An irrelevance in the landscape

A significant proportion of my annual early-September holiday in Anglesey is spent sitting on my favourite rock looking out to sea. Nature waiting, I call it: just sitting there, waiting to see what comes along.

It used to take me a couple of days to work out how to switch off, to divert all my attention to doing nothing. Nowadays it takes about 30 seconds. I sit on my rock, place my camera bag at my side, take out my flask of tea, hang my binoculars around my neck, take a couple of deep breaths, and I’m there: in the zone.

Being in the nature-waiting zone is a humbling experience. It’s almost as if you’re not there: you become an irrelevance in the landscape; a passive observer watching the natural world simply getting on with being, without the need for any input from you. Which is all the natural world should ever do, when you think about it.

There are occasional thrills—grey seals, dolphins, gannets, Manx shearwaters—but my favourite nature-waiting sessions are those in which nothing particularly extraordinary happens: gulls squabble, cormorants dive, oystercatchers panic, turnstones potter—all of them simply doing what they do, getting on with getting on.

A turnstone pottering

After a few minutes in the zone, you begin to appreciate passing gulls as autonomous individuals going about their business, motivated by whatever it is that motivates gulls. These things are alive: they’re living their lives. The wheezing juvenile herring gull down on the rocks is wheezing for a reason: begging for food from the nearby adult. And the adult is doing its damnedest to ignore the wheezing: maybe because a mid-summer instinct to pander to wheezing juveniles has been supplanted by an early-autumn instinct to look after Number One, and to let youngsters start fending for themselves.

It’s easy to anthropomorphise, so you try not to. There’s no way to know what’s going on inside these creatures’ heads. But something most definitely is going on: something is helping them decide which particular clump of seaweed to explore, where to head off to next, and when to alter their course to make a speculative dive at some unsuspecting colleague. (Colleague: see what I mean about anthropomorphising?)

Then there are the elements—the wind and clouds, the tides and waves—all driven by dumb physics: the spin of the earth, the heat of the sun, the pull of the moon. No danger of anthropomorphism there. Predictable to an extent, yet utterly chaotic. Always changing. Never the same. Mesmerising.

The true wonder of being in the zone comes with the realisation that the things you’re watching don’t require any observer, no matter how passive. The waves would still break against the rocks, the tides would still rise and fall, the clouds would still drift across the sky, whether you were watching them or not. The creatures would still be strutting their stuff, getting on with being gulls and guillemots. Their ancestors were doing so long before you were born, and their descendants will carry on doing so long after you’re dead. They’re doing so right now, on my favourite stretch of coastline, as I write these words 140 miles away in the landlocked Yorkshire Pennines

All of which, I find immensely comforting.

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