Have you ever tried to read a book that seemed to be asking you, from page to page, to wait for a scintilla of eureka! to jump out?
Yes, I know that R. S. Thomas advises us that “the meaning is in the waiting.” But as I read the name of one bird after the name of another bird and then another . . . , I began to wonder if any meaning would soar up out of the avian brush of a chapter that had begun so promisingly with an anecdote about RS being arrested as a spy.
It all began when Geoff Gibbs, a bird-watcher, came to the picnic bench where I was drinking coffee with several other pilgrims on the island of Bardsey. Gibbs, who was staying at the Bird Observatory, regaled us with his account of the five days in October of 1977 that he spent at the Observatory with Thomas. RS arrived with nothing but bread and a bag of onions; each evening, after a day of bird spotting, he dined on bread and onion soup.
Gibbs then told us about the spy incident, saying that he’d read it in William Condry’s book Pathway to the Wild. Almost as soon as I was back in the States, a package containing Condry’s book arrived – my friend Sue having anticipated that I’d be hunting it. Within minutes, I’d located the spy incident.
RS had invited Condry to accompany him on a bird-spotting trip to Spain. After crossing the Channel from Southampton to Cherbourg, they were driving south through France, when they decided to leave the main road and explore the possibility of rare bird sightings.
“We stopped,” Condry writes. “We got out and walked along the road. In a few minutes we had seen a Dartford warbler and had gazed enraptured up into a tree at our first Bonelli’s warbler. Next moment we were being arrested by a French military police officer for spying on a military base.”
Yes, the base was posted, but what birder, with field glasses trained on a rare bird, ever pays heed to things that don’t fly and sing?
During the police interrogation, RS, not intimidated, “stepped out of the group and raised his field glasses to stare intently up into a tree. ‘Woodchat shrike,’ he said after a few moments. And taking out his bird-list he solemnly ticked it off.”
In due course, the French concluded that they were dealing not with spies but with nutters, and allowed Condry and RS to continue on their way to Spain’s Coto Doñana. Later, RS wrote this poem, which seems to be part of a conversation that began before we were invited to listen in:
I don’t know; ask the place.
It was there when we found it:
Sand mostly, and bushes, too;
Some of them with dry flowers.
The map indicates a lake;
We thought we saw it from the top
Of a sand-dune, but walking brought it
There are great birds
There that stain the sand
With their shadows, and snakes coil
Their necklaces about the bones
Of the carrion. At night the wild
Boars plough by their tusks’
Moonlight, and fierce insects
Sing, drilling for the blood
Of the humans, whom time’s sea
Has left there to ride and dream.
Condry provides some glimpses behind RS’s lines:
RS the intrepid birder – RS and Condry knew that the Thekla lark lives in the dunes of the Coto Doñana, but that it was all but impossible to distinguish it from the crested lark. So Condry decided to look for other birds. “But R. S. Thomas wanted his Thekla lark and is a man of determination. With the sun burning in a cloudless sky I watched his tall, straight figure get ever smaller as it reached the crest of a far dune and disappeared into the desert like some Old Testament prophet who would never again be seen on earth. But that evening he duly turned up having satisfied himself he had seen his Thekla lark.”
RS and snakes – “A snake crossed our path, much to R. S. Thomas’s delight. He is, I would say, a particularly snake-conscious man. Before going to Spain he evidently did some herpetological homework because he had several times relieved the tedium of motoring across Spain by giving me lectures on the snakes we might encounter in Andalusia. He spoke often of the terrors of Lataste’s viper and I think he was disappointed we had met so few.”
Wild boars –“With loud scufflings and gruntings, a female wild boar came bursting out of the yellow-flowered halimium bushes followed by three piglets. . . . Why these habitually nocturnal animals should have been hastening through the scrub in the broad light of day I do not know.”
Mosquitoes – “Spain’s mosquitoes are not malarial. But there is nothing else in their favour and there are millions of them. Yet though their tormenting keeps you awake there are compensations. Through the darkness across the marismas comes the ‘oomp-oomp-oomp’ of many bitterns; from the heathlands you hear the delicious wailing of the stone curlew and . . .” And Condry is off and running, dropping one bird’s name after another . . . .
Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:
“the meaning is in the waiting” – “Kneeling,” Not That He Brought Flowers (1968), 32.
“I don’t know; ask the place” – “Coto Doñana,” Not That He Brought Flowers (1968), 35.
Quotes from William Condry, Pathway to the Wild (London: Faber and Faber, 1975): spy story (95), RS the intrepid birder (103), RS and snakes (106), wild boars (101), mosquitoes (98).