones, these storks could have brought with them stories from the people of Aleppo, just over a day’s flight away. They would have spoken of their life, their loves, how they blended their own spices and baked their own bread. More recently they would have told how the world abandoned these people. This may have melted the ice-cream from the all-you-can eat buffet. We will fetch more from the fridge.

 

 

stork_migration_2_c_cansu_kabak

White Storks over Turkey.

having recently had this rejected by @Darkmtn I did not know where to file it so thanks for reading.

And so to bed.

I am coming to the opinion that Wren’s don’t give a shit. It is this, that makes them adorable. Any other garden bird could have made this an anthropocentric blog about befriending wildlife. Robin tickling; being trained by a Blackbird to drop food and keep pigeons away while he feasts; setting up a Blue Tit nest cam and following the goings on of the family; or any other series of anecdotes. That, as you would contest, is not birding –active searching.

Like most species Wrens don’t need us, even the ‘put out some Niger seeds now’ finches would be better off without humans. They fly off as soon as you open the door to replenish the feeder, but they come back. Not the Wren. It asks for nothing, so why should it do cartwheels of appreciation the moment you find one picking at the bottom of a hedge? They carry on, dancing as if no-one was watching.

So it was last night. The wind was strong and it bitterly resented seeing bare flesh of face and hands being exposed. Sheltering behind a Gorse bush I planned my next move, but could see no less painful way back than into the wind.  There was some Wren chatter in the nearby clumps of long grass and sedge; plenty of chatter but nothing to see. Nothing to see until one popped into the Gorse bush next to me. It picked around down to a metre from my face before disappearing. Then a second, and a third, all of which gave me the beady eye stare that underlined the lack of significance of me in their world. They disappeared into the bush and fell silent.

It had been like moths attracted to a flame. None of the birds landed on me, but for a moment I felt like I was part of their world. Really, they did not give a damn one way or the other.  It was now 5.30pm and a couple more were silhouetted, singly, against the pale blue sky. They too disappeared and into silence where the twigs were most dense, around head height.

I have traveled miles to see big birds -harriers, cranes and swans coming in to roost.  You can see them from half a mile or more.  Small birds as well like Starlings in vast numbers they become a single organism.  Again they are seen from distance.  The Wren roost was small scale and intimate.  Something I had never seen before and it was truly staggering for this reason alone.

*****

Having read about roosts of Wrens using bird boxes and caves I had hoped, but not expected to see one in this unusual year. Writing one day on I am still pumped about finding this piece of the puzzle.

wren

Hunting the Wren.

Frost crystal flowers grew on my bedroom window during childhood winters. Before central heating and double glazing, you could only see the first snow by scraping frost from exhaled dreams. When it snowed though, our village was abandoned like a ship on an open sea for a couple of days. Schools closed and cream froze in glass bottles preventing the birds pecking through the silver cap. It was severe, but we were kids and did not notice these things slip away.

Once from my window I watched a grey Hen Harrier hunt where now double-glazing vacantly stares. The Ash tree is the only constant after the Elms died. Even then, it was the 1970s superimposed on the countryside; keepers begun to loosen their grip on the woods where now Buzzards fly. Here seeds were sown for the Countryside Alliance to speak for country folk as a thin disguise for keeping poor people in their place; Toffs hunted foxes, others baited badgers. At election time landowners hammered, ‘Vote Tory’ posters into roadside oaks, whilst removing jobs from the land. The language of the countryside disappeared into Standard English.

In ‘Pattern Under the Plough’ George Ewart Evans felt that people born between 1885 and 1895 were the last to live in the old society with folklore in abundance. They did not see it as anything different to themselves; not just believing it, but living it too. People born later became the first generation of the new age. They distanced themselves from lore and diminished our engagement with the natural world. We don’t gather around a central hearth, the stories we relay are being shouted at us from screens we view alone. The ‘other’ that lurked in old stories has been replaced by a fear of ‘other’ that is more like us. Everything else becomes nostalgia.

Elizabeth Atwell Laurence gathered together stories of our relationship with Wren as an explanation of the relationship between man and nature. ‘Hunting the Wren’ is more than just a description of a country tradition involving Wrens. For St Stephen’s Day I intended to relay the story as we watch for the lengthening of the days. However, the more I read, to find the true story, the more I could see the revival of a tradition of poverty, of oppression by the Catholic Church and in these post-Weinstein days, of sexual violence. So using the 66 names Laurence found for Wren here is an opportunity to hunt the Wren in her many guises on St Stephen’s Day.

66Wren Names v2

The names to look for are:

JENNY

JENNY WREN

JINNY WREN

JENNER HEN

KATY WREN

KITTY WREN

KITTY-ME-WREN

SALLY

WRAN

WRANNY

WRANNOCK

WIRANN

JENNY CRUDLE

BOBBY WREN

PUFFY WREN

CUT

CUTTY

CUTTY WREN

CUTTELEY WREN

CUDDY

SCUT

SCUTTY

SKIDDY

STAG

TOPE

STUMPY DICK

STUMPY TODDY

STUMPIT

CRACKET

CRACKADEE

CRACKIL

CHITTY

CHITTY WREN

JITTLY

PUGGY WREN

DICKEY PUG

TIDDY WREN

TIDDLY WREN

TOM TIT

TIT MEG

TITTER WREN

TITTY TODGER

TIT WREN

TITTY WREN

TINTY

RUNT

TOM THUMB

THUMB BIRD

TWO FINGERS

LITTLE OXENEYE

LITTLE NUT

LITTLE NETTLE

JUGGY WREN

GILLIVER WREN

VRAUN

SHEELY

MOONIE

GUARDNAM

JIMPO

WEE BROWN BUTTON

ROLLEY

LITTLE GOD

GODS BIRD

OUR LADYS HEN

LADY OF HEAVENS HEN

CHICKEN OF THE LORD

cristin bruggeman

Photo Cristen Bruggeman

Mid winter Wren.

Light from the kitchen window cut acutely into the morning, disturbing the slow rise of mid-winter. It planned to go from black to dark grey and back to black with minimum effort. The last frost lingered among mossy rocks; Robin tutted disapproval. Car lights of the 9-5 moved beyond the hedge into the globs of sleet. Wind tugged at gold on Silver Birch and Ash’s last leaf hung without expectation.

Shadow moved through shadow. Where logs dripped black on black, a thin probing bill. With many insect-eating birds changing their diet or migrating how do Wrens survive? What do they peck at in the first rays of light? Disappearing into the pile of logs the answer remains screened from view. It appears higher up. Bob, whirr of wings, on the ground it shuffles under Hazel leaves; they move, they are still.

Only one Wren set forth through the leaves where once there had been two.  Perhaps this was not the winter to start looking at Wrens.  Annual population growth is consistently correlated  with the number of frost days.  There is local variation showing adaption to colder weather; individual Wrens are heavier in colder regions. However as there are already more frost days this winter than the last two combined there will be more vacant territories next Spring.

B&W Wren with sunscreen effect

How Do Wrens Measure Up?

Silently arriving together they demanded attention. Each bird took a different route; one picking under the leaves of the geraniums before the first frost flattens them; the second closer and easier to see, until it disappeared under a flower pot and out into the Hazel bush. At this point I claim them as ‘my’ Wrens. Knowing that one garden is not enough for their needs, does not defeat my possesiveness.

33438762436_b2bd3bc43b_b

Picture by Christopher Mercier

 
This is a common scene acted out in front of many household windows as Wrens are one of the top 20 most common garden birds. They are found in all other habitats too, with 7.7m territories across Britain the tic-tic of a Wren is never far away. Weighing about the same as a £1 coin (9g), the distribution map could be seen as a thin scattering of £14.4m.

wren distribution
Wren distribution from BTO BBS.

atlas wren distribution

If people know little about birds, they will still know that Wrens are small. The wing length is about that of the long edge of a custard cream with little difference between that of a male and female. The biscuit, for information, is heavier and tends not to move as fast around my garden. The biscuit is also paler in colour; the Hobnob being a better colour match did not have a suitable Wren metric.

wren trends

Population Trends

 
Wrens numbers drop after hard winters in Britain and so currently are doing well. This shift in climate is also being seen in its earlier nesting dates each year. The female lays 5-6 eggs which weigh 1.3g. Each egg represents about 14% of her body weight; you may wish to remember that next time you are in the bathroom.

laying date

Average laying date

 
Incubation last 2.5 weeks and there is another 2.5 weeks before the young Wrens fledge. About 26% of fledglings survive into the following year at which point they are able to breed. Many survive into a second breeding year, but these are short lives full of hustle and bustle. The longest lived birds hardly move far from where they were born, the greatest survivor being a 7 years old bird that lived its days on Bardsey Island.

fledgling per breeding attempt

Fledglings per breeding attempt

 
Some do have wanderlust and a small number of records of birds travelling within Britain up to 490km. Others have crossed the North Sea with a remarkable record of a bird travelling 909km from Falsterbo, Sweden to Northumberland in 13 days. However, the evidence does suggest that this species does have a tendency to stay local. This then, is part of their magic, here in your local birds is a genealogy traceable if one could only read the signs. Or more likely hear, as the song past from father to son that retains the essence of Wrenness through generations. It is this which isolates populations on islands and aids speciation.

Information taken from BTO Bird Facts