Lying over Dunwich Heath, across the low, crumbling cliffs, the shingled beaches and the milky-calm seas, is an indistinct haze; half-remembered realities are hidden in the silt of cloud that billows over the landscape. I know to the North is the lighthouse at Southwold, and in the other direction the upturned, half-buried eggshell of the nuclear reactor at Sizewell, but both are obscured within the opacity. I don’t know where they are because I have seen them from this place before, but I still know they are there. It’s a strange sensation akin to déjà vu. Memory can be a strange and often idiosyncratic fellow. I often remember dreams when I first wake, then forget them minutes later. I remember remembering them, but can’t actually remember them, and this is how I feel now. It’s like a kind of ersatz déjà vu. Well, it would be if déjà vu itself were real I suppose. But then that’s the thing about déjà vu isn’t it? Is it real? Is it a lost memory? Or is it a fake memory triggered by something read or seen many years ago? I find, like my dreams, that I can sometimes very quickly forget what the déjà vu was about.
Above the gently swelling sea, which breaks in long, slow exhalations that heave the bosom of shingle back and forth, Dunwich Heath’s gorse is flowering in a brawling tumult of yellow, its giddy essence of coconut flavouring the air. On the sea itself, crepuscular rays shine in sidelong glances onto a single fishing boat, and suddenly both lighthouse and nuclear reactor are visible. Reality is restored; real memory formed. The two landmarks are at opposite ends of a concave reach of coastline like the bend of an undrawn bow, but they are being tuned in and out of visibility like a dodgy radio signal.
From Dunwich Heath car park, Minsmere – one of the RSPB’s flagship reserves – is laid out in panorama before me. It is almost ten square kilometres of reed bed, scrapes, shingle vegetation, and lowland heath, amongst other habitats. From here, open spaces within the reed beds are visible where the secretive, elusive bittern picks its guarded way between reed stalks, the stiletto of its bill drawn, ready for a stabbing thrust at fish or frog.
We walk down the sandy embankment from Dunwhich Heath car park onto the beach, and turn towards Minsmere. Each footfall meets the shingle in a satisfying scrunch of stone on stone, the smoothed surfaces rotated around one another by wave after wave in a grinding orbit. Inside Minsmere itself we follow a raised path inland that splits the reed beds. A quarrelsome swan, wings held aggressively out like an elderly lady elbowing her way to the front of the queue at M. and S., propels itself along a channel through the reeds with aggravated thrusts towards two greylag geese seemingly minding their own business. Though the reeds offer protection to various species, they are beautifully lissome, each an individual strand of slender blown glass stretched into a thread. But when two bearded tits alight on adjacent stems they don’t give way or shatter, merely sway under the birds’ delicate frames.
The beards of the male bearded tit are in actual fact rather magnificent, drooping, jet-black Fu Man Chu-style moustaches, a la Peter Ustinov in the classic kids’ flick One of our Dinosaurs is Missing. That however, is to do them a great disservice, because the males are little stunners. They wear a smoky, blue-grey hood, their backs and wings are the honeyed-orange of a late Summer evening, and the softness of these colours contrasts so perfectly with the twin triangles of their manicured moustaches. We watch them flicker through the reed stems; the urgency of Spring in every movement. The colour of their wings and backs is actually very similar to the colour of the reeds themselves, affording some concealment from any predatory eyes on high. This effect of light and dark exists throughout the natural world from fish, to birds, to mammals. Shading is a visual cue that may help predators recognise prey items in three dimensions despite camouflage, and countershading is possibly an evolutionary reaction to this. It’s a remarkably simple, but ingenious strategy, that works both ways: predators use countershading to their advantage too. Though there are variations in individuals, many predators, from peregrines to great whites, have a pale underbelly and darker back, meaning they are less visible from below, with the light above them, and also less visible from above, with a darker background beneath them.
If you were to get an empty bottle and blow across the top of it, you would be hearing something like the bittern’s boom. It is a sound with an esoteric quality; one that many people may just not hear, or to be more precise, not notice that they are hearing, which is the same thing. I have heard a bittern once, before today. Walking back to Burnham Overy Staithe along the sea wall from the beach, the sound of the bittern’s boom reached me from somewhere amongst a small reed bed in a field full of cattle. In a way it was such a subtle sound it seemed to come not from within the landscape, but somehow behind it. It was only when my subconscious self reluctantly surrendered the sound to my conscious self that I realised I had been hearing it for a while. It was almost a eureka moment, and the same happens today at Minsmere. We stand and listen as two or three more booms, in addition to the two or three that we heard before we realised we were hearing them, resound across the landscape. Most of the families here today are heedless of the booming, only a few other people like ourselves stopping in their tracks to listen to this most fascinating of bird calls.
Nature and landscape exist as if in layers; layers of reality. Some people are content to walk on the surface, never minding what’s beneath the ground, and preferring the solid feel of macadamised byways through life. Others are not content with this version of the world, but seek the places and ways where the layers split and delaminate; where nature and landscape are flung up and revealed like geology. It is not enough to live life on a straight-paved road, we should wander the woods, climb the mountains, comb the shorelines, peer in to the reed beds, and listen for the bittern’s boom; it speaks of a reality which may one day fade from all our memories.