For the past week, while Julian and I have looped between Exeter, Plymouth and the midlands, Lily and Katie have been staying with their Grandad in Coventry. Barry lives in a 1950s terrace house in suburbia. The small fenced garden behind his house is a place of wonder and discovery for the girls. Bluebells grow along the borders, ants and spiders scuttle across the patio slabs, ladybirds and butterflies alight on the plants (and occasionally on us), and we are party to the comings and goings of sparrows, starlings, collared doves, pigeons and a carrion crow.
The girls are enthralled by these fellow inhabitants of Grandad’s garden and excitedly demand our attention when a new creature is sighted or when an old friend returns. They tiptoe up to plants, so as not to disturb a little ladybird, and gaze at it in wonder. They ask permission to scatter seeds, so more birds will come. In the moment, they are obsessive little naturalists, but just as quickly forget about the animals when something else grabs their attention¹.
I came downstairs on Sunday morning to make myself a cup of tea. Lily was already up, sitting at the dining table with Grandad’s very old Birds of Europe and North America reference book open in front of her. When I had made my tea, I sat with her. I explained how the number beside each bird picture corresponded to the number next to the name and description of each bird on the opposite page. I explained the symbols for male and female, explained that ‘juv’ was short for juvenile – a young bird, and a ‘w’ referred to a bird’s winter plummage. Once she’d got the hang of all that, she was hooked, reading the names, admiring the colours, and before too long noticing that daddy birds are often more colourful than mummy birds.
Together we looked at families of birds, and looked for similarities amongst members of the finch, tit, crow, goose families. We talked about why some birds change colour in winter, and thought about other animals that also change colour at different times of year. I helped her find the birds that visit Grandad’s garden, and we learned more about them, and in her notebook she carefully wrote about the sparrow.
We discovered some of the beautiful birds that live along the Mediterranean coast, and Lily said she hoped we’d see those one day soon.
It’s easy to overlook the great variety of creatures that live in the urban and suburban landscape. We fool ourselves inot thinking that a little patch of well tended lawn is ours, that the carefully planted flowers and shrubs are for our visual benefit alone. But they’re not really. In Grandad’s garden, a menagerie of creatures live out their mundane and epic lives. All it takes is a little childlike fascination for us to be open and alive to the amazing world around us.
¹Lily’s other obsession this week has been the World Snooker Championships. Grandad’s taught her the rules and she’s become an avid fan of Ronnie O’Sullivan!