We're delighted to print an extract from Spirit of the River, the new memoir by Declan Murphy, published by Lilliput Press.
Declan Murphy's first encounter with a kingfisher as a young boy was unforgettable. Returning to the rivers years later, he embarks on a quest to study this most brightly-coloured bird during its nesting season, a seemingly straightforward challenge. But the river is slow to reveal the habits and secrets of its residents. Dippers, goosanders, grey wagtails and great spotted woodpeckers all yield their hidden habits to the author’s patient pursuit; yet the kingfisher continues to elude him.
The Kingfisher had been sitting quietly on the far side of the river opposite me for quite some time, its patience mirrored by my own stillness and solitude. Occasionally, it bobbed its brightly coloured head up and down or tilted it sideways to look at the water below, but otherwise stillness prevailed.
It knew I was there, or at least I thought it did; sometimes it is hard enough to understand my own thoughts without trying to understand those of another. I continued to watch, and time continued to pass, as did the river that separated us. Possibly the most colourful bird in Ireland, it was all but invisible amongst the riverside foliage.
The vividly coloured plumage, with its multiple shades of blue, orange and white, seemed to pulsate in the dappled shade of the overhead branches. Each feather was like a mathematical fractal: the closer you scrutinized it, the more detail was revealed, spiralling downwards towards infinity. Spots within spots, circles within circles, lines within lines: a never-ending pattern of complexity that could drive you to madness if pursued – and this from only a single feather. The broken light that filtered through the cracks between leaves played, danced and flickered across its small, compact body, breaking up outlines and creating movement where none had existed before.
It was there – it was not there.
In some ways the kingfisher is a strangely proportioned bird, reminiscent of a hobgoblin: its long, pointed bill is far longer than its head and creates a strangely top-heavy appearance. This disproportion is further enhanced by an absurdly short tail that could hardly act as a counterbalance to its weighty front end. Its tiny feet restrict its movements to the occasional sideways shuffle on a suitable branch or post. I sat there, unmoving. This was the bird I had been searching for.
Listen: Declan Murphy talks The Spirit Of The River with Derek Mooney
A distance separated us – the bird and the watcher – not simply the width of the river but a vast gulf, stretching back over eons of time. The river beside which I sat had flowed through this valley for thousands of years, but it had not created the valley itself. The glacier that had gouged out this landscape had occurred so far back in time that not even a vestigial inherited memory remained in my head. Part of a mammoth ice sheet, the glacier had encompassed the land for miles, in five different directions. The waters that now rippled past us in its place were but a final act of an ancient play on a giant stage.
This little jewel of the river, perched opposite me, was not a recent arrival. Nor was it a traveller following an ancient pathway to an unknown destination. No, its kind had been here for thousands of years, far longer than the people who had since colonized this land as the ice sheets retreated northwards, driven by warming temperatures and the advancing birch woodlands. Those frozen Arctic behemoths had erased life from thousands of square kilometres, driving the embattled Pleistocene fauna to attempt to forge an existence at the boundary of ice and wood. But the advancing greenwood and lifegiving flowing water that began to dominate the emerging landscape brought life to the cold, barren world and provided opportunities where few had existed before.
This wonderful blue-and-orange creation, the kingfisher, was born and shaped by evolution. It had been moulded to fit its environment alongside fabulous landscapes, amidst natural wonders that I could only speculate and dream about. Mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses and sabre-toothed tigers had all coexisted with birds such as this before succumbing, unable to embrace the changing environment – yet, against all these odds, this tiny bird had adapted and succeeded.
I wondered whether a glimmer of those ancient landscapes remained in the inherited memory of this bird: instinct, honed by survival, passed on generation after generation. Not even the size of my fist, and with a brain a quarter the size of my eyeball, there was probably more instinct packed into the cranium of this riverside beauty than existed in my own. My abilities were learned, not inherited.
But rather than merely surviving, the kingfisher had risen to the challenge and is now a common and widespread species in suitable habitats across Europe and Asia. Despite this, it often goes unnoticed, and many people live out their lives without ever experiencing the speechlessness that comes with a first sighting of this true azure beauty. So why was I watching it? Why was I sitting on a grass bank with the growing pangs of cramp extending their painful tendrils up my legs?
Because I was on a quest.
It may sound grandiose – while sitting on a patch of damp grass, staring at a small bird – to declare that this was the reason I was there. But following this bird, as I was doing, meant that I was on a journey of some kind, and usually a purpose accompanies the traveller, though not always. For me, the embodiment of all quests is undeniably King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table searching for the Holy Grail. Yet they did not know what the Holy Grail actually represented, but what they saw, what they did and what they experienced became the legend: the story of their journey, not the object of their desire.
I had often seen kingfishers while birdwatching, both in Ireland and further afield. However, although I had seen them feeding, fighting and nesting, I would not say that I knew their lives intimately. And certainly not like the family of great spotted woodpeckers I had watched in the nearby wood, and whose lives I had come to share. The complete cycle of birth and death, which I had witnessed amongst the woodpeckers, whose dead chicks I had cradled in my hands, was not one I shared with kingfishers.
Throughout my woodland wanderings in search of woodpeckers, I had followed this river and its tributaries through the wooded valleys of the Wicklow Mountains. I had encountered kingfishers in many areas: small mountain streams, glaciated lakes, steep-sided gorges and tranquil ponds. But, as is often the case with this secretive species, the sightings were brief, unexpected and irregular. Although the great spotted woodpecker has no affiliation with rivers in the manner that a kingfisher does, there was, nonetheless, a link between the two here in Wicklow.
Much, if not all, of the oak wood in the Wicklow Mountains is not primal wood, but rather was planted several hundred years ago following extensive deforestation. Many areas were planted because they were not suitable for farming or cultivation, and these included the many valleys that extend like the fingers on an outstretched hand across the Wicklow Mountains. These valleys became the homes of the first great spotted woodpeckers, which colonized Ireland in 2007. But they were already home to other birds, including the kingfisher.
This world, this planet, our home, is an amazing place. Whether we realize it or not, every living thing is entwined like an intricate web of mycelium in the soil. Unseen, living in darkness, this labyrinth of filaments, like the countless neurons that make up the human brain, forms a net through which chemical messages can travel: a net that extends its threads for miles, linking animals, people, habitats and ultimately ecosystems.
Realizing this, I knew that woodpeckers and other birds could not be studied in isolation, but only in conjunction with the world around them. Because of their different habitat requirements, the great spotted woodpecker and the kingfisher may rarely, if ever, cross paths here in Wicklow. Nevertheless, they share the same environment and often live in close proximity to one another. One location, two different realms. My journey was to enter these worlds, not knowing where it was going to take me nor what I was going to find when I got there.
Although most people may not actually have seen a kingfisher, it is a familiar bird and its appearance is known to most. It commands attention due to its startling colours and its spectacular dives, piercing the surface of the water with its dagger-like bill. Its arresting plumage and distinctive behaviour have long made it a favourite of photographers, artists and filmmakers. However, many of its neighbours who share the same riparian world are complete strangers to all but birdwatchers and naturalists. Birds such as the dipper, goosander and grey wagtail live out equally captivating lives, but often in obscurity.
Despite its apparent familiarity, much of the kingfisher’s lifestyle is shrouded in quiet secrecy, performed out of sight and hidden from view. There was knowledge to be found – but this was not a quest for knowledge; this was a journey for something else.
It has often been said that you cannot step into the same river twice. Place your foot in the water, take it out and put it back in again – it is not the same river; the water is different, the very life within it has changed. It is a different river. In the same manner, you can watch the same bird again and again, but each time is a new experience: different light, different sounds, different skies, different temperature … a different experience – a new experience.
The pleasure I get from the natural world around me comes from immersing myself in each such experience, regardless of whether I learn something new or not. It comes from deep within me, from enjoying each new moment. All of nature contributes to this experience, although for many people only the prettier aspects of nature capture their attention, like the colours of the kingfisher; but colour is not everything. While kingfishers can captivate people in the briefest of moments, many less extravagant-looking species get ignored. I try to see the magic in every moment and every species we share the planet with; although I admit it can sometimes be hard to sell the merits of the brown rat or tarantula.
Some birds and animals create a memorable moment when first encountered and remain fixed in the mind forever. I clearly remember seeing my first great spotted woodpecker, both in England, when I was visiting as a boy, and more recently in Ireland. But I can also recall my first lizard, when I was only three years old; the first time I identified greenfinches at the age of seven; and my first frog only a year or so later. But I do not remember my first snail or woodlouse (though I do remember my first centipede, as did my mother!). So, some stories, and journeys, do have a specific starting point, whereas others do not…
But the beginning of this journey did not begin with an event, or a bird, or an ambition – it began many years ago with a colour, and that colour was… blue.
Spirit of the River by Declan Murphy (published by Lilliput Press) is out now - find out more here.