I recently did something I've never done before... helped to crowdfund a book.
The publisher was Little Toller, the book Orison for a Curlew by Horatio Clare and it was simple... buy a copy ahead of printing and make the book happen. I suspect Little Toller may have been taken by surprise when the target was reached and exceeded within days, but hopefully it all became a way for them to know how much they and their books are loved and wanted.
And then I forgot all about it until the book arrived last week....and I quickly had to look up 'orison' because, to my shame, I didn't know what it meant.
Prayer, that's what it means.
The Slender-billed curlew, Numenius tenuirostris, the slim beak of the new moon, is one of the world's rarest birds. It once bred in Siberia and wintered in the Mediterranean basin via Italy, Greece, the Balkans and Central Asia, and then slowly it didn't, now only existing 'as a rumour'.
With the human factor to contend with...pollution, presence, pesticides, water, cultivation, drainage and noise...mostly in the wrong place at the wrong time it is little wonder that the bird has all but disappeared. When you take into account its flights of passage across some of the world's most troubled lands it would be a miracle if it was ever seen again.
There is another very sobering revelation given that the habitat of the nesting birds may have been in close proximity to the testing grounds for the former USSR..
'There exists a possibility beyond irony that Homo sapiens wiped out Numenius tenuirostis with a nuclear weapon.'
'It is like a friend is dying and I cannot do anything,' says Petar, helplessly.
And the dedication of the conservationists like him reads as a lament.
It was this bigger picture that Horatio Clare's hunt for the bird really emphasised for me as I read Orison for a Curlew. That sense of the bird's eye view of the the land beneath as it wings its way from breeding grounds to winter habitat, and I thought of our swallows, and the lands and the conflicts they might have passed over on their way to and from us here.
Criss -crossing his way across the outer reaches of the countries of the European Union, Horatia Clare finds himself in Bulgaria, apparently the EU's most corrupt member state. The night train from Bucharest to Sofia sounds awfully romantic on paper. I was thinking of Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy which I am revving up to read when I have the inclination and find a nice edition.
In reality the night trains are packed because they are cheaper by about 3 or 4 lev, the equivalent of £1, and they are cooler in the absence of air-conditioning...
'The Sofia train is sprawled with legs, arms and unconscious faces, as if it brings casualties from the front. There is a powerful, warm smell of bodies, tired, creaturely, smoky and perfumed.'
Now I know we all moan like crazy about the EU but in some ways it can be a force for the good, it has its advantages, not least the imposition of EU laws that compel a country to protect its nature reserves. In a country like Bulgaria, apparently still covertly backed by Russia and with ruling cliques descended from the Communist era, there are surprising glimmers of hope. 30 percent of the country now designated a Specially Protected Area, and only made possible because a few dedicated people had been collecting the data for years. Allocated funding cannot be diverted into greedy pockets either, it's all a win win for the birds...of 420 species only 23 can be hunted.
A bird that had to seek safe passage through regimes and oppression may have all but gone, but the indomitable human spirit to conserve in its wake has most definitely not. Along the way Horatio Clare meets a small band of warriors, passionate and devoted to the cause and actually making a difference to the planet and its inhabitants. There are heartwarming notes amongst the bleakness of the extinction of a species.
So on the surface, a book that ultimately presents sad news about the slim beak of the new moon, suggests all may not be lost. The search is ongoing. There may, just may be Slender-billed curlews to be found, no one is giving up on them just yet.
Orison for a Curlew a jewel of a book from Little Toller, one for the shelf, and if they crowdfund another I have no doubt that many of us will be ready and waiting.