Full Jackdaw: May, psychedelic spring and the language of birds

I’d just shoved a holistic scientist into a flower bed and, with night coming down fast, was wondering about the best way to get her out of the flower bed, without speaking to her. If I spoke to the holistic scientist, who was one of the leaders of the mindful nighttime walking course I was on, I’d be breaking one of the rules of our current exercise: a trust game, in which the dozen people on the course got into twos and wordlessly guided their partners around the large and colourful gardens of a medieval hall, using a light hand on the bottom of their spines, showing them objects, such as fronds, leaves, grass and other stuff that had taken on interesting hues in the fading light. While being guided in this way, our partners – such as the holistic scientist, who had paired up with me – were required to keep their eyes shut, until we gave them the instruction to open them with a gentle double-tap to the shoulder. With a subsequent identical double-tap we could instruct them to reclose their eyes. It was vital that the whole procedure should be conducted in complete silence.
I hadn’t intended to shove the holistic scientist, who was named Joana, into the flower bed; I’d just lost a bit of concentration and not quite got the steering bit of the exercise quite right, applying a little too much pressure to her lower spine. The co-leader of the course with Joana, an inordinately peaceful yet commanding Latin-American man called Daniel, had earlier shown us another move, which would enable us to put our partners into reverse, but this had proved too complex for me when it came to the crunch. In normal circumstances, I’d have been able to simply say “I’m so sorry, I’ve inadvertently pushed you into some hydrangeas there” but that would have been cheating. Instead, I gave Joana a frantic double-tap to the shoulder. This double tap had a different meaning to my previous double-taps: less “Gaze at the wonder of this primrose” and more “Quick! Stop walking! Or you will hit your head on a branch then possibly fall on your back into some soil!” There was an awkward moment where Joana realised her predicament, I flashed her an apologetic look, and the two of us tried to conduct a narrow three point turn on the spot, then we continued on our mindful, peaceful way, below a bank of bluebells, remembering at all times to experience the movement of our feet on the dampening ground.
If you want to do a bit of meditation under some guidance in or around my local town, Totnes, you’ll probably struggle to find something basic. There’s nearly always an extra twist to the experience. I recently spotted a poster in the High Street for a day of “meditation and archery”, which is a nice idea, although it’s hard not to imagine the remorseful conversations that might take place at the end of such a day. “I’m so sorry I shot you in the leg,” you can see one meditating archer saying to her compatriot, who has just been loaded into the back of an ambulance by two paramedics. “I got distracted by focusing too hard on my breathing and imagining my nostrils as caves.” Last summer I fell asleep in a field not far from here and woke surrounded by a dozen people in white smocks, all walking extremely slowly with their arms stretched out in front of them. None of them seemed to have any notion that I was there. Until I spotted one sneakily checking his phone under the shade of a Red Oak, I was slightly worried I had been caught in the midst of some kind of Zombie Meditation Apocalypse. But at the same time I envied the people in the smocks, who, unlike me, no doubt did not have a brain full of the messages they haven’t replied to, the forms they haven’t sent off in the mail, the books they haven’t written and the housework they haven’t done.
I live fairly deep in the countryside of the South West, which many people from cities will tell you is a place where nothing ever happens, but that could not be further from the truth. Right now, for example, in the space of just a week, I can see “Scythe Festival”, ‘Dry stone walling?”, “Bat Walk”, “Boat trip” and “Meet with shaman?” listed on my calendar. From May until September, there’s so much going on here, so much to plan and consider, it’s especially useful to have someone to tell you to slow down and just stare at a tree and feel the pattern of your own foot muscles now and again. This – along with the fact that I have become increasingly interested in the murmurings of the countryside in the last hour of daylight – is a reason why I chose to take part in Joana and Daniel’s course. We were extra lucky: Devon is the rain factory of southern England, and you never know when its conveyor belt will click on, but what we got instead was a night of dry, eerie stillness, when the colours and smells of a Devon spring had never seemed more psychedelic.

There are two particularly psychedelic times of year here in South Devon: right now, and in early October. Out of the two I prefer right now, but maybe I’m biologically biased. May was the month I was born – the 20th, to be exact, when everything has usually fully kicked into gear – and these are the weeks when I feel most alive, most me, and never more so than here in Devon: because it’s more fertile and wild than anywhere I’ve lived before and because this makes you more entrenched in the essence of May. I feel this even in the midst of the most persistent cough and cold I’ve had for five years. It’s at spring’s height that you understand why feeling bad is a really important part of being alive, tied inextricably to feeling good. What this dizzying rush of growth and animal life is is a pay off, and perhaps feels more so for me right now than in other years, at the end of an unusually dingy winter – not a cold winter, but a winter so dark you prayed for the accompanying icy brightness of true cold – and early spring when, on my own, I nursed two pets at death’s door, and through a data disaster lost 25,000 of what I genuinely felt were the best words I’ve ever written: words I’d been waiting my whole life to write, that were vital to me in ways I’d probably need as long to explain as I would to rewrite them, words that felt freeing and pivotal.


I love May so much, I attended two May Day festivals this year, although I doubt that makes me unique in Devon and Cornwall terms: if you really pushed it, and got your schedule just right, you could probably make it to about seven. The Saturday before Joana and Daniel’s course I walked down through Lustleigh Cleave with four friends to see the crowning of the Lustleigh village May Queen: a tradition revived in the early 1900s, but stretching back centuries before that, which is a perfect day out for anyone who ultimately sees The Wicker Man as a sweet, well-meaning documentary about agroforestry. As we emerged from the Cleave’s bluebell-lined woodland paths into the village orchard, a Maypole awaited us, backed by a large rock with five decades of young female names carved into it. A person could perhaps find a scene more suggestive than this of the phrase “We are ready for the sacrifice” but it would be tough. In the village hall, black and white photos of previous May Queens were displayed, and out of ingrained habit I could not help but check that the 1972 photo was not missing. In this kind of environment, when you’re in a group of people aged between thirty and fifty, at least three of whom have seen the The Wicker Man more than two dozen times, it’s only a matter of time before one of you turns around and says “I trust the sight of the young people refreshes you” or “They do love their divinity lessons!” in his or her best Christopher Lee voice.
It’s possible to gently poke fun at this – to see its shambolic Englishness and Pagan silliness for what it is – and be grateful for and defensive of it at the same time. Lustleigh Cleave – a deep, thickly wooded cheese slice taken out of the soft eastern edge of Dartmoor – is so idyllic today, with its standing stones and winking sunlight, glistening streams and soft wood sorrel paths, it’s hard to imagine that it’s ever anything less gentle and perfect, but the pay-off of May is felt even more acutely on the edge of the moor, and is perhaps even more worth celebrating. Suzi and Fergus, whose hard-to-find house we have walked down the Cleave from today, have been snowed in for long periods during all but one of the twelve winters they’ve lived here. In that time, Suzi – a very careful driver, like almost everyone who lives on or near the moor – has written off three cars on these narrow lanes. Even the psychedelic spring comes with its dark side: this time last year Suzi and Fergus witnessed a weasel slaughter all but one of their thirteen chickens in two days flat. The lone survivor, now “deeply traumatised”, has since moved nextdoor.
As I walk back up the Cleave to my car, I’m followed by a special Dartmoor sun: that sun you feel is palpably closer to than you do elsewhere in the county, simply because you’re a little nearer to the roof of the world. The air has a slow, sparkly quality, as it often does on the moor, and this seems to follow me home, a few miles south of here, then stick around for the next few days. The air in my garden is thick and cherry blossom and dandelion seed heads float in the air, adding to the psychedelic quality. My cat Ralph, who has fantastic sideburns and looks not unlike Shampoo-era Warren Beatty, walks lazily through it, with a beatific expression on his face, and I feel like I am watching a dream sequence from a road movie made in 1969 by cats about cats. Ralph’s compatriots, The Bear, Shipley and Roscoe, all seem to want to be outside all the time too. At various points, I have prepared myself for three of these cats not surviving the winter. At the end of January, Shipley was suffering from kidney failure and given a matter of no more than a few weeks to live by the vet. Now he sits atop a tree stump and shouts an ecstacy of vile feline cockwords at me. Roscoe, almost killed by a dog attack in December then miraculously reassembled by the same vet, effortlessly vaults the garden pond on the way to an important knee-level herbaceous business meeting. The Bear, 21 in October and with a spine that feels as brittle as a schoolkid’s cardboard diorama, sleeps on a wooden table, the sun warming his back. His sleeps seem deep and ecstatic and he wakes from each of them wide-eyed and amazed.
All around them, everything is growing frantically. My copper beech hedge went from rust to dazzling green in the space of barely more than a day. I mow my lawn, nip inside to make a cup of tea, and another twenty daisies seem to appear when my back is turned. I mow it again: not on the same day, but soon afterwards. My dad bought me this lawnmower for my birthday a couple of years ago and with its assembly kit came a rulebook with some blank, lined pages for “Notes”. In here, presumably, the mowing connoisseur is intended to make observations on the quality of his mow. “DON’T MOW ANY PEBBLES,” my dad told me when he bought me the mower. “A BLOKE MY FRIEND JEFF KNOWS MOWED A PEBBLE AND IT SHOT UP AND SLICED OFF ONE OF HIS LABRADOR’S BOLLOCKS.” I don’t have a labrador, and if I did it would be doubtful that I’d leave it uncastrated, but the advice has stuck with me, and I am careful not to mow any pebbles. I viewed the mowing notes section as absurd for a long time, but I love notebooks on principle and I’ve felt sorry for it more recently and tried to put it to good use. Along with referring to it as “wild vacuuming”, it’s something I do to try to make lawn mowing more interesting. “Smooth mow today,” I will write on the note pages. “Listened to the fourth Fairport Convention album. Slight disturbance at the forty three minute mark when I mowed a thicker than average stick, which got caught in the blades.”
I have left a couple of patches of my lawn to grow wild. Along with planting honeysuckle and lilac, this is my effort to encourage more bees and butterflies to enter my garden, and seems to be working. I like the really fat bumblebees best but honey bees are great too. I was driving past my friend Hayley’s bee sanctuary the other day and one of her honey bees flew straight into my car. I didn’t fully realise until I’d driven about four hundred yards past the bee sanctuary and for a moment it occured to me that I should perhaps drive the bee back home. At that point it flew back out of the window, though, and I figured it would survive ok. The patch of lane where the bee flew into the car is in a tunnel of oak trees and I often spot interesting things swooping above me there. Coming back from my friend’s DJ night in Exeter last August at around 2am, I saw a fox shoot out of the hedge just here, then watched an owl fly directly above it for some distance, both of them illuminated perfectly by my headlights. 
Yesterday, in the same spot, I saw a jackdaw dipping under and through the trees, like the Millennium Falcon when it flies into the narrow rocky planet which is actually a monster’s mouth. The jackdaw’s journey ended when it flew at top speed into a large hole in a tree, like a creature passing through a portal into a netherworld. I probably wouldn’t have even noticed this a couple of years ago, but being told to pay attention to the movement of my feet by people like Joana has made me more aware of that sort of thing, and I pay particular attention to jackdaws, having rescued a couple from my fireplace in recent times. The first of these was a fledgling who dropped down into the empty grate in 2014 then sat happily on my arm for an afternoon before I climbed onto the roof and placed him near his family, only for him to be annihilated by a sparrowhawk. The second was an adult who fell into the flames of a roaring fire two weeks ago. I wasn’t in the room at the time, but my friends Rachel and Seventies Pat were. 

“Tom! Tom! Get in here! Quick!” shouted Rachel and Seventies Pat. I rushed into the room, worried that the flames set alight the sleeve of Ron Elliott’s highly prized 1970 album The Candlestickmaker, which I’d left dangerously close to the hearth, but instead found a dark confused bird flapping around the room’s perimeter. I dived and caught it in my hands and set it free outside, where it hopped around dazed for twenty seconds, before flying up into the boughs of the Scots Pine in my garden. The situation could have been much worse and everyone felt lucky – not least the jackdaw, I imagine.
“Do you think it’s okay?” asked Rachel.
“Yeah, it seems to be pretty much still a full jackdaw,” I replied.
Little did we know it, but the phrase “full jackdaw” had already passed indelibly into our lexicon. 
We drank a fair bit of wine that night, and the next morning I asked Seventies Pat how he was feeling.
“Surprisingly fine,” he replied. “Pretty much full jackdaw.”
The three of us were up before dawn on May 1st to watch the morris dancers at Totnes Castle and the sun coming up over the hills towards Brixham: the light, accompanying the singing of Hal-an-Tow, the old Helston May Day song, could hardly have been more perfect.
“That was great,” said Rachel. “Full jackdaw.”
Later, the three of us planned a walk beside the river, where the footpaths were still a little muddy, and I asked Seventies Pat – who is rarely out of 1971 dandy uniform, and even more rarely prepared for countryside terrain  – if he had brought any walking boots.
“I’ve bought my cowboy walking boots,” said Seventies Pat. “Does that count?”
I let out a sigh.
“Don’t worry about me,” he reassured me. “I’m full jackdaw.”
As I walked home from Joana and Daniel’s course a couple of weeks later I watched a few jackdaws circling above my house in the near-darkness. Jackdaws are often written off as ruffians or villains, with their old fashioned burglar cartoon masks and egg stealing habit, but in flight, they’re no less serene or beautiful than any other bird. They also mate for life, even when they’re unhappy with each other or struggling to have children together (a trait that seems both admirable and also a bit self-defeatingly 1950s of them). This is my favourite bit of bird knowledge I have found out in the last month, along with the fact that swifts do press-ups. 

I looked up, and wondered if one of the jackdaws above me was the one I rescued, now living a normal, full life. I very much hoped so. The next morning, I listened to the dawn chorus, which seemed strangely subdued after a week where – like so many things – it had built extra layers and flourished. I then picked up my friends Hayley and Monika and drove to Branscombe in east Devon, where the three of us were due to take part in a course on bird language, run by the environmentalist and forager Chris Holland. We made our own nests with twig chopsticks, drew sound maps of the songs we heard, learned to distinguish alarm calls from territorial sounds, took lookout posts throughout the valley and compared detective notes, distinguishing flight paths and avian squabbles. The peace was stunning, punctured only by the ruinous sound of my barking chesty cough. In the last year, there’d been a huge landslip here, and now you could see nature re-ordering itself over the valley: gorse gradually re-dressing the exposed red earth, with bright noise all above. 
“I was in Italy,” a woman from Bridport called Sarah told me, “and you didn’t get any of this. It was hot and lovely, but there was no birdsong. That’s because they’ve pretty much shot them all.” I found myself picking out the sounds of wrens and goldfinches, like someone truly hearing an orchestra for the first time that had been in the background all his life, and thought about what an important part of the psychedelic British spring this noise was: that it wasn’t just about heat and insects and vegetation. At the end of the day, a man who’d heard me coughing asked how I was feeling. “Full jackdaw,” I told him. I was actually lying. I felt half jackdaw at best, but it was a beautiful bright afternoon and there was sweet melody all around and it seemed churlish to complain.
Me on the Lustleigh May Queen rock.


You can read a fuller version of this essay in my book 21st Century Yokel.
You can help fund my next book Ring The Hill by pledging for a special edition hardback.

20 thoughts on “Full Jackdaw: May, psychedelic spring and the language of birds

  1. Great piece, love your writing always give me the feeling of actually being there & we share a birthday, who knew although I'm 5 years ahead of you =^. .^=

  2. Fabulous piece as always. I should point out that my brother is just on a 100 mile trek through the Camino de Santiago for a stag do. His choice of footwear? Cowboy boots. In the middle of nowhere, in Spain. Clearly, Seventies Pat is not so unusual. Although my brother doesn't go for the rest of the 70s look. And judging by the pictures of the blisters on his feet he's posted on Facebook he is definitely not currently in a state of Full Jackdaw.

  3. This is a very good "read," just the right mix of the pleasure/slight alarm nature brings, gentle adventure, and cultural observation appreciated with slightly wry awarenwss but without sneering pseudo sophistication. Very satisfying. On a side note, I don't know if Seventies Pat was full jackdaw at the end of the walk, but he's probably discovered by now that cowboy boots weren't made for walking. Speaking as someone born and raised on the plaines of Oklahoma, I can tell you they were made to protect the leg and foot of a person spending long hours working a quarter-horse through ranching duties. That higher heel was intended to keep the cowboy's foot in the stirrup of a Western saddle. The tough, John Wayne-walk in old movies copies the bow-legged, rolling gait of an achey cowboy in stiff leather, high-heel boots. Hollywood has a lot to answer for.

  4. I do enjoy your writing and description of Devon in spring, my favourite place and season. I've lived in New Zealand for more than 25 years, but on when we return to the UK that is the place and time I have to return to, the home of my ancestors. On another topic you should really get that cough seen to!

  5. Excellent Tom, I live on Dartmoor, and you are pretty spot on especially with the bird-song comments.

  6. Beautiful piece, thanks Tom. Can we use the expression "full jackdaw" or are you planning to copyright it? And agree with Sarah: sooo few birds left in Italy: thats something definitely missing when you are there.

  7. I love Jackdaws. They are such comical, intelligent, busy birds. All corvids have a tough time, if you ask me. Crows, Jays, Magpies, Rooks – none of them would win a popularity contest. I wouldn't be surprised if Chris Packham has trolled them for the crime of being too successful….
    Thanks for the Totnes observations. They make me chuckle. The place is truly bonkers at times, but at peace with itself.
    Happy Birthday Tom.

  8. I'm a south Devon girl and I bloody love how you've captured the glow and beauty of the place! May is THE best month and we're truly lucky to be living it here in this particular spot on the planet. Thank you.

  9. Just finished listening to you read this on Sound Art Radio. Now I'm feeling full jackdaw. Which the robin, that just tried to fly in my window, probably isn't. I love your work and this one is definitely full jackdaw.

  10. Love this. Reminds me of how much my current cat companions have taught me about walking around in what humans might call a 'mindful' way over the last 7 years: their persistence in getting me to go out on walks with them, and then insisting on showing me stuff on our circuits, has radically changed the way I see things… I too notice when blades of grass have shifted, and plants have had wee growth spurts, and the like. At present, though, I feel sorry for the cats: we moved (yet again) 2 months ago, and they love the park over the back wall. However, spring has now sprung, and they are freaking out at the overgrown undergrowth: too frightened to leap into it [aka The Unknown, I s'pose], they have got a bit nervous about going out, especially along the path frequented by humans and dogs! I hope they overcome their fears… Also I'm envious: when I went to the May Queen crowning thingy in the village I was living in last year (in Derbyshire), there were men in UKIP vests 'helping' with the orange cones. I was gutted 🙁 Bet that doesn't happen in poncey Totnes! x

  11. Love this. Reminds me of how much my current cat companions have taught me about walking around in what humans might call a 'mindful' way over the last 7 years: their persistence in getting me to go out on walks with them, and then insisting on showing me stuff on our circuits, has radically changed the way I see things… I too notice when blades of grass have shifted, and plants have had wee growth spurts, and the like. At present, though, I feel sorry for the cats: we moved (yet again) 2 months ago, and they love the park over the back wall. However, spring has now sprung, and they are freaking out at the overgrown undergrowth: too frightened to leap into it [aka The Unknown, I s'pose], they have got a bit nervous about going out, especially along the path frequented by humans and dogs! I hope they overcome their fears… Also I'm envious: when I went to the May Queen crowning thingy in the village I was living in last year (in Derbyshire), there were men in UKIP vests 'helping' with the orange cones. I was gutted 🙁 Bet that doesn't happen in poncey Totnes! x

  12. I've read this before, but when I ran across it on your FB page again today, I thought I'd give it another go and I'm so pleased I did. I can't even describe the peace and joy that came over me reading your perfectly phrased descriptions that created images in my mind so clear and engaging I felt a wistful longing to be there and experience all of those things in person. You have such a gift and I'm thankful that you share it with us. Oh, and I just thought I'd mention…..my grandmother, who lived to be 100 and was born in 1896, was also born on May 20th. It's seems to have been a very good day of the year to be born.

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