Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Poet's note: a posse of herons

In 2011 there were sixteen nests in the heronry. This year, the winter of 2017 having been so hard, there are only three.

The male birds arrive at the end of December to eye up the old nests and work out what needs fixing. The heronry is an old one, and so the nesting platforms are huge untidy affairs of branches and twigs fetched up from the surrounding trees. Once the females have arrived, courtship begins. It's a surprisingly graceful ceremony of neck stretching and beak snapping, and once it's over, the birds begin to rebuild their nest. Repairing the nest is a leisurely process - herons do everything slowly - the male flying in with building material, the female reweaving the platform. 

Herons begin incubating their eggs as early as February, and I know when incubation has begun, because I can see the females hunkered down on the nest platforms. The males fly in with food, their long necks outstretched and stuffed full of frogs and fish. The birds remind me of planes coming in to land. They're so ungainly I wonder if they're going to make it, but each heron carefully lines himself up and taxis slowly into his allotted docking space, within easy reach of his mate's hungry beak. 

The parent birds are so large I don't need binoculars to see them, and even the chicks are big enough to be seen peering over the edge of the nest. Heron chicks are scrawny and scruffy with the most fantastical punk hair-dos, spiky quiffs of off-white feathers. 

I wonder what its' like to be a chick growing up in a year with so few nests. Is the heronry uncannily quiet? Is the room service better than usual, or has the hard winter killed off the food supply too? Are the few remaining parents unduly anxious? Is three nests enough, I wonder. Will the heronry survive?

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Poem: The shadows thrown by millstone grit

Landscape or topographical poetry isn’t popular, or, at least, far too many people have told me they ‘don’t like landscape poetry’.  

I wonder what they mean. Are they saying the writings of John Clare, William Wordsworth, and, from the valley next to this, Ted Hughes, are of no worth? Probably not. I think they must fear sentimentality, but also, I suspect, they have no idea that the landscape is an active partner in the writing process.

Throughout my life I have been attentive to place. I’ve lived in many different parts of Britain: Bath, where I was born; Peterborough; Richmond; Uxbridge; Harrogate; Sheffield, Manchester, and now, here in the South Pennines. Always on the edge of a town, and almost always near a canal.

I can pull a poem out of each of these places - even Peterborough, which I left when I was only four years old - for the place that I inhabit is an extension of me. I’m attentive to where I live. I project my thoughts and memories onto the landscape and in turn it projects its concerns on to me. And something comes out of that exchange.

The shadows thrown by millstone grit
From where I’m sitting I can see the hills.
The sun’s shining and tomorrow
the clocks will go forward.

Something catches my eye;
a hiker climbing up to Blackstone Edge,
the jizz of him young and fit.

I don’t know where memories come from,
only that they turn up unexpectedly,
and demand to be let in.

Why today, when the sun’s shining
on moor and millstone grit, should I recall
a cousin dead these fifty years?

I cannot see his face, but his hair’s still fair,
and his hands still slender,
his nails bitten to the quick.

I was eleven, he eighteen.
Between us, there existed a polite affection.
He took his own life.

No-one told me why, or how, or thought
even that I might grieve, my being still a child,
and he a cousin I saw only twice a year.

But I did grieve.
I still do.

© Sheila Wild