Book Review – The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster

This book arrived three days before the swifts returned to the skies above Somerset.  When I unwrapped the tissue-packed parcel, I was captivated by the cover – Jonathan Pomroy’s illustrations are so evocative of the drama and vertiginous speed of these remarkable, ancient birds.

The Screaming Sky is a book born of an obsession.  On his own admission, Charles Foster is obsessed with swifts – where others might be content to watch them in the skies over Oxford, and be blessed by their occupation of nest sites in the roof of his house, Foster travels on pilgrimage to see them in Spain, Greece and Israel, as well as in the tropical heat and humidity of their African winter homes.  He tracks the progress of their migrations via other obsessives on the internet, and the swifts’ presence or absence in the air above him is mirrored in the highs and lows of his mood.  It is as if he cannot live without them.

This gorgeously tactile little book is divided into monthly chapters, January to December.  In each chapter, Foster explores what the swifts are doing that month, and where, as well as delving into the history, biology and statistics of these enigmatic creatures.  We know quite a bit about Apus apus, the Common Swift.  For example, they spend most of their lives on the wing, landing only to breed and occasionally when encountering very bad weather during migration.  They sleep while flying – the two halves of the brain take it in turns to sleep.  Following the cornucopia of insect life (what Foster refers to as aerial plankton or krill), they migrate inconceivable distances – the swifts breeding in Foster’s summertime Oxford spend the winter months 6,000 miles south in Mozambique.   They lay up to four eggs, but the fourth hatchling (if there is one) never survives.  Young swifts set off for their winter homes within weeks, sometimes days, of fledging. 

We know that swifts are truly ancient, having evolved over 30 million years ago. Swifts are also long-lived – they can have a lifespan of 20+ years.  They return to the place where they were hatched, spending their first couple of summers screaming around the sky with their companions and generally, it seems, having a ball, maybe even tentatively pairing up, before scoping out a potential nest site for the serious business of claiming a nest and breeding.  We know that most of the birds which travel to western Europe for the summer breeding season spend a while over Liberia, gorging on the insect soup swirling in the air after the rains.  From there, the swifts I see in Somerset will have travelled some 3,100 miles, in as little as five days.

However, there is so much we don’t know about swifts.  There are myriad theories, for example, about how they navigate over these immense distances, how they decide that the time is right to start their migration, how they re-unite with their mate, and what accounts for the wide variations in how long it takes individual birds to make the journey.

Foster explores the place of the swift in literature, the emphasis on the bird’s speed (the clue is in the name) and its totemic role as the essence of the northern European summer.  He also rails against the appropriation of the swift as somehow the possession of the observer.  Swifts, he says, are not ‘yours’ or ‘mine’ or ‘his’.  They are their own selves, untameable, masters of the sky in a way that we can only dream of, and in no way reciprocating the sense of connectedness we feel with the swifts who condescend to make fleeting use of our roof-eaves and insect supplies.  It is this unconquerable wildness which, for Foster (and for me) makes swifts so compelling.

Perhaps more than anything, though, he is full of admiration for their mastery of their environment, the sky: ‘they inhabit the air as fish inhabit the sea’.  Their speed and seemingly effortless command of the tides of the air is not only functional (hunting insects) but also seems to have a powerful element of fun and joy: ‘not everything is about the algorithms of survival’ and the screaming parties of swifts hurtling through the sky are ‘colossal fun’.

I love this book.  The blend of facts and personal enthusiasm for the subject makes it an engaging read, and Jonathan Pomroy’s illustrations are perfect.  Of course, I loved it all the more – and was so excited when I heard that Little Toller Books were going to be publishing it – because of how I feel about swifts.  The sight of those exuberant little black sickles slicing through the late spring sky at the end of their epic migration is viscerally energising.  Shrieking squadrons, skimming just over my head between the red-brick cliffs of the town houses, sound so intensely full of life that they make me feel alive, too.  And the day in August when suddenly the sky is silent, empty of little black sickles as they follow the call of their African winter home, is the day the year turns towards winter for me, too.

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster, illustrated by Jonathan Pomroy, is published by (and available from) Little Toller Books, 2021.  ISBN 9781908213846

Photograph of the front cover of The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster

A recycled landscape – five thousand years in the life of a hill

I am in the early stages of planning my second book (while still writing the first one – I hate having too little to do!).  Briefly, it’s about places in the landscape which have a long tradition of spiritual significance.  Looking beyond obvious places like Stonehenge, I’m interested in holy wells, hilltops and groves, and sites where, for example, a present church overlays earlier, even pre-Christian, places of worship.  At a time when travel around the United Kingdom is constrained by regulations to control the pandemic, my early researches will mostly need to be limited to books and online, but there are a number of sites which I can get to easily from home, or which I know well, these seem like a good place to start.

Map of Hambledon Hill

Some years ago I lived in the neighbouring county of Dorset.  Specifically, I lived at the foot of Hambledon Hill, and its green mass filled the view from my study window.  In the summer, I would walk up to the top and lie flat on my back in the grass, squinting up into the blue sky and trying to spot the skylarks which I could always hear, but rarely see.  If I was very lucky, I would be visited by an Adonis Blue butterfly, a rare species which likes the chalk grassland habitat where the grass is kept short by conservation grazing.

I never felt on my own up there.   Even when there were no dog-walkers, butterfly enthusiasts or hikers, there was always a sense of people being present – as if at any moment I might glance up and see someone.  The hill felt at once very peaceful and very busy, and also very, very old.  Some places feel like that – as if the echoes of human footsteps and the shadows of their movements are left behind from the distant past, maybe even from before history as we know it.  I notice it especially in places that have been inhabited longest – the landscape of barrows or stone circles, of hill forts or cave art.  It is probably fanciful – but I think I’m not the only person who is sensitive to the fleeting impressions left by the people who were in a place long ago.

Hambledon Hill has drawn people to it for over five thousand years.  The Neolithic peoples who had started to farm the land in the valleys below built an enclosure on the top of Hambledon Hill.  It was a significant high point in the landscape, providing a good defensive position against both the east (the chalk uplands of Cranborne Chase) and the west (the fertile Blackmore Vale).  There is archaeological evidence for at least seasonal occupation over several hundred years, with remains of goods originating as far away as Devon, and some of the earliest evidence of grape cultivation in Britain.  These people buried their dead in the long barrows – burial mounds – on the crest of the hill.  The site continued to be used by the Beaker People – early Bronze Ages arrivals – but the main impact on the hill as we see it today came in the Iron Age.  Three rings of ramparts were built, changing the outline of the hill and creating an impressive defensive hill fort, complete with three staggered entrances.  The enclosure created by the ramparts contained some hundreds of small roundhouses.  Despite the scale of this endeavour, archaeologists believe that Hambledon Hill was eventually abandoned, probably about 300 BCE, possibly in favour of nearby Hod Hill, which was itself in turn appropriated by the invading Romans.

But Hambledon Hill continued to be a significant feature in the landscape, and when the Anglo-Saxons arrived in the area several hundred years later they adopted the hill as a cemetery site.  Who knows whether their choice was influenced by an understanding that the long barrows were ancient burial sites?  In any event, the Anglo-Saxons identified Hambledon Hill as a suitably exalted location for the burial of their own dead.

Nowadays, the dead of the village at the foot of the hill are buried in its churchyard, but people still come to Hambledon Hill.  It is on a long-distance walking route, bringing many hikers to marvel at the view of Blackmore Vale, set out like a chessboard below.  Locals walk their dogs here, naturalists come to study the rare species of plants and insects.  And the ongoing significance of the hill, with its millennia of human history and its present role as a nature reserve, is reflected in its purchase in 2014 by the National Trust, the largest conservation charity in Europe.

Up on the hill, the skylark’s song seems timeless, connecting the stories of the people who have come to Hambledon Hill down the millennia.  Sadly the skylark is on the Red List of endangered species, so it is unlikely that many more generations of visitors will be able to enjoy their ethereal trilling high in the summer sky.  But the place has seen many species come and go, including humans, shaping it and leaving traces of their lives behind them.  I wonder what relationship the humans of a thousand years from now will have with Hambledon Hill? 

Book review. The Hare and the Moon: A Calendar of Paintings by Catherine Hyde

As regular readers of this blog may have gathered, I am a bit of a fan of the hare.  I was delighted, therefore, to find this rather wonderful little book with the evocative title The Hare and the Moon: A Calendar of Paintings.  It is pleasingly square, with a tactile cover, which is always a good start.  And it had me at the first page, which is an illustration of the three hares motif!

There are a number of elements to the ‘calendar’ aspect of the book.  A poem, with the refrain which recites the folk names for the full moons (The Snow Moon, The Wolf Moon, The Hunger Moon, The Sap Moon etc) is woven through it.  Each month then has six themes.  There are black and white illustrations of the moon phases.  There are double page colour paintings of the hare in the seasonal landscape (I especially like January, where the hare is joined in the snowy countryside by the barn owl and the raven).   There are Indian ink drawings of the hare in action and at rest.  For each month there is a flower, a tree, and a bird, each accompanied by a colour painting and a note about the folklore and alternative country names.  For example, June’s flower is honeysuckle:

“Used for rope-making in the Bronze Age and also known as woodbine, honeybind, trumpet flowers, Irish vine, Goat’s leaf, sweet suckle and fairly trumpets.  Honeysuckle grown around the entrance to the home prevented a witch from entering and would bring good luck.”

The Hare and the Moon subtly weaves poetry and art together, blurring the boundaries and creating what has been described as ‘visual poetry’.  This is so much more than a book of poems and folksy factoids with illustrations.  The images have a dreamy quality which lend a timeless air to this charming book.  Perfect for reading, as I did, while curled up on the sofa on a dark winter afternoon, a steaming mug of tea by my side (think hygge!), this would make a fine Christmas/Yule present for anyone who loves the natural world, folklore, or art.  Or indeed hares!

 

(For more about Catherine Hyde, take a look at https://catherinehyde.co.uk/)

Family life – the swans of Oxburgh Hall

As the summer comes to a close, I’m sharing a family saga that’s been unfolding over the past few months.  I am fortunate to have Oxburgh Hall (National Trust) just down the road, and the fine moat is home to a pair of swans.  Last summer, while swan couples in the surrounding countryside reared their families, there were no little silver puffballs for the Oxburgh swans.

This year, however, they had more luck.  Back in June, they were proudly showing off their single baby.  Small, fluffy and grey, they guarded it fiercely.  Any visitor venturing too near was seen off by a hissing parent.  As an adult swan can easily break your arm if sufficiently cross, visitors wisely left well alone!  We got some nice pictures though.

Cygnets (baby swans) are quite vulnerable.  As well as having the usual youngsters’ talent for getting into life-threatening scrapes, when they are tiny they are also vulnerable to predators such as foxes, herons and raptors.  Prolonged wet periods can cause them to get waterlogged and chilled, and in hot weather they can easily overheat.  They can also be targeted by parasites, which weaken their system.  About a third of hatchlings don’t make it past the first two weeks of life.  They are not fed by their parents, but feed themselves from the start, so they have to learn quickly how to find enough suitable food to fuel their rapid growth.

On my next visit to Oxburgh, in July, I was thrilled to find that the lone cygnet was not only surviving, but thriving!  The parents were a little less protective now that the crucial first couple of weeks were past, and our little cygnet was growing well.

Much less fluffy, s/he (too early to tell if it’s a cob or a pen) is a sturdy little thing, and seems to have mastered the art of hoovering food up out of the moat.  It was actually quite hard to get a photograph, as the cygnet spent most of its time upended, feeding!  I got dozens of pictures of its backside, but not many of its head…

Fast forward to late August, and there was a heart-stopping moment as we couldn’t find the swan family.  We walked all round the moat, searched the fields, but there was no sign of them.   Just as we were about to go and find a member of staff to enquire what had happened to the swans, we spotted them in the river beyond the moat.  The cygnet is now HUGE!  It is rapidly growing to be as big as its mother, and is confidently swimming off by itself.

I stood on the little footbridge to take this photograph, but had to move aside when the flotilla headed my way, with the parents hissing loudly – they wanted to swim under the footbridge, and objected to my presence!  I obediently made way (I don’t argue with swans) and they ducked under the bridge and headed off downstream.

It’s been lovely to follow this youngster’s progress, and it’s great that the pair have finally managed to raise young – even if it is just the one.  Maybe they are an inexperienced pair and they’ll be more successful in future years – it’s a good excuse to keep going back to Oxburgh Hall to find out!