There are moments when you grasp a simple and long-accepted truth – something you’ve known all your life – as if for the first time. It might be the beauty of your partner’s eyes or the taste of beer or half a phrase of Bach’s music, and you say to yourself, I knew it was beautiful but my God, I didn’t know it was that beautiful.
Two cuckoos have been calling in our shallow Norfolk Valley for five weeks now. I hear them sometimes at first light, when I’m still in bed, sometimes at my desk as I write, sometimes in the evening before supper. Cuckoos are declining birds and it’s a delight to know that they’re doing all right round here.
At the end of the garden there’s a belter of an ash tree. It stands 15 yards from the hut I work in, right by the place where I sat day after day in the writing of The Year of Sitting Dangerously. So far as I’m concerned, it’s an important tree.
I was on my commute to work: through the garden, a few dozen paces, when the whole world was electrified. Cuckoo! Loud? Sure, but I didn’t know it was that loud. It was deafening, health and safety issue, compromised workplace, don’t take another step without ear defenders. The bird was calling from the upper branches of the ash, I was right below it and the volume was stupefying. How could a single not over-large bird create such a din, and do it again and again and again, day after day after day?
Volume is the cuckoo’s strategy for love and life: make a huge din – a simple, far-carrying, utterly unmistakable call – and hope that a female (a) hears it and (b) prefers you to the other male that’s been cluttering up the airways. A cuckoo needs to heard if it’s to be a success.
But that loud? Really? I stood underneath the ash, the sound penetrating my brain and a drill penetrates rock. And then the bird was off, sharp drooping wings carrying it swiftly towards a different place where it could bust different ears. Cuckoo!