Wildlife from Ethiopia to York
It’s amazing what you can encounter during an early morning jog
Typically I’d be halfway up the mountainside, my lungs desperately grasping at the thin Ethiopian air, when suddenly, bounding out of the undergrowth appeared a hyena, or even two of the beasts—once there were three of them.
My closest encounter was about 8 meters away. After black spots on dun-coloured spiky-looking fur flashed in front of me as the hyena crossed the track I was running along, the hyena stopped just before the vegetation on the other side. I halted too to see a huge head atop the sort of powerful shoulders you’d associate with a nightclub bouncer looking back at me. We pondered each other for about 10 seconds, before the hyena loped onward into the forest surrounding the capital, Addis Ababa. A hyena has the oddest running gait, as if limping after being shot in the buttocks by an air rifle.
Such encounters stirred mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was tremendously exciting. A hyena! Right there, in front of me. But, on the other, part of me was always a little relived as the hyena bounded away. The bite of a hyena is stronger than that of a great white shark, and I’d also heard the story about a foreigner from one of the nearby embassies who had gone for a run up the same mountain I was on and who was never seen again. All they ever found was a single trainer.
Hence, not that surprisingly, in many countries hyenas are reviled and feared. In Ethiopia, however, ever a land of contradictions and surprises, there is a long tradition of people and hyenas living side-by-side in relative amenability. During an average night in Addis Ababa, while everyone sleeps, the hyenas come into the city’s suburbs to scavenge for scraps of meat and animal carcasses that the human carnivores leave behind, thereby providing an excellent animal waste disposal service. It is also noted they help keep the feral dog population under control. Then, just before sunrise, handing the city back over to its human occupants, the hyenas flee to hide in the forests and hills surrounding the city—thereby coinciding with me wheezing my way up.
Now running along the River Ouse outside York early in the morning before a day of lockdown, the altitude is far kinder to my lungs and the wildlife much more placid. But it still has the capacity to surprise, especially with nature apparently resurgent during the lockdown as humans take a backseat. One sunny morning, a rangy hare darted out in front of me cutting across the track I was running along—evoking the spirit of the hyena—before bounding away across the field. As I was admiring its easy grace, a deer suddenly cut across the track following in the hare’s wake, joined immediately by another deer. As their two white tails bounced across the field after the hare, two lapwings began evasive manoeuvres in an effort to protect their ground-level nest, swirling and tumbling acrobatically in the air around the bouncing deer, the beating of their black and white wings giving that flickering effect distinctive to them, while a heartbreakingly shrill and breathy flight call of “pwaay—eech!” filled the air. I had to stop running and watch. Here was nature giving me a scene of wildlife ballet I had never encountered before.
While usually not quite so dramatic, there have been other innumerable moments of pronounced wildlife activity in the surrounding fields. In addition to increased sighting of hares and deer, there are plenty of pheasants, including two of whom who have set up in our village where they do a sterling impression of cockerels as they call out at 5 a.m. One villager reported an otter spotted swimming to the riverbank clutching a fish.
Most impressive has been the birdlife, turning me into a late-to-the-game bird spotter (the Collins Bird Guide is a treasure trove of knowledge and guidance on the likes of how to spell out bird calls). Those lapwing gymnasts of the air would be of enough interest alone, but of a day they are joined by barn swallows ducking around with the thinly elongated streamers of their forked tales decorating the air, sand martins darting above the river’s surface catching insects, yellowhammers weaving in and out of hedgerows, tiny gold crests sporting avian Mohicans, oystercatchers tottering on the ground, skylarks singing in flight as they rise on madly fluttering wings, and silhouetted high in the sky the long pointed scythe-shaped wings of swifts, who you really have to hand it to as the most accomplished and indefatigable flyers: with feet unsuitable for perching they spend almost all their life in the air, even copulating and sleeping in flight.
This apparent re-emergence of wildlife during the lockdown has highlighted how much we either took it for granted or have blighted it or, as is more likely, have been guilty of both. In “Where the Bright Waters Meet”, first published in 1924, the narrator and fly-fishing obsessive Harry Plunket Greene describes the swifts sweeping around him at the river side in “great numbers” and how “I have known the swallows so thick on the water in a heavy rise of fly that I have been almost afraid to cast for fear of foul-hooking one of them.” When have you ever seen a comparable scene today? But even back in Greene’s day, the rot had started to set in. By the end of his narration, his beloved Hampshire river teeming with fish for years has become a pale shadow of its former self, the fit trout all gone, poisoned by runoff from the tarring of roads.
“It was man that spoiled it all,” Greene says. “The watercress beds above the viaduct have scarred her face and marred her beauty for ever. The pollard is there still, but the trees with the wild bees are gone. The blackdeath is creeping through the chalk and covering her eyes with film. Materialism has her in its grasp, and the road-hog must be served.”
It’s the sort of scene that’s been repeated with increasing frequency, and on an ever-greater scale, ever since, and especially in America, where its natural marvels have too often been sacrificed on an altar of progress built on a foundation of misunderstanding and misgivings.
“An old Sioux chief, Standing Bear, once said that the white man came to this continent afraid from the very beginning,” a Sioux Indian tells Stud Terkel in the latter’s 1980 book American Dreams: Lost and Found, an oral history exploring America’s national myths. “Afraid of animals and nature and earth. This fear projected itself onto the land and the animals. They became frightened of the whites. When the whites would move in, the animals would move out…They must have been absolutely frantic to set down roots. It was more than subduing the land.”
In another of the book’s interviews, a traveling folk singer tells Terkel about how much her Idaho hometown has changed.
“Boise hardly exists for me any more,” the lady says. “All the things I remember with pleasure have been torn down and been replaced by bullshit. Downtown Boise, all covered, is like a cattle chute for customers…All just for selling and consuming. I remember all those wonderful things that just aren’t there any more. Trees. It used to be like a little cup of trees. A river runs right through the middle. You could hardly see more than two or three buildings. The statehouse and Hotel Boise. Just trees and this river. Oh, corridors of green. Trees so old and big that came together and make little corridors. Old, old houses and a sense of community. None of that’s there any more. They’ve cut down the trees, they tore down the old buildings.”
Recent surveys gauging the mood of Brits during the lockdown have indicated that a clear majority want to see at least some of the changes they have experienced continue afterwards, including the resurgent wildlife. But, as I noted in a previous article on the lockdown, such sentiments don’t mean we want to go back to a pre-industrialised agrarian society. There’s much about modern life to be thankful for, which includes the astonishing achievements of modern farming and the supply chains that bless our supermarket aisles and dinner tables. Such advances have enabled the majority to escape hunger and want. The consequential conundrum for nature is captured by a description on the base of a delightful Emma Bridgewater lapwing mug I recently acquired—I told you I have become a bit of a bird spotter—which states:
“The snap of the lapwing’s wing as it flips around on its evening flight is a sound most characteristic of evening on the marsh. The drivers of fast and massive modern tractors working in the fields are now unable to spot their nests of mottled eggs before they are crushed.”
Would we turn back advances in farming for the sake of those nests? Meanwhile, nature for all her virtues can also be brutal. Going back to hyenas, in his memoir “Notes from the Hyena’s Belly,” the Ethiopian writer Nega Mezlekia says that hyenas “although cowardly and sheepish individually, are so fierce in a pack that no one would dare confront them.” He also notes the unsavoury role hyenas played during the Red Terror of Ethiopia’s military dictatorship after the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie, when each day the bodies of those executed were dumped on the outskirts of Addis Ababa to become a “moveable feast for countless hyenas.”
In present-day Addis Ababa, there are tales of beggars sleeping rough losing a toe or finger, or even a baby being snatched from its mother’s arms, and there is that trainer of the runner from the embassy. Hyenas, like most of nature’s animals, don’t care about us. One writer put it even more unequivocally, stating how nature “for all its outward poetry, is a slaughterhouse.” The human urge to tame or mitigate that ruthless potential is far from unreasonable.
Fortunately, most of us never have to get too close to that Hobbesian side of nature. It’s more likely we will just have to wrestle with the dilemma brought up in one of the Daily Telegraph’s Very British Problems columns about “Lockdown Living,” which, at number 5, had: “Trying to take joy in simple things, such as appreciating nature, which, it turns out, becomes quite boring quite quickly.”
I think that humorous point gets at a more serious truth, which is how we have become complacent about the everyday natural world—as in the low-level, more humdrum sort that doesn’t grab the headlines like the melting glaciers—or at least the majority of us have. During another early morning run following the River Ouse, I passed an elderly couple by the side of the path deeply engrossed in investigating the undergrowth. They explained they were looking at a Tansy beetle, which is now no longer found anywhere else in the UK, depending on the tansy plant growing along the Ouse around York. I asked if I might look at it too, and stepping aside they pointed me toward it, though I couldn’t miss its stunning iridescent shell almost shining out from the greenery, and looking like something out of “The Crystal World” by J.G. Ballard, whose science fiction often addressed environmental apocalypse and dystopias that we risk creating.
Unfortunately, the Tansy beetle faces extinction due a combination of the likes of invasive non-native plants and changes in agricultural practices pushing out the precious tansy plant, although fortunately there are others like that elderly couple who appreciate the beetle’s diminutive charms, hence the Tansy Beetle Action Group (TBAG) is fighting to save the beetle and its habitat (on the same run I passed a gloved woman uprooting the offending Himalayan balsam plant).
Despite the increased sightings of wildlife during the lockdown, one man in the village commented that given how we are surrounded by fields and greenery, the amount of wildlife inhabiting it remains sparse. Humans have an intuitive sense of the importance of nature. On top of this we have the likes of the philosopher Roger Scruton to spell out the importance of being rooted to the past, to culture and to the land, and the problems that incur when those are ignored. And yet we continue to lose sight of such fastenings.
“I think there will emerge a group of people, not a large percentage, who will somehow find a way to live meaningful lives,” the Sioux Indian says. “For the vast majority, it will be increased drudgery, with emotions sapped by institutional confines. A grayness.”
All photos by James Jeffrey
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