Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Watching the Road

I've witnessed so many examples of bad driving over the past few days. I'm not that great a driver myself, but I hope most of the time I'm attentive and safety conscious. Most of the bad driving practice I've seen has been I think due to three particular recurring problems :-

Firstly - not being in proper control of the car. I really think this is more and more an issue. Cars are themselves safer, but sometimes I feel the car does so much that the driver becomes more prepared than he or she ever should to hand over responsibility - to what? - a computer, an advanced braking system, and a satnav. That last is quite significant - our one way system, too new to be on many satnavs, is just one area in which foolish drivers make wrong turns and dangerous manoeuvres because that's what their satnav has directed them to do, and clearly have become so dependant on that piece of kit that they no longer bother looking at road signs.

Secondly - not having proper thought for other road users. Excessive speed is of course one persistent failing, and that mad desire to get past the person in front, just because. I slowed down the other morning to make space for someone who had overtaken me foolishly and needed to get in so as to avoid a head-on collision, only to be overtaken by someone else as I did so. Which leads me to my third point, which is

- inattentiveness: not watching the road properly. Too many drivers do not drive analytically. You need to be constantly interpreting what is ahead of you and around you, and, frankly, if there is something ahead you can't interpret or understand, then the chances are you're approaching it too fast. It's always worth checking your speed (in both senses of the word).

Monday, 28 July 2014

He Ain't Heavy . . .

A talk given yesterday at Welsh Frankton :-

The road is long, with many a winding turn;                             
that leads us to who knows where,                 
who knows where . . .

Congratulations if you managed to recognize those words, since I  decided not to sing them. These are the opening lyrics to the song “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother”, which was a huge hit for the Hollies in 1969, and a hit again for Neil Diamond in the following year. It’s been a hit over and over, most recently as a charity single in 2012, raising funds for causes connected with the Hillsborough disaster.

This is a song with a story to it, and indeed with a story behind it. The title “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” was the motto of Boys Town, a community formed in 1917 by a Catholic priest named Father Edward Flanagan, in Omaha, Nebraska. Boys Town was a place where troubled or homeless boys could come for help, and its good work continues to this day, as probably one of the most significant children’s charities in the USA - girls have also been accepted since the late 1970’s. The work of Boys Town has been celebrated in two Hollywood films, the second of which, “Men of Boys Town”, included the Hollies’ version of the song when it was remade in the 1980’s. The phrase “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” had been used for the first time in the first version of “Men of Boys Town”, released in 1941, and it was in that year Father Flanagan decided to adopt the phrase as the motto for his work, as he felt it summed up so well what his work aimed to achieve.

And that was because Father Flanagan had been impressed by the story behind the phrase, a story not from America but from Scotland. It can be found in “The Parables of Jesus,” a book published in 1884, written by the then Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, the Reverend James Wells.

James Wells told the story of a young girl who was seen carrying a baby boy along the street. She was only small, and the baby was big and bonny, and a minister, passing by, said kindly to her, “My, but that’s a fair burden you have there, lassie; you must be tired.” And her reply became the title of the song: “No, sir: he isna heavy, he’s my brother!”

But I’d like for a moment to move from that story to the traditional story of St Christopher, remembered as the patron saint of travellers. Christopher was a big strong fellow who decided to devote his great strength to the service of the greatest king. So he entered the king’s service, but one day he saw the king cross himself at the mention of the devil. If the king was afraid of the devil, reasoned Christopher, the devil must be a greater king, so off he went to serve him. He came across a mob of bandits, one of whom claimed he was the devil, so Christopher joined them. But one day he saw his new master shrink away from a wayside cross - the devil was afraid of Jesus Christ. So Christopher decided to serve Jesus. 

He met a hermit who instructed him in the Christian faith. “How can I serve Jesus?” asked Christopher. The hermit told him he served Jesus by fasting and prayer, but there was no way a big lad like Christopher could serve his Lord in such a way. So the hermit suggested that he might use his size and strength to serve by carrying people across a nearby river. There was no bridge, the water was deep, and some had died, swept away by the water. This, said the hermit, would be a service pleasing to Jesus.

So Christopher made it his task to carry people across the river. Then one day a little child asked him to take him across. As they crossed the waters rose, and the child seemed as heavy as lead, so much so that Christopher could scarcely carry him and found himself in great difficulty; but he prayed for strength and managed to press on to the other side.

“Child,” he said to the boy, once they had made it across, “Of all the people I’ve carried across this river, you’ve been that hardest to bear. I began to fear I wouldn’t make it across; surely if the whole world had been on my shoulders it could not have been as heavy as you.” The child replied: “You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but Him who made it. I am Christ your king, whom you are serving by this work.”

And so Reprobus, which had actually been the man’s name until that time, received his new name of Christopher, which means “The one who has carried Christ.”

I was reminded of both these stories when I read through the passage of scripture set for today in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Two places particularly in that letter - firstly, when in chapter 8 verse 26 Paul speaks about the Spirit coming to the aid of our weakness; and then in verse 29 when Paul describes Jesus as choosing to be the eldest in a large family of brothers (and sisters, of course - elsewhere Paul makes it clear that in Christ both male and female find equal acceptance and worth).

At first listen, the song “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” just tells the story of that little girl helping her brother, and that in itself is an inspiration, as we think of how important our families are and of how we belong to each other; but in the middle eight of the song the lyrics lift us onto a higher plain, and remind us that the whole world should live as family: “If I’m laden at all, I’m laden with sadness, that everyone’s heart isn’t filled with the gladness of love for one another.” It’s this relationship that Christ calls us into; how sad that so often religion divides when it should unite, and narrows our vision when it should be widening and enhancing it. How sad when the Church itself is not immune from these failings.

I’ve always been rather impatient with dogmas and doctrines. Of course, they’re important; they’re part of the process of being Church together, and understanding what we believe and how we are called to act and behave. But in the end it isn’t the way we describe or define God that’s important, but the relationship we have with him: what he does with our hearts. We are people of Christ, and therefore people of the Holy Spirit, and, to quote again from Romans 8 verse 26, the Spirit is the one who comes to the aid of our weakness.

As I listen to the song “He ain’t heavy” I’m inspired by the refusal of the little girl in the story to admit that her brother could ever be a burden to her. He’s her brother, and therefore it isn’t only her duty to carry him, but also her delight. It’s an act of love. And it’s the love she has that makes her strong enough to carry him.
But the story of Christopher the Christ-bearer reminds us also that the service of our Lord is also the place in which we recognise and confront our weakness. Being aware of our weakness is a vital turning point. Christopher knew how strong he was, and he was eager to use that strength in the service of his King. But on that fateful day when he carried the child across the flood, he also realised how weak he could be. Sheer strength was not enough. On the verge of losing his footing and being swept away with his precious charge, he prayed for help, and that help was given him - not help to take away the pain and challenge and sheer back-breaking slog of his task, but help enough to go beyond the limit of his own powers and still to reach the other side.

Serving our Lord is a co-operative venture. That’s the promise Jesus made when he told his disciples they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Give all you can give; it won’t be enough, but you’ll not be left like that. For when you pledge yourself to give, you will also receive.

Many of the stories Jesus told have within them a sense of a secret that can be hard to find and discover, but which when found is of infinite value and preciousness. So in the story we’ve heard this morning a merchant finds a pearl of such great price that he sells everything he has in order to buy it. Or we hear about the farmer who finds treasure buried in a field, so he sells all his other land to buy that field.

Just think a moment about those two stories. In simple human terms they don’t make sense. What farmer gets rid of all his land in order to buy a single field that he’s not going to be able to do anything with, for fear of disturbing what’s buried there? A merchant gets rid of all his stock in order to buy a jewel he’s never going to sell; what sort of a merchant could ever do something like that? You’d say of both of them that they’ve gone a little mad, that their heads have been turned.

Jesus I think liked to shock and puzzle people like that, but the nonsense element in those parables (nonsense in everyday human terms, anyway) was exactly his point. Once you’ve grasped the secret, it becomes so important that nothing else matters. And the secret is that we are known and loved and treasured; that we for all our unworthiness are saved; that we are weak and unable to save ourselves, but the Spirit is ours to help us in our weakness, to open our eyes and our hearts, and to give us prayers to pray. That God who could destroy us our ignore us chooses in Jesus Christ to be our big brother.

Solomon, when he became king in place of his father David, took possession of the nation that had become powerful and prosperous. But his first act is to go prayerfully to the shrine at Gibeon, and to acknowledge that the people of this nation are not his, but God’s. Out of all the things he might have asked for, he asks for wisdom and for a discerning ear and heart, so that he might not only govern but serve the people placed in his care. 

Whoever we are, high or low in human terms, our call and our mission under God is to serve. Because we know Jesus, we know also that we’ll find in him the best model of service. He’s our great example, he’s the Servant-King. Paul expresses it like this: “We have the mind of Christ.”

So it would be good like Solomon to pray for the gift of discernment and the ability to listen deeply; and like Christopher to be ready to offer all we have in the service of our King; and like the little girl in the story, may we too have perseverance and love so we can bear the load gladly. And may we have as our own the precious jewel that lies at the heart of it all: that though we’re too weak and too short sighted and too lacking in faith and though we can’t manage to do in our own strength anything like enough to qualify for heaven, none of that matters, because we’re already there we’re already citizens of that place. For our God knows us and loves us and saves us and strengthens us, and in Jesus he chooses to call us sisters and brothers, family.

So we have the holy task of doing loving and lovely things not our of fear or duty but as a thank you and an act of love, because we know we are loved, and because we see the face of our big brother Jesus in all kinds of people who need and merit our help and our care. And so these words become not only inspiring words but holy words too: “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”

Saturday, 26 July 2014


It's good to be able to report tonight that the great British summer fete is still alive and very much kicking. Of course, the weather has helped today, but a good crowd of folk gathered in the churchyard of the little (and very beautiful) parish church of Trelystan, high on the Long Mountain between Shropshire and Montgomeryshire, for no better reason than to have fun together and raise some money for a special building and its work.

In these days when everything has to have a screen and go 'beep', it was both good and, I have to say, somewhat reassuring, to see old and young alike doing all the traditional things: buying second hand books, spare garden plants and home made cakes, indulging in ice cream, cups of strong tea and the products of the barbecue, shying for coconuts and trying their hand at hoopla, and running obstacle and sack races. And loving every minute of it.

Of course, the incidentals are just as important - meeting up with old friends, keeping up with the news, greeting strangers, visitors for whom this was a great opportunity to get inside one of the most interesting churches in this part of Wales, and just enjoying the wonderful weather. That weather made sure some of the farmers were absent, making the most of the opportunity the day brought to bring in the hay or start cutting and combining the wheat - but there was a big crowd, for all that.

I don't know how much was made on the day - raffles, tombola, bottle stall, it all adds up - but I doubt anyone present begrudged a cent of it. This is always a good day, and the regulars have it inked in in the diary months beforehand; but I guess this year's will be better than most - "This is one we're going to look back on," as one local told me.

Friday, 25 July 2014


We live in a throwaway age, and are surrounded by plastic and, more to the point, plastic packaging. Of course, now we are required to recycle rather than simply throw away without thought, and here we have a red bin for plastics and metals, a blue one for paper, and a green one for glass. Plus we have some instructions as to what should or should not go into each bin.

It's the plastic one that is the most problematic. Plastic wrapping is fine, as long as it doesn't make a crinkling sound when crumpled. The problem is defining the sound . . . though we are helped by the assurance from on high that plastic used to wrap papers and magazines that arrive through the mail is OK for recycling. As to the pots and cartons, whether it can be recycled or not is determined (here, anyway) not by whether it bears the recycling mark but on what number it bears inside that mark. Some are OK, some are not. Yoghurt pots, I find, all look much the same but can in fact be made out of a number of different kinds of plastic, some recyclable, some not; much the same, I think, for margarine tubs.

My instinct is to put them all into the recycling bin, and let the council, or whoever they contract to do the work, organise the sorting out of things. But no doubt there is a hefty fine or some other punishment in store for those who contravene the rules. One obvious question in my mind is - if some yoghurt pots are easily recyclable, why aren't all yoghurts supplied in these pots? And what is being done to require, or at least encourage, manufacturers and retailers to do this?

The other obvious question has to do with why we need quite so much packaging in the first place. Packaging rage is becoming a feature of modern society, I learn, particularly among the more senior age-groups. Having struggled ineffectively to penetrate the various layers of plastic, some of which produces sharp jagged edges when split, and causes injury, the item bought gets either accidentally broken in the course of breaking through the packaging, or else deliberately smashed against the wall in a fit of sheer rage. Yes, all right, I admit it, I've been there, done that.

Well, that's enough rant for now on this subject, but it's sure to be one that returns . . . gets recycled, even.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014


Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.” This is a thought that strikes home, so far as I'm concerned. As a fridge magnet I have reminds me, "Where words begin to fail us, music takes over." Words can never be enough to address the mystery that is God; indeed, far from opening up that mystery and making it accessible, words become things in themselves to believe in, raising barriers and forming sects. Music is much better at breaking barriers, and it connects immediately with emotions.

Of course, music can be misused, and songs can be sung in hatred and anger, as part of what identifies this group as opposed to that one. Even then, however, there is I think a subversive risk about music; somehow, it is always conspiring against the sectarians and wanting to side with freedom and justice. I remember, many years ago, singing some of the great revolutionary anthems of Latin America (along with John Lennon's "Imagine") as one of many thousand voices in a football stadium in Porto Allegre, Brazil. There was a power and energy present in that singing that I've hardly experienced anywhere else. The music almost seemed to have a life of its own.

As a Christian, I am impatient with doctrine. I have no desire to know how many angels may dance on the head of a pin - though I'd love to know what songs they're dancing to. I find I am able to sing with people despite the divergences between what I believe and what they do - and, having sung together, I find we can share and work and witness together. And laugh together: as someone has said, and I have no idea who, "The best songs are those that write a smile on the heart." And I am sure that something like that is God's high desire for his people, that we should have smiles on our hearts.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014


The woods behind our house play host to many pairs of wood pigeons, whose call I find quite restful, though it has to be admitted that other members of the household do not share that perception. They have a point, I suppose; the pigeons do tend to go on a bit! We also have regular visits from collared doves, which, little more than fifty years on from their first arrival in the UK, having spread across Europe from Asia Minor, are now (along with the wood pigeon) firmly established in the top ten most seen garden birds.

But we also get town pigeons, the feral descendants of domesticated rock doves. I don't mind; they are pleasant enough visitors, and help to clean up under the feeders. But we are beginning to get more and more of them, and I don't want to get the reputation of being a soft touch among Welshpool's population of feral pigeons. Clearly, our garden has acquired the pigeon equivalent of the tramp's secret chalkmark on the gate: "Kind-hearted and gullible," it probably says - something like that.

But no more. Tonight I decided it was time to just unsettle "our" pigeons a bit, and - while I wouldn't want to drive them away altogether - make sure they don't feel too welcome. Our heavy-duty water-shooter, all in bright plastic so as to appeal to junior followers of Arnold Schwarzenegger, has seen sterling duty against our local squirrels; now it's been turned on the pigeons. To be honest, it hasn't yet been as effective as I'd hoped; with pigeons, one is dealing with a unique combination of doggedness and stupidity.

The scenario plays out like this: pigeon lands on lawn, only to be hit by a decent spray of water shot from our gun, my eye being well in, whereupon pigeon flies off in alarm. However, said pigeon flies only as far as the further corner of the roof, whence he waddles along to the corner nearest me, looks me up and down for a moment, then flies back down onto the lawn, only to be met with another burst from the gun. Back to the roof he flies, and the whole story is played out again . . . and again.

I think this could quite easily have gone on all night, had the pigeon not been unsettled by a noisy bevy of passing crows that bounced him into deciding to move on elsewhere. He'll be back tomorrow, I'm sure. This is a trial of patience and persistence, and I'm not at all sure which of us is going to win.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Letter and Response

An email today from a friend, and my response . . .

Dear Bill,

There is an old joke about being so broad minded that your brains fall out. It seems to me that the Anglican Church suffers from a similar problem. Because it plays host to everybody from wannabe Baptists to Anglo Catholics who want to be more Catholic than the Pope, it can't say, "This is what we believe," without upsetting one group or another.  Consequently it ends up with no theology in particular. Even belief in God can be an optional extra, and that's amongst the clergy - not just the laity. The Thirty Nine Articles are shut away in the broom cupboard, like a slightly senile maiden aunt everybody is a bit embarrassed of.

In the political sphere, it would be like a political party which included everybody fom left wing Marxists to right wing Tories, and, come election time, they find it impossible to write a manifesto without one faction or another threatening to break away.

Probably the Anglican Church is the ideal church for somebody new to Christianity, and who is him/herself none too sure of what they believe.


Hello L

Good to hear from you . . . well, this is pretty much a common feature of all "national" churches, and certainly a similar point could be made from within, say the Lutheran churches of the Nordic nations - or even the German Lutherans, since those attending the big eucharist we went to at the 1999 Kirchentag and those demonstrating outside against the Godless liberalism of us inside were, as I understand it, technically members of the same church. But it all seems rather silly to me. Faith is about engaging with mystery, and as we try to do that we shall have different experiences and different personal pictures of what that mystery might be. Of course there have to be limits and some consonance of belief (hence the need for corporate worship and prayer, and some kind of structure . . . and, maybe, to get the 39 articles out of the broom cupboard, dust them off, and use them carefully and - more to the point - caringly), but within those limits we need to be free to see things in a different way from our co-religionists without falling out. Sad that we often can't manage this; once we start erecting huge great doctrinal walls, from which we shower our rivals with flaming arrows, we are in fact believing something that is too small to be the truth. My image of God isn't God, God is always more than anything I can manage to fix my poor brain on. The nearest I can get to the truth is to say, with Paul, that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself". And maybe therefore to then say to the rest of the CofE, whether they be swinging thuribles or waving their copies of Mission Praise, that the Jesus of the Gospels is where we begin, and all else is to be read and understood in the light that he gives us, and with forbearance and love. Funny, though, that for all my own doubts about Anglicanism, so that sometimes other denominations look much more tempting and at others I wonder whether really I am a "post-Church believer", the Anglican Church still feels like the best boat from which to fish - for me, anyway.

Back out into the sunshine now . . .


Wednesday, 16 July 2014


A few days ago I was walking along a narrow country lane near Montford Bridge when I was pleased to see a yellowhammer alight on the road a little way ahead. Its bright plumage positively glowed in the bright sunshine of that day; this is the one British bird that could, I suppose, be mistaken by the uninitiated for a canary. Well, canaries are finches and yellowhammers are buntings, related but not all that closely - and the yellowhammer has its own distinctive if not quite so mellifluous song, often Anglicised as "A little bit of bread and no cheese."  I watched the yellowhammer for a while, until it decided to fly up onto a perch a little further along the hedgerow, allowing me to continue my walk.

I was pleased to see it because, frankly, it's been a while since I last saw a yellowhammer. They were very familiar birds throughout my youth. I don't walk along country lanes as often as I did in my schooldays, so I suppose I wouldn't see so many yellowhammers, but the sad truth is also that there aren't as many to see. Like many other formerly common birds of the mixed farmland that was formerly widespread, these attractive buntings have seen quite a fall in numbers over recent years, as have relatives like the corn bunting and the cirl bunting.

But they are still about, and the decline of farmland birds is being addressed. These are not species you can protect and encourage via the development of nature reserves, by and large - and in any case that would have the effect of preserving small isolated populations, which may well lack vigour and viability. You need to tackle the thorny issue of farming practices and hedgerow conservation; however, while farmers need to be able to turn in a profit and keep the business viable, most also value the natural world and are keen to play their part in making sure there is still a place for yellowhammers and the like. It's just a matter of education and awareness, and finding ways of keeping up-to-date farming practices wildlife-friendly. Of course, we are fortunate in this part of the world; there are still lots of hedges, and farming is still in many parts locally a mixed and family business. Hence the yellowhammer I saw the other day (and the butterflies, burnet moths and coursing sparrow hawk that were also features of that walk).

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Spotted Flycatcher

It was a joy to see a "spottie" today busily hawking for insects in a rather untidy farmyard not too far from here. This has always been one of my favourite birds, and for years (while I was Vicar of Minsterley) we had one nesting in Virginia creeper just outside my study window. It is a late arrival, one of the last of our summer visitors, and, as a somewhat dull brown and grey bird of sparrow size, you might think unremarkable in appearance.

What makes it distinctive is its behaviour. It is a very lively little creature, often perching on a vantage point (today, a piece of farm machinery) from which it can survey the area around and fly in pursuit of a passing insect. Often it will return straight away to the same perch. The bill of this bird is worthy of note, I always think, although in many ways this is a bird of nondescript appearance: it's dark in colour, as slim as a stiletto and just as deadly (if you're insect sized, at any rate).

I saw lots of stylish and often brightly coloured flycatchers in South America, but the "spottie" is one of only two species of flycatcher likely to be seen in the UK - the other, the pied flycatcher, arrives before the "spotties" and is a woodland specialist not uncommon these days on the western side of the country - though I did hear of one visiting a garden feeding station in Snailbeach, not far from here, and popped up to have a look (the bird duly arrived, and used the station as a perch from which to conduct operations). Being a male, it was clothed in very stylish black and white. There is also the rarer red-breasted flycatcher which is seen as a passage migrant - generally along the east coast, but they can turn up elsewhere, and Ann and I found one sitting on a rock at the top of the beach just outside Llanfairfechan. I'm not a twitcher with a tick list and an urgent need to bag rarities, but even so I was quite unreasonably pleased to have spotted this little chap.

Saturday, 12 July 2014


Quite a few young siskins at our feeders today - small and very streaky birds, about the same size as the blue tits that are visiting us in great numbers just now. I was very pleased to see the siskins, as this means siskins have nested in the vicinity this summer, something I'd expected as we've seen adult birds from time to time throughout the season, but which I'm glad to have proved. In previous years, it has always been my impression that siskins have moved up country by the end of March or so, not to be seen down our way until the end of the summer.

The young birds were very tame, and stayed at the feeders (with me watching from a nearby shed) while other birds arrived and dispersed. Even the arrival of noisy and untidy pigeons, along with one of the local squirrels, failed to move them. There was no sign of the parent birds.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014


This morning once again our garden is full of jackdaws - a family consisting of two parents and four children. I realise that only adds up to six birds, but they still manage to fill our garden. The parents are feeding at our garden feeding station, which involves a great deal of flapping of wings and clumsy manoeuvring, while the youngsters, who I think would still like just to be fed by mum and dad, have to look on and learn, and peck at the stuff their parents drop.

The jackdaws can't get into the squirrel-proof sunflower feeders, so have to stick to the fat-ball dispenser. As they peck chunks of fat away, they are rather messy eaters, so in fact the youngsters (and a couple of pigeons who have also looked in) are doing quite well out of the scraps. Other birds don't get a look-in. At present, we are being visited by large numbers of young blue tits and great tits, and I can see them in the nearby trees and bushes, waiting for the coast to be clear. The jackdaws aren't going to harm them, but all this mad flapping of dusky wings is too much for the small birds.

The parent jackdaws have the distinctive light grey napes, while the children are more of a plain black - or perhaps charcoal - all over. But they are big birds, and they look far too large to be what they are: children, with lots still to learn, including how to feed themselves.

Monday, 7 July 2014


My most recent 'Nature Notes' for one or two local publications :-

The wild fauna and flora of the UK is constantly changing, and new species are arriving all the time, sometimes enriching our natural scene and sometimes endangering it in some way or other. Some species arrive by their own efforts, for example in recent years the Collared Dove, the Little Egret and Cetti’s Warbler; some are deliberately introduced, or perhaps reintroduced after becoming extinct: examples might be games birds like the Pheasant and the Red-Legged Partridge, or raptors like the Red Kite (in England and Scotland) and the White-Tailed Eagle. Yet others have either been deliberately released or are accidental escapees from collections, most notably perhaps the Canada Goose and, common now in London and other parts of South-east England, the Ring-Necked Parakeet.

Quite a few water birds have joined our fauna as escapes from collections, and for the most part they cause little concern. Canada Geese have become something of a scourge mainly because they are present in such large numbers, and can cause damage to water-edge habitats, while the Ruddy Duck, an American “stifftail” duck, has been culled because of the risk of interbreeding with the only European stifftail, the White-Headed Duck, a rare resident of Spanish wetlands.

But the bird I was delighted to see not long ago on the River Sow at Stafford is not only a reasonably problem-free addition to our bird fauna, but in fact is present in such numbers as to be internationally important - the Mandarin Duck. Mandarin males are among the most amazingly plumaged birds you are likely to see in the UK, and can be found on lakes and slow-moving waters, mostly to the south and east of the English midlands but in a number of places in Wales too. There are perhaps 7000 birds in the UK, a significant number given that probably less than 1000 pairs remain in its homeland of China, and the population there is declining. It is an Asian species, found also in Korea and in parts of Russia, and in Japan which holds perhaps half the world population. Mandarins have found a home in other parts of western Europe, and there are some in the USA, but the British population is potentially important.

The exotic plumage of the male is beyond my capacity to describe in just a few words. Suffice to say it includes a white head with red bill, dark russet cap and yellow cheeks, remarkable long orange feathers hanging down from the cheeks each side, orange ‘sails’ standing erect on each side, a purple chest and chestnut sides. The female, by contrast, is a plain brown-grey bird with a white eye stripe. The diet is mostly plants and seeds, but Mandarins will also take insects, small fish, snails and so forth. Like Mallards, they feed by dabbling, and will also graze. I have heard they have a fondness for acorns in season. The preferred habitat is a wooded area around a lake or pond, and they make their nest in a hole in a tree, where a single clutch of as many as twelve eggs is incubated by the female. The ducklings have to drop to the ground to leave the nest, after which they will follow the female to water.  Grass Snakes, Otters and Mink are significant predators.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

The Weight of Things

Weight changes depending on where and how you measure it. Mass remains the same, even when a body is weightless, as, for example, with an astronaut in space. There is a crucial difference between the two. When, last autumn, I was standing on the viewing platform of the Rockefeller Building in New York, had there been a set of scales handy I might have delighted in weighing less than I did down at ground level back in my hotel. The measure of my waistline hadn't changed (alas), but the force of gravity would have been slightly, but measurably, less at that height.

Gravity is a fundamental of our existence. It's what holds us in place; and by giving us weight, it also becomes a component of our human identity. It is why we are constructed and shaped the way we are. We spend our lives fighting gravity, and those who are particularly good at doing that, like great athletes, are deservedly praised. There is a sense in which the struggle against gravity becomes one of the measures of life, as witnessed in growth and movement - and, in the human story, invention.

Gravity and, alongside it, time are our lifelong prisoners; we can never entirely escape them, and in the end we succumb to them both. It is ironic, given that, that science has never fully explained either of these forces, and some scientists at least would claim that neither gravity not time really exist, it is just that from within our experience of things they seem to. But I certainly do not understand enough science to enter that argument!

But here are my thoughts, for what it's worth, as a person of faith. Is everything about me in fact fatally enslaved by gravity and time, or is there somehow more to me than just the stuff of organic life? Is the sense I claim I have of the spiritual self merely a fearful attempt to escape from the inevitable victory of gravity and time, or might there be a deeper truth about me that neither gravity nor time can master? Am I merely body, or am I both body and soul? In the end I choose to be on the side of the angels (so to speak), but I understand those of my friends who cannot join me there. Simple common-sense tells me that this world is all there is, that gravity can't be beaten, that time will in the end win, and that dust must always return to dust. But somehow it doesn't feel that that is enough, and somehow things like music and wonder and ecstasy and love remain unaccounted for in this calculation. I may well just be a victim of wishful thinking. But I am content and happy to be so.