For me words are a way of touching. I am touched by words and I offer words as a means of touching others. Naming is at the heart of language and infants are enthusiastic about it. Naming locates and separates out – a way of framing. It invites associations, images, feelings and connections. Names are magical – even the most simple ones. For me, naming isn’t about boxing in or defining, which is just limiting and alienating. Naming creates a magical space around something or someone that can allow perception to deepen and become playful. Our minds want to name – but so do our hearts. There is a pleasure and some kind of desire expressed in naming. It creates “the other” that we can then try to somehow touch and to know, despite them being always intrinsically unknowable. In the deepest sense, there is something erotic about naming. That is how I have viewed the naming of birds.
Using a book, I have named flowers in hedges, fields and woods – always experiencing the pleasure of naming. But flowers want to be seen – they are dressed for it – and they stay still. Birds have always moved my heart – even without being able to name them – and I have felt a ridiculous thrill whenever I have been able to name one. For the most part, they do not want to be seen by the likes of us, and only want to be heard by us in order to tell us to go away. Their colours, songs and calls are for others of their own kind. I have found books of limited use in naming birds. To name, you have to know where to find them first, know what details to observe and then get them to show themselves enough to observe those details. Naming by ear is a wonderful skill that hugely increases the naming possibilities when out walking, but is not learned from books. I can identify a few birds by sound – the ones that are most present in my immediate environment: house sparrow, wood pigeon, swift, magpie, crow, blackbird, buzzard. But there are even sounds that some of these birds make that I can’t distinguish. You have to repeatedly put the sound and the sight together. Best to have a teacher and guide. For me, that has been Nigel.
Nigel always insists you have to earn your birds. His ability to name birds by sight and by sound outstrips anyone else I have personally known. He is definitely not interested in naming as simply a way to define, and thereby limit, anything. I feel he appreciates the mystery, the undiscovered and undiscoverable of everything in nature – while still being insatiably curious. This made him my perfect teacher.
Early on, Nigel taught me to begin learning to what he called “jigsaw”: to try to name a bird by the flying silhouette against the sky. This opened me up to the sheer beauty of bird shapes in the sky – how they fit there just so. I realised I already knew some basic jigsaws, mostly the same birds whose sounds I knew, and I began to take more interest in the aerial shapes around me. I was very pleased with this growing ability, a part of the pleasure in naming. Then I stayed in a campsite south of London and saw a shape in the sky heading for a very tall tree – a shape I felt somehow didn’t belong there – not a proper part of the puzzle. I busily jigsawed away. Was it a pheasant? No, flying too high – wrong shape. Was it a corvid? Definitely not. It was when I heard it that the penny slowly dropped. I had seen my first parakeet in the British skyscape! Pleasure is too tame a word for my feeling at this naming. Here are just a few of the naming experiences that Nigel has enabled for me:
A Dipper flying into a tunnel next to a reservoir (Is its nest in there?).
Fieldfares in a field (Where else!).
Brent Geese on a sand bar.
Red Kite infiltrating the Dartmoor sky.
Siskins whispering in woods.
A pair of Shovelers feeding at the edges of a lake.
A Ring Ousel on a Dartmoor gatepost.
A Kestrel on a granite boulder.
Reed warblers on reeds.
Goldcrests busy in a tree above a Topsham street.
Wrens shouting and singing out from bushes and hedges.
Meadow Pipits undulating across the moor.
Oystercatchers and Greenshanks in shallow estuary mud.
Cattle Egrets in a water meadow.
And one of the most exciting for me: Crossbills, lots of them, on the tops of tall evergreens.
I am growing more confident in my naming and here are some I have done on my own:
A Chiffchaff on a hawthorn tree a few feet above where I was lying on a Dorset hillside.
And a flock of Goldfinches in the hedge nearby.
A Great Black-backed Gull gliding below my eye line while I stand on a cliff over the sea, amazed by its wingspan.
A pair of Ravens on the ground in a field that later flew into the woods, gronking to each other as they went.
Swifts, Swifts, Swifts and more Swifts swooping through our garden and over the neighbouring houses. I know them so well yet can’t even imagine what they really are. And always I want to call out their name to them and everyone around me.
A Garden Warbler singing every day from a telephone line stretching across a garden where I was staying for a week in the North Devon countryside.
Curlews calling in the dusk at Topsham estuary.
A Kingfisher almost dancing above the Thames near Reading (For years I have been wanting to see one!)
And very recently I think I saw and heard a little group of Bramblings.
So, there is this desire in me to name. Naming in this way is not just a pleasure – it can feel ecstatic!