Yes, they have gone! The silence as we write this is astonishing: the usual early-evening chatter, the twitterings and busy to-ings and fro-ings from the nest – all have ceased. Now only the house martins’ little home remains, painstakingly constructed from the earth itself: like the remains of a lost civilization. Our feeling of sadness is profound. Mr Pip salutes you – our dear departed family – wherever on your lengthy journey south you currently are. This is a sorrowful day, on which we are all marking the passing of a close family member a long way from here. Losing the birds at the same time only reinforces the sense of bereavement. We look in hope towards the sun as it retreats towards the equinox, as it has been doing all the while these enchanting creatures were amongst us. Now they are gone, the light will not be long in turning to meet us again and, in its warming rays, we trust that we will hear those tell-tale chatterings outside the study window once again.
When Uncle Johnny, Newman and Barnaby came to live here in Northumberland several years ago, there was a neat little cup of a mud nest under the eaves. Though they hoped to see its owners return to breed in it, no one ever came to claim it and then last summer its remains were lost in the building work for the extra bunkhouse. It was sad that the remnants of what had been a sign of the house being blessed by such special creatures were removed permanently, but that seemed to be that.
What utter joy then, when last week we realised that our little homestead had at last been blessed by a family of house martins who, in what seemed like an eye’s blink, had manufactured a robust, brown home and filled it with twittering offspring. Hidden beneath the overhanging wooden eaves, if you stand by the house wall and look up you can easily see the perfectly-formed nest so well protected from the elements and, at certain times of the day, watch lots of comings-and-goings accompanied by loud chattering. Though Kemo Sabe’s attempts at photography are pretty woeful, we live in hope of a better shot. It is heartening to think that these lovely birds, who spent the winter thousands of miles to the south of our coastal community, have chosen us for this, their most significant life event – creating a new family. I remember hearing that Banquo, Macbeth’s dear friend, a good man who knows what goodness looks like and says so even when others are blinded by evil, sees the house martins nesting at Macbeth’s castle. He can seem silly when he pays the birds homage, saying that wherever such as they choose to raise their young things are okay. But he is right and the irony is not lost. The innocence of the creatures which choose us for their bedfellows is an inspiration and call to action. This year, next door’s seagulls have removed themselves to our chimney breast, the spikes having proved too much for them at last. Today, the attentive herring gull parents revealed three tiny chicks, newly-hatched; such a prolific, successful pairing. Such joy accrues from the bird-life round here, no matter whether mundane, like the gulls, or magic, like the martins. As Banquo himself says:
This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here: no jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendent bed and procreant cradle:
Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed,
The air is delicate.
What have we done to deserve this, I ask?