When you spot a cormorant, and especially a colony of cormorants, you know you’ve spotted something a little unusual.* This is not because they are especially rare, it is because they have a singular character about them. Their black plumage has that iridescent sheen that is associated with oil slicks, and their long necks and hooked bills can give them a rather prehistoric, reptilian feel. It is an incredible swimmer (see video below), resembling underwater more a fish than a bird. One of the great UK conservation success stories of the past few years has been the improvements to the water quality in our rivers and waterways. This has helped to attract cormorants, once again, inland – much to the anger of anglers!
I find the word ‘adder’ extremely evocative for a specific time and place. As soon as I hear or read it, I am immediately transported into the warmth of sunshine, the gritty, dusty feel of a sandy heath-land with gorse-scrub abd a hint of pine, and, above all, the rich, fresh tang of new-growth bracken.
As we are drawing into the final week of this 30 Days Wild challenge, if you have spotted – or if you do happen to spot – an adder you can count yourself very fortunate and lucky. Triply lucky really. Firstly, adders are becoming increasingly rare. Secondly, they are extremely shy creatures who excel at keeping out of sight. Thirdly, you really need warm dry day, as the times that you are most likely to spot one in the open is when it is drowsily sunning itself. In the rather damp and cool June of 2019, these types of days have been a rarity!
Partridges are resident in much of Britain (but especially the eastern side). Altough the grey partridge (Perdix perdix) has been placed on the RSPB Red List, the larger, red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa) is more common. It was introduced from Europe and appears to be establishing well. Partridges are ground-loving birds, so look for their scurrying little bodies on the ground. If they are in the air, something has ‘spooked them.’ They are game birds and sort for their flesh. Their propensity to be reluctant and fairly weak fliers, make them ideal as ‘sport’ birds and the partridge shooting season runs throughout winter, from 1st September to 1st February.
Newman University is situated next to a reservoir and, over the last few days, the current system of very warm air over Britain has resulted in the (sort of) annual ‘infestation’ of flies on the Newman campus. I have to admit to rather enjoying the sight of them, dancing lazily in loose veils in the soft afternoon sun and their sudden appearance on a paper I am reading or scurrying across the desk. However, I am also aware that, for those living in halls, it can create feelings that are far less poetic! Nevertheless, it got me thinking about flies in the Bible and the wider Ancient Near Eastern traditions.
If I were to describe my most idyllic summer scene it would have to include sweeping meadows of rich green grass, dotted with dandelions, buttercups and daisies (perhaps a clover or two), the sound of doves, the damp scent of soil and meths from a roaring Primus stove, the song of a sky-lark singing under pillowed clouds, and, most importantly of all, a large Weeping Willow tree beside a gently flowing river. I have a real fondness for this tree. Perhaps it is because we had one in the garden when I was lad. It stood beside the pond and from time to time, I would grab a handful its slender branches and use it to swing out over the pond below.
When you are out enjoying the countryside, if you are unfortunate enough to encounter a flea it is more than probable (and I have my fingers crossed here!) that it will not be a human flea (Pulex irritans), but one of the other strains that parasitise other animals/birds. As with some of the other posts in this series, the flea might not be one of the most obvious animals associated with biblical literature, but then again it is not often associated with calls for ‘getting back to wild’. Nevertheless, they may be discomforting irritation, but they are also an integral part of the ecological landscape.
There are a couple of reasons why I have included Wild (or common) Madder (Rubia peregrina) for this wildlife challenge. The first is very personal. I have mentioned in earlier posts that my mother was an avid botanist and, for some reason, I associate the plant with holiday forays into the country. Distribution of this plant is restricted predominantly to the south west regions in the UK – see the helpful interactive distribution map produced by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) and so was not common to where we lived. Consequently, if we happened to by holidaying or visiting the south west or Wales, spotting ‘Madder’ was very much on her ‘botanising list.’ There we would follow Keble Martin’s (a battered copy of his book was Mum’s botanical bible) cryptic clues:
This one might come as a bit of a surprise even to the most careful readers of the Bible! Perhaps that is rather apt. Although native to UK waters, sightings of dolphins are always special. For most people, they are unusual enough to make any encounter with them a treasured memory – a real ‘red-letter’ day. Unfortunately, I have as yet to seen one in the wild. However, when friends come back from their holidays, if they did manage to spot one, it is often related as one of the high spots of their time; “Oh, and we even saw a dolphin in the bay!”
In this respect dolphins remain in our imaginations as being something a little unusual and not part of our expected daily norms. So too is the tachash. Although it occurs 14 times in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), which is significantly more than some of the other animals we have been looking at, it still retains an air of mystique. Translators simply don’t quite know what to make of it.
In my experience, bats are like Marmite. They tend to divide opinion. Some people detest them while others are enchanted by them. Perhaps this is because they literally flit on the peripheries of our lives. The darting dots, like fireflies in reverse, that fly in the gloaming in such apparently random and unpredictable ways. The bat is a liminal creature in so many ways. Then there is that archive of folktales and family stories. The (always distant) relative for whom a bat got caught up in her (it usually is a ‘her’) hair. As a child I was assured that this could never happen, the bat’s skill at echolocation, as well as at flying, was far too good for that. Although, in later life, I found that the swarms of midges, drawn by my body-heat, just above my head, provides a very rich hunting ground and, on more than one occasion, I have felt the rush of air from the wings of a swooping bat.
There is a general air of ambivalence surrounding the caterpillar… France (1986:35) suggests that, being “nurtured with the notions of the woolly caterpillar of Little Arabella Millar and the amiable [really??!] and bumbling creature of Alice in Wonderland“, we have a somewhat romanticised view of the humble caterpillar. While it is true that this literary tradition continues to the present (with the popularity books like Eric Carle’s (1969) The Very Hungry Caterpillar), I am not totally convinced that most people view them quite so benignly. Despite the love that is often accorded to butterflies, my experience is that people tend to be rather squeamish of them and react in a similar way to spiders or worms.
What is noticeable is that, although there are possible references to caterpillars in the Bible, there are no references to butterflies at all. Israel hosts a large number of resident and migrant species – as well as moths (which do receive mentions in both the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and New Testament.