I’m reading a novel at the moment, The Paperchase by Marcel Theroux, in which the protagonist is bequeathed a house by his uncle with the condition that he live in it and cannot sell it. The first few days he’s relaxingly adrift in the seaside isolation of the place, then he starts to develop routines and habits that give him a bearing. There’s something comforting about this, resting on its simultaneous inevitable and unnecessary character. We have to fill our lives with activity, punctuating the days with meaning and order. In The Paperchase Damien March paints, listens to the radio, and has a martini mid afternoon. It reminds me a little of Mersault in Albert Camus’ The Outsider, whose habit is to visit and swim at the beach in the afternoons: the two situations have the same restful languor. I remember when I first read the latter, thinking what a pleasant routine to have. And in TS Eliot’s Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock he says “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”
Annually, too, we have demarcation points. Phillip Larkin wrote “when the lights come on at four at the end of another year” marking the depressing time of late autumn. I don’t recognise Christmas in either religious or material terms though I think the former spoils the latter; I’ve had too many birthdays to bother with them much any more and for me, there are few landmarks of the year. However I’ve recently come to notice the solstice when the light begins to return and how this is evident in a matter of weeks, a glimmer of hope in the darkness. There’s an avenue of cherry trees in a nearby park I like to visit, the swarm of spring time pink enlivening and awakening me. And, just recently, I’ve heard one of my favourite birds.
I’m no ornithologist, and have little interest in peeping at birds through binoculars or learning about their lives. And yet, and what I do love about birds, is the simple pleasure of their song. This needn’t be exotic, in fact the afternoon chatter of the common blackbird is one of my favourites. The rat-a-tat-tat of woodpeckers has been pleasant a few times in Lake District woodland, there are a few other songs I recognise and enjoy though I couldn’t say what bird produces them, but the skylark for me is distinct in both character and sound.
I’ve recently heard my first skylark of the year. I couldn’t see it in the warm haze of the Welsh mountains, though I’ve been surprised how low they hover when this was once pointed out to me. There’s a book with the title Why Do Birds Sing suggesting, actually, the opposite: we don’t fully understand the meaning and significance of why they do it. Obviously, it’s partly territorial. And obviously again it’s the avian equivalent of tight dresses, perfume, or the male ability to make the ladies laugh. Out one evening with a buddy more adept at it than I, I noted his fluidity approaching two girls with the simple but effective: “what’s a fish with no eyes called? FSSH!” (giggle giggle). And yet, the book title implies, these simple facts of life do not fully explain why birds do it: there’s more to it than territory and reproduction.
I wish I could recall some, if not several of the times when I’ve memorably heard skylarks. I remember one hovering above the Kentmere hills in the Lake District and while I know I’ve enjoyed it many other times it didn’t make an imprint in terms of time and place. This time it was different: my first skylark of 2010, so sweetly and delicately joyous from such a tiny feathered breast, marking the beginning of another year of walking in the hills.
Resonant of summer, fragrant grass, and deep blue skies, the hovering skylark and its pretty song is a demarcation I shall endeavour to notice and mark as the beginning of the better part of the year.