Touching the weird
‘It’s like Arsene Wenger coming to train the RSPB football team,’ was my reaction to hearing that Mark Cocker had offered to coach a group of conservation colleagues in writing skills. No disrespect to them, or their literary abilities (or to our footy players either, for that matter), but Mark Cocker is an author of considerable renown, as anyone familiar with Crow Country, for example, will attest.
I take my place in a group of eager students, wedged into a small office at our Strumpshaw Fen nature reserve, somewhere between Norwich and the Broads, between fen and sky. Mark is holding forth on what it is to write, to discover, to ‘puncture the meniscus’ (the surface tension, as in water) that separates us in our everyday lives from the fascinating world that lurks beyond. To realise, to understand, perhaps, when a stick is not a stick. I can explain.
In our midst is a small table, and occupying most of its surface is a large, glass-topped box. Visible within this is a pile of egg boxes, and prominent on the topmost of these is what looks like a fragment of birch stick, glued on. I’m itching to have a closer look, to delve into this box of tricks – or sticks. I have a strong suspicion that the piece of birch is actually a moth.
Closer inspection confirms that it is a moth. A buff-tip moth. It is one of those creations that would have you (if your attention were ever drawn to it) marvelling -boggling, even - at the bizarreness of evolution. That a mere moth can look so much like a piece of tree, suggests a world of infinite possibilities. It has a frayed-looking, broken end (its head), while at the other end it looks like it has been cut with a knife, as though to be sharpened like a pencil, revealing a wood grain effect within the flecked, grey-white bark. Its legs and antennae barely protrude. Sticks, after all, don’t have such appendages.
The buff-tip has achieved this outfit, you suppose, for the purposes of being able to sit very still for long periods, and not be recognised as a potential meal (and scoffed by a robin, for example). Because of this, you could be forgiven for going a lifetime without ever seeing one. Seeing only sticks.
There are other impostors among Mark’s egg cartons. There are moths that look like leaves, like dead leaves, like droppings. There’s even one (elephant hawkmoth) that looks like a pink and green jet fighter aircraft. Not sure where evolution was going with that one, or who it was with influence in naming stuff that got the elephant bit past the committee, but never mind.
‘You’ve just got to go and find some weirdness.’
If only more of my teachers could have issued such instructions. This is Mark’s final one to the dispersing group, as we are loosed on the nature reserve, minds opened up to strangeness, perhaps as a child might find it.
A train ploughs through the reserve. Strange! Don’t worry, it has a track to run on, but nevertheless...
There are three bee orchids by the car park fence, cordoned off with a length of coloured string, drawing the eye to them. I show Sarah, of the group. These are plants evolved to look just like bees, for reasons too strange to elaborate on here. That’s not all that’s strange about bee orchids. There is a Laurie Lee essay called ‘A drink with a witch’, and the drink she gives him is bee orchid wine. Much oddness and witchery ensues, and I don’t think it is just the drink talking. Apart from anything, imagine an age when there were enough bee orchids in any one place to make wine.
‘You do this sort of stuff all the time,’ says Sarah. Writing odd stuff, I think she means.
‘Yes, but…’ I don’t really want to form a proper answer. I’m trying to think differently, today.
I wander across the railway line, enjoying the unusual legality of this, here. I amble down a leafy lane, past drowsy horses, looking up at cornfield poppies against a blue sky, crowning a steep bank. Further on, a flowerbed slopes uphill to a table mat-cute cottage. A handmade sign reads: ‘Come and see the swallowtail butterflies, if you like’, or words to that effect. There are none present, but I like the kindness of the offer, just as much.
Opposite, a gate tempts me back across the tracks, to what I take to be a path onto the reserve on the other side. I don’t know it yet but I am crossing too early. I’m not the first person to have done so, as there is a path of sorts through neck-high fen verdure. A swallowtail bustles past my face, across the reed surface. I press on, hoping to intersect soon with an official path. This doesn’t happen.
The fools’ path peters out. Rather than plunge on, or retreat, I elect to stop for a bittern’s-eye view of the fen. At an isolated willow, I duck through its fronds to the murky ‘room’ within. I perch on a low bough, above a small pool. There is a welcoming committee of bouncing mosquitoes, apparently jumping for joy at my arrival.
We share lunch – well, I have sandwiches and crisps, and they settle down in various places to try to have me. I get the hand lens out, to get better acquainted with these much under-examined beasts. What, after all, do moths have that mossies don’t, apart from relatively vast expanses of pigmentation, and occasionally bizarre disguises? Determinedly open-minded, I home the lens in on the trouser-piercing mouthparts and – as it turns out – comically bulging eyes - of these small (and some not so small) man-eaters. Alas, I can’t not think of the Gary Larsson cartoon, where one mossie, sitting on a stretch of flesh, is saying to another, which is filling like a balloon: ‘Pull out! You’ve hit an artery!’
I toy with the idea of letting one of them sup from me, in close up, but hey, it might hit an artery. And how weird are we supposed to be getting here, anyway? The study is terminated.
Retracing my steps carefully, and climbing back out of the fen, I notice a derelict hut by the railway: a mossie-free quiet space in which to write up my notes, for our feedback session.
Returning to the group, I meet Sarah again. I show her a broken branch I’ve picked up along the way. ‘How about this for a moth?’ I ask her, holding out the branch. Sarah doesn’t think this is funny. Undeterred, I try it on Mark. He doesn’t get it.
I guess sometimes a stick is just a stick. But despite my pale imitation of a joke, the lesson remains sound: it is always worth looking – and listening – a little more closely, for a little bit of oddness.
The hawkmoth conveyed me back to a childhood scenario: me retrieving a football from a ruck of rosebay willowherb, at least as tall as I was. And as I delved within these very everyday plants I found some monstrous-looking life forms: fat as my fingers, with enormous cartoon eyes. Caterpillars, it turned out, with these eye-designs intended to scare birds – and quite possibly small children. After a suitable period of getting acquainted, I took some home for adult input, and my mum got the book out so we could see these larger than life larvae, and the adult forms they would turn into. They were elephant hawk moths-in waiting, as it turned out.