Restlessness

Every September I suffer from a kind of insomnia, a restlessness. I think it’s the change of seasons. As I lay in bed wide awake last night I remembered this piece I wrote for BBC’s Out of Doors. It was recorded as an audio essay and still feels appropriate now. Maybe it’ll help some of you who are also struggling with a bit of restlessness.

At the very beginning of Autumn, the first time you notice the air feels different, or the edge of the crown of sycamore is starting to deepen to a russet reddy brown, there is sense of restlessness I had always associated with the start of a school year. 

From the age of four, Autumn signified a new term, a fresh start, the possibility of new friends, a new home. A potential adventure. 

And it seems I am not alone. As we pack our school bags, plan our timetables, sharpen our pencils, geese who have spent the summer in Western Siberia and Scandinavia, under northern lights if they are lucky, start to act a little restless too. Their journey south is about to begin. 

There is a name for this disquiet as the seasons begin to change. ‘Zugunruhe’, coined by German scientists, means migratory restlessness. Even caged birds feel it. A fluttering of wings, a feeling that there is something you have to do. Somewhere you have to be. An anxiousness. 

When the geese appear in the grey wet sky as if by magic, in their red arrow formation, we point them out to each other, and I wonder, where are they going? Where had they been? How many hours have they been flying before settling down on our coasts? 

Before, I was too busy with my own settling to even consider theirs. 

This year, of course, the turning of the earth, month after month, and finaly into another season has been more evident. I feel like we have been placed on a child’s globe and we can feel the rotation more acutely than ever before. A pandemic shake-about has rearranged what we believed to be important, to be useful, what we decide to ignore and what we decide to notice. So when I read about the group of Taiga Bean Geese who have been coming to the same spot for 40 years, just twenty minutes from where I live, I wanted to stop and notice this in particular. 

In a few weeks we can hope to welcome over 200 Taiga Been Geese to the UK. These geese only winter in two places in Britain. The Yare Marshes in Norfolk and the Slamannan plateau just south of Falkirk. Named for their breeding grounds in the sub-artic forests in Sweden and parts of Russia, they come here via varying flight paths. 

They have a dark brown plumage, a sleek body and longer neck than its cousin the Tundra Bean Goose. They have bright orange legs. They are a protected species, the group in Norfolk falling to just a handful now.   They make their home from October to April in the flat fields around Slammanan, caring for their young, enjoying the low varied temperatures of Scotland’s winter. It is only through the hard work of passionate individuals we know anything about these birds. Some have been tagged and are followed throughout their migratory journey. It is how we know that Bean goose pairs stay together throughout their whole lives. Couples feed together and rarely leave each others side. 

It is also how we know that sometimes they get lost, but incredibly, often find their way back home again.

Migratory birds are incredible. I have always known birds fly south to Africa, swallows, martins, warblers and flycatchers but never much thought about the northern birds, the geese, such as Greenland Barnacle Geese, pink footed geese and Svalbard geese who, also fly south but set off from their starting position of the snowy northern grounds. They, like me, prefer the cooler climate and consider not one, but two northern places to be home. 

I feel I have two homes. I have lived Scotland for almost as many years as I lived in Cumbria and call both these rain swept, mountainous, water marked, places home. We cheer every time we cross the border on the M6, whether we’re going north or south. Each place has it’s own personality, it’s own spirit. I love the dry stone houses of Cumbria, the thin strip of stones that act as lake beaches. I love the moors and rivers of Scotland, the water courses bursting after seasonal, or now unseasonal, storms. 

I visit family and friends and drive the same roads I learnt to drive on, seeing how the fields have changed since last time I was here. Trees flushing, leaves dropping, buzzard after buzzard after buzzard, a cuckoo for the first time in years. Each visit re-sets something inside me no matter what time of year it is.  Maybe it settles my restlessness, my Zugunruhe. Then when I come home to Scotland, everyday life swallows us up until I crave a walk in the woods and notice the change in light, colour, in temperature, in sound. Everything is always changing. 

Somehow each place manages to ground me, restore me, like mug of really good coffee. Or a piece of dark chocolate. 

The pandemic has meant there are less people flying south for some summer sun just now. Maybe the migratory birds will have more room in the sky. What this has meant for the beautiful places that I call home, is more people. The roads, the campsites, hotels, bed and breakfasts, have been busy. Some would say, overwhelmed. In the bird world this is called Irruptive migration – a migration that is irregular between years – such as when low food supplies in one area cause mass movement to another. It is common in finches and waxwings.

There is no excuse for images I have seen of littered campsites, woodlands with trees half sawed though. It is dangerous, this lack of care for our natural environment.  But I understand the need to migrate, to re-set and restore.

I wish people would watch the dots on the map where the geese and swallows undertake their journey. As we eat our lunch, as we walk to school or shop for tea they dot to dot to dot, the geese who’s ultimate destination is up the road from me have flown throughout Sweden, Denmark and Norway and across the North Sea to our shores. How could you not appreciate the natural world when we see how a goose travels? 

As the weeks wear on, and the world grows darker, we should be able to welcome back these incredible adventurous birds. 

They might get blown off course, they might lose their way, but, eventually, they find their grounding again in the low key beauty of Slamannan. Watch out for these simple strokes of charcoal on a glass blue sky. By the time we settle into new routines this autumn, new timetables, new friends, new adventures, the Taiga Bean Geese will be finishing their journey and starting process of settling as well. 

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