A Geography of Delight and Dark

As a child, the first books I read about animals always did the same thing: they put each character in its own place, its own home. As if, in the whole imagined world within the pages, there was only one of each, and you always knew where to find him (him – not many were her).

And yet, somehow, the countryside I’ve been walking since lockdown is like a children’s book. I’ve been coming here since my memory began, a serviceable map drawn in my head. Now, nearly thirty years old, my map is blooming with the hours and hours I walk. And it’s alive with its own cast of characters.

The buzzard on the telephone pole, casting off its perch to range across the cornfields.

The goldfinches burbling on the fence, hopping to the next one ahead of me, like it’s all a game.

The roe deer may leak between the borders, but their favourite stage is the field where blocks of barley and horseradish lie alongside each other. A dolphin leap, a pause to look back. Another dolphin leap away into the yellow-green.

The ancient trees along that field edge purr. Purr with the brief spring-loaded rattles of woodpeckers.

On the lagoon, the handy No Fishing signs are contested by a juvenile cormorant and a clan of black-headed gulls (there’s a few goldfinches here, too. My map isn’t completely neat).

To the canal, where on the other side of the lock crossing, the roof of the boat club hosts the only yellow wagtails I know. Their tails pulse up and down like the ceaseless throbbing of bee bums.

In the sky above the marina, the swifts are soaring.

The chaffinches guard the way to the coppiced wood.

Towards the main village road, a family of sparrows flits in and out of their ancestral hedge.

Below the hedge, along it, rabbits graze. Touch noses. Chase each other. Some of them are less switched-on than others. If they don’t notice you in time, they just freeze and stare at you as you pass, as if their rabbit mind has decided to place their life in their rabbit god’s paws.

I’m never going back to London. I’ll starve, after this feast of moments.

But I know this map is a rewrite. Of course, every inch of the planet is. Rarely is it overwritten so rapidly, though. Humans evolve in Africa, spread across the continents. Learn to farm. Create ever more efficient ways to convert the world around them into things they need, then things they just want. And so on, and so forth, until 2019; some wild animal, snatched from where it should be, dies afraid. Vengeance locked in its flesh. Waiting for release. 2020; the world stops turning. The way we knew, at least.

I’m not thinking of the virus, when I walk the footpaths. But I am thinking: what don’t I see here? I delight in the birds flurrying across the sky, a swarm of insects turned into gold dust by a setting sun. While knowing the grotesque decreases of their numbers.

Gasping at two roebucks bursting out of the trees, musculature gleaming under rust fur – while knowing the damage they do to the remaining patches of woodland, without the wolf and the lynx to harry them.

All these vast fields, the yields made possible by taking out unpayable loans on water, on soil. The bargain we struck with pesticides and fossil fuel fertiliser – nothing lasts forever. Not even the harvest.

One early morning, I’m walking past the lagoon. It’s saltwater. Separated from a small marina by a raised road, rising and falling with the tides. There are little prawns in this lagoon. On days past, I’ve crouched by the edge and seen the transparent ghosts of them flitting among the green weed.

Today, the surface of the lagoon is covered in tiny radial ripples. As if raining. But it isn’t. My brain takes a few seconds to understand this thing I’ve never seen before: countless numbers of prawns are springing out of the water and falling back in. I go closer. See the shoreline, or what used to be the shoreline; now a thick grey glutinous mass of self-stranded prawns.

What is going on? I’m half horrified, half awed. Nearby, a larger than usual flock of terns gather. Is it some kind of mating event, with the predators already in the know?

I walk on, eventually; still wondering.

Later, I ask some colleagues about it. The most likely explanation?

An anoxic event. As in, the oxygen levels in the lagoon crashed. The prawns were suffocating. Desperate to escape, to breathe. Their home is bounded by intensively farmed fields. Fertiliser must have leached into the water, summoning algal blooms.

A few weeks on, and the lagoon is still an opaque vomity green.

I can’t see if there are any prawns left.


2 thoughts on “A Geography of Delight and Dark

  1. Only just got round to reading this, lovely apart from the prawn’s fate 😔. A lot of algal blooms are expected this year. (And sorry but they will be grey wagtails not yellow. Yes I know they look yellow but yellow wagtails are even more yellow and are rare farmland birds).


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