Swifts, Creatures and Climate Change

Glacia in Alaska 1989

Glacia in Alaska 1989

When I was little, between nought and seven that is, I lived in Victorian house in the midlands. I look at photos of it now and it looks huge and posh. I’m really not sure how my parents managed to buy it. It had a walled garden which to me seemed enormous, and an old stable block with a apple store and a pigeon loft. I rode my trike around the yard under the cooing of the pigeons, I learned to climb trees on its apple trees and how to find nests in the bushes and borders. The place was my whole world, and when we left it, I would – at the age of 8 or 9 – announce sadly that my childhood had ended on that day. I think almost everything I feel to be at the deepest core of myself is rooted in that garden…the crocuses in spring, the bluebells under the pear trees, the raspberry canes, the blue tits nest, the tawny owls on the branches of the monkey puzzle tree. And the swifts.

One of the great sorrows of ‘this wounded Earth we walk upon ‘ as Karine Polwart puts it is the declining numbers of swifts. In Bromsgrove in the sixites there were hundreds. Huge screeching flocks of them, mad and wild truly devil birds. I completely adored them. Even the thought of that sound, and their reckless, scimitar-winged, daredevil speed makes me happy. They nested under the roof and could be seen furtively landing and taking off as if dissolving into and materialising from the shadow under the eaves. They arrived around my birthday in early May and always seemed like a special personal present delivered by nature for me. I can remember watching the flocks of non breeding or at least non incubating birds, flying up and up into the dusk sky to disappear into the sky – swifts when they dont have eggs or young sleep on the wing. Fledgling swifts can’t practice flying all they can do is press ups in the nest – really they do- to get ready and then, out flight or fail, and they’re on the wing continuously after that for at least two years.

Late one Summer I found a fledgling, failed in its first flight crashed on the lawn. Seeing it close up was like being able to handle a fairy and see how its wings attached to its back. The feathers are oddly unlustrous, with a sooty, matt finish, bitter chocolate rather than black. The eyes are huge and look at you calmly. The beak is endearingly small, a little down turned smut of a thing, with a wide gape, and the legs a ridiculous afterthought, the claws tough but the leg itself puny and shorter than a single finger joint. My grandfather told me to carry it to the attic and throw it out of the window. I reached up with my swift in my hand and awkwardly poked my arms through the tiny space. Beyond was the stable, the gardens, the green of suburban England, far below, and curving as if matching the Earth’s shape. I hesitated.

“Throw him”. Grandpa told me. I’ve since found you should just hold them out and let them make their own minds about taking off. But i didnt know that then. Grandpa could find nests and mice and squirrels without fail so I trusted him. I threw the little black bundle. Its wings flickered and it was gone…just a speck in the sky within moments.

A couple of weeks back I told this story to the children in Southwold School in Hackney because they already seemed to know a LOT about the swifts that come to their part of London in the Summer. I pointed to the back of the class pretending to point at my freed swift and the kids were so with the story they all turned to look.

So I thought it was time to turn it into a story, a proper one.

The story I’ve written connects how broken the crashed swift looks with a childs perception of his new born sister…born with a disability, which makes the brother unable to bond with her. Until he sets the swift free…

I won’t jinx it by printing it here yet. It hasnt yet found a home and may never do, but it will get an outing here eventually.

So with that done…a story I wasn’t supposed to be writing, now I have to get back on schedule with the things I’m contracted to do. Next on the list is a wonderful project with the utterly fab Petr Horacek. It’s a book that’s simply about animals ‘A First Book of Animals’ – an introduction to the delights of zoology for the under fives. I’ve started mapping it out – and its SOOO hard to decide what to leave out. Do you go for all the obvious things? Do you include obscure things that are wonderful but even parents won’t know about? Do you include scary stuff or just the cute and fluffy? I’ve decided I’m going to go for the things I love best, which will include creatures that fall into all of these categories. Its a wonderful thing to think about, all the beautiful fascinating species there are in the world, but it also fills me with fear for their future. Climate change is like a dark cloud that’s coming to get us all – and no body seems to be doing anything. Radio four managed this morning to go from the latest IPCC report and back to the football reports without anyone thinking that it was weird.

We need a big government education campaign like the one we had about aids (well , no not quite like that cos it was rubbish) but that level of seriousness. There isn’t any more debate to be had. We just have to act. End of. And its the governments duty to tell us this, to explain what a serious threat this is so we can gird our loins for action. Not doing so is a failure of leadership and of care, in the same way that failing to tell us that there was a smallpox epidemic or an invading army on the Kent beaches would be. Without such action we’ll be engulfed by the cloud while the oil companies and the tea Party are still bleating about climate change being a communist conspiracy.

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