Requiem for a summer

Image of Harry Eyres

I try to be sanguine about the weather but this summer, nature, at least in these storm-battered eastern Atlantic parts, has gone into mourning, or possibly melancholia. The skies have been afflicted with persistent low mood, gloomy darkness and extreme tearfulness. The winds have howled and the rain has sheeted down.

Some cheerfully maintain that this is quite normal, that English summers are never any good. My response is that summers (especially Junes, actually) have often been disappointing but never this bad. If summer had always been like this, Frederick Delius would never have composed his exquisite summer idylls (“In a Summer Garden”) or Edward Thomas his summer poems (“Adlestrop”); no hardware store or outdoor centre would ever have sold a barbecue kit; no one would ever have built an outdoor swimming pool or maintained a grass tennis court. Our three grass courts at the club have been playable for, perhaps, five days this summer so far. I have yet to go for an outdoor swim (shame on me) in Highgate ponds.

Just the idea of sitting out on my parents’ lawn, having lunch or sipping a glass of Mosel Kabinett, seems outlandish in the unrelenting wind and rain; but this used to be a regular summer habit.

The un-summeriness of this summer has unsettled me, I must confess. And it hasn’t just unsettled me, it has unsettled the birds as well. Last summer, which was by no means brilliant, we had robins, blue tits and blackbirds nesting in our tiny London garden; this year it is just blackbirds.

Whereas I used to watch “our” birds with innocent pleasure, this year I’ve become aware how terribly precarious and anxiety-ridden their lives are. This is so especially at the time of the rearing and fledging of their young; young birds emerge from the nest hopelessly naive, easy prey for cats, magpies and crows. Even a London garden is full of dangers – and remember that the original paradise one was far from safe.

Blackbirds strike me as brilliant parents – tireless with the supply of food and fierce in the protection of their young. This fierceness manifests itself in that loud alarm call (so different from the melodious song of the male), which they can emit for what seems hours – and awfully nerve-racking it is. I find myself repeatedly getting up from my desk and going out into the garden to try to see what is agitating the parent blackbirds, always without success. A few days ago, my partner Ching Ling and I got up early to see a small, bloody pile of black feathers under the rosemary; we both felt ridiculously upset.

My account of what is going on in our garden is obviously local and anecdotal but Dr Dave Leech, head of nest monitoring records at the British Trust for Ornithology, reports, “This has been the worst breeding season I have ever experienced in my life.” Birds as different as swifts, stonechats, skylarks, meadow pipits, lapwings and reed warblers have had their efforts at nest-building repeatedly thwarted; Dr Leech details the heart-breaking attempts by a pair of reed warblers in Norfolk to make and rebuild their nest four times in succession.

Even the determinedly upbeat BBC TV series Springwatch struggled this year to maintain its Panglossian view that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. The warden of a Welsh nature reserve, brought on to the programme but obviously not sufficiently trained in the manic grinning required these days of presenters, described what had happened when a colony of lapwings in the Dovey estuary was overwhelmed by floods as “a tragedy”. He seemed to be fighting back the tears as he spoke.

More alarming than all this is the possibility that what we have been experiencing in the UK, not only this year but for the past six years, is not just a freak but a new pattern. A paper in the June issue of the journal Oceanography, co-authored by Charles H Greene, professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University, links recent extreme weather events in the middle latitudes of the northern hemisphere to Arctic climate change. “We are changing the climate system, especially in the Arctic,” he writes, “and that’s increasing the odds for the negative Arctic Oscillation conditions that favour cold air invasions.” He is talking mainly about severe winter weather but Jennifer Francis, research professor at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University, suggests that the increased waviness of the jet stream caused by Arctic warming may be affecting British summers as well.

Just imagine if that turns out to be true: that we have messed up our own climate so badly as to have deprived ourselves for ever, or for centuries or millennia, of that most blessed of gifts, a temperate summer. Then future generations could only scratch their heads in puzzlement at accounts of summer evening bathing parties, or warm afternoons at Lords. Then not just the weather but we ourselves would need to mourn, and mourn, and mourn.

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