Four swifts screeching and scything through the blue sky over the back gardens of West Hampstead. They’ve come back exactly to the day (see post last year (https://petecoles.me/2013/06/04/theyre-back/). And it was on a 15 May that Ted Hughes published his poem “Swifts”. Curious precision. And at least there are still four of them, as numbers had been decreasing each year.
Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) is flowering now in the cracks between paving stones and alongside garden walls in my suburbia. It’s the little seed pods though, not the flowers, that have endeared them to me since childhood in more rural Buckinghamshire. A little plant with dozens of hearts on stalks. But the plant gets its Latin and common English name from the resemblance of these seed pods to the purses that hung from the belts of peasants in the Middle Ages. The French name is Bourse-à-pasteur, which also means a shepherd’s purse. And when the pod is ripe, it splits open and little seeds spill out, like coins. The Dutch painter, Pieter Breugel, included one in his The Peasant Dance, painted around 1567.
In his inspiring book, Weeds, Richard Mabey points out that the seeds are covered with a kind of gum, which, when moist, helps them to stick to the feet of birds, increasing their chances of dispersal. Also, according to Mabey, the resemblance of the seed pods to bladders meant that they were once thought to be an effective cure for urinary disorders – following the theory of plant ‘signatures’ put forward by the 17th-century Oxford botanist, William Coles.
In Flitting, written in 1832, the poet John Clare declares his love for the “poor persecuted weeds” which, he points out, will still remain “where old marble cities stood.” He composed the poem shortly after he, his wife and seven children moved to the village of Northborough (“this strange spot”). Although not far from his birthplace in the village of Helpston (“that old hut now left), he felt increasingly alienated, with bouts of severe depression. In the poem, simple weeds around his new home remind him of his beloved Helpston.
A farm worker himself, he wrote of shepherd’s purse:
E’en here my simple feelings nurse
A love for every simple weed
And e’en this little shepherd’s purse
Grieves me to cut it up – Indeed
I feel at times a love and joy
For every weed and every thing
A feeling kindred from a boy
A feeling brought with every spring.
And why – this ‘shepherd’s purse’ that grows
In this strange spot in days gone bye
Grew in the little garden rows
Of that old hut now left – and I
Feel what I never felt before
This weed an ancient neighbour here
And though I own the spot no more
Its every trifle makes it dear.
“Look! They’re back! Look!” wrote Ted Hughes in his poem “Swifts”. It was a 15 May. While “walking the dog” over the past years, I’ve been noting when the swifts return from Africa to the streets around where I live, in northwest London. And how many there are. It was, with surprising synchrony, on 15 May that I first heard them screeching overhead this year. And, even three weeks later, there are still just four of them. There were nine last year. Seventeen the year before. Which end of their migration is to blame? Disappearing nesting sites, here? Insecticides in Africa?
And, the elms he mentions are long gone, too, apart from a few in Brighton and here and there. Maybe, one day, we’ll be able to say “Look! They’re back!” about them, too.
by Ted Hughes
Fifteenth of May. Cherry blossom. The swifts
Materialise at the tip of a long scream
Of needle. ‘Look! They’re back! Look!’ And they’re gone
On a steep
Controlled scream of skid
Round the house-end and away under the cherries. Gone.
Suddenly flickering in sky summit, three or four together,
Gnat-whisp frail, and hover-searching, and listening
For air-chills – are they too early? With a bowing
Power-thrust to left, then to right, then a flicker they
Tilt into a slide, a tremble for balance,
Then a lashing down disappearance
They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come —
And here they are, here they are again
Erupting across yard stones
Shrapnel-scatter terror. Frog-gapers,
Speedway goggles, international mobsters —
A bolas of three or four wire screams
Jockeying across each other
On their switchback wheel of death.
They swat past, hard-fletched
Veer on the hard air, toss up over the roof,
And are gone again. Their mole-dark labouring,
Their lunatic limber scramming frenzy
And their whirling blades
Sparkle out into blue —
Not ours any more.
Rats ransacked their nests so now they shun us.
Round luckier houses now
They crowd their evening dirt-track meetings,
Racing their discords, screaming as if speed-burned,
Head-height, clipping the doorway
With their leaden velocity and their butterfly lightness,
Their too much power, their arrow-thwack into the eaves.
Every year a first-fling, nearly flying
Misfit flopped in our yard,
Groggily somersaulting to get airborne.
He bat-crawled on his tiny useless feet, tangling his flails
Like a broken toy, and shrieking thinly
Till I tossed him up — then suddenly he flowed away under
His bowed shoulders of enormous swimming power,
Slid away along levels wobbling
On the fine wire they have reduced life to,
And crashed among the raspberries.
Then followed fiery hospital hours
In a kitchen. The moustached goblin savage
Nested in a scarf. The bright blank
Blind, like an angel, to my meat-crumbs and flies.
Then eyelids resting.
Wasted clingers curled.
The inevitable balsa death.
For the husk
Of my little Apollo —
The charred scream
Folded in its huge power.