Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Coming to terms with winter is part of growing up
More's the pity we haven't evolved the ability, like bears, to snooze until the damn thing is over
Michael McCarthy, formerly the Independent’s longstanding Environment Editor, now its Environment Columnist, is one of Britain’s leading writers on the environment and the natural world. He has won a string of awards for his work, including Environment Journalist of the Year (three times) and Specialist Writer of the Year in the British Press Awards in 2001. In 2007 he was awarded the Medal of the RSPB for “Outstanding Services to Conservation,” in 2010 he was awarded the Silver Medal of the Zoological Society of London, and in 2011 the Dilys Breeze Medal of the British Trust for Ornithology. In 2009 McCarthy published Say Goodbye To The Cuckoo (John Murray), a study of Britain’s declining migrant birds.
Friday 28 October 2011
Only two more days now until the clocks go back and the dark nights return, and I feel like I'm on a submarine, preparing for a long, long dive; after tomorrow we will not surface until Sunday 27 March, 2012, when British Summer Time rolls round again. Get ready. Hatches closed. Here we go. Down!
I bet a lot of people feel the same. Hibernation often seems like the most rational response to winter, and more's the pity we haven't evolved the ability, like brown bears or newts, simply to snooze until the whole damn thing is over. Other than winter sports enthusiasts, do you know anyone by whom winter is actually welcomed?
I remember reading in the diary of Samuel Pepys about an icy day in London some time in the 1660s when Pepys, out for a stroll, sees an elderly woman who has slipped on the ice and clearly fractured her thigh. It's just a passing observation, and he says no more of her, but it haunted me because I learned as a young reporter what happens to the old who slip and fracture their femurs – they lie immobile in bed, fluid builds up on their lungs and they contract pneumonia and die. Always. And I could not help but imagine the elderly woman's inevitable, lonely death.
Winter is tough all round. Thursday 6 October was the first chilly day of the autumn in London, and in a Kensington cemetery I watched a grey squirrel bury an acorn. It was just the first hint of a chill – snow and ice were still a long way off – but it knew. It knew what was coming. No wonder the impulse to flee it all is so strong, the instinct to head for somewhere like Santa Barbara in California, where, as a smug Santa Barbaran once informed me, "it's always 72 degrees".
Yet perhaps coming to terms with winter is part of properly growing up, of taking our place in the world. There are positives – snow can be one, certainly aesthetically, and if you are a birder, there are some very special winter birds – but I don't just mean weighing the positives against the negatives. I mean, seeing the whole thing in the round.
Something that has helped me do that is a celebrated mid-16th century Flemish painting: The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Brueghel, above. I've known it for yonks, but for the past few months I have looked at it closely as I have it as the screensaver on my computer.
Three hunters are trudging back through the drifts with their dogs after an unsuccessful hunt (all they got was a fox), and beyond and below them is a snowbound river valley dotted with houses, and people. The people are getting on with life: some are stoking a windblown fire, and a distant woman on a bridge is carrying a huge bundle of kindling on her head, while on an even more distant frozen pond, skaters are circling.
The tones are weird – dark green sky, dark green ice – yet they are somehow so true that you can almost hear the cries of the skaters through the chill, still air. Each faraway figure is doing something different, and you eventually realise, this is a painter fascinated by the full spectrum of the human response to winter. Winter is presented in all its force, yet non-judgmentally: it has its difficulties, and it has its enjoyments, but the question of escaping from it never arises. Going through the cold and the dark is part of what it is to be a person, Brueghel is saying, and I take that very much as a consolation, as the submarine makes ready to dive.
Wild swans from Siberia and Iceland have arrived
Among those special birds to be seen in Britain in winter are the two wild swan species, Whooper swans and Bewick's swans. They differ from our resident mute swans most obviously in having straight rather than curved necks, and yellow rather than orange on their bills; and although the two species are superficially similar (with the Bewick's being slightly smaller) they come here in October from opposite points of the compass.
The Whoopers fly over the sea from Iceland, while the Bewick's swans fly over the European landmass from their summer nesting grounds in Siberia. They've both just arrived, and if you want to see them, check out the reserves of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.
By the way, I've always wondered if WB Yeats's swans in "The Wild Swans at Coole" (fifty-nine of them, you may remember) were Whoopers, or Bewick's – or if they were common or garden mute swans. Anybody know?
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