Chiff – Chaffs in March

Found -- a couple of pages from a magazine loosely inserted in a bird-spotter's book. They are from 1967 and seem to me from a magazine about or sponsored by PNEU -the Parents’ National Education Union -an affiliation of  schools throughout the British Isles and the world**. In an article  by Dinah Lawrence* a freelance journalist and novelist she discusses wild life in March. The style is reminiscent of the nature notes still found in The Guardian and gently parodied by Evelyn Waugh as long ago as 1938 in Scoop. After discussing Jung and Freud Dinah Lawrence talks about Professor Hardy's recent Gifford Lectures which, as in his book The Living Stream, make a link between Natural History and religion.... she then discusses bird life:

I start listening for Chif -chaffs about the middle of March. I have only heard their light, non-carrying voices once as early as 6th March. I also go to a friend's land,  well  before the end of the month, to see if the Sand-martins have arrived  at her huge sandpit. They seem to start work straightaway, even after their long journeys, for the birds that roost in the reeds in the valley nearby, do seem to be the birds that are going on, farther north. The activity of digging out holes for nesting places is a fascinating operation to watch. The steep faces of the sandpit are pocked with old ones and these feathery-legged birds sometimes clear these and sometimes start new ones. If you stand below on the floor of the sandpit, little jets of sand puff out from old and new holes: the birds scuff the sand out with their feet, as they go burrowing in, head first.

I usually record  Sand-martins  before Swallows and House-martins.  The main flocks of these arrive in April,  as do Grasshopper Warblers and Nightingales, although in my part of Sussex the latter are getting scarce. We usually have a few excitements in the way of Hoopoes too  and occasionally the glimpse of a Golden Oriole.  The migrant butterflies start arriving as well and Silver Y moths:  I find it utterly amazing  that these frail-winged creatures  can migrate north from warmer climates,  over the Channel, to breed in Britain. A friend of mine, an entomologist, maintains that painted Lady butterflies and silver Y moths  always arrived on the same day! Last year  he was right as far as I was concerned. It is unexplainable, but isn't it good that there are still plenty of natural phenomena that cannot be explained? How boring it will be when man thinks he knows the answers to everything.

*Dinah Lawrence  was the author of  A Sudden Loneliness (Brown and Watson, London 1966) 160 pages, a now rather rare novel- only one copy in World Libraries and that at the British Library. Hobbies include walking, photography (worked as a darkroom assistant) natural history and collecting Victoriana. Born in Chelsea, but living in Yorkshire, turned to full time writing in 1958 after drama studies.

**PNEU Schools have always been known to have a well structured and wide curriculum. The movement started towards the end of the 19th century, influenced by the principles and ideas of a renowned Victorian educationalist, Charlotte Mason, who died in 1923.  Her ideas challenged the generally accepted views of how to educate children. She believed that “children are persons”, and that teachers and parents should treat them as individuals who need to be stimulated from an early age by a broad curriculum, not simply to be trained to read, write and count. That curriculum should contain the best literature, the best art, the best contemporary science etc. In 2014 these ideas may seem self-evident; they were not self-evident at the end of the 19th century and it could be argued that it is only because of Charlotte Mason and others like her that they are regarded as self-evident now.

2 thoughts on “Chiff – Chaffs in March

  1. admin Post author

    Thanks Edwin — I liked this one because it is so minor and I like that sort of nature writing. Also the prescience of her final line 'How boring it will be when man thinks he knows the answers to everything." Tell that to the birds (or the Google twins!) Nigel


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