I really need a haircut. Nothing makes that more apparent than riding a London-bound train with all the suits busying to and from the big city in their neat coats, shiny shoes and short-cropped hair. Standing here six weeks unshaven with my traveler’s backpack and a black-and-yellow wool hoody, I must look like Shaggy Rogers. Having spent two months in the company of Americans, I probably sound like him too. Like, zoinks.
After the all the madness of that final week in Jordan, the last few days have been a seriously good come-down. It’s autumn here in Sussex and there’s a slight smell of mushrooms in the air. That’s probably because I live just a stone’s throw from a dense forest. Autumn is a mushroom time of year, though. One of the first things that Mum did on my first day back was to take me on a forest walk in search of ‘shrooms. Purely scientifically, of course. Amongst other things, she considers herself a well-read mycologist. Is that any stranger than birdwatching or train-spotting? I don’t think so. But then, I was brought up knowing the difference between various agaric species and learning to identify a boletus on sight, so it suits me well to defend another country card, as it were. I still ought to point out that I’m a naturalist first and foremost, and birds feature higher on that list than the humble boletus.
Amongst her stories from her recent working trip to Peru, I found it highly entertaining that she’d run aground on much the same issue I’d encountered in Uganda, and that’s a general lack of vocabulary – or more likely, lack of interest – as regards birds. Like me, she was excited to see so many new creatures she’d never seen before and naturally inquired of her hosts the names of all these critters. Pájaro. Mockingbird, pigeon, pelican, even vulture – all pájaros. It’s much the same affair in northern Uganda, if a little more fine-tuned; anything with a hooked bill is a golegole, all the others are winyo. Just a little frustrating for a budding naturalist and linguist; one of the best things about this crazy world is learning the names other cultures give to their animals. For want of a better example, take lammergeier, or ‘lamb vulture’. Good enough, but not a patch on quebrantahuesos; ‘he who breaks bones’. So the words are there, I’m sure of it. Just don’t expect much understanding if you ask a local where a double-collared sunbird might be found. You know, like you do on a regular basis. It’s a commonly occurring situation.
Perhaps it’s not that the words don’t exist, but that nobody knows them anymore? I remember a choir practice last year that was rendered more difficult than usual by the jackdaws nesting in the eaves, who had what sounded like a little choir of their own up there. I made a passing remark to some friends and they looked blankly at me; they’d never heard of a jackdaw before. It’s not the kind of remark you lose sleep over, but it’s a touch saddening. I’ve always thought that you miss out on so much of the world if you just lump all the animals together under one flag. But then, I am a bit weird. Knowing the usual garden birds is one thing, but memorizing the entire European panoply and their calls is quite another. I can’t ever do things by halves. Maybe some of that brain space would have been better saved for some of that vital mathematical understanding everybody else seems to have, or perhaps for some knowledge pertaining to a sport of some kind. Telling the difference between two wagtails in flight isn’t exactly game-changing material, nor is it a very good chat-up line.
Ah, to Hell with that. I wouldn’t trade this world for love nor money. It’s great to have something niche that you’re good at. I can’t ace a high-jump, run a marathon or make any column of figures reach the same total twice, but I know the world around me. And I have my mother to thank for that; for all the pond-dipping, clover-hunting and rock-pooling adventures of my childhood. None if it went to waste. It worked for Beatrix Potter. In that far-off future, if I should be lucky enough to have children of my own, I’ll teach them everything my mother taught me. They, of course, can decide for themselves whether knowing the difference between a crow and a rook matters at all. But at least they’ll know. BB x