Updated: Sep 21
I grew up on a small arable farm in North Lincolnshire. It wasn’t anything special, really, just fields and a few buildings of varying size at the foot of the Lincolnshire Wolds and flanked by a long, narrow limestone cliff. It was beaten by wind and often pretty bleak in the winter. My Dad would moan about how the chalky ground soaked up all the water and would look out on the clearest of blue spring days with a resigned shake of his head and sigh “we need more rain”.
The farm wasn’t one of those bucolic homesteads conjured up in films. There wasn’t a wood or a forest on our land, there was no romantic stream cascading along the foot of a valley and in the 1980s and 90s there wasn’t the conservation awareness that there is today. We sprayed crops and weeds with fertiliser, herbicide and insecticide depending on the result we wanted and not much thought was given to our overall responsibility to the land, other than how to make it pay. In those days the return on investment was small and the stakes were higher than I could have imagined but these were not things I paid much attention to at the time. With the benefit of hindsight and adulthood, I realise now that we were caught in the centre of a momentous shift in farming, away from the old, traditional ways of small farms that supported the lives of highly-skilled and specialised workers and towards a dominating, capitalist production line dictated to by supermarkets and corporations and reliant on a cheap, disposable labour force. The old ways had been slower and more gentle, not as destructive to the nature and wildlife, but we were now at a point where we were forced to increase the yield from the farm in order to make a smaller profit, whilst simultaneously turning a blind eye to the adverse environmental effects it caused.
However, despite this, growing up in such immediate proximity to the land that my father and grandfather farmed gave me a sense of being rooted in a landscape in a very particular way. As children, we explored every corner of ‘our’ land. We knew every track and trail, we knew all the trees, we knew all the fields and their names were as familiar to us as the ones of our friends on the register at the tiny village school we went to; Dobbin Dale, Horse Field, Bomb Field, Whitemoor, Kield Ash. We knew where the fox earths were, we watched hares boxing in the early Spring, we went to sleep listening to the screech of owls and woke up in the morning to the soothing coo of wood pigeons in the ancient pine trees in the garden. I think my brothers and I felt instinctively we were somehow guardians of the land and I certainly felt fixed to that place in a way I never have to anywhere since. Thinking back and unpicking this from an adult’s perspective, I realise it was the bits that we couldn’t control that gave us the deepest sense of belonging. Witnessing rare, private moments from the natural world gave me an insight into how the world turns, long before I could really comprehend the magic and joy of what I was seeing.
One example comes back to me each year and takes on increasing significance as I get older. In the farm yard were some stone stables, which I guess were a couple of hundred years old. Inside, the beams in the roof were lined with nests carefully and intricately constructed from mud. Each year, in May, we’d start looking out for the first swallow of the year and every year, my Dad would note down in his page-a-day A4 diary the first day he saw one. Honestly, I thought it was the dullest, most pedestrian thing I could imagine. I was interested in seeing them and I’d certainly look out for them when they were feeding their hungry, squawking chicks who stuck their heads out the top of the nests to demand food, but recording the day they arrived? That was the definite domain of a sad, old person with nothing better to do.
It was only a few years ago when I moved back to Lincolnshire after living in cities for 15 years that I registered the first summer evening I spotted a swallow. It was dusk on 7 May 2019 and, as I looked out of my back door at the sun setting over the roofs of the small town where I didn’t quite fit in, I saw the silhouette of a single, solitary scimitar cutting through the air. It flew across the sky and then was gone. I might even have imagined it. However, the next morning I looked out again and the first one from the evening before had been joined by its friends. There they all were, making joyful arcs and calling to each other in recognition. More out of nostalgia than anything else, I made a note in my calendar and spent the summer watching them idly out of the kitchen window or when I was in the garden at dusk. In September, after gathering on the telephone wires for a morning, they were gone.
Then, in early May 2020, I looked out of the backdoor window again and there it was. Another lone ranger scoping out the area. I added it to my diary, again out of sentimentality but as I did so, I almost couldn’t believe it. They’d arrived on exactly the same date as last year. The world had changed beyond measure over the course of that year and, at the time, we were still enduring the first wave of the pandemic lockdowns. Something about how those tiny birds had managed to time their arrival after a journey of thousands of miles on exactly the same day stirred in me an emotion I found hard to suppress. The thought of them spending the winter soaring over the heads of giraffes and elephants in South Africa before making the hazardous journey back to the UK to breed made me dizzy. I pictured them high in the sky, looking down at the Sahara as they flew over it, then imagined them soaring above the Pyrenees and I felt the monumental impact of what they’d achieved.
In the face of the fear and death that had swept the world during the Covid-19 pandemic, these little birds had beaten the odds to get here and they’d even managed to adhere to a strict inner timetable. The reliability of their return felt incredibly comforting and I thought perhaps that’s why my Dad used to note the date of their arrival. Faced with an uncertain world, they brought a comforting continuity and they represented something much larger than we could begin to fully understand. My Dad was plagued by mental health problems much larger than anyone realised but I like to think that small but monumental moments such as these brought him moments of respite and joy. Just as they did me as I stood outside my backdoor laughing in wonder, on 7 May 2020, and took a break from the anxiety and fear of the pandemic.