For me, writing and nature go hand in hand.
Whatever I write wildlife will appear in some form or another. I can go for days, sometimes weeks, without writing a short story or a chapter, but my nature journal is always by my side.
I write a lot in my head but I hadn't put anything down on paper for a while. To try to action my pen, I did a general Google search for nature writing and came across the Wild Words Website. Words like passion, power and vitality pinged off the screen, and I was immediately inspired.
I particularly liked the competition prompt, Bob Marley's 'Some feel the rain, others just get wet'. The words crawled quickly inside me and started off a chain of thoughts, initially about our relationship with weather in general, and how sunshine equates with happiness and rain with misery. My mind was flooded with ideas, but I finally settled on a factual account of an event that had happened not long before I came across Wild Words.
I follow a traditional process of pre writing, drafting, revising and editing. The pre write stage usually takes place inside my head, though on occasion I will brainstorm, and throw all sorts of words and ideas onto a page. There was no need to do this for 'A Life Worth Saving'. The memory was fresh in my mind, and I knew roughly the points I wanted to explore, mainly the sensory experiences of rain and its (often) misunderstood beauty, but when I decided to make the starling chick the key focus, a new element of living and potentially dying also came into play.
A first draft is always in long hand, a jumble of words, images and thoughts. Then, I type up and get an idea of word count and structure. On this occasion, I had 3500 words, far too long for a competition count of 1000 words. I had to chop and chop.
Out went a lengthy rant about how I know some people who seem to shut down when it is raining. Out went a trying-not-to-snivel account of losing a lot of my mobility. Out went a detailed explanation of starlings.
To get down to 1000 words, I constantly referred back to the prompt and tried to focus on the sights, sounds and smells of rain to evoke the right atmosphere.
Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid
A Life Worth Saving
"I think there's something in the water butt," my friend said as she skidded, breathless, into the kitchen.
Her owl-wide eyes were brimmed with the memory of last year's macabre discovery, when a sickening stench betrayed the watery grave of a bloated rat and a bald blackbird chick.
As the 'nature' person in our household, it was my job to investigate. I hobbled down the garden path. My mobility-crutch clicked on the glistening, rain-soaked slabs. The sky spread out, a ceiling of frosted, wolf-grey glass. Smoke-ring clouds and mist topped the distant braes like a sea haar.
Sheets of crystalline raindrops fell in biblical proportions. Within minutes, my clothes stuck to my skin and rivulets streamed down my face. I could taste the rain's unique, supposedly tasteless flavour.
No splashing came from the butt. Did the silence mean the 'thing' had perished like the rat and baby blackbird? I tried not to become irrationally upset. Accidents and fatalities happen all the time in wildlife's world. I braced myself to be a momentary undertaker.
The water butt was almost half full. The rainwater was covered by a soupy layer of luminous-green duckweed. A starling chick bobbed among the weed like a toy boat.
I silently cursed myself for not putting the lid on during the fledgling period, but clumps of mottled-brown snails liked to overwinter inside the rim, so I had left it propped against the fence. The snails maintained their cosy vigil, now obscured by swathes of verdant, sprouting nettles.
The chick was still alive. It turned its head slightly, startled by the sudden shadow that loomed over it like a fallen thundercloud. There was no wing flapping, no panic, just a pair of unblinking, bronze-beaded eyes filled with despair and hopelessness.
I am often guilty of anthropomorphism, giving wild creatures human emotions and values, but it was impossible to look at those eyes and not see a plea for help. The diminutive, full moon-shaped orbs surely mirrored the dread and regret we would feel, on tumbling into a deep-water crevasse with no means of escape, other than a miraculous rescue.
I grabbed one of our pond-dipping nets, and fished the poor wee soul onto my palm. Its heart fluttered wildly and it mewed like a kitten, a babe's heartbreaking cry for its mother. The chick felt like a sodden sponge and was weighed down by a rug of weed. It was so cold, I doubted it would survive.
The summerhouse offered shelter to my little patient. I settled it on my lap, and began to untangle bunches of stringy weed from its downy, beige feathers. It was a young bird, newly fledged, and as yet unable to fend for itself.
As I preened the unnaturally still bird, I was aware of life carrying on outside. Rain drummed on the roof and like a manic sprinkler system, the downpour transformed the pond into a sloshing, blurred sea of silver. Feathery-tailed tadpoles glided, submarine-like, through the deeper, calmer depths.
I chatted to the juvenile starling, telling it to hang on in there, in my childlike tone usually reserved for the dog. I rambled on about how there is so much more to rain than just getting wet. I told the chick of rain's magical pitter-pattering sounds, of how it waters the plants and helps worms to move from place to place. I explained its necessity for planet Earth, beautiful but powerful enough to devastate and destroy lives and landscapes.
Despite the morning's greyness, signs of early summer were abundant. Marsh marigold flowers bordered the pond like splodges of egg yolk, and breeze-ruffled forget-me-nots undulated in shimmering-azure Mexican waves. Perfume of broom and wild garlic mingled with the earthy scents of damp grass, fern and moss. Smells that sing, like rain, of nature's wildness and freedom, but only to those willing to listen.
I wondered if the scents triggered nostalgic thoughts in the chick's tiny brain. Did it have enough olfactory senses to associate the dank fragrances of wood and pasture with reminiscence the way I did; a deep-rooted connection to childhood, the natural world and home? Were the smells of the nest: twigs, grasses, mosses and feathers etched into its avian memory? And if so, were these sensations pierced by anxiety that life could ebb away at any moment?
I glanced over at the feeders. A squirrel dangled upside down at the seed, its grey fur speckled with glittering, liquid gemstones. Jackdaws and a host of starlings squabbled at the fat balls. Fluffy starling chicks lined the fence in a soldierly row, making a merry din, beaks agape. Feed me, feed me now, they squawked in unison.
There were no distraught parent birds looking for a missing child, no siblings mourning a lost brother or sister. I contemplated placing the chick on the grass to see if an adult bird would come to its aid, but deep down I knew the chick was too cold and the weather too wet. It would die quickly of cold and starvation, or in the claws of a neighbouring cat.
We had been planning to go out for the day. I thought of wrapping the chick in a box, and see how it had fared when we got back. If it was alive, all good and well, but if not, it was meant to be. Conscience wouldn't let me. The tea flask and sandwiches would have to wait.
I phoned Hessilhead Wildlife Rescue Centre. They advised me to warm the chick with a hairdryer, and get it to them as soon as possible. When we arrived at the wildlife hospital, it was still clinging to life. The staff plopped it into their brooder, and assured me it would be fine. Once healthy and able to feed on its own, they would release it back to the wild in my home patch. My heart jumped for joy, when I pictured it winging its way back to the garden feeders. Even wet, rainy days have happy endings.