Reflection, Renewal, and Choughs

Thoughts around reflection and renewal as the year draws to a close, with a sprinkling of Cornish Chough.

Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

I am not a great consumer of poetry but rather I dip in and out from time as a passage seen somewhere catches my eye and I want to know more. The above is from Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day and, for a variety of reasons, feels particularly meaningful as the year draws to a close.

Some lessons in life are harder to learn than others, and some learned previously are easily forgotten. “Seize the day” perhaps being one such that has been on my mind recently; commonly invoked it’s an idea that seems especially slippery within the construct of the modern-day western world, and markedly more so within the present Covid context and the restrictions inherent in that. A few years ago, 2018 in fact, following some gentle prodding, I put together a few words for bikepacking.com around my experiences of cycling as a means of managing depression. At the time it appeared to strike a chord with many people and as such I feel no shame about exposing that side of my character. Riding a bike has kept those dark clouds at bay for many years yet, as my riding remains limited by the injuries sustained when that driver ploughed into me back in July, and amongst the pressures imposed by a pandemic, those clouds loomed larger once again, and with them a need to reflect.

A lonely gull soars during a brief lifting of the Cornish winter permadrizzle.

Throughout history, and across cultures, birds have always been assigned a degree of mystical significance. For the apparent freedom with which they soar and travel across the ocean, seabirds in particular are often considered as being representative of the human soul and its spiritual journey. I have also read that in some ancient cultures the humble gull was considered the means by which a person would transition from the mortal plane to the afterlife; the spirit of the passing individual transforming into a gull in order to continue their journey. I mention it because recently a memorial gathering took place for a friend who was unjustly lost to us this year – a sea kayaker, and bicycle traveller, amongst many other things for which words could never provide an adequate description of everything she was. The memorial took the form of a gathering at her favourite cove – a beautiful, secluded spot so often overlooked. Some, such as myself, arrived by sea kayak while others arrived via the coast path. Wood was carried for a fire on a cold, drizzly winters day, food, drink and memories shared, and a small raft woven from local reeds carrying flowers and a memorial poem was swum out and released to the ocean that she so loved. The day formed a beautiful, moving time to remember who she was, and one during which it was easy to imagine her spirit in the seabirds soaring overhead; for me she will always be there with the birds at that cove. The day was also an opportunity to reflect on friendship, community, and the fragility of our lives; the imperative to embrace those around us and make the most of the opportunities that exist simply from being here.

Outbound in the morning, a bag of firewood stowed on the aft deck.
Paddling home in the rapidly fading light of a cold winter afternoon.
There’s something deeply appealing about the winter ocean.
Conditions were suprisingly quiet given the violent storm that had been raging less than 24hrs prior.

It’s not an easy thing to “seize the day” in a meaningful sense, despite a media and internet awash with self-help articles and “inspiration”. In July, following the accident, and already feeling thoroughly bogged down by work and the pandemic, a friend said to me “you survived, you’ve been given an opportunity…”. Seize the day in effect, and yet here I am 5 months on still struggling to figure things out. It’s been a lonely few months of working from home, feeling as if my existence has the sole purpose of meeting the relentless demands of work clients, and yet over the last couple of weeks of introspection it finally feels as if the clouds are lifting, despite what’s going on in a covid world, and some perspective is crystallising; I partly have that day on the beach to thank for that, and while it is no more than the rollover of a date, and that covid isn’t going away, the new year does feel like it has the potential to be a renewal of everything that has been ground down by the events of the last couple of years. An opportunity to “seize the day” so to speak. If you’ve managed to read this far then I hope it can bring a renewal for you too following recent challenges.

While I’m on the topic of renewal, and birds, the Chough has been an unexpected success story here in Cornwall. Once known as the Crow of Cornwall, it is a bird that has symbolic importance for Cornwall, in addition to appearing on the Cornish coat of arms, it is said that, upon his death, the soul of King Arthur departed in the form of a chough, with his bloody end being signified by the red of its bill and legs. With the exception of a few stragglers in Cornwall, the chough was extinct from England by early in the 20th century, and finally disappeared from Cornwall in 1973 when the last remaining, and lonely, bird disappeared from the cliffs, seemingly for good.

In 2001 however a pair of choughs were spotted on the Lizard Peninsula; an entirely wild and naturally occurring repopulation. It isn’t known for certain where they came from – there is a very small breeding population across the channel in Brittany, another very small population in Wales, and another in Ireland. Since then, and beginning with 3 young fledged by that single pair, the population has grown to 23 breeding pairs, producing 66 young in 2021, and has spread to more locations around the coast. Symbolic of Cornwall, and of the resilience of nature when give a chance, they are a joy to see while out and about, most commonly wheeling and diving, with their distinctive cry, in the updrafts above the cliffs.

I recently spotted a pair foraging at Godrevy Head while out for a wander. The last time I saw them here was during lockdown; during the warmer months this spot is heaving with visitors but at this time of year the short grass, rain-softened ground, and absence of crowds makes for a perfect foraging opportunity. They are remarkably impeturbable when feeding this way, and aside from one or two glances cast in my direction, no doubt thinking “look at that numpty lying in the grass, he’s going to get dogshit all over his jacket”, ignored me completely.
Their old Cornish name is Palores – it means “digger” and comes from the way they use their bills to find food in the short grasses around the cliff edges.
Their success in Cornwall is in large part due to restoration of habitat through a return to traditional grazing and scrub management techniques around the parts of the coast managed by the National Trust. Originally it was intended at preserving the wild flower habitats that would otherwise be overwhelmed by gorse and bracken, and the choughs just took advantage of that. Maintenance of the habitats is the reason why there are small populations of dartmoor ponies scattered around Cornwall’s cliffs.

6 thoughts on “Reflection, Renewal, and Choughs

  • It seems you are due for an adventure. Any plans for the coming year? We just came back from a month in Gran Canaria, not exactly an adventurous destination, and yet, a great place to enjoy the sun and sea -while at home is raining-, plus a paradise for trekking, water sports and cycling…

    • hey, good to hear from you and glad to hear you managed to escape. I am well overdue but have been feeling very trapped… one of the problems I have when I become depressed is I lose the ability to get to grips with anything like that, it all feels too hard. Work has been out of control too which hasn’t helped – the pandemic context has really buggered up any kind of balance, and increasingly seems to have made clients more rude, more thoughtless, more demanding.. it’s been prety miserable to be blunt. I’ve got a couple of projects to finish and then I’ve decided I’m not taking on any more.. instead next year needs to be filled with some adventure. Borders are still closed in parts of Central Asia, so I think I shall be heading in your general direction on two wheels, and hopefully a kayaking journey somewhere too.

      Feliz Navidad and all that!

  • Thanks for linking that Bikepacking interview! I go through waves of depression myself, and riding a bike (or just going on a long walk) help mitigate it. It’s hard because sometimes I don’t feel I have the time or “deserve” going on a fun 2-3 hour bike ride. But when I do, my mood and mental outlook improves. When I don’t, I just stew in my own juices.

    • it’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced just how beneficial riding a bike can be. I’m trying to get back to prioritising going for a ride over pretty much everything else. Still limited to short rides spaced well apart thanks to damaged ankle but it is healing slowly.

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