myth

Fossils, myths and new shoes

Last day of the summer holidays and Chesil Beach is empty. It lies like a bleached bone along the Jurassic Coast. The sky is a pale and distant blue. Autumn term is dawning and six year old Jago is moving up from the ‘Mary Anning’ class. He has his new school shoes and is noticing everything today – a lit-up moment between past and future.

We walk down the path to Cogden beach among clouds of Common blue butterflies and floating thistledown. Three-year-old Finley is singing to himself and jumping dramatically over piles of rabbit droppings. Jago can’t wait to find a fossil. On the beach he lifts a huge stone, shouting he’s found a dinosaur bone. Every stone seems marked with the traces of past life, spirals which could be ammonites, ridges that hide belemnites, curves of ancient shells and fish. I point out the seed pods of the Sea kale to Finley and he immediately starts picking off the dense black balls and planting them in the shingle.

Along the strandline is a silvery line of hundreds of dead whitebait, looking like twists of silver paper. A huge pipe, about thirty feet long, has been washed up on the beach. It is covered, inside and out, in Goose barnacles, stranded high and dry. The legend was that these goose-shaped shellfish with their long necks, eventually open their white wings and fly away as Barnacle geese.

This theory of spontaneous regeneration was put forward in the Twelfth Century by Bishop Giraldus Cambrensis who said that Irish Churchmen would eat the Barnacle goose during fasts because ‘these birds are not flesh nor being born of the flesh for they are born at first like pieces of gum on logs of timber washed by the waves. Then enclosed in shells of a free form they hang by their beaks as if from the moss clinging to the wood and so at length in process of time obtaining a sure covering of feathers, they either dive off into the waters or fly away into free air.’ This myth became widespread.

At the edge of the shingle the yellow flowers of the Horned poppy are glowing like the autumn sun, contrasting with clumps of silvery-grey Sea Kale. Today summer ended. The sky is shimmering in the puddles on the path. Jago jumps in, forgetting his new shoes, scattering shards of pale blue water across the pebbles.

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Fern Owls and the full moon

Another full moon and another trip to the South Dorset Ridgeway – a mystical place even by day. This time I was in search of the elusive Nightjar or Fern Owl – a bird of myth and mystery. Dusk was falling as I climbed through narrow lanes towards Hardy’s monument at the top of the Ridgeway. Swathes of cow parsley glowed along the verges, seeming to have kept a little of the sun to light the way. The setting sun skimmed across the contours of the hills showing up tumuli, strip lynchets and other traces of prehistory.

In ancient times, the slopes would have been forested so all dwellings and monuments were created on the barer summit. I stopped on the landward side of the Ridgeway before reaching Hardy’s monument and set off through darkening woodland with the sun disappearing between the branches. Black slugs were slithering out of the ferny borders onto the heathy path and I picked my way between them listening to the sound of birds settling down for the night.

As the sun dipped to the western horizon a huge pink moon appeared in the east. I can easily imagine how primitive people would have seen this as a portent. It rose quickly above the Ridgeway and suddenly there were strange sounds among the trees. A whirring of insects, a rustling and fluster of moths. The air was full of the whispers of dusk – a language only heard in remote places after sunset. Then the sound I’d been waiting for – a soft rhythmic chirring and the silhouette of a bird overhead – swooping with staccato movements, bat-like – a nightjar, sometimes call the eve-jar. Then there were three dipping down low into the trees looking for moths.

In the distance on a high branch was one of these mysterious birds keeping lookout. It was joined by another and they stayed there long enough for a photo in which its eye shone like a tiny moon. I waited for a while seeing glimpses of dark shapes flitting among the trees and listening to the distinctive whirring and chirring of their calls in the shadow of the Ridgeway.

I drove home towing a huge golden moon behind me. A barn owl drifted low over the road and I heard myself say ‘wow’ – a totally inadequate word for such a special moment.