Sunday 18 August 2019

Country Matters: Cuckoo sings in May's white pulse


Joe Kennedy

The morning milkiness of May streamed in the sunlight, uplifting the small fields with visible outlines of potato ridges where crops had once fed a townland.

There is virtually nothing here now but dreams, a grazing bullock and a few sheep and lambs. Two frolicking woolies called Dec and Ant were regularly stretched out taking the first sunshine at the back door of a cottage. Like their master, they have now gone to other pastures, leaving memories of cuckoos calling, six times or more, morning and evening that "sumer is icumen in/Lhude sing cuccu". Listeners included wagtails, house-martins, robins, pipits, dunnocks, blackbirds and a bullfinch gorging on the apple blossom of a gnarled tree in what once was a garden of simple necessities such as cabbage and onions.

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"Groweth seed and bloweth mead/ And springs the wood anew/ Sing cuckoo…"

Paddy left his rubber boots at the door, glad of a cup of tea as he recited: "In April I open my beak/ In May I sing night and day/ In June I change my tune/ In July far, far I fly/ In August away I must."

I found some ancient words to follow: "Ewe bleateth after lamb/ Calf loweth after cow/ Bullock starteth, buck farteth/ Merry sings cuckoo... cuckoo, cuckoo." The deer breaking wind brought smiles. "That's the Old English for you, Paddy," I said. That set him off: "I eat my own lamb, my chicken and ham/ I shear my own sheep and I wear it/ I have lawn, I have bower, I have fruit, I have flowers/ The lark in the morning awakes me." He continued, to end with "God speed the plough - long life and success to the farmer". There was a bit about "jolly boys" which sounded like a snatch from an English school primer.

Paul Evans, an English naturalist, wrote of his countryside last week: "The lanes are luminous with the white pulse of May: cow parsley, hawthorn, hogweed, garlic, stitchworth. In fields there are pale lambs and stands of horse chestnut in candle."

Gerry Mulligan, an old colleague at the Irish Independent, texted from the Cooley peninsula an image of a sloping field of potato drills like newly-ridged corduroy with, overhead, clouds like fluffy pillows. My daughter Orla, walking at Lough Dan before returning to Boston, messaged me a cuckoo video. I saw four swifts in formation overhead, harvesting insects on their way to a monastery garden where their old homes are still extant.

On a past Leitrim morning I saw cuculus canorus like a sparrowhawk singing overhead to find a mate, like Peggy Seeger's Appalachian song: "Oh the cuckoo is a pretty bird/ She sings as she flies/ She bringeth good tidings and telleth no lies… And the more she sings 'cuckoo' the summer draws near."

The pitch of the bird's distinctive call notes are D and B or D and B-flat, treble stave. At the end of Beethoven's Second Movement of the Pastoral Symphony the cuckoo is introduced with the two notes D and B-flat. The parasite female bird has little time after mating to squirt her egg from the nest rim of unsuspecting hosts before repeating the process up to 15 times a day before beating back to Africa, leaving farmed-out youngsters to follow in July and August.

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