In reflection: emo robins and a socially distanced nature walk

When I was little, there were three things that I loved: the first was reading, the second was writing, and the third was nature. The first hobby is currently intermittent and, ironically, being a literature student hasn’t helped. The second remains a thriving passion to this day. And the third? Like many people growing up, the fascination with animals at the zoo or weird insects in the mud slowly ebbed away, as I became more engrossed in social media and Netflix at the expense of going out in the Scottish countryside.

When I returned to the Scottish Borders as Britain went into lockdown, I found myself home for the longest period of time since I had moved out and surrounded by a wealth of nature that I realised I hadn’t even missed while I had been away. Leaving for university, I was just so eager to be in a city. It meant more frequent buses, nights out and, well, more people.

Don’t get me wrong: for a city Edinburgh is quite green, and we are lucky in comparison to some other places. Yet, nothing compares to the acres of woodland, mountainous landscapes, and the tranquil ambience that can be found by the River Tweed in the Scottish Borders. It turns out I had forgotten about all the upsides of being in rural Scotland: that is, until I came back.

Enter one of my childhood best friends, Mark Pitt: BoJack Horseman fan, introvert and nature enthusiast. I’ve known Mark for years, and for all that time, he’s been passionate about the natural world. A budding ornithologist, Mark’s Instagram has over 1,000 followers, where he posts regularly about his findings on his daily nature walks. I’m slightly bitter about the fact that we joined Instagram around the same time, and I only have a fraction of the number of followers, but that’s beside the point.

Inspired by Mark’s walks, I asked if I could join him one day and he responded with an excited yes. And so it was that, one fine, sunny evening with notorious blustery Scottish winds, we began our walk to the woodlands around the foot of the Eildons.

The Eildons are a trio of hills that were once an extinct volcano. Today, many locals and tourists alike walk up or around these hills, which are rich in nature. Being there, I realised that in my thirteen years of being in the Borders, I had never once gone on this specific route. More than that, the last time I actually went up the Eildons was in primary school, on a muggy hot day in pink sparkly wellies.

“You wore wellies?” Mark cried. “Not walking boots?!”

“Nope, my family and I didn’t know better! This was the closest I had,” I replied with a laugh.

Mark and I went on to discuss a number of things as we headed into the woods: the impact of lockdown, the stark contrast in politics between the very Tory Borders and more left-wing progressive ideas in Edinburgh. One important topic that we stumbled upon, inevitably, was the Black Lives Matter protests and the ripple effect the murder of George Floyd had across the whole world, including in nature and conservation.

“It’s really important to have representation. Unfortunately there are hardly any young bird watchers at all around here, let alone people of colour.”

As a person of colour myself in the Borders, I couldn’t agree more. However, after the spark ignited by protests, along with the stimulating conversations happening across the country, Mark has hope that things will become better. He acknowledges his privilege as a white man, and has been actively following other naturalists of colour, as well as trying to share their work more often.

Suddenly, we came to a halt in the woods. Mark, thinking he heard a Crossbill said, “Much of bird watching is listening for bird song.” This stuck with me long after our walk.

I used to birdwatch with my dad when I was young, something one wouldn’t perhaps expect from a traditional Indian dad and his young daughter. Yet, when I was assigned a bird project at school, in typical South Asian fashion my dad leapt at the opportunity to help in order to make sure I got an A grade, and so my interest in nature was born.

We went cycling, my RSPB Garden Bird book and binoculars in my backpack, and looked for birds in local woodlands. Unfortunately, my dad left soon after he and my mum separated. We sometimes went when I visited him in Livingston (where he now lives, and my original home). It wasn’t long before my interest slowly went away.

One of the birds with which I was obsessed was the robin. As we approached the foot of the Eildon Hills, where Mark helped himself to smelling lichen and eating blaeberries (Scottish blueberries) every five minutes, he mentioned two birds: meadow pipits, and stonechats.

The gusty winds paused, the sun poured over us, and Mark stopped to look for a meadow pipit. Soon enough, he found one amongst some heather. Putting binoculars to my eyes, I struggled to find it but saw a vague shape of a bird. Mark took a picture so I could get a better look.

We plundered on as the winds picked up again, coming across a wee loch and pausing on a small hill; with no luck, we went back down and began to make our way back. Before long, I saw a bird zoom across me.

“I saw something!” I said to Mark, adding uncertainly, “I think it was a robin”.

Mark immediately became alert, and soon enough found the bird I had spotted. “It’s a stonechat! They’re kind of like an emo robin,” he joked.

“An emo robin?” I laughed. Soon enough, I found the stonechat and I saw what Mark meant. Suddenly, my heart stopped. It was just me and this beautiful looking bird. For the first time in a while, I was truly present.

Mark eagerly took out his book so we could find out more about stonechats, before returning to the walking. We hit the woodlands again, and I become informed of a bizarre fact about bird song.

“Birds have accents?!” I exclaimed.

“Absolutely. Bird song can differ from region to region, city to city. It’s amazing.”

We joked about this for a while, but it wasn’t long before the winds picked up again, meaning less observation of nature, and a chance for Mark and me to delve deep into conversation beyond joking about Glaswegian bird song.

I asked him about the future of conservation, and Mark lamented that it doesn’t look so good, at least in the UK. He told me that the current Tory government, in particular Boris Johnson, is supporting more traditional industry ideas and fewer green initiatives. He further added that the money set aside by the government is very generic in its tackling of green issues, often ignoring the nuances. Some could argue that it is good the government are setting aside money for such change. On the other hand, some would say that more attention needs to be given to the distinctions between say, green energy and conservation.

As we approached the final leg of our walk, Mark and I delved into our pasts, how he got into birdwatching, how I fell in love with writing, and so on. We both found that, at one point or another, our passions had been washed away temporarily by the unpredictable tide that constitutes life. Nevertheless, we eventually returned to shore. It made me realise that nothing is ever really linear, and that maybe this is actually a good thing.

So whether you could spend weeks camping or squeal at the very sight of slugs, maybe a bit of nature now and then isn’t all bad. After all, nature was there before humans set finger to earth, and it will still be there long, long after we are gone.

Image: Eildon Hills via Vaishnavi Ramu

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The Student Newspaper 2016