Saturday, March 27, 2010

spring wind / animal culture

A day or two after a spring blow, I was under one of those hybrid black poplars and saw treasures from the crown that had snapped off and landed at my feet, branches heavy with green buds that were about to burst. What happens up in the crowns of tall trees is something that is intentionally hidden from the predations of ground-dwellers like us. I took some twigs home and put them in a vase, and a couple of days later I had the chance to see these catkins close to.



I am not expert enough to know the differences between poplar hybrids. Generally, I'm referring to the ones, grown in small plantations for timber, that have sharply ascending but still angled branches, broader and more handsome than the brush-like Lombardy poplars. There are several different kinds, but all I think hybrids of the native black poplar and the American cottonwood. The catkins appear well before the leaves, so the pollen can stream forth unimpeded on the breeze.



If the rookeries of Melksham are anything to go by, then hybrid poplars are highly favoured by rooks, the crotches being ideal locations for sturdy and permanent nests. I have many questions about rookeries, but there are none very close to where I live. I think they would make a great subject for the study of animal culture, that is, for local forms of behaviour that persist from one generation to the next. I would like to know how the nests are maintained, how they are allocated each season, whether the rooks ever sit in the nests except when bringing up young, whether it is only the female who does so, whether other species are discouraged from nesting nearby, and all about the social interaction between these highly social birds, especially the interactions that are not directly concerned with the grand but easily-interpreted stories of mating and breeding: it seems to me that here is the locus where we should look for animal culture.

*

Thaw

Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.

Edward Thomas (1878-1917)

(The text as it's generally published, e.g. where I found it, in Country Verses, edited by Samuel Carr, 1979. Text is from 66 poems, except for the title and the hyphen in "elm-tops".)

10 iii 16
Going home

Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm tops, delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.

(from Notebook containing drafts of 66 poems, 25th June 1915 - 24th December 1916. The capitalization of "Winter" is hesitant.)

Thaw

Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed,
And saw from elm-tops delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, winter pass

(from Notebook containing drafts of 27 poems, 1916.)

Thaw

OVER the land half freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed,
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as a flower of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.

(from http://www.theotherpages.org/poems/thomas01.html - internet representation, introducing casual changes.) I do appreciate "half freckled" - it's more accurate than what Thomas wrote. Because when the snow is patchy in one area of the view you can bet it's disappeared altogether from another. But in another way this modernizes the poem, because we now take for granted an English landscape that is much more open than it was in the days of the elms. Thomas' point was that, being down at ground-level, humans couldn't really see the bigger pattern in the way that the rooks could. Not that the "point" is really what makes the poem tick - the final line doesn't repay much reading, it's just an enabler. The force of the poem really lies elsewhere: "cawed / And saw" mysteriously evokes the scrambling activity of the rooks; "speculating", while partly evoking the comical appearance of the rook's face (from a distance) also emphasizes that comical solemnity (the term follows inevitably) is exactly inappropriate to their manner, that there is a total difference between animal experience and human experience, that their posited wisdom/superior vantage point is a wisdom beyond and quite unlike the wisdom of solemn old gazers in human society.

*

Thomas wrote this poem near Sevenoaks. He had already enlisted, but wasn't sent to France until November 1916 - he was killed in action soon after arriving at the front in April 1917.

As Thomas's poem confirms, up to the 1970s the rookery-tree of choice in southern England was usually an English Elm (Ulmus procera). This was because the elm was a hedgerow tree and it overlooked the rookery's feeding-grounds, which is what rooks want (the size of a rookery matches the acreage very precisely). Coincidentally or not, the upswept shape of the elm crown rather resembles the shape of the hybrid poplars that rooks favour these days. As for Thomas' image of "flower of grass" - though this comes in to the poem mainly for its unseasonable breath of midsummer - the distant edges of the winter elm-crown do have a tufty look that could vaguely suggest the panicles of meadow-grass or Yorkshire fog in their open state. I am basing that remark on photos. To see it today, you would pretty much have to go to the Brighton enclave, where the council chose, uniquely but successfully, to preserve their elms by watchfully cutting away diseased limbs whenever they appeared: a far-sighted decision that saved a lot of money as well as the traditional appearance of Brighton's streets.

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