I rose late this morning… it had been quiet overnight and bright August sunshine already washed the boat as my eyes fluttered open. We are moored in a quiet spot on the River Stort just North of Roydon, Essex. The only constant noise was from the London commuter trains that run by us every 5 minutes. Somehow, they do not disturb me; the few passengers aboard, a blur of dismissive humanity embroiled in a detached world of work, oblivious to the symbiotic life going on around them.
I went out onto the back deck to enjoy the warmth and look over the small 70 x 200 metre flood plain between the boat and the rail track. The Heifer cows and young cattle were gathered together. I adjusted my gaze to look at all the movement around the feeder stream winding its way through the centre of this tiny refuge.
I am surprised at how animals adjust to the small bits of wild area we have left for them. Somehow, they manage to eek-out an existence despite our constant human demand for every bit of wild land.
Ducks spot me and clamour around the boat stern, quacking noisily to communicate their desire for bread, which I duly find for them. The commotion brings Moor Hens and Coots, but the Canada Geese feeding in the marsh area ignore me as they find everything they need in the seeding grassland.
The cows are happy, left to their own devices on grasslands during the summer months. I watch them for a while – they are already chewing their cud after a morning of grazing and they stand in a huddle, staring blithely as their jaws move in slow unison. Every so often, one of them tries to move into the centre of the group to escape the constant buzz of biting flies that surround them.
I sit feeling content. With the ducks now chasing other boats for tasty tid-bits, my eyes shift to the wild, weedy flowers surrounding our moored narrowboat…honey bees work tirelessly next to me. These are wild bees, small with long legs, but industrious as only bees can be. Blue damsel flies skirt the water edge and tiny fish fry nibble on the last of the bread in the water below me. I sit mesmerised by the business of survival around me.
I grab the binoculars and look a little closer. Grey Lag Geese are ensconced in the far side of the marshland – between them, a few skylarks/pewits poke amongst the grasses for insects. A flock of crows hop in close to pick any potential wriggling parasites from the fresh cow pats, ignoring the stamping feet and flapping ears of the imposing beasts above them.
Beyond the bovines, a large grey Heron stands guard on a small tributary near the hedgerow bordering the rail track, standing only a few feet from a white Egret fishing in the shallows. A few small rabbits hop around in the distant corner nibbling any grass not already consumed by the cows.
My gaze is disturbed by a flash of azure blue as a small Kingfisher darts past the boat and down the river into distant trees. I am amazed by the amount of life in this small patch around me. It is barely rural – a mere patch of green between the cluttered landscape of towns that will eventually become part of Greater London. Yet many life forms find a niche despite humanity’s sprawl.
The cattle wouldn’t exist if we didn’t require the meat, butter, and milk they provide. And many other creatures wouldn’t exist if we Humans hadn’t introduced them to Britain. We might worry that we are taking all the wild areas for our own development, but as long as we add some small “green” areas amongst our own conglomerate constructions, the flora and fauna will adapt and find life fairly acceptable. It is a message for us to remember how much we depend on their existence.
A few butterflies flit amongst the last of the summer flowers and a lone Moor Hen calls forlornly into the river for more than an hour. I wonder if she has lost some babies. Many Moor Hens are producing the last Summer broods ; the newborn black chicks paddle around like tiny black pom-poms bobbing along the water’s edge. However, these waters are famous for some very large Pike and they pick off the little balls of fluff very easily.
The cattle stop chewing and slowly begin to move, led by a larger female who has been standing looking at me for some time. She has a large belly and a fairly developed udder so I wonder if she is in calf. Once the spell of the cud-chewing-scrum is broken, the beasts move in unison, wading into the water and onto the other side of the stream. As soon as they all climb out, a flock of gulls descends from nowhere… they settle on the water behind the dripping cows and scoop out any insects that have been washed off the plagued beasts. I marvel at the efficiency of the cows to deal with the irritating flies and how quickly the birds move in to glean a quick feast.
The cows spend the next few hours wandering around the small marshy area, consuming huge quantities of grass, disturbed only by unusual things which bring them up to standing attention and wandering curiosity. However, boats, trains, bikes, walkers, dogs and the ever-present bird life does not distract them from the business of eating.
The adult Coot near our boat has three large slate-grey chicks that will not acquire the adult colourings, and grow the stark-white bony beak until the following year. Until then, they are noisy, ravenous eating machines. They demand food from the adult who works tirelessly to feed her whining brood, but when she is tired and goes to rest amongst the reeds, the chicks spend the afternoon diving for the weed at the bottom of the river, which they consume in great quantities.
By late afternoon, the cows start to group up again, tails swishing away the flies, they cuddle each other reassuringly, nuzzling their appreciation for group harmony. Slowly, they wander en-masse to the nearby shade of the hedgerow to while-away their digestion in the semi-sleep of a lazy siesta.
The Ducks all haul out onto the bank for a similar afternoon repose. The Canada Geese are nestled down near the stream, preening feathers to keep them healthy. Afternoon stillness settles over this tiny respite from our own Urban machinations. Only the insects are still busy, having to make the most of the fine weather and their short lives.
At a glance, it all looks idyllic and simply existential, but watching any individual animal for any length of time, shows that life requires constant activity. Nature is never completely still and must always adapt to circumstance. We would do well to remember that our own lives are part of a symbiosis that encompasses all life. Destroy any part of it and the re-shuffle to survive creates harder work for all creatures. Destroy too much of it and our own Human existence becomes tenuous.
As I write this, Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Ukraine and many parts of Africa are embroiled in the business of war and genocide. These people are divorced from the reality of humanity. Swept up in the intricate dictates of dogma, fallacies, and just pure greed, they have forgotten that nature demands symbiotic cooperation in order that groups of any life-form can live in harmony. They are the instigators of their own impending destruction. Hate breeds hate and nothing survives!
The Cows don’t care… they simply do what they do. They don’t fight, they don’t hate, they sort out disputes quickly with a social hierarchy that works. If they were simply left alone, they’d complete normal life-cycles and predatory animals would increase taking out the weak amongst them. It is the way of life. No other wild animal will kill others of its own kind indiscriminately because of “hate.” It is unnatural and psychotic behaviour reserved only for humans.
So why do humans indulge in the business of hate to each other? It can only be due to our indulgent idea that we are “superior” in some way. Religion spreads the idea that we can make ourselves “superior,” either through the reverence of an omnipresent, rewarding/punishing creator, “GOD,” or through the idea that we are “GOD,” in some form or fashion. We have duped ourselves into thinking that we are better/smarter than any other life-form to the point that we believe we have dominance over all life-forms, with which we can do whatever we wish. Our conceit makes us believe that we have made the Earth a better place. Our conceit makes us believe that we can somehow be a better, bigger, more intelligent life-form if we continue to indulge in the idea that “Our chosen GOD” is more superior to someone else’s “GOD.”
Animals don’t know about GOD – only existence. When any life form dies, it becomes part of the chemistry/energy that feeds the cycle of life on the planet. We are part of all matter that exists – our cells are the same as all animal cells. We are life itself but only because of the symbiosis of all living things (and non-living as well). Regardless of how we came into being, if we ignore the all-encompassing symbiotic relationship with all other life-forms, we are doomed to die before our lifespan is finished.
Unfortunately, our genocide creating behaviours don’t stop there… we create ecocide with our constant ignorance of the importance of other life forms. We slaughter and poison indiscriminately, all because we believe we are superior! Until we get back to the business of cooperation, there will never, ever be peace amongst humanity. For millennia, humans have fallen prey to wars, genocide and destruction – we have learned nothing from our “GODS.” It is time to abandon all this false dogma and listen to the ticking life-form of our life-supporting planet, what it needs, and how we can be a symbiotic part of it. If God exists, God is manifest in all life – not in a designated dictator species!