The gathering of knot: an experience of a lifetime
There is a marvellous quote from The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. I can't remember it verbatim (it will come to me, probably this evening when I pick up another book). It basically confronts the reader with their own mortality. How many full moon rises will you see, it asks. How many times will you recall a certain instance of your childhood? It ends by pointing out our misplaced ideas that life seems to go on forever are a dangerous precedent, likely to reduce our thirst for experience.
I was moved to think about this when on Monday and Tuesday morning this week I stood on a bank of shingle and felt thousands of birds fly through me. It was a very special moment.
The wings of thousands of red knot slashed the air like sabres and their underwings twinkled superfast as they twisted up and over my head and veered into an exploding sunrise. The scene is simple: expanses of sea, mud and sky and the players a multitude of unremarkable individuals who unite to form an unbelievable whole.
To witness this thing could be described as 'an experience of a lifetime'. But having that experience is not easy because it is choreographed by the forces of nature and astronomy and the fickle hand of the weather. You can't just buy a ticket and turn up; the cast may not, the whistle may not be blown, the curtains don't always rise.
Basically, it has the potential to happen maximally on just three mornings a year. (We explain why this is on the programme.) So let's say I plan to live an average 65 years. That's a total of 195 opportunities in a lifetime. But, let's face it, up to the teens it can't really be appreciated through the lack of comparative experiences. So maybe by 16-18 it could be a truly formative moment. So 65 minus 18 is 47. Multiply that by three and you have 141.
Then say you're at university or training in some way, that's minus another three or four years - down to 129. Then you get a job so it's weekends only - down to around 36. Then you have kids and weekends are out. And then you're into sport or music or whatever and this rules out quite a few more days. What shall we say? Down to ten. Then there's the weather, ever unpredictable especially in autumn and winter.
I think that I've been to try and see it about eight times and have succeeded on four. That's 50%. So maybe that's just five mornings in a lifetime you might have a chance to be utterly elated by birds. Five days in 23,725. Over a lifetime that's 0.25%.
I hope you are able to enjoy and relate to mine and Kate attempts to convey our excitement. It's all genuine of course and quite spontaneous. But whatever, I don't think it is any kind of substitute for the real thing. So, RSPB Snettisham, north Norfolk, two more 'good' days to go this year.
Thus cancel the Christmas shopping, dump the pantomime, find a patch of dirt on the edge of a big cold sea as it gets light and seize an incredible moment for yourselves. And don't put it off, it has only been happening for the last 30 years and given the rising sea levels it isn't guaranteed to be happening for the next 30.