This is just a small aside, an observation that felt too quietly significant to let it just slip by. On my walk along the rivers Whitewater and Blackwater in mid December (very close to where the White intersects with the Black), I found a dead swan lying on the riverbank; not something you see every day and, in fact, almost never in my experience. Suspecting foul play, I went up close to inspect the body but there was no real sign of blood, no evidence of a tussle; only the merest hint of red around the nostrils and beak perhaps, if you looked hard enough. This huge bird with its ample neck was as though arranged there on the riverbank, the final moments of a ballet, too beautiful to be taken in as the mortal tragedy that it represented and fascinatingly close for the kind of inspection that is seldom to be had of a bird this formidable. The painter in me feasted on the sight while the fatalistic respecter of the natural order of things grieved but briefly at some unknown twist of circumstance that must have occurred. Poor young bird; returned to nature, its soul already flown.
In the days and weeks that followed, I passed it very often…though it had moved now, dragged thirty feet inland where it was being quietly yet thoroughly consumed by other creatures grateful for the feast it represented to more than just their eyes. Other swans continued to glide serenely past in strange juxtaposition, though I felt strongly that they were respectfully aware (swans grieve for a missing mate and only begin to reconcile the loss once they see the carcas, so I read).
For a few days, the body remained surprisingly pristine, if obviously compromised when you looked harder; and there was a point when it looked just like a fallen angel, its immense white wings fully outstretched upwards from the body which then, proportionally, shrank away from them, becoming less and less significant daily as its dissection continued. In the cold winter days that ensued, the carcass became less pretty, opened out to the elements, exposed as the meal it had become, Nature’s refrigerator preserving it well for the daily picking that was taking place. Across the very same days that were seeing the landfills bombarded with plastic bin-liners stuffed with a zillion turkey carcasses half-eaten by Nature’s thorough standards (and the irony didn’t escape me), this similar-sized bird was being picked down to the ground by kites, jackdaws, magpies, foxes and perhaps, I wondered, even the owl that sometimes swoops ghostlike on our walks at dusk; a collaborative, opportunist feast driven by necessity, gratitude and the will to survive. The gift of this bird for over forty days, as it recycled itself in the most efficient way that it could, kept it posthumously alive in the landscape it had so hurriedly departed…continuing still as all the riverside fellows that drew together for the meal of it, only to disperse again on foot and on wing having had their fill, became like the pumping lungs of some immense creature newly created from what they all now shared in common; a diet of swan.
It took over a month for the swan to disperse completely and there came a half-way point when that thick neck, its signature feature, was no longer there at all but, in its place, a guilty secret; a tangle of garish ribbons and other wiry debris attached to thick black elastic, a girl’s hairband knotted and frayed into a mess of shocking red against the green of the field. Had this bird choked on a treasure picked out from the riverbed, a piece of human detritus dumped in the water, mistaken for food? How ironic, how sad, how telling this seemed to be; yet where we waste so unseeingly, nature wastes not. How quickly nature absorbs what comes from itself, rejects what does not.
All was finally gone on my walk yesterday; all, that is, except for a tangle of red and black elastic and a startling mass of white feathers strewn far and wide, still clearly visible on approach from over a hundred feet away – nothing to see put purest white, strangely pristine and feather-light swan down dispersing gently on the wind.
The rivers Blackwater and Whitewater (subject of my recent video) are a serenely beautiful and seemingly ‘unspoiled’ feature of Berkshire; picturesquely narrow and winding, they wend their way through meadows and raggedy hedgerows that burst with flowers and butterflies, past fields full of horses and sheep-grazing pastures, through long grasses and late-summer poppies. They have also become a popular spot for fly-tipping and the careless dumping of all that the more occasional fine-weather visitors feel they don’t want to take home with them; I often pick-up litter on my walks and recently lugged a broken deckchair back from one of my favourite spots where it had been abandoned after a sunny day by people who assumed Nature, or someone else, would take care of their rubbish.
The biggest threat to the environment and the wildlife there are the increasing number of fly-tippers (a blight to all the country-lanes, ditches and lay-byes of Berkshire) who routinely head down the lonely track to the ford to offload a truck’s-worth of bathroom fittings and rubble, oil and paint tins, solvent and chemical bottles, doors, tables, sofas and armchairs, curtain tracking and other wires that get caught in animals feet, fridges, microwaves, washing machines, drink cans and fag packets….You name it, we see it all dumped there and with alarming regularity – I would say, once or maybe twice a month; so often, in fact, that I have noticed how my hackles rise as soon as I see a van heading down that track, so suspicious of each other does this kind of behaviour make us. More than just an eye-sore, this kind of dumping presents a real hazard to the natural environment, especially so close to the water’s edge that, when the river level rises in flood season, it catches up all the loose debris and sweeps it downstream, poisons the water and litters the riverbanks and adjacent fields. When the water-levels drop again, its always a shock to see what lies at the bottom of these most picturesque of rivers, hidden away by the normally pristine surface with its swans gliding and its gold-dappled light.
When the swans themselves start to speak of what lies below the surface, it feels like a red flag to our oblivion and a distinct nudge from Nature telling us that its time to peel the scales from our eyes; to see it all and own up to our part in it en masse, to take responsibility, to care with our actions and our choices. How pristine our world is made to look, so glossy and smoothly-convenient, like the gentle waters of a summer’s day river, if we remain so guarded about when and where we choose to look, so blissfully uninformed about what happens before what we consume gets to us and what happens after we have had our fill of it. Its time to take responsibility for what we are doing beyond the surface of things everywhere, in all matters; to shine light wherever we have relied upon things remaining hidden or at least conveniently out-of-sight; somebody else’s problem but not ours, we tell ourselves. There is truly nothing that is not our business or that can be hidden away forever – life is like a river bed with its waters rising and lowering with the seasons but it will have its truth out and all things must surface, one way or another, sooner or later. When we deeply know that, respect and work with it, as Nature does…knowing whatever we put out there will come back to us in the end…oh what a glorious world we get to reclaim for ourselves then.