Last Wednesday was a wet one in Edinburgh. The five o’clock downpour came just in time to drench people coming home from work. I’d been inside all day and was itching to get out – time for a mental health walk. By eight o’clock, the rain was diffident, apologetic, like that rare embarrassed drunk who knows they have overdone it and is now skulking out the backdoor. By the time I hit the park it had subsided to a light and warm drizzle, the sort that doesn’t really wet you. Few people were out, as they didn’t trust it not to come teeming down again. Usually Holyrood Park is full of dog walkers, frisbee players, keep fit enthusiasts. Not that evening; it was all but deserted. I am not known for my love of dogs, I would rather talk to a human, and I am quite bewildered by those people who interact entirely through their pets, saying, “Oh, hello Fido’s daddy”, or, “Good morning Suki’s mummy.” But, it was out of me before I could manage it. Not, “Hello. Nice evening. It’s dried up well.” Instead, what popped out was, “My, he’s a handsome dog!” For if you get to see a Podenco Canario, (which is what Podenco’s dad told me he was) you’ll find it’s the only word to describe the breed: handsome. Red, short-haired, long neck and head, pointy ears, an elegant, agile stance, I was fixated.
I walked on, surprised at how taken I was with it. As it’s summer I’m back barefoot walking, so when I got to the grass I slipped off my sandals. It was wet and warm underfoot, it felt good. Until, that is, I felt a squelch. I couldn’t believe it. The poo wardens are usually assiduous. My walk was spoilt. I lifted my foot to inspect the squish and realised that I had annihilated a giant slug. I was walking in a minefield of slugs and snails. An hour until dusk and just after the rain, it was prime party time for gastropods and they were having a huge convention! Undeterred, I picked my way through them, admiring the bats that had come out to flit around the laneway behind the Palace.
The next day I was standing in a queue for a festival preview show. I asked E. and S. if they might consider a Podenco instead of a Spaniel and I explained how my walk had taken twice as long as usual because of the slug confetti carpet. A ladybird landed on E.’s hand and he wondered aloud if he should bring it home for his pet thrush. “You’re kidding?” I asked him, a little jealous. “Well, I’m working on him. He’s not yet a pet. I collect snails for him and leave them out.” I told E. about my neighbour who has a pet herring gull. She really does. Keeps him in the bathroom. Found him on Abbeyhill six weeks ago and couldn’t bear the idea of a rat having him for dinner so she scooped him up and brought him home. That was in the middle of June when she could hold Gull-iver (my name) in the palm of her hand. Not so now, as Gulliver has entirely commandeered her bathroom, forcing her to the local swimming pool for her daily ablutions. She feeds him crispy bacon, tins of tuna and it takes him for walks in the backgreen. Her admission was made at a communal barbeque last week. It solicited another confessional from a neighbour who had saved a mouse from a domestic housecat who was playing ‘keepy-uppies’ with it. The mouse survived for a day. He thinks it died of shock.
My favourite news story of last week (on the BBC website) reported the largest ever brood of barn owls – five chicks – for Northern Ireland. Found by an enthusiast in an abandoned outbuilding somewhere on the shores of Lough Neagh. I loved the reaction of the man who found them: “I kept counting them and then I let out a squeal – it was pure excitement. I cracked out a cider!” I sent the link to my friend C. He lives in that area and is a man who notices such things. “Any owls about your neck of the woods?” I asked him. He came back to me with a story about walking those very lanes where the parliament of owls had been found (I’ve just learned the collective noun for a group of owls, not sure about it….). He told me about walking over the back fields with his new puppy, noticing an owl circling over the pup – powerful, silent, impressive – then, as C. put it, concluding it was too big for him, and flying off. “The memory of this beautiful creature has always stayed with me,” he wrote.
Wild, feral, domesticated: there is something about being around animals that quietens us and brings us back to the simplicity of the moment. As S. said to me, some of her most stress-free and present moments are walking up the back entry to her home, watching bees on thistles. Why is this? How do dogs and mice and slugs and ladybirds and bats and bees and owls and thrushes still us so? I don’t know. Maybe ‘The Beatles’ came close to explaining it.
‘Blackbird’, The Beatles
“Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free
Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.”