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Starting the New Year with the lessons of nature

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Illustration by Caty Bartholomew
Illustration by Caty Bartholomew

Happy New Year to you all. Let none of you allow yourselves to be one bit afraid  of its challenges.
It will be the same curate’s egg of a yoke as all the others with good bits and bad bits, and I have a feeling, for us over here at any rate, that it has the makings of a good one.

I heard a gorgeous description of an incoming year last week from a horsie man who said that an infant year is exactly akin to a newborn colt or filly foal at foot.

It is gleamingly lovely on its unsteady, spindly legs, and it needs to lean against its dam for all the support it can get.  Not even the breeder knows exactly how it will develop.

I liked that image.  I pass it on to you.

This year or any year the lifelore and landlore of the rural people amongst whom I am privileged to dwell in the west constantly warms my heart.

There was a break in the somewhat blustery weather early this afternoon and I went for a walk down our country road.  About a half-mile down there is a small bridge over a busy little river, and I am of the breed that always has time to lean on a parapet and enjoy the water music.

And was I not lucky enough, for only the second time at this spot in a decade, to see a kingfisher catching his dinner.

You only see kingfishers rarely. They are the most colorfully plumaged and pretty of our wild birds, red and blueish and small and shapely, as bright as any cage bird from exotic lands.

But there he was fleeting behind his tiny pike of a beak over the water and, as I watched, he speared a tiny silvery fish, perched on a rock maybe 50 feet from me on the bank, and speedily downed his dinner.

I was so carried away by the elemental beauty of the incident that I did not notice the gentleman who had joined me on the bridge until he spoke.

“There now is something you and I have witnessed that not many people ever see,” is what he said.

I agreed, and sure one word led to another, seasonal greetings included and, as the kingfisher flew out of sight with his little belly full for the day, we had what you’d call a grand chat from which I learned a lot by accident.

He was an older Irishman, a stranger to me, and by heavens he knows his country stuff.  We were close to Carrygerry Country House at the bridge, and I’d say he was another of the many guests from that splendid establishment I’ve met down the years on their saunters through the scenery. You can meet anyone from anywhere on our road.

And do you know what he told me? He informed me that the beautiful little kingfisher that had delighted our eyesight moments earlier was, beyond doubt, the dirtiest little wild bird of them all.

He said it with the assurance of a man who knew what he was talking about. He said when we were gone the kingfisher would come back close to the bridge to his haunt there on the grey clay banks.

And he would go down a hole there into a filthy tunnel maybe a yard long and disgorge the bones of the fish we had seen him catching down on top of the pile of bones in a hole at the end of the tunnel. A foul smelling pile it was.

And would I like to know that in a couple of months time, when that pile was even bigger and fouler, that the kingfisher and the wife would be happy as Larry to turn it  into their nest!

No moss or lichen or feathers or any kind of decent construction like all the other birds of the wild cripple themselves building. No, said my friend, the pile of smelly bones will be the nest. And the lady would probably lay 10 white eggs into it when the time came.

You listen with a respect approaching awe to a source like  that, and so I did.  And, as if to trigger another stream of his wildlore, two shots came in rapid succession from some fowlers in action either near the lough after duck or back in the fields behind us making the most of the last weeks of the legal pheasant shooting season.

The countryman cocked his ear at the sound and said he reckoned the fowler had flushed up a pheasant, fired too fast and missed with the first shot at a bird which could have flown up from almost under his feet.

And, given how close together the shots came, probably missed with the second shot as well and the bird escaped. He was glad of that.

He’d been a fowler in his youth too, he said, and shot his share of the game birds which, unlike our native kingfisher, had been imported into Ireland by the then gentry for their sport. He quit after some friends brought him to an organized shoot on an estate 20  years ago in the Midlands.

It was not sport at all he saw, he said, but slaughter. The pheasants had been raised by the estate, hand-fed even as chicks, and they had none of the wiles of the true tough old wild pheasants.

And did I know, he added, since we had been talking about warm birds’ nests, that wild hen pheasants, in a unique bonding, will quite often share the same nest, up to three or four of them laying their eggs in the same safe haven and sharing the raising of the clan. No, I had not known that either.

Sadly a car pulled up beside us and brought him away before I had a chance to hear more nuggets of information on the first day of an infant year that was still a foal at foot.

I could have listened to him all day there at the parapet. And I’d probably have learned more, maybe even about the upcoming 12 months and their prospects, than I will easily glean from elsewhere for weeks to come.

I heard a single flat shotgun blast from the fields just as I entered the cottage after walking back. I somehow fear that cock pheasant did not escape to savor as much of the spring as hopefully the rest of us will!

Again, a serene New Year to you all.

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