Robin Song

Sometimes the simple call of a bird transports me across worlds, to another time, a memory time …

I’m suddenly back 50-odd years, walking a lane in deep midwinter, snow piled up along the hedgerows, clear over my head, and ruts a car’s-width wide channelling along between the high white banks. Icicles hang from the bare, black thorn-branches overhead. There’s a fluttering up there, brown wings carrying a small round body to just above me. Then the song. His little scarlet breast quivers as he sings, calling to me. I reach into my pocket and, yes, there are some crumbs – more than crumbs in fact for I put the last crust from the cob loaf in my pocket before I came out. And there’s some cheese rinds too.

I take off my glove and collect some crumbs and a bit of rind on my hand, stretch it out where the bird can see. Down he comes. Tiny, delicate claws grip my finger, the sharp pointy beak pecks at the crumbs. He stops, turns his head to look at me, a piece of cheese rind dangling from his beak, then flutters back up into the tree. And more flutters follow, another little brown bird is up there. Peering, I see her as he dips his head, offering her the cheese. She takes it, delicately, chirps a thank you.

And down he comes again, eats some crumbs for himself and then grabs another piece of cheese rind to take up to her. I can see her better now, she’s come down to a lower branch ans perches there, dipping and fluttering her wings like a chick asking for food. But she’s not a chick, this is their courtship, he is wooing her with cheese rind. Her red breast quivers as she cheeps imperiously, ‘Bring me food!’ she demands of him, for he must prove himself, show her he will be a good provider before she will consent to mate with him. And back he goes, bearing rind. She opens her beak and takes it from him, then sending him off again for more.

I’ve frozen stiff. I don’t want to move, to scare them. I want to watch, and the cold is helping me be still, so cold I don’t even feel any ache in my arm as I hold out my hand for the robin to take food to his mate. It’s early, so early, although the snow is late this year. Other years it’s well gone by now, the end of February, but not this year. How is it the robins are mating now when there seems no chance of food for the chicks, at least not yet. What do they know that I do not? And how do they know it?

They’re tuned in, always on the thread, always connected to the Earth and everything around them. They know without needing to know how the weather will be, when the spring will come. All the need to do is touch into those threads that spin their web through the air and everything as mycelium spin through the soil, spreading the word throughout all the living things. Except ourselves.

We humans have lost it, lost the plot. Once we knew, as the robins do, what was happening throughout our planet. Then we decided to see if we couldn’t do better than she, better than the mother, and control her, make her do what we wanted. Well, we’ve screwed that up! We now haven’t a clue, we need machines and programs and algorithms where once we knew in our bones. We no longer trust our bones, our guts, our instincts. We only believe in our minds and they’re not much cop for connecting to everything else that lives.

I learn from the robins. As those tiny claws clutch my finger I let him speak to me with his touch. ‘Listen!’ he tells me, ‘Listen. And look. And smell the air, feel the wind in your hair, the touch of a snowflake as it lands on your skin and the sensation of it melting.’ I hear him. I stand, frozen cold outside but burning with life within. I will listen …