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The Sparrow Who Could Play Piano And Other Necessary Temptations

A Brush With Nature

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

A sparrow found its way into Sheffield station. Her chirping rang out as she foraged for crumbs outside Greggs. Darting right into the bakery, the little bird flew out again with a flake of sausage roll. Wings whirring, she negotiated the human forest with aplomb, and headed for Starbucks.

Just then, my train home was announced; let it go, I’d catch a later one. The nature writer is always on the hunt for something to write about. My weekly ‘country diary’ column and monthly Times’ Nature Notebook must be constantly fed. The sparrow was too good to miss.

I caught up with her, Passer domesticus, at the Starbucks’ tables. The resourceful bird was munching the discarded pastries freely. I sat down. Sure enough, she landed at my elbow. The abandoned goblet of cold café latte might not be to her taste, but she couldn’t resist the granola bar I’d crumbled into my hand. Her light pecks prickled my palm pleasantly.

I’ve long been fascinated by the bond between humans and sparrows. Most of our fellow animals give humanity a wide berth; somehow, sparrows trust us. The moment we started growing grain and building huts, they moved in with us; since then, they’ve shared our homes and food, our fortunes. Such was our intimacy that when seeking a metaphor to sum up human life, the Anglo-Saxon writer, Bede, looked no further. Our lives, he writes, are a sparrow that flies into the mead hall on a winter’s night and then, after a few moments’ warmth, fellowship and light, flies out again — where do we come from, where are we going?

Unlike much of nature, sparrows also followed us into the city. Embracing urbanisation as much as we did, initially they thrived in the municipal life style; pre-car London had millions more sparrows than humans, a giant population fed by the seeds and flies in and around horse manure. Even in 1925 a survey found over two and a half thousand House Sparrows in Kensington Gardens alone. It wasn’t just London: sparrows colonised Paris, Mumbai, New York, and countless cities worldwide, becoming the most widespread bird on the planet. Then, about, thirty years ago, something terrible started to happen. Sparrows began disappearing from the built environment. Nowhere has this happened as precipitously as the UK. Today, they’ve almost entirely vanished from the British urban world. A disaster I’m not sure we’ve even registered, yet alone begun to understand.

Now, in Sheffield station, one of the disappeared was popping into Starbucks — could this be the return of the native? Taking out my pen and notebook, I began to write my column.

Halfway through my piece, some music began. The nearby concourse piano had a tenant. The pianist was dishevelled, with a bird’s-nest beard. The sleeping bag and short-haired dog lying patiently at his feet suggested a rough sleeper. The instrument’s tuning was wayward, the playing of those spread, tattooed fingers not the most fluent, but the melody was profoundly, achingly touching. Though his eyes were troubled and his face deep-lined, his rendition of the Beatles’ ‘Let it Be’ seemed to lend the picaresque pianist tranquillity: a South Riding John the Baptist momentarily at peace.

The sparrow alone had been poignant enough; the two together caught me by the throat.

As well as my nature writing, I have eight novels under my belt. By instinct I’m a storyteller, a fabulist, a plot beguiler, a reality botherer, a truth-torturer, a brass-tacks-badgerer, a windup merchant, a maker-upper. (In my pocket, for pity’s sake, was a copy of Aesop’s Fables.) So when the sparrow rose from my hand, I knew what had to happen. She had to fly to the piano. Not only that. She had to land on the keys, and hop between the stiffly musical fingers. For all sorts of reasons, the sparrow and John the Baptist had to play a duet.

Of course the sparrow didn’t go anywhere near the piano, flying instead back to Greggs. Even the quarter scone resting on Bb had not induced a visit.

In one of my writing worlds, everything is made up; in the other, nothing can be. If it was up to me, the little brown bird would now be doing a tap dance on the keys whilst discoursing on the sorrows – and sweetnesses – faced by both the urban sparrow and her human equivalent. But unlike a plot, you can’t manipulate a nature column into doing what you want. Even when you really, really want to. You must stick to brass tacks. On the face of it, the poetic licence issued to all novelists gives you few rights in the world of nonfiction.

Temptation on the scale of a sparrow playing the piano doesn’t offer itself every week. But there’s a constant current gently luring you from the strictly factual. This morning, back in the fastnesses of North Yorkshire, I was hugging a favourite oak tree when I felt the pull. The aim was to measure the circumference of the trunk and thus estimate the oak’s age: basically, the thicker the girth, the older the tree. My measurements suggested the tree had stood here for one hundred and fifty years. Lovely to imagine all that this tree had seen, but wouldn’t it be better if it was a little wider and had stood for two centuries? Or three. What a column that would be! Born in what was still primordial forest, the oak, which I walk past every day, had been a mute witness to enclosure acts, dozens of courtships, a death, a reconciliation…

It’s not just humble ‘country diarists’ that are tempted. Britain’s beloved BBC documentaries have been known to play havoc with the truth: polar bear cubs passed off as wild, whilst actually being born in a Dutch zoo; Amazonian insects emerging after thousands of years — from the forest floor of a laboratory tank; one meerkat ‘family’ being assembled out of a dozen different colonies.

Can there really be no poetic licence in the world of nature writing or filming?

Actually, you don’t have to be a ‘nature professional’ to realise that at its most fundamental level, it’s high time we stopped telling the literal truth about the natural world. The truth that there are no sparrows in no British cities; the truth that after sharing our evolutionary history, we’ve sundered the fellowship with Passer domesticus; the truth that we’re currently doing the same thing to all of nature.

In a modest way, I’ve already started monkeying around with ‘the plot’. One day, shocked that I couldn’t hear sparrows in my own garden, I put nesting boxes up. There, they had somewhere to live. But they needed food too, to feed their young: a key factor in their demise. So I stopped treating the garden like an outside room (mower for hoover), and let it become what it wanted to be, a wild woodland glade full of insects and seeds. I told the neighbours; some did the same. The sparrows came. Out walking one spring day, I found myself yearning for the sound of song thrushes, so I started planting trees along the bridleway and then … a hundred trees later I did hear a song thrush.

You may say I’m a dreamer, (that would have been a good tune on the Sheffield piano) but I definitely can’t be the only one. If our species wants to continue we have to find the old balance — a world toxic to sparrows is toxic for us. And only good old reality-bothering, truth-torturing, brass-tacks-badgering can change things. Imagine this for a piece of magical realism: one day all the motorways (since we’re on the travel theme) were decommissioned and orchards planted in their place. Or, its sequel: one day, we decided to stop poisoning ourselves. That would be some hefty plot twist. But if it’s a happy ending we’re after, we’d better get on with some pretty heavy duty truth-torturing. We could call it creative nonfiction.

Jonathan Tulloch is the author of eight novels. His work has been filmed, serialised on radio and won several awards. He writes a Nature Notebook in The Times and a column in the Tablet, and plays in a ceilidh band. He lives in a village in North Yorkshire where swallows nest in the garage.

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