General Non-Fiction posted August 11, 2015


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Wonders of nature all around us

How Wonderful Life Is

by Margaret Snowdon





                       How Wonderful
                                         Life Is 
 






Two sounds of a summer dusk appeal to me: the corncrake’s rasping call and the nightjar’s churring song of passion.  They bring to mind lovely evenings on the winding banks of the River Avon, when in the hour of dew, pale moths fly past to feast on paler flowers, when all is hushed, sweet and tranquil.

     Corncrakes are related to moorhens and coots, but differ from most members of the family because they live on dry land. They are very secretive, spending most of their time hidden in tall vegetation, their presence only betrayed by their rasping call. They are so built that they can slip easily through tall-growing grass or corn: the eels of bird land. When a corncrake runs, it lowers its head, thrusts forward its neck and goes swiftly. In flight, their bright chestnut wings and trailing legs are unmistakable.

     From the darkness of the pinewood comes the throbbing notes with which the nightjar tells of love. The first indication that a nightjar is near is usually the male's churring song, rising and falling with a ventriloquial quality. Somewhere in the standing grass, beyond the hedge whose twisting honeysuckle and tangled dog-rose fills the dew-moist air with fragrance indescribable, the wandering voice seems to mock a soul’s inquisitiveness. Nightjars are nocturnal birds and can be seen hawking for insects, moths and beetles, at dusk and dawn. With pointed wings and long tails, their shape is similar to the kestrel and the cuckoo.

     Their cryptic, grey-brown, mottled, streaked and barred plumage provides ideal camouflage in the daytime. Twisting, turning, falling, rising, speeding the one after the other, the shadowy forms wheel here and there with indescribable grace, speed and dexterity. The soft clapping of wings seems a natural and necessary accompaniment to such a beautiful dance.  

     How easy it is to kill time on a summer day by the waterside: there is always something to watch.  One begins by just looking at it; then ripples and reflections catch the idly-wandering eye: there may be floating objects, such as leaves, twigs, bits of stick—then some form of life is seen.  And so time passes and one is loath to leave.  Still or running, muddy or clear, water always holds some living creatures and teems with life.     

     One of the merriest of all water denizens is the whirligig.  It’s a delight to watch this tiny beetle dart to and fro, round and round with a number of companions on the surface. Their shiny black bodies glisten like burnished metal, and they are never still though, when alarmed, they disappear. As they live on the tiniest insects that are blown on to the surface of the water, they would soon starve if placed in an aquarium, so it is not advisable for anyone to try catching and keeping them.

     As the whirligig beetles float on the surface, their eyes are on a level with it and thus badly placed for observation. Like so many other aquatic beetles, the whirligigs take down a supply of air to enable them to breathe when submerged.  Should food be scarce on the surface, the beetles go below to seek what they may devour there. This combination of surface and subaqueous feeding is responsible for another of Nature’s marvels, which constantly astonishes and makes me realize just how wonderful life really is.

    The softly babbling waters of the summer river meanders through meadows thickly adorned with the white flowering heads of clover. On the muddy shores, tussocks of rush point their slender stems skywards, each displaying inconspicuous green panicles that appear to have burst from within.  Over the past month, the dense tufts have hidden a mallard’s nest: now the mother duck leads her half-fledged brood to the water’s edge.  The female possesses none of the drake‘s attractive markings; his handsomely coloured, bottle-green head, chestnut breast and creamy-white under parts, but retains her earthen-brown hue throughout the year. 

     The common wild duck, or mallard, is named from the old French word malart, meaning male.  It is a familiar bird of summer, when the solitude of  quiet waters is often broken by the sharp “quark” emitted from a drake hidden among waterside herbage.  If the creature is disturbed, it reluctantly breaks cover and rises into the air on rapidly beating wings, noisily issuing complaint.
 
     During the heat of the day, the mallard is content to remain passive, casually floating about, occasionally dabbling with its brightly-coloured yellow bill. Despite excursions inland, to farmland and hedgerow ditches, where grain and berries are eagerly sought, the bulk of the mallard’s diet consists of aquatic plants found growing on the river bed, usually in the shallows, within reach of his bill. 
    
     Metallic-blue flashes of dragon-flies glisten among the shallows. Translucent globular eyes look out in all directions; ever watchful, they search the vicinity for some succulent insect to chase. The creature is a formidable hunter, hawking to perfection as it hovers, darts and weaves in pursuit. Its powerful wings and acute vision make it an excellent hunter. 
 
     Life is cooler by the moistly-kissed shore. Forget-me-nots seek its shade and bloom to display their sky-blue flowers below the bank. The ancient story of how these small, enchanting flowers were first named is: a knight in armour was walking along the bank of a river with his lady-love.  She saw some flowers growing at the edge of the water and asked him to pick them for her. As the knight stretched out his hand for them, he slipped and fell into the river. Wearing heavy armour, he was unable to swim and was carried away down the stream, but not before he had thrown the flowers onto the bank for her. “Forget-me-not” he cried as he drifted away. The maiden never forgot him and called the flower Forget-me-not in his memory.
 
     A sudden “plop” heard nearby reveals the presence of a water vole. The creature is mainly an early morning riser, and it is at this time of day that the timid water vole is most commonly encountered, busily cleaning its chestnut-coloured fur. When startled, the mammal quickly dives from the bank into water.  Once in, it swims skillfully for cover, often rising under a raft of floating vegetation to breathe air. Quiet and patience will reward the observer: this shy little mammal will soon return and sit nibbling water-weed or alder bark.
 
     Alder, a moderately-sized tree, possesses a narrow crown and short, spreading branches which display small, glossy, dark green leaves of a very obtuse nature, being as broad as they are long. It is a traditional inhabitant of the stream bank, and grows in profusion along the water’s edge, casting dappled shadows upon the clear, sparkling waters.  In ancient times, the native tribes of Britain regarded the trees as sacred.  They observed with horror the white timber of a felled alder turning a strikingly brilliant reddish orange—the colour of blood. The tree was thus deemed to possess human qualities and was accordingly revered as a sentinel, guarding the domain of the water spirit.
 
     In winter, the tree can easily be recognised by its dormant brown catkins, which hang like silhouetted lambs’ tails from the branches. In spring, they open and shed pollen upon the wind, some of which reaches the tree’s waxy purple bloom.  The results of this union are the small, woody, cone-like structures that conspicuously dot the twigs. The following year buoyant seeds are shaken from the cones, dispersed by water and washed to muddy shores where they germinate.
 
     Along by the river, on Mid-Summer’s Eve, witches, fairies, elves and goblins, supposedly dance around great fires, in praise of the sun.  But I am yet to see them.

      Oh, how wonderful life is.  Throughout July, moorlands shade to the glories of heather and shimmer purple beneath a rippling summer haze. The most common of the seven species found in Britain is the true heather, or ling. The plant’s title is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word hoeth, named after the place where it is found in abundance—the barren, wind-swept heath. From mid-summer onwards, the heather provides bees with an abundance of nectar, reputedly yielding the best sweet, dark honey.

     The scent of trees is sweet on the still air, and warming winds rustle the ripening ears of corn, bending the grain like the roll of the sea or the sigh of some distant tide.  Here, within the crop, is a sanctuary for wildlife, which men are careful not to disturb.

     Soon, in these quiet days of summer, the first flickering tints of autumn will begin to show, but until then, I will enjoy every spare moment by the water and amongst the sunlight, scent and flowers, much to my heart‘s content.
 
***


 


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