My heart was in my mouth. I was sitting at the traffic junction in our small town where six roads meet and compete for the lights. Would the traffic stop? A duck was slowly waddling across the road with a clutch of tiny ducklings in tow. They made it to the pavement which would lead them along to the river in the middle of town, with just one hiccup over two slow ducklings who stopped to drink from a puddle, and which an impatient woman nearly cleaned up as she got tired of waiting.
This is the duck season. We become very conscious of them as they shepherd their progeny across busy roads, oblivious of the killing machines skidding to a halt yards from them.
A friend told me how in the middle of the busy village street, he stopped to let a mother pass while her babies all scuttled to safety on the pavement, but she wouldn’t move from the middle of the road. As he wondered how long she was going to obstinately stand there, suddenly two recalcitrant toddlers made a dash from the other side to catch up with their mother and siblings. Ducks can count!
The same thrush (I think) who made life difficult for us last year, by nesting in the honeysuckle by the side door of the garage has returned, and I in-advertently uncovered this year’s nest as I began to trim the overhanging ivy on the arch into the garden from the garage. I saw with horror a beautiful blue egg in the exquisitely woven little nest, and hastily covered it with strands of the trimmed ivy.
I blocked the arch with a rake and a hoe and a plank of wood across the top of the steps to stop anyone using it, so now everyone has to go the long way round from the garage. (see pic above!) I tiptoed up the next day, to check if the bird had returned, and as I stood peering intently into the tangle of ivy leaves, I suddenly realised that a beady yellow- rimmed eye was staring at me. I backed away very slowly, apologising softly for my intrusion.
A grey heron unexpectedly circled in front of my car as I drove between spring- green trees and hawthorn hedges encrusted with white blossom this morning; and I noticed that the striking paradise ducks with black, white and sherry coloured plumage who mate for life, seem to have disappeared from their usual haunts – to tend their nests too, I presume.
Driving home in the dusk a few nights ago, I saw what I thought were burrs on the road in front of me, but they were moving. As I swerved, I realised that the tiny balls of black fluff rolling to the side of the road were probably paradise duck babies. They all start off as balls of fluff, and then the brown mallards develop tiny yellow legs and webbed feet that scurry frantically across the road, beautiful little creatures with not an ugly duckling among them.
Years ago as we walked down the lane by our house, being towed by two shaggy afghan hounds and a cavalier King Charles spaniel, I was consoling the children about the village fete, and their spurned handicraft entries. “The thing is,” said my ten year old daughter, “other mothers think their ugly ducklings will grow into swans, but you think we’re swans already!”
Not surprising when I thought about it… swans had been part of my life as a child. We lived close to a lake called the Backwater. It had once been a tidal inlet, until the local authorities had built a bridge which blocked the flow from Weymouth Harbour. Until then the tide had washed up and down this long channel, where there’s evidence that the Romans once had a small port at the end of the inlet where we lived. There’s a legend that later, when the Vikings made their first raid on England at Portland just round the corner, they also pushed their way up the Backwater in AD 787. Later the Saxons settled around here among local British tribes who‘d been inhabiting the area since Mesolithic times – 12,500 BC. (Genetic experiments have shown that a significant segment of the modern population here are descended from those original Mesolithic inhabitants.)
When I knew the Backwater, neither Stone Age coracle nor Viking long-boat could have rowed up the now tide-less water, for thick beds of reeds had spread to give safe cover for the big, white mute swans to build their nests and hide their cygnets. I used to walk my dolls pram down to the edge of the lake and throw them bits of bread. On the grass the other side of the road edging the water, the Americans had had all their tanks and armoured vehicles lined up row on row before they left for D-day, thus reversing the ancient pattern of invasion, and taking fire and sword back to the mainland.
There are so many legends and folk tales about swans, the commonest being that their nearly ten foot wide wing span can break a man’s arm. This is one of the long-running jokes in Sue Townsend’s gloriously funny book, ‘Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction.’ Adrian buys a trendy flat in a disused warehouse alongside the river, and discovers too late that a posse of swans consider this place to be their territory. Everyone who visits the hapless Adrian ends up warning him, “A swan can break a man’s arm, you know”.
They mate for life too, and I love the names of the different species: as well as the mute swans, there are trumpeter swans, whooper swans, tundra swans, and the Bewick, a sub-tribe of the tundra clan. The biggest populations of wild swans live in Russia, and it’s believed that the only reason swans didn’t become extinct in England un medieval times – since they were good eating – was that though everyone cut a notch in the feet of their own swans, birds without the notch were considered to be the sovereign’s property and protected by a royal swan herdsman. This preserved the native species. And as for cygnets, who can forget the all male corps de ballet who performed at Covent Garden, and then made their breath-taking and tantalisingly brief appearance in the film ‘Billy Eliot?’
We only have the non-native black swan here, immigrants from Australia who now populate various lakes around the North Island in great numbers. I remember my disbelief when I saw the one black swan on the lake at Kew Gardens as a little girl. I love them now. The evil black swan queen in Swan Lake gives black swans an undeserved bad name – they are elegant, peace-loving family-oriented birds, loyal to each other, male and female raising their families of cygnets together year after year.
It seems appropriate that all our swans here are black, when I consider that New Zealand’s national colour is black… the All-Blacks play rugby, the NZ cricket team wears black, as does our Olympic team, the America’s Cup yachtsmen and all other sports teams. And statuesque Maori women look magnificent in their black mourning with wreaths of green leaves around their heads, as they perform the ancient karakia or grieving chants with their graceful waving arm movements. Black is indeed Beautiful in this country !
Food for threadbare gourmets
A green-thumbed – or is it green fingered – neighbour generously left a bag of goodies outside the door the other day. Among them were delicious, tender young leeks and green cauliflower. They deserved a dish of their own so I used a recipe I’d just found. Steam enough cauliflower to fill a cup when mashed. Cut the leeks into rounds, and sauté in butter until tender. (I always put a little oil in too, so the butter doesn’t burn) Mix the cauliflower and tender leeks with an egg, a good quarter of a cup of flour, two tablesp of parsley and one of chopped dill, a good grinding of black pepper and half a teasp of salt. Form the mixture into patties and fry on both sides. I sprinkled them with plenty of Parmesan, but I would think crumbled goats cheese would be good too. Next time I try them I shall use coriander, and mix in some crumbled goats cheese.
Food for thought
From Midrashim: Proverbs 6.6
Go to the ant, you sluggard,
and watch it lug an object
forward single file
with no short breaks for
coffee, gossip, a croissant,
And no stopping to apostrophize
blossom, by-passed because
pollen is not its job,
no pause for trampled companions:
consider her ways – and be content.
David Curzon, born 1951 – poet, essayist, translator and United Nations official retiring in 2001.