Friday, 24 June 2016

Watching nature's navigators

The Southover Grange Gardens and mulberry

A favourite lunchtime ritual is to sit and read a book in the Southover Grange Gardens. When the weather permits, I sit on the grass with my back to the old mulberry, reputed to be older than 350 years, against the encircling metal fence which protects the gnarled boughs of the tree from all but the most determined of the town's Bohemian toddlership (the fence's horizontal metal rails are springy and yield comfortably against the back). An auspicious spot close to the edge of shade provided by the gently umbrageous mulberry offers the best conditions when the weather is warm and light of wind.

Today, beneath a sky with only a few high, hazy clouds, the weather is warm and the leaves flutter only enough to remind the visitor that the view is real and not a detail in a fine artwork. The Gardens are one of Lewes's finest features, a sanctuary. Balls, bicycles and bow-wows are banned from here. There are plenty of other places for those recreational staples outside of the Gardens; within though is a space for calm and quiet contemplation. An item of work is on my mind today and hinders progress with my open book, which rests indifferently on my lap. An image of a map, a remnant of my morning's work, is proving hard to send away. My trance is broken by a Blackbird which swoops between the v of two trees down into the Gardens from Elm Grove, which is elevated above and opposite the boundary wall. The thought and the Blackbird coalesce in my mind to create a fresh contemplation: what does that Blackbird's map of the world look like?

A human map of the Grange Gardens shows three points of entry and egress; paths around, alongside and between the grass and flowers usher the pedestrian to all areas within; unwritten rules (do not walk here!) are manifest alongside the areas of formal bedding, around the mulberry and at the face of the fenced barrier which runs alongside both banks of the Winterbourne stream (finally running itself into a dribble following a months-long plethora); and the walled Knot Garden, the benches, the terrace of the Grange and the little tea kiosk tempt the hurried and fleet of foot to linger and meditate awhile.

The Blackbird sees things differently. The tapering space between trees are its way in. Natural selection has made this a life or death consideration and the sense in taking the humble route low over vegetation has spared those like-minded individuals who are alert to the dangers, real or perceived, and weeded out those who are less discreet. The gaps in the trees: when have I ever seen them through a Blackbird's eyes? It is revelatory! A footpath must be as obscure to a Blackbird's eye as is a v between two trees to a human's. A Wren makes its slow, furious way across open ground and disappears into the same v from which the Blackbird appeared. Now a Jackdaw alights on the ground and I see that its triangulation points within the gardens are the benches as it hawks for fallen morsels. Its beady eye focuses on me - or my sandwich, which I realise is hanging half-eaten in my hand. Jacks and the Garden's grey squirrels could navigate by the same map, although the squirrels would keep their buried treasure to themselves, but add a thin and tangled scrawl of byways along any of the countless branches strong enough to withstand their avoirdupois. High, high above us the Swifts wheel and cavort. I can just about hear them screeching. How does their map appear? Their flight is the line which joins a dot-to-dot of swarming insects. Now a single Buzzard, higher still than the Swifts, is seen elevating its way along the midday thermals - the cartographer of buoyant air who paints for unseeing eyes contours of spiralling heat. Watching these animals' movements reveals features otherwise hidden in and above the landscape.

My attention is brought back down to earth by a Cinnabar moth as it helter-skelters its way erratically over the grass, its scarlet hindwings warning would-be predators of its cyanotoxic innards. A Holly Blue darts along the treeline. These and other pollinators' maps are oblivious to the concept of the human byway; their maps are painted with influorescences in ultra-violet shades which carry heavy-scent promises of nectar; each corolla a corona. Their cartographers are the plants themselves, their artistic styles and symbols having been shaped over more than 100 million years of coevolution.

From my patch of grass I see through fresh eyes how the Grange Gardens' blank canvas has been daubed in all places by nature's sage surveyors. Back at ground level, my own map forgotten by my diversion around and above the Gardens, I return to my sandwich and book before navigating back to the office.

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