Image: Landcove, Strete, South Devon 50°18’50.5″N 3°36’58.9″W 29.04.2020
“To pay attention to one thing is to resist paying attention to other things […]” How to do Nothing. J Odell 2019.
Pain has been demanding my attention lately. Conversely it’s been also knocking me out. My days are like that of a cat, full of sleep, dreams and only sufficient energy for washing/feeding myself. Tasks like filing self assessment and outstanding illustration commissions bring me waves of panic and yet they are outside the realms of possibility during a ‘flare up’. I have to ride the wave. Pain makes a demanding disruption.
Pre flare-up, I walked through one of those spring days with a dazzling sun flashing in an out from behind fast moving clouds. There was a blustery wind and every surface was shiny and clean from the previous nights rain. I was alone and kneeling by a little stream that races, trilling, to Landcove beach, giving my attention to what looked like hundreds of thousands of little black conical seeds, all stuck to the sun brightened slabs and rocks at the bottom of the fast moving water. On closer inspection they were tiny fresh water snails.
A bird call caused me to look up. I had my glasses on but I was still straining to make out this little bird. In the last two years my eye sight has deteriorated frighteningly. I can’t know if this is the result of a prescription medication I regret taking, or if it was inevitable. Either way, it frightens and saddens me. I only had a bulky camera and so my binoculars were now missed. The camera had a fixed lens attached; ideal for arty shots but useless for zooming in on birds. From where I was I couldn’t get details, but there is a whole method of bird identification for the poor of sight. Birds have such distinct shape, colouring, habitats, seasons, and behaviour, that experts can accurately identify species using vague impressions of such attributes. But I am no expert and here was someone I didn’t know.
I tentatively rose from my position and eked forwards. I have time. Slowly, slowly, I creep towards my bird. The bird’s behaviour signifies a display. I get the strong sense, knowledge even, that the bird is locked into paying attention to another bird, rival or mate, further up the field, but it also has a clear locked-in eye on me. And I it.
We are like actors in a tiny play involving only ourselves.
My behaviour is possibly odd by the bird’s reckoning and I find it’s behaviour unique and bazaar, by mine.
I spend some time here, building up a description of the movements, colouring and shape as best as my distance will allow, and a memorised mind-recording of the call (recording with my phone rendered useless by distance, the wind and the waves on the near beach).
It was perched on a stick; a dead, straight length of bramble sticking straight out of the poor grazing of the coastal field. Here it fluffed and flapped wing and tail feathers feverishly, as if taking a dust bath but in the air. This behaviour never got a break except for occasional direct bolts into the air, high above in a straight line and then dropping like a stone, back to its twig to continue the dance. At other times these trajectories were taken down into the grass and then back to the twig, like a yoyo on a string.
I could make out a peachy breast fading into white. There were also bold lines of white like a a collar or torque beneath a black head cap. The call, which initially called my attention, took a bit of thinking to pin into words. I stood in the field likening it to two large pebbles being struck against each other twice, in quick succession, with cheerful twittering intervals.
Armed with my observations in my head I meandered off, leaving the birds to their displays.
It was late in the evening when I remembered to look them up. My observations were easily recalled and it amazed me I had forgotten to look it up immediately. I must have got distracted when I got home. Paying/Denying Attention is not easy.
Image: Stone Chat, Saxicola torquata. ‘Kingfisher Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland’ John Gooders. Illustrated by Alan Harris. 1986.