Last month we took a few days to visit Norfolk, staying by the Wash. UK viewers of Winter Watch and others may have seen some awe-inspiring film of one of the UK’s greatest wildlife events – sometimes called the Snettisham Spectacular. Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to see it for yourself. We decided we’d go and try and catch this sight, when a very high tide drives the birds off the mix of saltmarsh and water, into the air in huge flocks, and down into lagoons cared for by the RSPB. Their website (linked above) will help you get a taste of what its like, as well as some information about when these high tides happen.
Of course, there are never any guarantees with nature, but we got up very early and went to Snettisham in the dark, on a cold February morning, full of anticipation. I’d decided on flasks of coffee – which turned out to be an excellent idea! It was the most moving experience, deeply awe-inspiring, to see a landscape so full of life, and the wildness behaving freely as it should. I am sure that there have been times when there were more birds, and more wild, here, but it was nonetheless a glimpse of a more beautiful world, the world closer to how it should and can be.
You may also be aware that this precious landscape is vulnerable, and a new development could have a huge impact. If you want to find out more about that, you could begin here.
I wanted to try and capture the beauty of what we saw, and also the depth of experience that aroused in us and the others perhaps who were gathered there, and so this poem recounts the journey through the dark, and into the dawn-light of this beautiful sight.
C and A Wild Images Knots
High tide, the Wash, knots rising.
Out in the Wash-marsh,
uncertainly, deeper in,
listening warily for water
sounds, mud sounds,
as we heard, out on our right,
the loudness of bird and tide.
Restless, growing, imminent.
The path seemed so long
in the dark, unknowing and
unseeing as we were.
On and on until at last we came out of
hedge-shadows and reed rustles,
out on the open bank of shingle,
with a chill wind blowing,
with the dark softening into the grey of
mist and ice-fret, as out of the
a gathering crowd, moving, looking,
watching that density of black birds
emerging too, out there on the
mudbanks and sandbanks,
crowding as the water was rising,
All prickling with anticipation,
all readying for flight.
Through a lens you could see the
black backs of oystercatchers,
tens of thousands, all facing one way,
bright beaks aligned like many compasses.
And further out, paler knots,
rippling over the shrinking land,
their voices sounding together
as water lapped and lapped ever deeper,
full of fish washed in on this rapid tide,
followed by the hungry seals,
heads up, and hunting.
The bird noise grows, and the waders
begin their great lift,
A few at first, tip toed,
up and down like dancers
performing the perfect jete. Then,
as waves pour over their islands
and there is no room for all these birds,
They lift and stay lifted, from the edges,
like a great cloth, swirling now
above fast running water
rilled with small waves.
And then the oystercatchers
begin to pour like dark smoke,
like sentient smoke, as one,
all to the right, pour down
into the lagoons behind us.
While the knots, catching
the rising light, rise too,
turning pale now, loud with cries
and loud too with wings,
like a great crowd running joyously,
like a shining cloud swirling in the wind
but with mind, with being, with will,
a great pale creature rustling
and winding through the air over us,
close and low, and then down
in a whispering snake’s head behind.
And again, and again, rise up more
swirls of birds, faster and wider by
the tens of thousands, of wings
all together, birds turning together,
a miracle of unity,
As wings beat like hurried feet
as more people rush to look up,
and the waves take more and more
ground from under us all.
And I cannot tell you
what joy, what exultation –
And I write from longing to tell
you what joy, what exultation,
we humans, standing, feel
in this wide and wild abundance,
this wild and wide abandon.
This deep unity, this wide-wild-eyed
seeing into the communion of things.
As a sudden sound is added even to
all this loud crescendo,
like thunder, like jets,
The rise and beating of great wings –
pink footed geese
beyond number, beyond measure,
filling the sky with clouds of
moving birds, spinning fast now into
great skeins that wind over the deep
distance, loud and louder
bright on the dawn,
Bright with the wonder of wings lifting,
Bright in this new, steady,
A light that washes through us all
A light that holds us all
As dawn breaks us wide open.
If you search online, you’ll find some films of the birds, like this one.
I hope this gives you a glimpse of how beautiful a sight it was, and how transformative.
Yesterday evening I had the great privilege of reading this poem to open a series of talks organised by the Woodbridge Climate Action Centre. Local friends, tickets are free, and are going fast. The series is called Working with Nature.
It is possible that a recording of last night’s event may become available. If it does, I’ll make sure there’s a link to it here.