Love Letters on the River: An Extract

Love Letters on the River: An Extract

Love Letters on the River will be written over a year, and observe the changes to the landscape along the stretch of the Teifi where I live, across the different seasons. This extract is focused on my back garden; my attachment to my small piece of land and the life it supports means that I never tire of watching it. Love Letters is essentially nature writing in epistolary form. Writing to a fictional ‘other’ gives my observations a focus and introduces a level of intimacy that liberates me from the more traditional essay style.’

8 long-tailed tits
19 hedge sparrows
5 blackbirds
1 robin
7 collar doves
4 black caps
Too many magpies, jackdaws and crows.

I slipped on the path when I was feeding the birds this morning and managed an almost perfect ‘splits’. Almost perfect because I’m sure when people do it properly they don’t tear tendons in their thighs. The bowl of soaked sultanas spun into the buddleia and dripped from its branches like rotted blooms, and I sat where I’d landed and thought about you. You’d have laughed if you’d been here, while you helped me up.

It didn’t take long for the birds to lose patience and start agitating for their breakfast. The long-tailed tits can-canned across the peanut feeder, a swirl of cherry blossom petticoats and perfect kohl eyes, sweeping my drab sparrows into the darker corners of the garden. The new-fledged blackbirds, with both parents serving as noisy and anxious front and rear guard, gathered on the back wall. And the too-tame robin hopped around on the ground beside me, sizing up what was left of my loot.

The blackbird family are starting to worry me. The father has begun to fray at the edges, losing feathers from his head and neck. The exposed grey flesh gives the top of his head a flattened, monkish look and makes his eyes bulge like some grotesque from a Poe story. The mother seems impatient with both him and her brood, ignoring them all except to scold if they get too demanding, and focusing all of her attention on feeding herself. One of the babies – a beautiful female, plumper and glossier than her siblings, doesn’t seem to have a sense of balance or how to fly properly. She throws herself at the fence and the feeder and crashes into them more than lands on them.

After I’d gone indoors for more sultanas the magpies spun down from their look-out posts and took as much as they could, prising the lid from the seed feeder and tipping most of it onto the ground. There’s a jeering tone to their chatter that I really admire, a fuck you attitude I wish I could cultivate for myself. They’ll wait until I get close before they fly off, and only then to hang out in the hawthorn at the end of the garden. All of the smaller birds scattered, apart from the blackbird father and his slow girl. She seemed nonchalant to the point of oblivion, shovelling up oats from the table while her father agitated at her side and did all the fearing for her. She won’t see the summer if she doesn’t develop those necessary instincts for survival.

So that was my morning. I tried to write until lunchtime but I’m too distracted at the moment and was out of my chair and at the window every few minutes, wanting to see something spectacular so that I could tell you about it, but the garden was empty of everything but my hedge sparrows, rustling around in the flower beds like dead leaves.

If I tune into the world beyond the garden wall I can hear the estuary birds sounding their life to each other. I have the book you bought me but I still can’t identify them through call alone. There are now three egrets on this stretch of the Teifi. I see them every time I walk the river path and I love to watch them flying. In the air they lose the flamingo-like daintiness of their stationary, ground-bound selves and look like cleaner, smaller herons. The steep jut of their chest seems more out of proportion than a heron’s though, as if they’re fighting to stay on an even keel and could at any moment nose-dive back to earth.

The post-lunch hours were much more lively. From nowhere (or from somewhere reasonably close to here) four black caps appeared. Three males and a female. I’ve never seen one before, not in the flesh, and I didn’t know the females were red heads, though more rust red than flame red. They’re a proper gang but I don’t think they’re family. The males spent most of the afternoon beating steady lines from the feeder to the fence and back in an endless rotation of offerings for the female. She dangled them all from her seat on the fence post, resting up and, I presume, taking notes on their wingspan and the jet of their caps.

One of the males mistook her sunflower heart hunger for something else and paused to fan his tail feathers wide and leer at her until she toppled his presumption and pecked him back into the afternoon. I winced for him, so sure another appetite had been stirring, and so wrong.

I’ll watch them for as long as they stay with me, and let you know which one she chooses. Maybe, after the slow, slow spring, she’s only just decided to nest, or maybe it’s a second clutch for her? I’m going to look through my bird books and see what they tell me.

It’s a lovely evening here now. Still not warm enough to sit outside without goose bumps, and I’m sure I just heard thunder scraping the horizon, but it’s blue and tender and almost perfect where I am. I hope it’s the same for you.

1 robin
2 blackbirds
8 gold finches
2 coal tits
5 collar doves
5 black caps
Countless sparrows
Too many magpies, jackdaws and crows

I was up so early today even the ever-watchful sparrows were caught off guard. They saw me topping up their feeders from a few gardens over and flew back to me as one muddy cloud. They were joined, as soon as I went indoors, by half a dozen goldfinches, and then a couple more. I haven’t seen any finches since the bullfinch pair visited through the winter months, and they disappeared with the frosts. Even the chaffinches haven’t visited for over a month.

I’ve never understood how goldfinches got their name when it’s the scarlet banding their face that is their most striking feature. That warrior streak; birth red, traffic light red, wound red, gives them the appearance of being more combative or confident than they are. But the reality is that they’re timid and jumpy, the opposite of flamboyant. They don’t stay still for more than a few seconds, constantly fluttering from ground to feeder to table and back, and it’s when they fly that I see the yellow laced through their wing feathers. For those minutes they were with me this morning, moving as a flock, a constant shifting of red and gold, they looked like blood spills on buttercups.

The black caps have increased their number by one. Another female has joined the rest and now each male has doubled his chance of mating and they’re all able to relax a little. Both females wait on the fence and accept the offerings with seemingly bottomless greed but offer nothing in return. It’s impossible for me to tell any of them apart with my human eyes but there doesn’t appear to be any particular favouritism. Each of the females receive about the same amount of attention and each of the males do as much work as any other for as little in the way of hope. Unless another female appears then there’s going to be a lonely spare when the reckoning happens.

After watching the blackbirds for the last week I should have been prepared for what happened this afternoon. The mother and two of the chicks disappeared a couple of days ago, leaving just the male and his increasingly weak daughter in the garden. He’s now completely bald from the neck up and starting to rag across the chest and stomach. She, in contrast, seems to glisten with health. He clearly didn’t want to leave her side today, fussing around and feeding her everything he picked up. She spent most of her time resting on the ground beneath the feeders with wings stretched and tapping the ground, offering the dark interior of her gape every time her doting father loomed in her sightline. I didn’t see him eat anything himself and I couldn’t help but wish for a happy ending for this increasingly gothic looking chap and the apple of his bulging eye. Sentimental, maybe, but I don’t care.

When I heard the magpie’s usual chatter jar and catch as if a typewriter key were being hit over and over and faster and faster, I knew something had happened to something out there. By the time I got to the end of the garden the male blackbird was shrilling his distress from the fence and his daughter was lying on her side, blood staining her feathers and the paving slabs around her. The wet gleam of her skull was bright and pure, shocking white against the dull pink of her exposed inner flesh and the deeper colour of her outer self. She was twitching and pulling in breath as if every breath hurt her. I didn’t know what to do so I gathered her up in a towel and put her in an ice cream tub with a little pot of water, and I put her into the shed. I couldn’t just leave her where she was and I couldn’t kill her. The window’s open so her father can reach her if he wants to and she can fly out, if she can, but I don’t think she’ll be doing that.

The magpie that attacked her is still in the bushes in the paddock past the garden’s border, still hitting those typewriter keys with venom. I’m going to go for a walk now. I hope that the shed will be empty and father and daughter gone, and the magpie silent, when I get home.

I know that nature is, as Tennyson put it, red in tooth and claw, and I should be more stoic. I’m trying to be.

I’ll write more in the week.


Photo by Roger Whittleston