Stephen Colton's Take On Nature: Who says you can't hit a running target?

A crow surveys the landscape from the vantage of a ruined church gable
Stephen Colton

OLD derelict churches and their graveyards are wonderful havens for wildlife. Ivy-clad walls with crumbling joints between ancient blocks provide an abundance of nesting sites for birds and crevices for a host of invertebrates. The grasses, shrubs and wildflowers of graveyards are also ideal for sheltering and feeding small mammals and birds.

It’s almost as though such places of past Christian worship have been reclaimed by the natural world, a world which will envelope and respect the holy space and those interred there.

This appreciation came to me recently as I stood under the domineering south wall and window of the 17th century ruined Church on my local brae, also the place where the now long-gone village forge used to stand.

The church was built resting on a visible rocky outcrop of sandstone, and was in use until the mid-1800s. Its graveyard was also used by all denominations, with the earliest inscription dating from 1671.

As I enjoyed the music of what Yeats calls "the moth-hour of eve" from thrush and blackbird, as well as calls from hungry starling chicks, I also remembered how the graveyard and church were once exciting playgrounds of my youth. That was a time when, as Oscar Wilde says, "all the strings of boyish life were stirred to quick response" (Humanitad, 1881) and where, along with cousins, neighbours and friends, I regularly used its numerous hideaways and cover as we played out our cowboy-and-villain battles.

It was a special place, full of sheltered spaces for hiding, whether behind a slanted headstone, a stunted bush or in the cavity under a raised tombstone. The many undulations of the graveyard provided hidden dips and hollows where you could lie in wait for the enemy and pounce at the right time.

The crumbled half walls provided gaps and escape routes through which we ran when the chance arose. Something which irked me most during these games was how, when you shot someone who broke from cover as they ran, the comment by some was, "you can’t hit a running target". Such thinking never made sense to me but many persisted with this response and refused to be out of the game, causing countless heated arguments and rows.

During those halcyon days I didn’t realise that all around me, nature was also at play, a different kind of play, which involved real life-and-death dramas, where invertebrates of all kinds were continually trying to avoid the clutches of birds and small mammals.

In turn those predators were on high alert, keeping an eye skyward to avoid the sharp talons of a pouncing kestrel or hawk. Nests and homes were guarded fiercely and young protected from the dangers all around.

The ongoing natural cycle of birth, life and death was repeated throughout the summer months, year after year just as our cowboy games were, along with the arguments. The march of time has left those games behind as memories, but the natural cycles continue.

Standing deep in thought, the melodic, soft and clear warbling notes of the blackcap joined those of the other birds. This striking warbler with its black skull cap – or chestnut brown, in the case of the female – brought me back to the present just in time to see a male sparrow hawk ghost past in search of some unsuspecting prey.

No doubt a hungry, brooding female was waiting patiently on his return with food. As it weaved through a cluster of trees in the dusky light, I thought, try telling this master of the ambush, "you can’t hit a running target".

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