On one of those leisurely disengaged days between Christmas and New Year – you know, you’ve just finished an extended breakfast at around 11 and have no particular plans for the day – a few of us started discussing murmurations of starlings. I wondered aloud if starlings were common in the U.S. and it transpires that they are, all thanks to the American Acclimatization Society and especially a man called Eugene Schieffelin.
It is said, though not proven, that Eugene insisted that as an aesthetic goal the organization should introduce every bird species mentioned in the works of Shakespeare (of whom Eugene was an avid admirer). Whether you think Eugene was a hero or a villain depends on your view of Victorian scientists playing God. One could argue that if the Deity had wanted there to be starlings in North America, He, above all, was well-placed to put them there. Whether it would be wise to wait for a rather obsessive New York pharmacist to get the itch seems rather hit and miss to me.
It’s usually the case that if you introduce a foreign species into an ecosystem things start to go wrong in a Sorcerer’s Apprentice kind of way. Sure enough, the 100 or so starlings that the Society let go in Central Park now number over 200 million across North America. They have endangered other native species competing for nesting places and food – especially the delightfully-named sapsucker – and have even been blamed for the spread of English ivy throughout the continent. In 2007 the San Francisco Chronicle called Eugene’s Society “the canonic cautionary tale of biological pollution.” That’s a high price to pay even for some pretty spectacular murmurations out west.
It’s not recorded whether the members of the AAS dressed up in comedy bird beaks, indulged in avian puns and got up to the sort of high jinks pictured above, but I like to think they did. You had to make your own entertainment in those days, after all. They strike me as an idealistic, sentimental and innocent bunch, but as history as demonstrated time and again, those are probably the most dangerous people of all.
Isn’t ‘moth’ a beautiful word? It’s almost onomatopoeic in that soft ending, suggesting talcy, fluttering wings.
I haven’t always been a fan of moths. As a teenager on holiday in a Welsh cottage I was reading one night when a beast the size of a small bird flew in and started battering itself against my light. It took me about half an hour to get rid of it. More recently, one laid eggs in a ridiculously expensive winter coat that I bought when I worked for an international German publisher. It now has three noticeable holes.
Many moths share that peculiar single life purpose that one finds amongst insects: they exist only to breed and have no mouths as they don’t live long enough to require food. What’s the point of existing only to breed creatures that exist only to breed? Other moths with more complex missions sip nectar.
Inevitably they have acquired symbolic value for those who like to give themselves animal characteristics. Their single-minded attraction to light suggests determination, yet their inability to differentiate between a teenage boy’s bedside lamp and a candle flame apparently demonstrates the dangers of blind faith.
They are also symbols of love. The female moth emits powerful pheromones that can attract a male 11 kms away. He’ll fly through the night, making clicking noises to confuse predatory bats, charting his course by his relationship to the moon, until he ends up in the dusty embrace of his one true love.
Talking of which, here’s an excerpt from a poem which I bought from a homeless street poet in New York City for $5:
My gentle love
Holds you like a moth
In cupped hands. Protecting,
Not confining, I release you
To the sheltering night.
I’m not sure what the implication of that last part is, but I didn’t feel that $5 covered both poem and explanation.
The drawing above owes a certain amount to the wonderful drawings and paintings of wild things by Cornwall-based artist, Kurt Jackson. It’s drawn in coloured pencil on gessoed paper which gives the drawings their mothy textures.
I know many of you have been busily producing daily watercolours for World Watercolour Month, a wonderful initiative by the tireless Charlie O’Shields.
So far – 19 days in – I’ve managed the buddleia that I posted last week and this watercolour of a toad (I have been away quite a bit). I’ve been given a book of wildlife studies by the Cornish artist, Kurt Jackson, whose work in a variety of media is never less than interesting and often inspiring. I used some of his loose linework and spattering techniques in this image of a chap I’d disturbed while pulling up weeds in our garden.
Did you know that the common toad can live for up to 40 years? A particularly large one once made his home under my Mother’s garden shed, occasionally ambling out and frightening her when she was gardening. ‘Toad’ was also the title of an endless drum solo that took up an entire side of a vinyl album by Cream, but the less said about that particular toad the better…
“Every year, there’s a day when Spring suddenly stops being a tease and goes the whole hog,” wrote naturalist Simon Barnes in the Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago, “And, of course, it’s ravishing: the light turns an unabashed gold, the sun offers actual warmth, chiffchaffs arrive from the Mediterranean to pour down their twin-syllabled song from the canopy – all at once the world is abuzz.”
Here in East Anglia we don’t do winters well. There’s rarely snow and our mild sea climate denies us those crisp, bright winter mornings that I remember from my northern childhood. For us, winter is a sustained and oppressive greyness, amplified by our big skies which press down upon us like a felt blanket. It’s a relief to see the back of it when spring arrives.
Our neighbours have a magnolia tree which I’ve come to see as Spring’s over-eager messenger. Earlier and earlier it starts to bud, sometimes so early that we often wonder if a frost will damage it, but a few weeks later those buds turn into lovely white ragged flowers, like torn strips of paper or discarded handkerchiefs, and then you know that spring is close at hand.
Daffodils are so much a part of the British spring that’s it’s odd to remember that they’re not native flowers at all, but originally southern European, possibly Greek. They were introduced to northern gardens by Dutch bulb traders. Now they’re everywhere: not only in gardens, but surrounding public buildings, scattered through woodlands and even brightening up roundabouts along with discarded plastic bottles and home-made signs wishing someone a happy 50th birthday.
Bees are already in evidence, especially those plump bumble bees woozily searching for a place to nest and give birth to a whole new colony. There are fewer each year however, and our dismal government has ensured this trend will continue by authorising the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. Whether it’s straightforward stupidity or some slavish commitment to a free market economy the result is the same – a spring with ever fewer bees to polinate the plants and trees that not only brighten our days but make our world habitable.
In 2010, an eagle owl flew from the North of England down the eastern coastline to Suffolk. It made its home in a large tree on the edge of farmland, feasting on the rich supply of rabbits and pheasants that lived nearby.
Fearless and with few natural predators, these owls have been known to swoop down into suburban gardens and take out domestic cats. They will see off other hunting birds, such as harriers, and even attack smaller farm animals.
One day the Suffolk eagle owl grew tired of rabbits and decided it would switch to a diet of piglets, but a local farmer took umbrage and shot the magnificent bird when it returned to the tree. Sometimes, on moonlit winter nights, an eerie glow can be seen among its bare branches, said by locals to be the spirit of the owl haunting its former hunting ground.
I’m afraid I’ve made up this story (although the second paragraph is true) to explain this drawing. For some time I’d wanted to do a version of Ernst Haeckel’s Pedigree of Man (1879) tree. I thought I’d draw an owl to collage onto the tree but then felt it looked more mysterious with just the glowing space.
Seagull sketches (A5 graphite on A5 sketchbook page 2015)
In England, seagulls have acquired a bad reputation: they steal your ice cream cones and grab your sandwiches; attack children and old people for no obvious reason; crazed on fast food leftovers they swoop down on small dogs and cats and then turn on each other. In Brighton and London there is talk of culling them to reduce the dangers posed by these wild-eyed flying devils with unlimited resources of anger and razor sharp beaks.
Last week we spent some days in North Devon where the seagulls seemed more reasonable. I did spend some time watching three of them sitting on a rowing boat, and whenever a fourth arrived one of the three had to clear off, instead of just rearranging themselves so that all had some private space.
The gulls in these sketches, however, were much more reasonable. Perhaps there are fewer fast food leftovers in North Devon and they’re less brain-damaged by additives and chemicals, but on Woolacombe Beach they seemed to co-exist reasonably enough with us and with each other, picking over pieces of leftover food and the occasional cigarette end without too much aggression. These sketches were each completed in under a minute before they moved on. I thought of polishing them up into finished drawings but they’re reminders, as they stand, of a sunny afternoon on a sandy beach in early September. No dogs, old people or ice cream cones were damaged in the making of these sketches.