A Trashed Home

Inevitably, I ride the same relatively small geographic area a lot. I’m on first name terms with most of the pot-holes. Sometimes, before setting out, I can struggle to feel much enthusiasm for any route I can think of: they’re all too familiar. That said, once I’ve set off, I generally find the simple fact of ‘being out’ is more important than where I’m riding.

Thus far this year, I’ve ridden far less than I normally do: some exceptionally bad weather combined with niggling problems with joints and what-have-you have conspired against me.

So, getting out a bit more now, there’s an element of looking afresh at the familiar: I’ve not seen a lot of it for quite a while. And that’ s both quite refreshing and depressing.

I know I’m contributing nothing new by noting that you see things differently if you’ve been away from them for a while; it’s just human nature. Another side of returning to somewhere familiar is the feeling of ‘home’: the pleasure to be had in the sensation that you’re back on home turf – in ‘your patch’.

So it is, then, mildly alarming to be back out re-visiting home turf, only to find there’s a lot of damage around. Woodland, particularly, has taken a fair old bashing in the last few weeks. Where the flooding has persisted – indeed, is persisting – it’s obvious that nature’s not going to be doing a quick bounce-back – it’s gone on too long this time. And that’s all to leave aside the damage to the infrastructure – the pre-existing rotting has accelerated.

Damaged forest trees

Home turf, under attack

No, it’s nothing as dramatic as finding your house has been burgled and trashed in the process, or anything similar, but it is nevertheless in that same general area. If not my home then my ‘home patch’ has been under attack, from the weather and from institutionalized neglect, it’s not bouncing back readily and it doesn’t look as if it’s likely to. Depressing? Yes. Disturbing? I think ‘yes’ to that too. Somehow, by some historical accident, my 50+ years of living in Britain have seen generally improving standards in pretty well all aspects of day-to-day life. The implicit, unquestioned assumption had been that that was normal, that it would continue. That now feels unlikely.

And today a leaked draft of the next IPCC report on Climate Change confirmed the worst fears in that area.

Spring Encounters

A short ‘rehab ride’ on a wider-Q fixie and not feeling too bad in the joints. The weather’s doing that very pleasant ‘English Spring Sunshine’ thing that it pulls out of the hat every year but which, in the depths of a grey winter, it’s hard to imagine you’ll ever see again.

Quite a lot of blossom’s out already; buds abound and the blackbirds are noticeably frisky. In other ‘nature notes’:

  • today saw a very close encounter with a Red Kite – he was engrossed in a splatted squirrel and didn’t see me until I was within 10 feet of him. The ensuing flapping was spectacular – they don’t get off the ground easily.
  • in another contest for a branch, it seems a Magpie trumps a Crow, which is news to me.
  • and deer – how do they find each other? I came across the local herd today trying to cross a lane. They were disturbed by a van and so about eight made it across, with the remaining 15 or more (one Stag, the rest seemingly all Does) frightened away. I stopped to see what would happen and the eight in one field ran to safety in the middle, stopped there and just waited – very obviously very alert. After several minutes, the rest of the herd appeared from a completely different direction, so they must have run in a fairly broad arc, found an alternative place to cross one or perhaps two roads, and come back up to where they’d originally intended to be. Fine … but I didn’t hear a thing the whole time, which left me wondering how they communicate.

Once again, I find myself wondering about my learned relationship to nature. I don’t have a clue what the equivalent feeling is amongst those who are decades younger.

And let’s not forget the light at this time of year – another aspect of nature, after all. (OK, there’s the atmospheric pollution aspect, but let’s overlook grim realities for once.)

That soft spring light

That soft spring light

Learn From Mother?

Riding between Reading and Windsor yesterday, I saw two Wood Pigeons sharing a verge with a couple of rabbits. I saw a Magpie very obviously hunting for eggs or young birds by a country hedge. The other day I saw a polecat or similar with a baby rabbit in its mouth. Today the Swallows were swooping overhead and flying magnificently – marvellous to witness, unless you’re one of the innumerable insects they’re snatching out of the sky. The other day Charli saw a Sparrowhawk carry off a young Starling. The Starlings in my garden very obviously work together as a group – finding comparative safety in numbers but also, it seems, working co-operatively in scouting for food. A while back I saw several Red Kites sharing a fresh fox carcass. This afternoon I saw a Crow chasing off a Red Kite and the Red Kite responding with a quick twist and a flash of two outstretched talons.

Back on the roads, today and on any number of other rides, the huge majority of people I interacted with while cycling were absolutely fine. That’s despite the blunt reality being that by-and-large, as a cyclist, you’ll often cause drivers to have to slow down – you’re an obstacle, however briefly.

What I was wondering was what’s the natural instinct – the base instinct of the human animal? We’re all too aware of ‘road rage’, whether directed at cyclists by drivers or driver versus driver. But as all those recent wildlife observations demonstration, if you look at ‘Mother Nature’ there’s little comfort to be found: nature is just dispassionate and as brutal as the basic requirements of life – food and procreation – requires; no more, no less.

So, is human anger or at best impatience perhaps our natural state? After all, an impediment to progress, however small, is just that. There’s little or no gain to be had, in the short term at least, from tolerating impediments. Once upon a time that would have amounted to tolerating impediments to survival. Presumably, we wouldn’t need laws to enforce tolerance if tolerance had been our natural state.

If we are, as it were, naturally predisposed to being angry towards impediments, it’s no excuse for intolerance or impatience or rage or dangerous driving or anything similar. All it might mean is that we should perhaps be grateful that on the whole, most people, most of the time, are able to rise above what’s ‘natural’. We should probably also be wary of anyone invoking ‘natural’ as if it’s inherently A Good Thing. We should probably be lauding triumphs over nature.


Nature's relentless optimism

Nature’s relentless – but blind – optimism.

After the fun and frolics of a rim failure, the rest of the week has seen three short and gentle road rides on the flatter parts of Berkshire, still easing my ankle and foot back in to riding. It’s getting better.

And, of course, the week also saw the funeral of Thatcher, the Prime Minister in power when I was first looking for a job and unemployment was even higher than it is now. I remember writing the best part of 300 job applications to get two offers. It seemed an appropriate memorial to her that this week the number of unemployed increased again.

It seems appropriate, too, that Mutually Assured Destruction is back on the agenda. Although our ever-shallow media has moved on, the threat from North Korea hasn’t just gone away because our journalists and editors are preoccupied with a dead politician and how they might revise history to suit their current agendas.

If you look back to the 60s and the Cuban missile crisis, for example, the realities of the nuclear tensions then are hard to comprehend for someone of my age. Cruise missiles in the UK and all the nuclear sabre rattling of the 80s must be similarly hard to understand for anyone much younger than me.

Living with that kind of shadow being cast provided a very different context for all of life’s decisions. That so many just carried on carrying on is either testimony to human resilience or to human stupidity. History is full of praise for the triumph of hope over adversity but no-one ever recalls or tots-up the number of times that hope proves false.

I guess nature would be the perfect embodiment of the triumph of hope over everything else, if nature was exercising any choice.

Regurgitating Drain

Regurgitating Drain

Regurgitating Drain …

Reasonable weather for a welcome change, after too many days with the temperature too close to zero and stints on the turbo-trainer the only sensible option.

And it was good to be out – a loop south of Reading then back across to Henley and over the top to Caversham.

If nature was a sentient being, it could be tempting to thing that nature’s getting her own back at the moment. After all the floods of late, most road-side ditches are full to the brim or have been recently, meaning all the dumped rubbish and litter has come to the surface. Nature’s revenge – as all our filth is regurgitated back at us.

Today I was riding in the Royal County of Berkshire and South Oxon. This whole region is a visitor destination. It’s a litter-strewn, pothole-riddled mess.

Dear politicians – this is the impression visitors are getting of Britain. Invest here – in a country, in a society, that’s all too happy to foul its own nest? It’s not a good omen …

A flooded ditch and field near you

And nature said, ‘Look at your filth’. And the businessman said, ‘Invest here? Not on your life’.

Of course, nature isn’t a sentient being. If only. Perhaps I’ve just been listening to too many old Bowie records lately.

Watching Life And Death

There’s not a huge amount of inspiration to be found on a ‘turbo-trainer’, and snow’s been keeping me off the bike for a few days. (I suspect if I never saw another snow flake I’d be quite happy about it.)

What is interesting to watch is what goes on outside the window in harsher weather – the bird life.

Birds in the snow

‘This too must pass’

At the various feeders and bird tables:

  • There’s one super-aggressive male Blackbird who’s willing to have a go at almost anything else – the other two male Blackbirds who are visiting, and any other nearby smaller bird.
  • The plumped-up female Blackbird more-or-less does her own thing but studiously avoids the males.
  • There are a few Starlings who descend as a group whenever there’s any fresh food that’s not mixed grain out. These aren’t afraid of the aggressive Blackbird – in fact the reverse is true, even though Starlings are smaller.
  • Unusually, I’ve had two Jays visiting simultaneously, but they’ll only barely tolerate each other and most of the other birds flee when they arrive. Any that stay keep their distance.
  • Magpies don’t tolerate anything else, and, as with the Jays, nothing else wants to be anywhere near them.
  • The Collared Doves have just kept on doing what they always do: hanging around, seemingly a tad gormless but always attentive, and carefully picking their time to feed.
  • There’s one Pied Wagtail who just does what he or she wants, neatly side-stepping the other birds as necessary and – it appears – getting the food it wants and needs.
  • The Blue Tits and Great Tits are like the Wagtail – canny feeders who can look after themselves.
  • There are pair of Bullfinches, relatively recent visitors, and they also seem self-contained, not fussed by any of the other birds except, occasionally, the Greenfinches who’ll have a bad-tempered go at them if they’re close enough.
  • There are more Wood Pigeons than normal – which is to be expected as they come in to the suburbs looking for food.
  • The solo Song Thrush I’ve seen is, I guess, doing the same as the Wood Pigeons, but he or she’s often chased-off by the stroppy Blackbird.
  • There are two Robins who fight as much as they feed but only seem interested in each other.
  • Greenfinches appear as contentedly greedy once they’ve settled on the feeders as they are all year round. They’ll squabble amongst themselves but, seemingly, without consequence.

And all of the ‘interest’ I’m seeing outside my window, one way or another, is about survival – no more and no less.

If I were describing starving humans fighting for scraps there would be an outcry. The same would be true if I were talking about domesticated mammals that people feel some affinity with, dogs perhaps.

Watching birds struggling to live though, that’s OK. I don’t think that I’m putting food out makes it any better or changes anything. They’re still struggling. As always, everything is relative.