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
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.