For anyone who loves swifts, April becomes the cruellest month when it refuses to give way to May, the month of their annual return. Once we have greeted our first swifts they sweep in and out of our lives until their August departure. We might go days without seeing one or hearing any, but once we know they are here they lurk at the back of the mind, giving hope we will encounter them again, either arcing high overhead or racing by at roof height. The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster is a breath-taking celebration of these familiar but enigmatic travellers that has similarly dropped in and out of my consciousness since I finished reading it a week ago.
Published by Little Toller as a monograph, it verges on belonging to a new genre all its own which might justifiably be called ‘apophatic ornithology’, for like exponents of mystical theology Foster affirms the wonder of his subject whilst simultaneously hymning its fundamental unknowability. One of his early, and most joyous acts of iconoclasm, is to demolish the pretensions of those poets, who try to pinion the wings of Apus apus for their insolently anthropocentric purposes- Ted Hughes is charged with using swifts as sedatives and CBT counsellors because ‘They’re all about him and not about themselves.’
One of the great fascinations of this book and one of the reasons that it has stuck in my mind is that it flies back and forth between the inescapably earthbound point of view of its besotted human witness and the otherworldly reality of his quarry. Foster acknowledges the continuities by providing a warm-up quotation from Tim Birkhead which suggests that our common ancestry with birds might mean we share a common emotionality and in the main text convicts C S Lewis of spouting nonsense for his belief that animals don’t suffer like us because they inhabit the moment, but constantly summons the reader to mind the gap. These birds live in the sky, have the most varied diet of any creature in the world, have an aerial familiarity with herds of Wildebeest, begin life in the company of vampires and can ride storms, and so on!
Brilliantly written, richly informative and exhilarating in its dual narratives of the journeys of the swifts high above the world and the author’s terrestrial pursuit below. It is a book which glitters with shards of philosophy and perfectly relevant snippets of physics, but might be worth reading just to see how the author good-humouredly sports with a metaphor devised by the great Robert Macfarlane!
- The Screaming Sky by Clarles Foster is published by Little Toller Books (£15.00). To order a copy go to www.littletoller.co.uk
Ian Tattum is a priest in the Church of England who writes occasional pieces about the people who shaped the history of science and human and animal travel-real and fictional.