We have so much time to consider, these days. To consider anything and everything. To develop little obsessions, healthy and unhealthy. (Note to self: consider if is there such a thing as a healthy obsession?) My best time, the time I set for considering, is when I’m outside walking and watching, looking and noticing.
I’m on the south side of Arthur’s Seat when a kestrel flies out in front of me, so close and low that I can see its dappled belly and stippled wings. It disappears into scrub pursued by two pigeons, at least that’s how it seems to me in my cartoon world. A song thrush on the bank flicks its head and bangs a snail against a rock, while nearby a blackbird plucks moss from a crevice in a rock. From the same spot, but on a different evening, I see two deer tentatively walk around a bunker on Prestonfield Golf Course, no doubt wondering where the Pringle-clad players are. They veer over towards the wall, safer now from sight. Behind them, the cherry blooms are fading to a sun-bleached pink, and from a distance the fallen petals create a little island around the trunk. Oddly, once landed on the ground the fallen blooms appear white. I walk on to see skittish rabbits disappear into holes under the gorse and an oil slick black Jackdaw slithers into a wide crack in a stone wall.
Another evening, along the high path of London Road Gardens, I see a rat. It is where the wren should be, and I am appalled and fascinated by the sight of the usurper. He stops to stare me out before ambling on, and I shudder in the full knowledge that there is nothing worse than a sauntering rat throwing me a look of extreme confidence and belonging. He has ruined my night until the robin bounces alongside me – maintaining a social distance – to chirp his live-and-let-live message. ‘Ah, loosen up, rats are people too,’ the robin tells me. ‘They’re really not,’ I answer, ‘and before you start, you are just a robin. You’re one amongst six million.’ Robins know how handle abuse, it flies off. For fear of seeing the rat again, I keep my eyes up, seeing how the trees, still sticky with the sap of being birthed, have sprouted new leaves overnight. Bluebells have come from nowhere, as have the dandelions, but fastest of all are the fiddle head ferns; one day they are tightly fisted ammonites, the next, slender arms reaching to the sky. My eyes follow the song of the blackbird to the highest branches of a horse chestnut. Tonight, he is Andrea Bocelli, atop nature’s cathedral.
The other place I take to, for time to consider, is a quiet strip of garden on Regent Road with no one there save for the birds. The bullfinch in the tree lets me come close, he’s like a robin on steroids, his chest an overblown tyre tube, deeper red than the robin, carmine with a pink undertone. The female is with him, she has the same black cap, but he has had first dibs on the wardrobe and she has been left to dress herself in a washed-out yellow gansy. A bird I cannot see makes a sound like someone running their thumb down the teeth of a comb. I want to know what it is. Phone in hand, I wait and watch, until a different bird comes to the kerb and looks at me, in a ‘what are doing?’ tilt of its head. I can’t name it, so I flick my phone open to take a picture of it, drop the phone and the bird flies off, never to return.
Back at home, I pore over my bird book. Eventually I call E. He suggests it might have been a dunnock, telling me one is resident in his garden. I look it up – too speckled. A chiffchaff? Again, I look it up – cute, greeny-yellow – definitely not. A reed bunting? Yes! That’s the one. I’ll know it again – won’t I? Doubt creeps in. I like knowing that a grey wagtail is, in fact, yellow. I like naming it when is it flashes past into the low branches of a London Plane. I like naming the coal tits as they flit on the branches outside my kitchen window. But equally, I don’t want the naming to get in the way of the seeing, for too much knowing can stop me from feeling the awe-filled sense of freshly rinsed wonder. Striving to label can zap the sudden thrill. A gasp of joy can be tainted by too much analysis and classification. Beware the objectification of knowledge, I tell myself.
The next morning, I walk the path that runs along the skirt tails of Salisbury Crags. Usually I walk fast, eyes up up to see if I can spy a kestrel hunting, but on this morning my eyes are pinned to the ground. It has been raining and scores of snails are on the move. I take care to pick my way through so as not to crunch them underfoot. I stop to consider one. Its shell is bleached; it looks whitewashed. Is there such a thing as an albino snail? I’m not going to look it up. I’m just going to enjoy looking at it.
Considering the Snail, by Thom Gunn
The snail pushes through a green
night, for the grass is heavy
with water and meets over
the bright path he makes, where rain
has darkened the earth’s dark. He
moves in a wood of desire,
pale antlers barely stirring
as he hunts. I cannot tell
what power is at work, drenched there
with purpose, knowing nothing.
What is a snail’s fury? All
I think is that if later
I parted the blades above
the tunnel and saw the thin
trail of broken white across
litter, I would never have
imagined the slow passion
to that deliberate progress.