‘It lives in Europe, in winding holes in sheer sandy hills’
from ripa ‘of the river bank’
sounds like their djirr djirr prrt
beside the Ribble
as they arrive in sixes,
sevens, in their twenties,
swoop in from Africa
tumbling for gnats.
Excited by the sight
of their forked tails and white bellies
we run to prepare the nesting boxes –
all 300 with their sandy tunnels,
dark and cavernous interiors,
tightly locked back doors,
dig out the moat to protect them from predators.
When the world is too big,
the arguments at home intolerable
I think of them snug in their hotel
on their little island paradise.
“That’s it,” I tell my mum and dad.
“I’m moving in with the sand martins.”
I pack my rucksack full of feathers,
gather twigs, bits of reed, to make my nest
and push my way down the long, dark, sandy tunnel
to the cave where I stay all summer between
three pairs of sand martins and a mouse.
As I sit alone and listen to the chatter
of males and females and soon their chicks
I realise it is not unlike being at home –
surrounded by happy families.
I listen to the tales they tell their young –
of the rite of leaving the cave, exiting the tunnel,
of the bright sunlit river and countless flies that lie outside.
Of how all this was made for them by the goddess of the Ribble.
Of how mighty Belisama loves riparia riparia
and her river-light guides them back.
I hear them tell of distant gods,
distant flying insects, distant animals
whose shapes I see dancing on the cave walls –
gazelles, cheetahs, wild dogs, buffalo, hartebeest,
scimitar-horned oxen with us no longer.
I hear the tales of the drought years
passed down from the legends who survived
(they have names like Long-Brown-Wing-Fly-Catcher
White-Belly-Diver-River-Dancer… chattering on
and on that I can’t pronounce in one breath)
the concerns of the elders who have seen
future droughts in the patterns of flies.
I listen to their final farewells
to their young and hear them depart
to roosts where I cannot follow because
I do not have brown wings, a white belly, a forked tail.
I am not marked by a bar across my chest.
Thus barred from becoming a bird
where will I go this winter?
In early March, one of my tasks, as a conservation intern at Brockholes Nature Reserve, was preparing the sand martin nesting boxes on Number One Pit (this is the name of a lake that formed in a pit dug for sand and gravel quarrying).
We opened up the backs of the boxes, cleared out old nesting materials (which can be a hot bed for parasites), added fresh sand and re-filled the tunnels with sand for the birds to push their way through in imitation of tunnelling into a sandy bank. They usually excavate horizontal tunnels up to 1m in length with a chamber at the end.
At this point in time the sand martins had started arriving in sixes and sevens and the day we finished twenty were seen over Number One Pit. They tend to arrive between mid-March and mid-April and to lay their eggs in late May.
This poem was written following a conversation with one of my colleagues, who I prepared the boxes with, about how good it would be to move in with the sand martins.