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Curlew Moon, by Mary Colwell

30 November 2018

Martyn Halsall follows a quest for a threatened bird of the British Isles

AT THE heart of this vital, passionate, and poetic account of a 500-mile walk across Ireland, Wales, and England in search of curlews is a profoundly Christian agenda concerning the re-wilding of God.

Curlews, in Mary Colwell’s energetic analysis, can be both victim and rescuer of a faith grown distant from creation. She writes powerfully of the loss of Celtic Christian assimilation of the natural, and of a democratic sharing of God “through a shared experience of nature” being replaced by a dictated Reformation rationalism. “On the whole, Christian nature has been tamed and confined. God has become an indoor spirit.”

Vivid poetry and blistering miles, wide-ranging research, and acute observation inform a book that is both celebration and lament. Climate change, environmental destruction, and predation are reducing curlews at an accelerating rate. In Northern Ireland alone, ravaged by peat extraction, curlew pairs have declined from 5000 to 250 since the 1980s. Extinction could be five years away. The Welsh population has fallen by 80 per cent. England and Scotland have lost 60 per cent of breeding curlews in the past 20 years. The worldwide union of conservation bodies is forecasting curlews’ potential extinction.

Colwell pleads for, and has started to activate, radical alliances to help preserve breeding grounds for a species whose evocative water music leaves her “surprised by joy”. She has challenged the Roman Catholic Church over its environmental concerns, and will, it is hoped, raise parallel issues about the land-holdings of the Church Commissioners. Helping breeding curlews will involve “some of the most complex and difficult conservation issues of our time”, including food production, “the leviathans of climate change”, and human-engineered predator imbalance.

This wonderfully written journey and manifesto should inspire anyone who cares about the created world to admiration, and reaction. Colwell has written a classic — and, I hope, not just a requiem.

Dr Martyn Halsall is a poet and journalist.

Curlew Moon
Mary Colwell
William Collins £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.39

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