Wild communion
Away with the Birds

Little gods of the field

The Haywain by Constable

In her essay "Crex-Crex," Scottish poet & essayist Kathleen Jamie reflects on a print of Constable's The Haywain hanging in her B&B on the island of Coll. When Constable packed up his easel after finishing the painting, she imagines:

"what he would have heard as he walked home through the fields  -- indeed, what we could hear if we could step into his painting -- would be the call of the corncrake. A corncrake is a brown bird, a kind of rail, not ten inches tall, which prefers to remain unseen in tall damp grass. It's call -- you'd hardly call it a song -- is two joined notes, like a rasping telephone. Crex Crex is the bird's Latin name, a perfect piece of onomatopoeia. Crex-crex, it goes, crex-crex.

"Perhaps, as he strolled home, Constable had a bit of fun trying to pinpoint the sound in the long grass. Perhaps he thought nothing of it, the corncrake being such a commonplace. 'Heard in every vale,' as John Clare said in his poem. The vales of Northamptonshire, the New Town of Edinburgh, in Robert Burn's Ayrshire, it was recorded in every county in the land from Cornwall to Shetland. In the last century, though, it has been utterly eliminated from the mainland, and if you'd like to hear or even see this skulking little bird of the meadow, you must set sail to the Hebrides."

Corncrake hidden in the meadow grasse

Ballyhaugh Coastline  Island of Coll; photograph by Allan McKechnie

Jamie does precisely this, traveling to Coll in the Inner Hebrides -- where she is met by Sarah Money, warden of the RSPB reserve on the island. One night, Money takes her to a distant field, which the two women quietly enter by torchlight:

"Hear them?" she whispers, and I nod.

What does is sound like? Like someone grating a nutmeg, perhaps. Or a prisoner working toward his escape with a nailfile. Crex-crex, crex-crex. We move forward a few paces at a time...it's almost impossible to tell where the sound is coming from. It's obviously on the ground -- you'd swear it was right under your feet, but it seems to jump and flit ahead. We walk on carefully, speaking in whispers until we've crossed the whole field, but the sound heard so clearly from the gate is still, somehow, ahead of us.

"It's unchancy. Fairy music is said to do this; to lead a man on in his confusion and drunkeness, to start, then stop, then begin again from another place, ever luring him on. This was not a beautiful music, it has to be said; hardly the art of the fairies. Mind you, it could be a goblin carpenter, sawing away at his little workbench, if you've had too many at the island disco and were of a fanciful mind."

Corncrake on the Isle of Coll

Explaining the corncrakes' demise, Jamie writes:

"The grim reaper came for the corncrake in the form of the mechanized mower. In the days of the scythe, when hay was long and cut later in the year, then heaped on slow-moving wains, the corncrake had long grasses to hide and breed in. The chicks would be fledged before the meadow was mown, and had plenty of time to escape the swinging blade. With mechanization, however, and a shift toward earlier cutting for silage, corncrakes, eggs, fledglings, and all have been slaughtered wholesale.

"The corncrake has long been in relationship with humans, its fortunes have waxed and waned as our own farm practices changed. When prehistoric people cleared woodland and developed agriculture, the bird's range extended: corncrake bones have been discovered in Stone Age middens. Indeed, Mrs. Beeton gives a recipe for roasted corncrake. You need four, and should serve them, if liked, with a nice bread sauce. But since Clare's 'mowers on the meadow lea' were likewise banished before the machine, the corncrakes' range has been reduced to a few boggy meadows on the islands. They are the same islands, ironically, whose human populations suffered such decline as ideas on farming changed. But old mowing practices lingered longer in the Hebrides, the fields being too small for machines, so this is where the bird is making it's last stand, and where conservation efforts are taking effect."

Corncrakes in the grass  RSPB photograph

The Isle of Coll

Jamie is determined to see, not merely hear, her bird, so she plants herself on an RSBP "corncrake viewing bench," with a view of two lush meadows, and waits.

"Corncrakes don't feature on Christmas cards, or sing after the rain. Their migration has none of the romance of swallows', though they cover the same distance. They arrive in spring, but we've forgotten that they are spring's heralds. They skulk in the grass like guilty things, hardly encouraging us to look to the skies. They offer us no metaphors about fidelity, or maternal dedication; they are just medium-sized brown birds. Nonetheless, I feel robbed -- denied one of the sounds of summer, which all our forebears would have known, that irksome little crex-crex. Why conserve them, other than it being our moral duty to another life form on this earth? If there is no 'clam'rin craik,' no 'noisy one of the rushes,' it betokens something out of kilter with the larger ecosystem on which ultimately, in as-yet-undiscovered ways, we all depend.

"That's what the ecologists and scientists will tell you. But there are things which cannot be said -- not by scientists, anyway. Another person arrives at the viewing bench...a man in young middle age, a holiday maker. We fall into conversation -- he obviously knows his stuff about birds. He has a young family with him on the island and, while they're on the beach, he has slunk off for an hour in the hope of spotting a corncrake. So here he is, an Englishman of higher education with a professional job, a family, a cagoule and good binoculars.

" 'Can I ask you why you like them? Corncrakes, I mean.'

" 'Well,' he said. 'They're like...little gods of the field, aren't they?'

"I could have punched the air. If corncrakes are rare, animism is rarer still. Anyone can clear his throat and talk about biodiversity, but 'Corncrakes...little gods of the field' will not get you published in ornithologists' journals. That's how I picture them now, however: standing chins up, open-beaked, like votive statues in the grass....

"There is talk of reintroducing corncrakes to England, so it might again crex through Constable's Dedham Vale. Till then the mainland's a diminished place; a thousand miles of country without one little god in the field."

Essays by Kathleen Jamie

Last photograph: Tilly snoozing on her fleece on the studio sofa, with Sightlines and Findings by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books/Peguin, 2012 & 2005). Both essay collections are highly recommended. The passages above are from Jamie's corncrake essay "Crex-Crex," from Findings. All rights reserved by the author.

Comments

I absolutely loved the video of the Corn Crake. I just read the book _The Running Hare_ by John Lewis-Stempel. He mentioned this bird too. Last year a Corn Crake was sighted in the United States. I can't remember just where that was but I wish I had been able to go see it.

I remember that! It was in Cedar Beach, New York:

http://www.audubon.org/news/birders-drop-everything-behold-rare-corn-crake-turned-new-york

The Reaping of the Corn

When the scythe came,
its single long edge
reaping the grain,
the sun shone.
One does not harvest in the rain.
Heaps of that gold
were loaded,
onto a slow-moving wain,
the corncrake bided
in the long grass
watching the tumbrels pass.

When the iron mower came
with its many brutal teeth,
few escaped that reaping.
perishing beneath
cruel tyres. Nests and eggs,
fell on the killing heath.
Crex-crex silenced,
and the corncrake sang its last.
There is no longer grass
where in safety
it could watch the tumbrels pass.

©2018 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

The corncrake looks like a wild poultry but that is no cluck! I first saw reference to corncrakes in The Lymond Chronicles of Dorothy Dunnett, which begin in the Scottish Lowlands in the mid-16th century. Every once in a while for auditory verisimilitude would be a reference to the sound of the corncrake, which perhaps Dunnett knew from youth in the Scottish countryside. Anyhow, the reference sent me to Wikipedia on more than one occasion, wondering once again "Now WHAT is a corncrake...?"

I'm loving all these bird postings, Terri. I very much need the feeling of flight right now and with each post my heart is feeling more buoyed. Thank you.

The call sounds a bit like someone winding a music box, with the best kind of music, other songs of the field, following. Yes, lovin' the bird postings. Thanks!

There is an ongoing project of corncrake reintroduction in the Nene Washes near Peterborough.

Pee wit, Pee wit, and crex, crex, crex. And the long drawn out melancholy cry of a curlew. We have lost so much, and so few miss the sounds.

On a lighter note, our resident robin has been following my Tim around the garden as he rakes and clears the garden. He is now brave enough to sit a metre away. At the end of a long session, Tim sat down with a cup of tea and was treated to a concert of singing from the flowerpot. He said the strangest part was the bird being only a yard from his feet and that it sang softly, as if just for him.

Beautiful Poem Jane!

I think you capture the tragic and poignant aspect of the is birds fate with beauty and subtle , lyrical grace. The bird watched progress slowly destroy its habitat and humanity evolved into a modern state forgetting its wildness and need to live on with natural values or those related to nature. These last words are so haunting

Nests and eggs,
fell on the killing heath.
Crex-crex silenced,
and the corncrake sang its last.
There is no longer grass
where in safety
it could watch the tumbrels pass.

and so true of other endangered birds that have met similar circumstances. What a tragic part of fate but your poem celebrates the bird, the special aspect of its presence and spirit.

Thank you for this,
so much enjoyed,
wendy

Beautiful post Terri

And I learned something new and beautiful; though the fate of the concrake is poignant. These photos are exceptional as is the text. Loved every bit of this morning's post.
Thank you so much!!

My best
Wendy

Thanks, Wendy--we chased a crex-ing corncrake all over a part of Uist. My husband later that night finally got to see it. I was long asleep at that point. But their call is hard to miss.

Jane

Upon Finding A Corncrake

When I first heard your song
it was not a song but the sound
of a tool. A ratchet
about to loosen or tighten
some aspect of that scene.

Then I looked deeper and found
an open- mouthed beak
in the meadow's palm. Blue
cornflowers matched the blue
around your throat ( an aqua pastel)

and again I heard you call
to the wind and sky, or perhaps
a partner. Your body shivered
in the damp grass, speckled
like a cowry shell
concealing its own echo
of origin and change.

And somehow I knew
your were signaling me, your song
loosening my need
to stretch my wild shadow

along the field. Not the mortal
but the other Centuries before
when I sang at dawn and dusk,
rummaging through the grass
for seeds and roots, ascending
high enough to spark
my gut with salt air - that swept in
from the northern sea,

when out of the morning
or evening horizon, the sun
could only carve -- my silhouette
as a woman with wings.

They ARE speckled like a cowrie shell, only I never put the two together. You have such an eye, Wendy, your poems always full of such assured comparisons. I learn much from them.

Jane

Thank you so much Jane
for reading and sharing your persepctive! I really value your insight and always appreciate your interest in my work. It means alot to me!! I think
I am so much of an imagist in my writing because I also wanted to be an artist -- but I wasn't really talented in that area and fell quite short of my own expectations of what I wanted to accomplish on canvas. So naturally, I think the need to paint with words slipped into my writing and for some reason, I always seem to look for metaphoric connections. Anyway, again thank you so much!!

My Best
take care
Wendy

That is a bird with Opinions. (Also I was glad to see so many dandelions & plantain!)

Is the creaking sound of a goblin carpenter at work _that_ much harder to imagine as the uncannily beautiful music of the Good Folk? I at least have a lot more in common with the goblin!

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