Why should we care about those effing birds?
Spring audition: Browning wrote about the song thrush. Illustration: Michael Viney
Back on duty as soon as the rising temperature allowed, a song thrush has been waiting on the same branch, morning after morning, to share with me his audition for the spring. Quite which of the 100-odd phrases in its repertoire I’ve walked in on I can’t judge without a sonagram, but there he is, perched above my head and holding me immobile and marvelling. Watching that slim beak parting and closing in such precise and deliberate clarity, I am spellbound once again by the beauty and mystery of birdsong.
Knowing what it’s for – the territorial proclamation – just compounds the puzzle. If the thrush settled merely for “F*** off, f*** off, f*** off!” – as, no doubt, some bird, somewhere in the world, can be heard, more or less, to do – what would happen to my wonder? Why these elaborately tuneful arpeggios, just to differentiate its mating claim on a clump of rural roadside?
As we head, at long last, into some simulation of spring, I turn the question around: Why should I, as passing human, give a damn what the bird is doing, let alone aspire to share the “first fine, careless rapture” that Browning once awarded it?
Never have so many Irish people been so aware of the rest of nature, its infinite detail and diversity, or of the urgent imperative of conservation. But has the appeal to our feelings been far too shy? Nature’s offering of “ecosystem services” is the widely urged rationale for conservation. But this so often puts the material and economic benefits first, while deeper and nobler human needs and sensibilities are almost a concessionary afterthought.
The term “biophilia” was coined by Prof Edward O Wilson, the American sage of biology (now 83), to describe what he sees as an innate human affinity for the natural world – “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.” Psychological reward from trees, flowers, birds and butterflies are indeed tacked on to most inventories of ecosystem services, but the idea of an affinity installed by evolution in human nature has yet to be given its full due. Never mind the sneers at “tree huggers”, it’s part of what we are.
Wonder and awe
Fascination, wonder and awe are just one aspect of this inheritance – sustained, for example, in the success of David Attenborough’s explorations of the planet. Aesthetic pleasure is another, even if explanation for it still resists the analysis of science. Projection of human caring impulses, or even of human moral codes (the “duty” of “stewardship” of nature) can be strong motivations of their own. Even the urge to hunt can be sublimated into forays for viewing rarities, with mounting “life lists” and photographs as the only trophies.
Exploring the environment scientifically remains among the most vital of motives and helped to power the last eruption of social interest in natural history, in the mid 19th century. Citydwellers took to the new railways to collect ferns, flowers and seashells, and mahogany cabinets in country mansions filled up with birds’ eggs, moths and butterflies.
This was the first heyday of the urban field club, including those notably formed in Belfast and Dublin, and prompting the emergence of eminent naturalists, such as Robert Lloyd Praeger. Both clubs are meeting today, at the Ulster Museum in Belfast, at a conference to inaugurate an islandwide Federation of Irish Field Clubs.
The museum itself has been a vigorous two-way hub of biological recording and information, a partner to the Republic’s National Biodiversity Data Centre, in Waterford. The era of mass specimen collecting is well past, but the role of the amateur naturalist in the field, with digital camera at the ready, has never been more appreciated. Some naturalists are dedicated loners, but field-club trips share expertise along with sociability, and the new federation seeks to wean young minds from wonders of the virtual world to those of leaves, wind and rain. (You can get details, in the North, from email@example.com and, in the Republic, from firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Two new books seem to fit in here. Ireland’s Wild Orchids: A Field Guide (Collins Press, €19.99) is the work of the botanist Brendan Sayers and the botanical artist Susan Sex and is thus both splendidly informative and beautiful. It is a hardback for the glove compartment rather than the anorak-ready package of its original, fieldwork form, but its elegance indeed merited something more permanent and free of muddy fingerprints.
Tales, Traditions and Folklore of Ireland’s Trees is also a handsomely illustrated hardback, available from Crann (PO Box 860, Celbridge, Co Kildare) at the remarkably friendly price of €15, all to help Crann’s excellent work in promoting trees. Its author, Ben Simon, Belfast ecologist and forester, treads a now well-worn path, but he brings many new sources and a fresh mind to the Irish hugging of trees – not always entirely metaphorical and often for some very odd reasons.