Can’t see for the trees


Living on the fourth floor of a block of flats as a kid didn’t exactly get you at one with nature. There were two breeds of birds which would circulate around the courtyard of my Balham block of flats: pigeons and sparrows.  I established (with the help of my Observer Book of Birds) that pigeons were the larger of the two species.  Anything else which might have inadvertently flown into my courtyard were regarded by me as smaller or larger pigeons.  A kite, would be a pigeon with a large wing-span, a pterodactyl would be regarded simply as unlucky for the other tenants if it chose to land on their Grobag.

Even with Tooting, Clapham and Wandsworth commons all nearby, I still had no tuition, and therefore comprehension, of the difference between trees. I remain incapable of determining between an oak and a Rocky Mountain Subalpine Fir (although, I seem to recall, there weren’t many of those springing up to great heights in Balham during the 60s and 70s thus emulating a Canadian skyline).

My most immediate access to nature was the communal pond in the front gardens of Du Cane Court where I lived; inside the pond swam very large goldfish. It was rumoured they weren’t actually goldfish, but coelacanths.  This would figure as, in my child opinion, many of the flats’ residents were like the walking dead, so having prehistoric fish in the ponds was logical.

My awareness of flowers is not dissimilar on a knowledge scale. I know what a daffodil and hyacinth look like as we had to grow them at primary school (I only once got a coloured certificate for first prize when I delegated the growing to a green-fingered uncle, I still can’t go past a garden centre without feeling guilty).  Living in near Epsom racecourse these days means I know what heather looks like.  I also know it has a smell similar to that of having peed yourself a week ago (not that that is a habit of mine), although this could be the people selling it in clumps?  (I assume the smell is the people selling it as you wouldn’t buy some given the lingering odour, and also, why would it be given the epithet “lucky”!?).

But it is birds where I most struggle and wish I had a greater knowledge. My “I-Spy Garden Birds” is still in pristine, almost virgin state.   I do have a garden now and have a bird table with many seed-filled containers hanging off it.  Whilst I know what a robin looks like (years of growing up watching Batman) I am still blissfully unware of the difference between a goldfinch and a collared dove; although I did see some tits once, but that’s only because the woman opposite can’t afford decent net curtains!

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