Ascensiontide: Thursday 10 May 2018

One of the very few downsides of chugging along is the noise. It’s hard to hear the songbirds. I’ve yet to hear a lark. I’m hoping they were singing all along the stretches of the Nene from Wadenhoe to Wellingborough that we travelled on Ascension day.

We heard a distressing story as we went through the lock at Whiston (on Friday). An old bloke, obviously a keen birdwatcher by his garb, remarked on our boat’s name, and pointed out a field below us that was yellow and recently sown with some grain or other. He said the farmer had just sprayed the field with pesticide, and killed off a number of nesting skylarks. Just like that. Gone.

The more I read of Mark Cocker, the more I gather just how devastating the farming practices have been over the last 50 years or so on wildlife. He’s arguing for a proper valuing and strategic approach.

Meadows – some ancient – have been destroyed, since Edward Thomas wrote Haymaking in 1915. Within 30 years two-fifths of them were gone. By 1960 another 1.75 million acres had gone. in 1984 just 3 per cent remained. Today it’s 1 per cent. (Cocker, 2018: 114)

We were stalled, for a couple of hours, at Titchmarsh. Not as long as we feared, thank heavens. Once through, we made good time from then on by pairing up with a couple whose work it is to transfer narrowboats from one part of the country to another. Dan and Patch, their names – and we went in tandem with their boat-for-sale as they took Indulgence to Milton Marina. They didn’t hang about.

The benefit is mutual: both boats fit into the lock, so the work of raising and lowering the paddles is halved; each boat takes it in turns to go ahead and prepare the next lock, waiting for the other to finish off reversing the lock (leaving the downstream guillotine gate up for the next), and catch up. So we went through ten locks – in order: Titchmarsh, Islip, Denford, Woodford, Lower Ringstead, Upper Ringstead, Irthlingborough, Higham, Ditchford and Lower Wellingborough. It begins to sound like a list poem!

Ascension day. I love the image of Jesus disappearing into the clouds …

So this day, it’s appropriate to honour The Lark Ascending – which, as it happens, is the work that Mark Cocker chooses to illustrate how Britons interact with wildlife.

The post-war destruction of meadows, both for land for urban sprawl, but also to intensification in farming, happened largely because of fear of vulnerability to starvation, a memory of the 2WW, that it never happens again. But these have been decades of upset of the ancient collaboration and partnership between land and people, that since the time of Shakespeare had been explicit in poetry, literature and music.

This is what he says:
This harmony had perhaps been best encapsulated by Ralph Vaughan William’s piece The Lark Ascending. The dark, soaring strains of its solo violin may have presaged the melancholy of war – it was written in early 1914 – but also it seems to carry aloft the spiritual connections to place of an entire people. It is a sublime piece of musical nostalgia and patriotism and even now remains the most popular choice on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, as well as the nation’s favourite classical melody.

It is worth recalling that its inspiration is a bird vocalisation from a species that is the most agricultural in Britain. … Skylarks not only dislike woods: they are seldom to be found even close to a tree. The skylark is the quintessential inhabitant of ploughland or pasture, and our agricultural presence in Britain made its own abundance possible. Prior to the echo of a Neolithic axe upon our post-glacial wildwoods, there may have been no such thing as a singing skylark in this country.

George Meredith’s poem of the same name, which had first unlocked Vaughan Williams’s responses, enlarged upon the shared ecology of bird and Britons. Take this single sentence:

The woods and brooks, the sheep and kine,
He is, the hills, the human line,
The meadows green, the fallows brown,
The dreams of labour in the town;
He sings the sap, the quickened veins;
The wedding song of sun and rains
He is, the dance of children, thanks
Of sowers, shout of primrose-banks,
And eye of violets while they breath;
All these the circling song will wreathe,
And you shall hear the herb and tree,
The better heart of men shall see,
Shall feel celestially, as long
As you crave nothing save the song.

The imagination of that close relationship of human and nature is fired, religiously, on Ascension Day – the day when Christians stand and watch, their minds and hearts soaring as Christ returns to heaven so that he might be eternally present on earth, and so that the Holy Spirit come at Pentecost.

All these the circling song will wreathe,
And you shall hear the herb and tree,
The better heart of men shall see,
Shall feel celestially, as long
As you crave nothing save the song.

The thin line of sound that stretches to breaking, ever upwards, a dark point in the sky, which then parachutes down, to rise again: a wonderful metaphor for the Ascension.

Here the sound here.  Click the Audio button.

There’s a list poem I wrote a few years back, where I tried to capture in twelve short lines the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. I’d been inspired by the collective noun: e.g. that goldfinches together are a charm. What other collective nouns could be used of birds? I wondered. And how might we see the narrative of Christ’s life, from annunciation, to baptism, to teaching and healing, to Palm Sunday and Holy Week, Easter and Ascension as natural theology, told through the characteristics of birds?

A Gospel of Birds

An innocence of doves
A plunge of gannets
A parable of blackbirds
A balm of robins
A fickle of sparrows
A betrayal of magpies
A condemnation of crows
A torture of shrikes
A grief of curlews
A hope of swallows
A sight of kingfishers
An ascent of skylarks

Ascension Day, 2018.

 

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