LAPWINGS AND TIGERMOTHS
Here in the duneland, no rain for a month. Every day now, soon after dawn, the sun’s heat is hurried to a pitiless blaze and the sand burns the air to golden dust. Dragonflies thrive. They materialise beside us like digital updates from paradise, messages alerting us, alerting us – then gone.
In the dune-slack, an impassable marsh in winter, now dry and clinker brittle, the water-mint, toughened by thirst, crunches under our scuffing boots and releases its medicinal vapours; an aroma so volatile it smears itself on our scorched skins.
It clarifies the senses, sweeps the mind clean, and more importantly, conceals the taste of us from the marauding horseflies. “It’s like magic,” I declare, striding ahead, an excitable guide. I’d promised you magic today, after all, on our walk in the dunes, and here it is, all around us, and I am proud.
Yes, magic, the swaying grey viperweed, its hypnotic flowers of indigo and Aegean blue. Everywhere the devil’s-bit and the lady’s bedstraw. In the old names, a history it’s tempting to trust. Fireweed and knapweed, loosestrife and toadflax. The ragwort’s audacious glow is loaded with busy cinnabar moths, soldier beetles, mining bees.
We’re in the otherworld now, because look, here’s a dune orchid, lilac-tongued like the moon. A dragonfly appears again, and we’re face to face with a hovering alphabet, a living hieroglyphic.
This is the spot where fifty years ago a boy found an old flintlock pistol, carefully concealed, treasure, perfectly preserved. He took it to school to show it off, and the headmaster confiscated it and that was that. But still…keep your eyes peeled.
And here come the crested lapwings, a bandit squadron in broken formation swooping towards us, uttering their weird challenge, dive-bombers engaging the intruders. It’s a display intended to distract us and unsettle us and keep us moving. Gorgeous birds who laughed at Christ’s crucifixion.
In the old English spell books that I like to read, you will often come across ‘experiments’ that require a lapwing. To fetch one of the rebel angels out of the fabric of the fallen world, you must first kill a lapwing, we’re told. Then you must make an ink of its blood, and write the angel’s name on the skin of an unborn hound.
It’s said that a female lapwing will feign injury to draw egg-hunters away from her nest, offering herself as a seemingly easy meal. Perhaps it’s this deceitful behaviour that first recommended her blood to magicians. It might fool foxes, but humans have plundered lapwing nests for centuries.
In Victorian times the eggs were massively over-harvested, sold for nothing in London, and lapwing numbers plummeted. The once extensive flocks dwindled to straggling remnants. They’ve continued to decline in our own time.
It’s become impossible to engage with the natural world, the bright world outside the window, without reckoning such losses, without touching the wounds and breaking every spell. We know we will find absences and fading memories. It can sometimes seem as if we’re living in our own elegies.
A tiger moth appeared on my arm last week as I read a rare transcript of “An Excellent Booke of The Arte of Magicke” by Humphrey Gilbert and John Davys, Queen Elizabeth’s master navigator. The moth’s extravagant beauty was astonishing even though the insect was ragged and tired. The underwing colour as rich as Sicilian blood oranges.
Researching it later, I discovered that the tiger moth’s numbers have declined by 89% in my own lifetime. They’ve almost disappeared. How could that have happened? In 30 years. Where have they all gone?
I felt as if I had reached to stroke the softness of its fur but broken off the wings instead. Something profound and fundamental is wrong. Are we abandoning the world? Maybe that’s it. Maybe we’re running fast away from the evidence of our own lives.
“Where he that knows will like a lapwing fly, farre from the nest, and so himself belie.” And here is bittersweet, I say, innocent and treacherous, the country cousin of belladonna, her rambling vine weighed down with purple berries.
And here, my love, is legendary meadowsweet, smirking to herself in the mirror, applying the greasepaint, writing your name, licking the pollen from her fingertips and tasting the white soot of an owl’s wings.