It’s a dull wet day as I look out the window into our garden in Wicklow. Where has the sun gone? Last week we had such glorious, sunny, August days. Outside in the misty drizzle, waves of feeding birds visit our bird feeders. Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Blue Tits and even Siskins are moving with dizzying speed around the garden. A Willow Warbler, flitting around the Mullein, creates a real feeling of autumn in the air. It is picking small insects from inside the yellow flowers as it moves through the garden, driven by a demanding instinct to keep moving south. It will spend the winter in the forests of sub-Saharan Africa.
In the world of birds, the seasons change like a watercolour painting…there are no sharp edges. It’s August and already the summer is blurring into autumn. The Swallows in our sheds have finished nesting for the year and the family have joined other Swallows and House Martins feeding in the fields opposite our house. They will go even further than the warbler and spend their winter in South Africa, 10,000km from Wicklow. As I watch these birds, I am filled with a deep sense of admiration for them...a deep sense of wonder at the magic of the natural world.
On the table in front of me lies the first copy of my new book, Don’t Die in Autumn, which has just been released into the world. I have written many books on birds and Ireland’s wildlife but they have all been reference-type or photographic books. This book is different. In many ways, it is a journey of my life that stems from that very deep sense of wonder I am lucky to possess. It is a possession I treasure.
As I look out the window, I close my eyes and I am transported back to my old house in Finglas East, in north Dublin where I was born and raised. I am no more than two or three years old and I’m standing in the old kitchen of our home. Ma is with me. She is peeling potatoes and is looking out the window. She smiles at me.
‘Here…come look at the birds’, she says as she sweeps me up into her arms.
I stand on the old enamel kitchen sink, looking out into our back garden. There, just outside the window is a female House Sparrow with two chicks. They are flapping their wings and begging for food.
‘Look at the mammy bird feeding her baby,’ she whispers to me. ‘See the baby bird flapping his little wings.’
It’s funny how such a long distant memory can be so clear. I remember this moment so vividly that I sometimes doubt that it happened. Thankfully my mother confirms that it was exactly how I remember it.
Apparently, she put me down so she could continue with her tasks but I begged to be lifted back up again. I was transfixed by this urban natural wonder that was unfolding before me. It seems that we both stood watching this family of House Sparrows for over an hour…the potatoes were forgotten.
Here I am now, 54 years of age and I’m still looking out the window at the birds. I am still transfixed by what I see each day. To say that this childhood moment, when my very enlightened mother decided that showing me birds was more important than peeling spuds, was a life-changing moment, is perhaps an understatement. It was the spark that ignited a fascination with the natural world that has stayed with me all of my life.
My mother has since quipped that she regrets ever lifting me up to look at those birds.
‘Look at what I started!’ she jokes.
My brother, Paul, still wonders if I was born or if, in fact, I was hatched.
You see, from that moment on, I yearned to experience the natural world for myself. Being raised in Finglas East I was lucky to have the Bots (Botanic Gardens) and Glasnevein Cemetery close to where we lived. Da took us down there every weekend. These green oases in a suburban jungle were my remote Tundra’s and African plains. My own back garden was my Serengeti and the small hedge that grew along our fence, my rainforest. Here, as a young boy, I sat with Da sipping tea and experiencing my first dawn chorus as the birds of Finglas gradually awoke to a new day. Such magical childhood moments are etched into my memory. I have since travelled the world and experienced many exotic dawn choruses…but none can ever match that first Finglas dawn chorus.
Last year, while sorting through some of my late fathers belongings, I discovered a letter I had written to Santy. I was just seven years old. I asked Santy to bring me ‘lots of books’. My appetite for knowledge was insatiable. I longed to travel the world. I had childish dreams that someday I would see the birds and animals I was reading about. I am a lucky man because many of my childhood dreams have been realised and are still being realised. Few of us can say that.
Strangely enough, one of those childhood dreams was to write a book. Whilst I have already done that, for some reason, Don’t Die in Autumn is the book I dreamed I would write one day. I wanted to capture the influence of my wonderful parents. I wanted to capture the Finglas of the 1960’s and 70’s where the delicate threads, found within the bricks and mortar of my birthplace, were woven into the person I am today. I wanted to capture the days of travel, where I followed my dreams and experienced so many wonderful birds. Most of all I wanted to capture the magic of my life for the birds.
When I turned 40 years old, I gave up my good secure, pensionable job to follow my passion; a passion sparked by those special words… ‘Here…come look at the birds’.
And Ma, guess what? I’m still looking at the birds!
Don’t Die in Autumn, published by Gill&Macmillan, is available in all ‘good bookshops’ from today, as well as directly from G&M and Amazon. It is also available as an ebook. Price 16.99
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