Let’s face it – we haven’t had much of a spring, have we? Sunshine-wise, spring has barely sprung. And yet there is something wonderful about all this rain. Unquestionably, we need it. Only the other day it seems, I was sitting in my favourite old-style coffee house in Brive, sipping a café coursé and glancing at pictures in Le Montagne of parched reservoirs in the Corrèze, which could have been pictures of the Gobi Desert.
All this rain has also resulted in a riot of nature. Fecundity is all around – and it’s far too much for one man and his strimmer. The grass at the back of the house sways like a field of corn every time a new torrential downpour sweeps in off the northern horizon. The wood at the front of the house that separates us from the road has become a dense, impenetrable jungle chock full of joyful bird life. Ah, da boyds, da boyds (as Jimmy ‘Schnozzle’ Durante might have intoned)! They are particularly wonderful at present.
All my British life, I was a Johnny Town Mouse. Since living in the French countryside, I have learned to revel in the bird life here. As a city dweller, I always liked birds, but I rather took them for granted without stopping to fully appreciate just how they can help to raise the spirits. Birds meant mainly sparrows, blackbirds and, when I was a teenage school kid in Belfast, waiting for the bus in the city centre after our weekly trip across town for ‘games’, the starlings that used to roost spectacularly around the grandiose city hall. Birds were nice feathered creatures blessed with wings to keep them out of trouble and largely out of my hair.
The thing about birds was: although I liked them well enough in their own environment, I couldn’t stand it when they intruded on mine. Their panic at finding themselves trapped in a confined space transferred itself to me. I remember once, while working during my year-off after school at the stately home of an eccentric English aristocrat, I was sitting beavering away at my temporary job as his assistant archivist, the family’s papers spread out across a vast mahogany table, when a tiny wren hopped into the room. In the mere anticipation of it starting to flap frantically around the room, I dived under the table and cried out for assistance. Eventually the Philippino butler wandered in and released the bird. I emerged from beneath the table, clutching the pencil I pretended to have dropped.
These days, I’m a bit more grown up about birds. I hang balls of fat from the eaves of the terrace and lurk in the kitchen to watch the little mésanges jabbing at the grease as they cling on to the green nylon netting. They make a right mess of the tiled surface below, but it’s well worth it. Right now, they don’t seem to need the dietary supplement. With all this springtime abundance, they’re presumably tucking into more natural treats. The fatty balls are spurned, so to speak.
It’s not that I’ve turned into a bird-watcher in my dotage. I watched a five-minute interview with Vic Reeves on the BBC website the other day and he confessed to being a bird fancier. But his version of bird watching is to wait for them to come to him and then tell them what they’re called in Latin. That’s more my particular model. I don’t watch Bill Oddity’s programme and I couldn’t be doing with the business of disguising myself as a bush and scanning the horizon for hours on end through a pair of binoculars. Only the idea of fishing seems more uninteresting. I haven’t the patience for it.
I’m happy enough just to hear them in the background. What with the constant subliminal sizzle of crickets, and the buzzards wheeling away on top of their hot air currents, it’s the calls and responses of birds in the wood that gives you the impression that you’re living somewhere really exotic. There’s one bird in particular that transforms the woods into some kind of equatorial jungle. Not that I’m familiar with jungles. My experience is entirely indirect, via films like Werner Herzog’s remarkable Aguirre, Wrath of God – the lasting impression of which, apart from the crazed Klaus Kinski’s portrayal of the crazed conquistador, was the amazing soundtrack provided by thousands of unseen exotic birds.
It’s still a thrill to hear the cuckoo at this time of year, despite knowledge of its beastliness to fellow birds, but when I hear the sound of the hoopoe in our woods, my spirits are truly borne aloft. All activity stops for the duration. I’m not sure of the spelling, but the French call this brilliant bird an oop (or, for that matter, an upe), which is a decent onomatopoeic rendition of its call. Vic Reeves can manage a splendid impression of his favourite bird, the curlew, but I can’t yet respond convincingly to the hoopoe’s call. So they tend to hide themselves among the thick foliage. My friend Dan was working at his computer a few weeks ago when a pair of them landed on the windowsill just the other side of his AppleMac. I was very jealous. Hoopoes love ants (among other things) and, since our ‘lawn’ is a lunar landscape of flying-ants’ nests, I’m tempted to go out there with the semaphore flags and guide them down as those sailors guide the fighter planes back to the deck of the aircraft carrier. To have a lawn full of long-billed hoopoes hoovering up ants, while a bevy of rescued hedgehogs root about for slugs would be, in the words of David Bowie, ‘really quite para-dise’.
For the moment, I have to content myself with vicarious sightings. Early one recent morning, a text message vibrated across the table from where I was writing my journal. My daughter, you might say, tweeted me to say that she and her mum had just seen two hoopoes on the way to Brive. My joy was unconfined. To think that I had brought up my child to marvel at such a site and to know her father sufficiently well to send him such a message…
It’s due to stop raining later this week. Everyone has been moaning about the weather around here. I’ve done a bit of that myself when I’ve forgotten what a shame it is to let it dilute ones appreciation of this wonderful time of year. Spring will soon be over and summer will be here before we know it. Soon the vegetation will be less precocious and less lush, and the daily chorus of birds will be less vociferous. It will be 12 whole months before the merry month of May arrives once more – so I’d better get practising the call of the hoopoe.