Smoke and mirrors

Migrant birds from the north, from Siberia and Scandinavia, arrive on the Essex coast in their tens of thousands, and fill the steel skies of autumn. Among them are large flocks of knot. Depending on where the sunlight is catching them, they can appear to vanish from sight as they change direction. It's almost as if slipping into another dimension. This other worldliness, the feeling of creatures moving in and out of our perception is what Robert MacFarlane finds fascnating about Essex. These portal or border moments when you glimpse through into a parallel world that's not quite ours. Robert's grandfather was involved in the development of radar in the Second World War and told him that when some birds flock together in large enough numbers they can become so large that they appear on radar, and scientists used to call these palping shapes angels. Perhaps the beauty of the knots finds its sharpest relief in industrial sites, like on the Thames shore. There you see the birds playing and shimmering in the shadow of factories, swooping in front of chimneys and the big container ships that chug down the river. Their presence seems miraculous, like a kind of natural smoke.

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