The sounds of a silent summer

So it really is time to “listen and look up” to quote  the resonant phrase of  Richard Mabey,  one of the shining lights of our inaugural Littoral programme last year. It really is time to pay attention, take note, take action, lest we lose the wildlife and birdlife with which we are inextricably interlinked. As the great John Muir, born and brought up on the other side of the Firth of the Forth from the East Neuk, long before such fancy terms as “biodiversity” were invented, wrote: “When we tug  at a single thing in Nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.”

Given this incontrovertible (though often ignored) reality, it looks as if we may be heading for trouble, fast. Sparrows? (More of them in a moment.) Starlings? Sandeels? Maybe not as sexy as more exotic species, but their continuing disappearance has profound repercussions for us all. This month’s State of Nature report, a seminal audit by a consortium of 25 different wildlife organisations, makes simultaneously worrying and galvanising reading, a pattern of loss and change gleaming  with mica- like shards  of hope. (Come on the corncrake!)

On a recent stroll in blustery Spring sunshine along the Fife coastal path, past some of the lovely venues we’ll be using in the East Neuk festival, all seemed ineffably right with the world. Gulls  – so many sorts – wheeled and soared above the waves. Ah, there was the kestrel in his favourite spot above the tangled undergrowth between fields and sea,  a miracle of aerodynamics, hovering motionless amidst the gusts, darting down on his scurrying prey. A heron flapped in meditative slow motion across the rocks. Comical gangs of wee dippers scurried  about the sands at the outgoing tide, pecking like little clockwork toys. Cormorants bagged the best positions on the skerries, grandly spreading their wings as if acknowledging applause.  So much life! Only a little later, an entire pod of sperm whales would be spotted near the Isle of May!  But only a little earlier, puffins were being washed ashore, dead and starved…

Right here, in the unique coastal region of our festival, the drama of  changing environmental forces  is being played out in full. When we programmed Littoral, our literary revealing of the natural world, we knew that including  a discussion on the last fifty years of our interference with ecology  and what the immediate future holds was going to be essential. Little did we know just how pertinent, urgent  and timely such an event would be.

So, on the last morning  of Littoral, (Sunday 7 July, 11.30am, Crail Church Hall, since you ask) our expert and insightful panel of environmental historians, naturalists and acute observers, T C Smout, John Lister-Kaye and Esther Woolfson will be considering the deep changes to habitat and species which have  accelerated alarmingly in recent years. We’ve all seen it. Just consider your own garden or back green, your local streets, the skies above our cities and seas – how they have altered. It was ever thus of course, we humans  happily persecuting “pests” out of existence  – or indeed introducing them – with an entire chain of unintended consequences. But David Attenborough introducing the ground-breaking State of Nature  report was unequivocal. During the last 50 years, since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, threats to habitat and climate change have contributed to a decline in 60% of the species studied, 31% having strongly declined and more than 1 in 10 in danger of disappearing from the UK forever. And Scotland, having most of our wild spaces and creatures, will be affected more than most.

Does it matter? It could hardly matter more. The report’s summary sagely and calmly states: “We should act to save nature for its intrinsic value and for the benefits it brings to us that are essential to our well-being and prosperity.” I would be considerably more vehement  than that. This is about our survival; and it is about our souls

Our speakers all know this, profoundly.  Professor Smout, most eminent of historians and himself resident of Anstruther, looks out over the Firth of Forth every day, Gone are the oyster beds, the vast shoals of herring, the coal and salt industries, the last remnants of boat-building at St Monan’s. In the Highlands, eagle-eyed naturalist Sir John Lister-Kaye does his daily walk to a high lochan  and sees the beauty and terror of nature itself and the effects of  “mankind’s peaceless domination.” Esther Woolfson recalls the miracle of the vast sweeping  displays of starlings above the busiest cross-roads in Union Street in Aberdeen  (I also remember them vividly, growing up there as a dreamy sky-watching child in the pre-oil 1960s), now gone, starlings endangered. Who would ever have thought it?

And sparrows? Sure they may still chase each other cheekily through bustling  hedgerows  – but they are disappearing. Why?  Let us celebrate them while we may, for as Woolfson says in Field Notes from A Hidden City : “If we lose sparrows, everything will change. Our lives will change, even if we don’t  at the time fully appreciate how. They’ll be lost before our eyes and as with every loss our lives will be thinner, lesser; the future not only of the physical world but our mental world will be diminished, the world of our history and legend, where the life of all our cultures resonates with all we’ve seen and all we’ve lived with, plant and animal and stone and cloud.”

Overly romantic? Just a few wee birds? I don’t think so. Come and share your thoughts and hopes.

Catherine Lockerbie

May 2013