THE KNOT SPECTACULAR: SNETTISHAM NORTH NORFOLK 1st SEPTEMBER 2019
It’s early on the first Sunday in September and after getting up in the dark we’re at Snettisham on the North Norfolk coast, joining a small crowd for the phenomenon that has become known as the Knot Spectacular. Knot (perhaps from their call which my bird guide gives as knut although its Latin name Calidris Canutus recalls the 10th century king who famously tried to hold back the tide) are waders, long-distance migrants that arrive in the UK in huge flocks in autumn from their breeding grounds in the high Arctic to feed on mudflats and estuaries. The spectacle occurs most dramatically at times of exceptionally big tides – this weekend’s was somewhere over eight metres – when the birds are pushed off the mudflats by the fast incoming water and take to the air in their thousands. In winter plumage the birds are silvery-grey on top but white underneath which creates the jewelled glint and gleam when the sun catches them.
It’s over before you’re ready: suddenly the watchers are hefting their tech and heading for the hides and you are left unsteady, almost alone, surrounded by sea heath and the startling blue of viper’s bugloss, trying to make sense of the migrant crisis you have just witnessed. Unlike its human equivalent, there is something both extraordinary and beautiful in their displacement – at least to us.
Birds begin and end beyond us, out of reach and outside our thought, and we see
them doing things apparently without feeling or thinking but – and because of this –
they make us think and feel.
[Tim Dee: The Running Sky]
Bird migration, according to writer Ruth Padel, is ‘the heartbeat of the planet’. The knot regularly travel 15,000 kilometres to be here and, whilst crowded off their patch of shore for now, there are always the islands in the lagoon as a temporary respite. Nature takes away but also provides in a way we seem unable to match. As Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas, it’s the poorest communities – Haitian migrants living in Marsh Harbour, for example – that come off worst. Meanwhile the Greek government has announced emergency measures to deal with renewed ‘huge waves’ of asylum seekers arriving from Turkey and there are again rising numbers of small boats of migrants crossing the Channel.
This is brought home to me in an email which is waiting for me when I get back from Norfolk. It begins:
I don’t want to make you too envious but S and I are here in Everett, a small town in
Washington State, just north of Seattle…
The email continues with the difficulties my friend has experienced trying to contact Jonathan Raban, a writer much admired by us both, and who I learnt from his brother has been hampered by the after-effects of a stroke. After I discovered Raban’s ‘Soft CIty’ in 1974, I have read pretty much everything he has written and always think of him as a traveller. I’m guessing, much like my good friend Di in Brittany, also recovering from a stroke just over a year ago, he is much less able to travel now. I don’t like to think of him having to put up with clipped wings; it’s not a state I enjoy and I very much regret not grabbing opportunities to take flight when I still could. I am of course grateful to friends and family (especially Andy this weekend) for all they do to keep me out and about, and to those writers who manage to bring the outside world in for us in such a heartening fashion:
We have broken from nature, fallen from the earth, put ourselves beyond it, but nature, ever forgiving, comes towards us, makes repairs to the damage we have done…
[Tim Dee again...]
You go because hope, need and escape
are names for the same god. You go
because life is sweet, life is cheap, life is flux
and you can’t take it with you. You go because you’re alive,
because you’re dying, maybe dead already. You go because you must.’
[...and Ruth Padel: The Mara Crossing]