A first trip to Otmoor
The quotation that forms the title comes from Evening: Zero Weather, a poem by Thomas Merton commemorating these chill days after Christmas (text here). His view – a land without wildlife, where liturgy is a refuge and a celebration after hard physical work – was not what I experienced. He and his monastic brethren are
…sunken in our adoration,
And plunge down, down into the fathoms of our secret joy
That swims with undefinable fire.
And we will never see the copper sunset
Linger a moment, like an echo on the frozen hill…Thomas Merton, Evening: Zero Weather
For our trip to the Otmoor Nature Reserve it was very different. We came in haste from the busy centre of Oxford through the twisty lanes and down to Otmoor, to throw back our hoods and watch the copper sunset and to see if we might get to watch the starlings and their drifting, balletic murmuration. We weren’t late, and more people came after us, some armed with sandwiches and massive-lensed cameras. In general we stood quiet, watching the other birds over the reeds and in the trees.
The light was itself a revelation. The deeper golds and the encroaching blues were like something from a medieval stained glass window, lit from within – but in contrast to the enclosure of a building, we were engulfed in light and space spreading wider and wider.
And as it faded, our expectation grew. A Marsh Harrier grazes the tops of the reedbeds; a Heron flies over much higher; a flock of Lapwings tumbles hastily into the reeds, and one Dunnock spends a good five minutes rather eccentrically hopping between my boots and the brambles. And then, in ones and twos and then in larger groups, joining together or catching up with one in front, came the starlings. Thousands of them: rank on rank.
Just as a church often has a big congregation watching and a smaller number of active agents as singers and celebrants, in contrast here, the observers were few – maybe twenty of us? – and the celebrants we watched were many. Some birding is detailed, organised and serious – this is a good website to indicate what’s going on – but some is excited but familial, even jolly in a hushed sort of way. I’m not sure where Maggie and I were in this spectrum, but I do know that, amateur that I am, I was immensely moved.
The swirls and sudden plunges of each group were beautiful in themselves, like cloths shaken in the wind (Julian of Norwich’s image of sorrow as men shakyn a cloth in the wynde but we also talk of an exaltation of larks). All those animals moving to their rest. Do they pick somewhere different every night? Are they opportunistic? I wonder about that Harrier – could it grab from this abundance of life? Then I remember seeing a video of a Peregrine stooping, and I think of that marvellous appreciation of the hunting bird by J A Baker. All sorts of expectations and delights are tumbled in me, my own internal murmuration.
So the birds are rushing for shelter against predators and a chill night to come, and we are standing watching them – and it is dazzling. Why do we find this beautiful? The rich colours like they were being distilled to wintry essence, the rush of the birds (and their singing in the reeds that sounded like running water), the way the last of the sun catches in the ditches: there was an overload of beauty – but can we talk of this? Can there be too much?
Perhaps the simplicity of Mary Oliver is a way forward:
But mostly I stand in the dark field,
in the middle of the world, breathing
in and out. Life so far doesn’t have any other name
but breath and light, wind and rain.
If there’s a temple, I haven’t found it yet.
I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass
and the weeds.Mary Oliver: What Is There Beyond Knowing
I wish this were me, silent as I watch the crowds pass and gather over the fenny land beyond the trees and are then lost, but I bring too many words with me, I am already berating myself for my poor natural history knowledge; already, with photo after photo thinking of social media, of this blog. Percolating up, I remember Baker, but am also thinking of the Thomas Merton poem because I am pondering how this experience ties in with spirituality and I feel myself caught, somehow, between the intensity of nature and the anchoring of a moving encounter in something formal, regular. It is only when I come to write some notes that I realise how different this evening has been, inside-out and outside-in, from something enclosed, measured and organised. I am glad of the challenge. To use phrases from the Merton poem, the zero days before Lent are not just for huddling away, but for looking up, looking outwards, with eyes as clean as the cold sky.