It’s a difficult day, a retrograde day, and I’m suffering the after-effects of a family storm, during which I often feel like the lightening conductor.  As mothers, we are expected to be superhuman, absorbing whatever is thrown at us, magically waving a wand to make everything okay again.  The strength and unconditionality of our love makes us a place of safety where others can vent their fear and fury at the world, blinded to their words' impact on a fellow human by simple  faith in our powers.  

During these storms, giant waves of other’s emotion and expectations crash over my head.  They threaten to capsize the little boat I have carefully built over the past 18 months.  Its fragile planks keep me apart, helping me to define what is mine and what is not, to remain centred and controlled enough to find the calm that we all need.  Safe on the other side now I can reflect in satisfaction on how far I have come; I have learned to protect myself and, through this, to help those I love to deal with their own demons.  Not so long ago I would have been left washed out and exhausted, an adrenal wreck.  Today I am simply discombobulated and annoyed, in need of something to change my mood.

I am waiting by the community allotment gates for a meeting and she is late.  My irritation sparks but quickly dies as my glance catches the bright glint of an eye in the bramble thicket.  A female blackbird is sorting through the leaf litter, looking for grubs on this frosty January day.  She considers me for a moment, decides that I am not a threat and continues with her work.  My mind snaps into focus and suddenly I can see every detail of the crinkled leaves, her softly mottled brown feathers, the pale-yellow ring around her eye, echoed in the questing beak.  All irritation and worry evaporate in that moment.  

A robin sings and I lift my head to locate him, high in the black-knobbled twigs of a young ash tree.  Against the glow of his breast, the sky is a fathomless blue, criss-crossed by the swooping flight of finches.  A great tit joins the chorus — teacher, teacher, teacher— and I can’t help but smile at the contrast of his monotonous bass line to the robin’s soaring aria.  Suddenly, through the joy of small things, ‘God’s in his heaven—all’s right with the world.’

This is not the first time that birds have come to my rescue.  Many years ago my husband’s work took us to South Africa.  While he worked and my son made friends at nursery school, I sat behind high walls and razor wire, five locks between me and the outside world, trying to finish writing my thesis—alone.  It was a hard, hard time as I struggled with home-sickness, loneliness and the inevitable roller-coaster ride of postgraduate study.  I had lived in South Africa before, but the city still felt like an alien and threatening place after the high, clear air of my beloved garden in the Scottish borders.  In Pretoria we were lucky to find a cheap, run-down old bungalow, sole survivor on a Jacaranda-lined street of smart new mansions.  As I struggled to find the words to convey the pain of the nurses I had interviewed for my thesis, grey loeries called from the stinkwood trees above my head, ‘Gway, gway, go away, go away.’  I was intrigued, laughing at their pleas rather than offended, and headed for the nearest air-conditioned shopping mall to find a guide to South African birds.  Who was telling me to, ‘Go away’, so insistently?  

The book that I bought helped me to find a place and neighbours in this alien world.  With it I took time to follow the hoopoe’s progress across the lawn in search of termites, I fed scraps to the squabbling myna birds in the yard and marvelled at the ragbag colours and clownish appearance of the crested barbet.  I watched white-eyes and bulbuls snatching winged termites from the air after the first rains prompted their flight.  

My book took me out of the house to the nearby Austin Roberts bird reserve, where I sat in the scented heat of a wooden hide, watching weaver birds, pied kingfishers, reed cormorants and the scarlet flash of red bishops.  I drank in the beauty of the blue cranes, avian equivalents of an Edwardian lady with sweeping bustled skirts.  I laughed at the absurdity as one displayed its wings in the face of a seated man,whose small, yappy dog had been taunting it.  Its elegant plumage swept wide, trapping him against a bench, still gabbling into his cell-phone while the dog barked bravely from under the seat.  

Life was still tough, but I found familiarity and beauty in the pages of that book and an invitation out into the surrounding city.  I was no longer an alien in a strange land, just a traveller passing through and saying hello to the locals.

If you have enjoyed reading this post, set aside a little time to go back through the links and share the birds I have described via some wonderful YouTube videos.

For a beautiful, peaceful short video showing common garden birds in the South African Cape, click here

For a similarly quiet time spent with British garden birds, try this link

Apart from the blackbird and the blue crane, the pictures shown above are licensed through creative commons and shared on Wikimedia Commons.  Please click on the links below for the full details of their creators, to whom I express my heartfelt thanks for their generosity.

Crested Barbet
Grey Loerie