This late/early winter, in lieu of having much else to do, I’ve been trying to become a better naturalist. It may seem an odd time of year to be out looking for plants and animals, but it’s ideal for the beginner. With many animals hibernating, most of the insects dead, underground or in torpor, and the perennial plants stripped of anything bolshy or distracting, there’s far less room for mistake or misidentification. When you don’t yet know what it is you are looking for, winter in Britain presents a bit of a sandpit for your early efforts: all simple lines, quiet spaces and the barest essentials to play with. Of course, winter in Britain is not dead, or inactive, or silent, if you have an experienced eye; but I don’t, and pretending that there are only about six species of identifiable tree, bird and mammal has its utility in getting me going. It reminds me of learning the alphabet at school, where the letters were revealed to us in packs of three, and we had a chance to get to know them properly before anything was complicated further.
Out I go, then: with the aid of the Collins Fungi Guide; the Biodiversity Information Service‘s invaluable winter identification courses held in Brecon; a pair of underlubricated Boots binoculars; and a naturalist girlfriend who already elongates any walk into a multi-stage, bent-backed, cooing affair, fawning happily over stinkhorn fungus in the way other people treat with small dogs and children; I’m starting to feel like I am getting Britain in winter under my belt.
Of all the things in the world, it reminds me of when I was doing work experience for a law firm in the middle of London. This involved very little clerical work, and rather a lot of errands: mostly, I seem to remember, taking sealed packages of x-rays between multiple London hospitals on behalf of one of the senior partners, who (judging by his face when I returned with a fresh manila folder at five o’clock each day) increasingly disliked the news he was receiving. I was dispensed into London, with a Zones 1-6 travelcard, for seven hours or so a day; spending most of that time travelling along Tube lines, and through stations, that I had barely even heard of, despite living my entire life to date in south London. I kept coming up staircases and escalators out onto streets that I did not recognise, and without any landmarks to guide me, before popping back down into the darkness only to emerge again at some other isolated waypoint; like a submarine without sonar, trying to make its way through an icepack. Slowly, however, I started to take the Tube less, walking most of the way between my stops; and gradually in this way I began to knit London together. This continues even today, when I return to the city for work, or to visit friends; last week, as it was so unseasonably balmy, I decided to walk from Charing Cross to Shoreditch for a meeting, cutting a long axis through Holborn, Chancery Lane and Hatton Garden, Farringdon, the Barbican, behind Old Street where I used to work, through Bunhill Fields Cemetery. It’s nice to start to feel the whole rhizome of London, the whole interwoven tuber of it, rather than diving in between its Balkans. Similarly, I’m starting to feel that the free-floating survivals of outdoor knowledge that have remained from my childhood – what my grandmother told me about dockleaves, songs from primary school about the robin and the holly, Cub Scout lectures about hoarfrost – is starting to coagulate, to grow, and form a (still quite threadbare) mat of associations. When you go at these things willingly, and every day, no piece of knowledge is divorced from any other; you make lashings between ideas, and facts, and impressions, battening it all down, gluing it into serviceable place.
It also gets a lot quicker, as you go: where some acts of identification used to be a real labour to perform, now they can be passed over unconsciously, so well-set is the knowledge they require; and they can form stepping stones, and assumed foundations, for more complicated activities. I’m starting to get to know the jizz (and there really isn’t, unfortunately, a better word for it) of not just certain birds, but trees and moss and water and geology and tracks and musk, so that I can install them into my first impressions of a new environment almost without thinking. Sitting in my parent’s back garden last weekend, surrounded by bare-limbed trees (in strange combination with a February heatwave in the high twenties), I could tell from the steel-blue, hairless tinge of the long trunks, with a gestalt airiness about the lower halves that I didn’t exactly look at, but just sort of incorporated, that the woodland was mostly beech, with some ash. I can now spot that tree’s dog-nose-black-and-wet buds from hundreds of metres away, especially against a pale sky, where their regular spacing on the twig have the unmistakably made look of a television aerial. At the moment, the catkins on the hazels are long and dusky, and peering into any wood I don’t even need to see a hazel tree directly, on its own (as in a reference book) to know what it is, and that it is there. Just by being present in the general tumble of things, they lend the airs of the wood a quality, finely chopping the green light like herb, creating patches of gauzy bokeh here and there; and a vertical noisiness, indistinct, that makes you think of indistinct things, like severity and looming; all lent by the unseen, but sensed, close-packed staves of a hazel coppice somewhere in front of you. Unfortunately I’m avoiding hazel at the moment, as I have found them slightly revolting ever since my girlfriend, who spent several months in Belize working at a primate sanctuary a few years ago, told me that the catkins reminded her of how the spider monkeys would while away the afternoons in their cages, twirling their dangling, velveted clitorises between their sofa-leather fingers.
It’s lending a real joy to a time of year that otherwise seems to plod along for far longer than it has any right to. Today, I saw my first clutch of turnstones, picking for sandfly and silverfish between the concrete slabs of the Tawe Barrage here in Swansea. It took my entire lunchbreak to pull myself away from them. However, despite all this I am finding that even with the slightest bit of knowledge, and interest, in nature, the act of going for a walk can never be relaxing again. Like a literary agent who struggles to read for pleasure, I’m starting to notice that when out and about I’m a bit feverish, every sensor wired and fused to find those things that I do know, and to notice those things that I do not. My deepest brain is both enjoying the patterns that it identifies, and churning them over and over, testing them and seeking to expand them, struggling to remember them so that they can be noted down and drawn up when I get home. I’m forever straining to identify that bird I just heard, or to find scarlet elfcap in the bark litter, or wondering why this stand of alder is seemingly growing so far from any water. Despite being deeply pleasurable, I do sometimes find myself wishing that I could go back to complete ignorance, even if only for a day. I sometimes think about the times when I didn’t know anything, didn’t try to know anything, and was content in it: when the only bird that made itself known to me was the smoker’s cough of a wood pigeon; when the different barks and birdsongs and contours and lichens could form an indistinguishable deep-pile for my thoughts, rather than occupying them entirely in their distinguishability. I used to tell myself that the birds sang, and that I was there, and that was sufficient, and I went on; now, I know that the robin only sings low in the tree, and that they fight with the tits for dominance; that as I move through the wood the birds are not singing for me, to chorus my own idling; that with even an amateur eye you can see them flinging off, to the next tree, away from me always, leaving an ovoid gap in the birdsong; and that it is only after I have passed on that the whole, unbelievable, social network starts up again.