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Word from Wormingford

15 May 2015

Ronald Blythe welcomes a visitor from Africa, and smartens up his garden

THE first cuckoo. Its call-note is unmistakeable, the books tell me. As is its parasitic habit. Why build a nest when others can build it for you? It glides in from foreign parts to its seasonal home in the Stour Valley. It likes the edges of things, where the woods and commons peter out. Its cry is relentlessly the same for weeks on end. It stays summery and welcome, and we tell each other, "I heard the first cuckoo this morning." Not to have done so would be worrying, and the summer itself diminished.

It is a ruthless occupier of other birds' nests, heaving out eggs and chicks to make a home for its brood. How strange that other species are unable to tell the difference between their own brood and the invader.

That most enchanting and knowledgeable of bird poets, and tester of popular legend, John Clare, did not believe that cuckoos had hollow backs specially designed for this purpose. I, too, have found what might be called a comfortable ignorance of nature in many neighbours, although some of the TV documentaries are beginning to shift this.

Clare despaired at the way his neighbours would go thus far and no further in nature study, if one could call it that, perhaps finding it blasphemous to know more than their parents did about flowers and birds. They did not need to be told what a cuckoo in the nest was when it came to their own families.

Once, Clare heard both a nightingale and a cuckoo on the same evening. He hated natural history being put to use for human conduct; but he didn't get very far with science among his Northamptonshire friends. They had centuries of legend behind them, most of it full of repeated falsities, and his commands to look, listen, and learn were ignored. Even today, hearing my first cuckoo, there has been an effort to listen to a bird and not a human morality.

And there it sings, Colchester way, not too far off, a creature of variegated greys, monotonous, plaintive with early summer. "Did you hear the cuckoo last evening?" I will say at the first opportunity; for this is the drill. And I will forget that it was last listened to in Africa, and that it is not the prerogative of an English late spring.

Meanwhile, I hesitate to pull advance wildflowers like weeds from my borders. Laburnum hangs in greening tassels, and only prejudice stops me from saying that my nettles are a sight.

In church I read "O Lord, from whom all good things do come: Grant to us thy humble servants that by thy holy inspiration we may think those things that be good, and by thy merciful guiding may perform the same." And I preach on Julian of Norwich, who thought it a pity to die when one was 30. A Norfolk priest was there to catch her last words; for something told her to abandon this deathbed for literature. How it must have irritated those who stood around her: having to blow the candles out, dismiss the priest, and cope with genius.

Adrian has mown the grass paths. I edge them. How smart we are. The lilacs are sumptuous. "Lalocks," my grandmother used to call them. She wouldn't have them in the house. "Unlucky," she would say. We brought her a bunch, but she hurried them outside. Should a bee wander in, it would mean a good message. Should there be lightning, she would cover the mirrors with cloths. For her, life was a run of blessings and risks.

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