During the last couple of months or so I’ve often heard a Collared Scops Owl making it’s soft call in the tree overhanging my flat. On one memorable occasion there were three of them calling from different places nearby. I’ve always had an interest in birdwatching, and the call of an owl at night has always been a magical experience for me. I remember a hot summer night in Nottingham years ago when a barn owl flew past my open window and let out its blood-curdling call. I really did think someone was being murdered down the street until I came to my senses properly. On another night I went out on my bike to see if I could see any owls. I went right out of the city into wheat fields and stopped to look around, when suddenly a whole tribe of tawny owls – there must have been about eight of them – were weaving back and forth overhead presumably catching insects and calling to each other. I was absolutely transfixed as I’d never heard of such a large number of owls being together like that. Such experiences defy description; for me they transport you instantly into the realm of the sacred, and leave an indelible impression and sense of wonder that can give enormous satisfaction when recollected even years later.
However, probably my peak experience with birds was when I was cycling home at about 2 am to that same house in Nottingham probably well into Spring. As I cycled by the railway line I heard an astonishing song coming from a nearby bush, which I knew was the one bird I’d always wanted to hear – a nightingale. I stopped to listen for about twenty minutes, in birder’s heaven. I could identify the bush he was in, but I couldn’t see him. He hung around for a few days and I had a repeat experience before he flew off to I don’t know where. To listen to a recording or watch a film of any wildlife event is a very pale imitation of the experience of being there in particular weather conditions, perhaps after a long, tiresome search that has yielded nothing but common species and much weariness, when suddenly the natural world offers up to you a glimpse of its unutterable beauty. Nevertheless, here is a recording of a nightingale: http://www.metacafe.com/watch/1378744/nightingale_song/
Unfortunately, since my children were born I have done very little birdwatching. I made the conscious choice to give up what was a time-consuming activity because I wanted to spend time with my kids. I took up vegetable gardening instead – in fact just as time-consuming – which I thoroughly enjoy, but it doesn’t offer those ‘peak experiences’. I sorely miss the contact with nature that you get from going out birding, where your whole attention becomes intensely focused on seeing and identifying a ‘little brown job’ that’s flitting about in the treetops. It’s a transcendent experience, a form of meditation almost, except it’s far more enjoyable. I also think that many people rarely if ever have these experiences because they don’t get out into the natural world, or if they do, it’s head down and route march the next twenty kilometres without bothering to take in what’s going on around them. It’s this loss of connection with nature that has allowed us to become such ruthless destroyers of anything natural that stands in the way of our concrete kingdoms. What I find especially disturbing is the thought that all of the people who cause the most damage to the environment, such as logging companies, mining and drilling companies, and industrial farmers, not to mention politicians, are almost by definition beyond the reach of these experiences. They see nature as a resource that can be turned into profits, so what do they care about the song of the nightingale? If they’ve never had a peak experience in nature, then how could they appreciate it other than in the most superficial way?And how can you convince such people of the value of nature unless they have had their own peak experiences? I don’t see how that kind of mind-set can be changed in the short time available to us to bring about the transition to a civilisation that is happy to be embedded within the natural world instead of trying to wage war against it. Nevertheless, I also think it’s absolutely necessary to act as if such people can be transformed, as we can never be too sure of anything. The alternative is a counsel of despair. People do change, and so the challenge is to find ways to bring about that change, which in turn means starting with your local community. Anybody want to go birding?