I was hanging out the washing the other day when a small bird chirruped overhead. ‘Skylark,’ I said to the peg-bag, without bothering to look up. This kind of thing makes my family roll their eyes, but it’s a habit of so many years that it’s unlikely I’ll grow out of it now.
As for the skylark, well, I learned to know its chirrup, and to love its song, from childhood. On the chalky cliffs of east Kent, these little birds would hurl themselves into the air, fluttering and overflowing with song like a gutter in a downpour.
The poets of the 19th century attributed this vocal outpouring to sheer joy, and it’s hard not to think of it that way. The sound strikes the human ear as ebullient and life-affirming, especially in the early spring. It cheers the heart as a sign of the return of light and warmth. If it makes me joyful, can the bird not feel joyful too? That’s an old-fashioned question, of course, and we are sternly reminded that the bird is marking out a breeding territory, advertising its presence to females – definitely not larking about.
I made the acquaintance of many more larks, hovering over the drained Kent marshes, cavorting over sheep pastures and vanishing into the brown furrows of onion fields.
One lark taught me an important lesson, many years ago. Out walking in a wild, grassy area, looking for wildlife, I strayed off the path and was startled when a skylark jumped up from under my foot. She revealed a nest of four tiny speckled eggs, and I had so nearly trodden on it. It was a bleak reminder that my wish to go out and spend time with nature could so easily have resulted in my destroying the very thing I loved. These days I’m thoughtful about that and stick to the pathways. You can’t conserve nature by trampling all over it.
These days I hear the larks sing over the grassland of the narrow causeway between the Isle of Portland and mainland Dorset. The Causeway is a regular flightpath for migrating birds. I listen there, for the first larksong of the spring, around February, and it’s always a great moment. In the autumn many of them are on the move, heading for the continent, and it was just such a bird of passage that chirruped overhead as I hung out my washing. I don’t know if the bird felt joyful, but I certainly did.
My illustrated, magical nature-inspired tales The Herbarium, The Chesil Apothecary and Dropwort Hall are available from www.veneficiapublications.com