Morning’s pale blue sky is painted with sweeps of bright white cloud. Or as Vermeer said, white is never really white if you look hard enough. There are faint signs of yellow, magenta, blue, and violet that come through.
It’s a clear day. A silent day.
Or is it so silent?
A caravan drives along on the top road. I can see and hear it in the stillness of the autumn air, the sound traveling across the open landscape. An airplane joins in the passing noise as it flies overhead.
The long rust-coloured grasses and rushes are hardly moving - such a difference to their constant sway in the winds the other day!
From the grassy field, heard but not seen, a pheasant makes its garbled sound, undoubtedly full of concern as it rushes across to another patch of long reeds, out of sight. Pheasants don’t seem have the easiest lives. They are rather clumsy birds. And how do they end up on the road so often? Saying that, they are beautiful, their colours blending into the auburn landscape in such a complementary way.
Ducks are chattering in the 'unofficial pool' that has been developing beyond the garden. There are quite a few ducks here which surprises me when I think about it. When I was younger I used to have to visit a farm to see the ducks, or go to the shores of Lake Ontario.
There are some beautiful varieties of duck here in the north.
Now they chuckle and quack as though responding to a joke. When I step out two of them flutter and fly away with a start.
I marvel at the so-called silence which, in reality, is full of layers of tones and rhythms.
It is an autumn orchestra.
A crow calls from the tree overhead.
And a wren lets out its winding song, competing with another airplane flying above.
It’s lovely to go for a wander and spend time with the sights and sounds around me in this small northeast corner of Scotland.
Some birds emit small staccato chirps in a row - the accent comes closer…. What is it I wonder?
The crow caws again loudly from the top of a telephone pole.
Then I notice two small roe deer nearby. I stop, motionless. They are quietly grazing. I move. They stop. Their ears up, alert.
When I try to step forward as slowly and carefully as possible, they immediately bound away, their white tails bouncing up and down over the fields. I follow their graceful leaps with my eyes until I can’t see them anymore and they blend in with the copper and gold field-scape.
I look up from that point where I last observe the deer and see a kestrel hovering in the distance. It suddenly swoops down, spotting its next prey. Quickly proving unsuccessful in its hunt, it flies on over the moorland to a new place in the sky, hovering again as though hanging from an invisible fishing line fixed in the heavens, its wings flapping steadily.
The kestrels have been prolific here this year. I believe they have a home in the dovecot, though I could be wrong. Occasionally I’ve noticed one of them sitting on the fence post in the sun, or on the sheltered branch of a tree nearby. I’ve come to recognise the kestrel’s call over these last few months - a high strong pitch that fills the air when it sweeps across to disrupt a row of starlings on the wire, or a cluster of crows.
The stationary hovering of the kestrel on a still day is one thing to behold, but when it manages to to do so in high winds, it’s a remarkable sight.
Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a sonnet about this called ‘The Windhover’. It was written during a golden period of creativity for the poet when he was living in Wales and is one of his most famous works, The exhilaration at sighting the bird is brilliantly captured by Hopkins’s distinctive ‘sprung rhythm’.
I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
I went to a charity shop in Thurso the other day and came across a large book about birds in art.
It’s fascinating to page through and see the beautiful images. Amazing how many are actually incorporated into works of famous artists.
Equally remarkable is how birds are part of our every day lives, and yet often go unnoticed.
My book on The Bird in Art written by Caroline Bugler begins like this:
‘For the American poet Emily Dickinson, hope is a bird that sings through the gale and storm, keeping others warm but asking not a crumb in return. Birds embody our aspirations, fears and spiritual yearnings. They may be a familiar part of our daily life, as providers of food, feathers and entertainment, but their ability to sing and fly is mysterious, setting them apart from all other creatures….’
Dickinson likens hope it to something physical, visible, and tangible – a singing bird.
Hope, for Dickinson, sings its wordless tune and never stops singing it: nothing can faze it.
Hope is the thing with feathers
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
The drawn out calls of the seagulls become louder as I walk closer to the sea side, their cadence matching the slow rhythm of the waves at low tide.
But I turn back as the clarity of the morning air is slowly invaded by a creeping autumn mist. The starlings don’t mind and continue their chatter on the wire above.
The ducks have returned. I hear them quacking.
And I reluctantly go inside for a day’s work, the medley of the morning stillness stays with me.