Fish – דָּגָה (dagah); דָּג (dag); ἰχθύς (ichthus); ὀψάριον (opsarion)
Another image that can capture the delights being outside on a slow summer’s day is sitting beside a flowing stream and catching the flash of light and plop of water as the surface is disturbed by flick of a fish’s tail. It is a great reminder of those completely different, almost alien, and often hidden, habitats populated by life and character that can lie just feet away from us.
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!
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.
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.
Most people tend to encounter spiders indoors rather than outside. However, sit on a piece of grass for even a short length of time and you will soon see this, tiny and often overlooked, scurrying figure. Dewy late summer mornings, when the sun is still low, or frosty autumn and winter days can provide us with a wonderful display of webs that show how abundant and prolific this creature is. Sunrise can turn some meadows into fields of shimmering silver.
There is something special about encountering deer. Increases in population has meant that, in many woodland locations and at certain times of the year, they are fairly easy to spot. Many country parks and estates also keep herds and can allow some very close encounters with them. Despite their antlers, and the rather fierce reputation of stags, deer seem to hold a very special place within the British psyche. This attitude appears also to be reflected by some of the biblical writers.
Although it is not a native to the UK, the acacia or the name ‘acacia’ (to my mind at least) is indelibly connected to suburbia and leafy, neatly trimmed, privet-lined gardens of Middle England. Loved by bees, the acacia carries with it the scent of the exotic, which is not surprising as it is more usually associated with much warmer climes.
The tree of the wilderness
The Bible lists שִׁטָּה (shittah), usually translated as ‘acacia’, twenty-eight times. However, as Tristram (1898:392) cautions, we need to be careful not to confuse it with the acacia commonly found in Britain. The types of acacia normally found in the UK generally originate from Australia rather than the Middle East. Continue reading →