I have the greatest sympathy for WNP Barbellion, author of that masterpiece of natural history and tuberculosis-driven auto- biography, The Journal of a Disappointed Man. His first entry, made in Devon in January 1903, reads: "Am writing an essay on the life-history of insects and have abandoned the idea of writing on `How Cats Spend their Time'. I also spend hours watch- ing how cats spend their time, and just as many wondering how they make their decisions. Why break off a saunter to sharpen claws at just this moment rather than that?"
The trouble is that this is my problem too. The view from my study window barely shifts from day to day. The hazel catkins hang in damp tassels, the pussy willow forever on the point of breaking, and one of the cats is, as usual, making tiger-like rushes at the flocks of collared doves that feed on the lawn. Devoid of prompts, I have taken to organising my day's work by chance. I've written all the species on which I am compiling an immoderately ambitious flora on to raffle tickets, and each Sunday I do my own lottery draw to decide the week's programme.
One answer to this teetering between coma and chaos is The Walk, the solvitur ambulando. Most often I go for a stroll along the canal that is just 100 yards away. It is like a linear village green, and I always meet someone. I also half-consciously check things out on the way, against some inner timetable. Brian lives on a narrow-boat and is sure he saw an otter last autumn. I still keep half an eye open when I pass his mooring, even though I've spotted the mink it obviously was.
On past the exuberantly overgrown ex-municipal tip, where, amazingly, a nightingale nested five years ago. Then check the elm shrubs that looked as if they had pulled through Dutch elm disease, only to succumb again last year. Not much further on, the flooded gravel pits begin. A new one has been dug since I was last here, and on an island near the edge there are, suspiciously, three cardboard geese.
Maybe this should be a claw-sharpening cue, but I saunter on and turn for home. But there is one more surprise in store. Near my road, I leave the canal and walk alongside a stream. I spot a kingfisher in a bush, just yards away from me. It is discomfited, and shoots off into a tunnel that passes under the lane and under a motel echoing with techno music. It hurtles 40 yards underground, reappears, and slaloms through some bungalow gardens to get back to the stream. A kingfisher fluttering - all orange and turquoise plumes, like a miniature carnival float - is a rare and wondrous thing; and it was all done just to get the other side of me. "How Kingfishers Spend their Time": now that would be a subject. I suspect they do so a good deal more cannily than me. !Reuse content