Mary’s blog: a swift journey to the moon and back

Mary Bartlett

Mary Bartlett came to Dartington in 1963 as a horticultural student. After her training she became responsible for the glasshouses, nursery and walled garden.

She is the author of several books, including the monograph Gentians, and Inky Rags, a review of which can be found on the Dartington website. She is now the tutor for bookbinding in the Craft Education department. More blogs from Mary


In his 2014 Ways with Words talk about ‘rewilding’, the environmentalist agitator George Monbiot talked about ‘shifting baseline syndrome’.

The term was coined by the biologist Daniel Pauly to describe our relationship (as here-today-gone-tomorrow humans) with the condition of the ecosystem.

My childhood memories are of playing beside the River Bovey in summer meadows teeming with pollinating insects by day and clouded with moths by night; for my grandchild the sight of a frog in a pond or an eel in a stream is a rare surprise (and those Bovey meadows have long disappeared under a housing estate).

Each of us starts out with a baseline measure of the world’s natural diversity and, with the twisting and turning of the years, comes to understand how fast the reserves are dwindling. Generations share the melancholy associated with the losses they inflict, but for each generation it is reckoned against a different baseline memory.

My baseline measure includes the swifts that used to nest in the Dartington churchyard tower and scream around the Hall gardens. They were part of my ‘birth’ encounter with Dartington. Later, it was one of my husband Bram’s responsibilities to keep the jackdaws out of the tower when the swifts headed south in July, and to have their nest boxes shipshape for their return the following May.

Swift in flight. (c) Mandy West
Swift in flight. (c) Mandy West

On warm summer evenings like the ones just past, Bram and I used to stroll across to the tower to watch the swifts as they whipped overhead, knowing that we were doing our bit for biodiversity. Swifts are so sensitively engineered, so extraordinary in their habits, that even moving boxes a few centimetres will prevent them from nesting.

Now there are no swifts in the tower – just a gang of inbred jackdaws in their place. And, no doubt in years to come, another generation will look fondly back to a childhood baseline that included jackdaws chattering on the Dartington lawns – whereas in their own future universe, the way things are going, they will only have their pet cats and dogs for company.

Depletion or just inevitable change? The cosmic answer must be that nature doesn’t care one way or another, it will just try out something else – and so the universe might actually be on Dartington’s side. But for sentimentalists like me, the presence of swifts in the Dartington tower years ago and their absence now is hugely symbolic.

Dartington’s place in the development of liberal education, the history of field ornithology, the birth of documentary film making, Dartington Hall School’s contribution to evolutionary ecology – I can combine associations with all of these into my emotional response to the marvellous Ted Hughes line about swifts materialising and vanishing again ’at the tip of a long scream of needle’.


“Leonard himself remembered: ‘I crept up early to bed, said my little but immensely comforting prayers… as, so often, I cried myself to sleep’”


Just consider, for example, how much the scream of swifts signified for Leonard Elmhirst. The whole Dartington venture, remember, was founded on the idea of a school that would overturn the disastrous educational principles associated with the abuse of power and the enslavement of the individual that had destroyed Europe.

Leonard’s schoolboy experience at the Derbyshire prep school, St Anselm’s, had been fairly typical. Michael Young reported it in his Elmhirst biography: ‘He suffered from the sadism, the brutality, the mindlessly imposed conventions of received educational practice as so many other sensitive boys suffered, pretending in his letters home that all was well.

Leonard himself remembered: “I crept up early to bed, said my little but immensely comforting prayers, the only comfort I had, and listened to that swirling group of swifts that nightly screamed their way around the silent dormitory, as, so often, I cried myself to sleep”.

Leonard was soon keeper of the swifts that brought him comfort at St Anselm’s and as a result he became a dedicated and very knowledgeable birdwatcher. So it would have been a great thrill for him in the mid 1930s to be able to hire as a biology teacher at his own school, and on the recommendation of Sir Julian Huxley, a brilliant young behavioural ornithologist, David Lack.

Biography: David Lack

• 1910: Born in London
• 1933–1940: Biology master at Dartington Hall School
• 1940: Study visit to the Galapagos Islands
• 1940–1945: Work on radar development
• 1945–1973: Director of the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology, Oxford.
• 1948: ScD, Magdalene College, Cambridge
• 1963: Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford
• 1972: Awarded Darwin Medal of the Royal Society
• 1973: Dies at Oxford, 12 March 1973.

Lack was at Dartington for just a handful of years before the Second World War, but it was long enough for him to make his reputation with a classic study of the territorial aggression of the robin.

Fieldwork for The Life of the Robin (pub. 1941) concentrated on the woodland, quarries and fields surrounding Foxhole. The students at Dartington Hall School became his research assistants, just as they were when he took a party to the Pembrokeshire island of Skokholm to study the behaviour and homing instincts of storm petrels, puffins and shearwaters.

The school was behind him again in 1938, when, with more help from Julian Huxley he led an expedition to the Galapagos Islands. With him on board a ‘squalid Equadorian steamer’ went the fledgling Dartington Film Unit and its student cameraman Rickie Leacock – who would soon become the American pioneer of cinema verite.

This extraordinary Dartington outing was to study the island finches, which Darwin had encountered and collected during the Beagle expedition and which, once understood, provided him with critical evidence for his theory of natural selection.

Lack improved the science through his own study of the adaptive radiation of the Galapagos species – and also got a taste of shifting baseline syndrome, finding the enchantments of the once Enchanted Isles already on the turn.


WATCH: Footage from David Lack’s Galapagos exhibition (footage via BBC, scroll to bottom)


Tyrant flycatchers tried to take the hair from the visitors’ heads for their nests, mocking-birds pecked at the eyelets of their boots. The Galapagos hawk (now extinct on Baltra, Daphne, Floreana, San Cristobal, and Seymour) was still allowing itself to be touched by human hands.

But in the main, the famous innocence of the island animals and birds was getting them slaughtered or infected with human-borne parasites and disease. Cats were gobbling up the population of tree finches; dogs and pigs were smashing the island habitats; an increasing population of ne’er do well blow-ins from Norway, Germany, Iceland and Czechoslovakia quarrelled.

Ornithologist David Lack at the International Ornithological Congress, 1962 (left) and with daughter Catherine in 1965 (right).Images via biologos.org
Ornithologist David Lack at the International Ornithological Congress, 1962 (left) and with daughter Catherine in 1965 (right).Images via biologos.org

Once back home from what he now called the ‘Disenchanted Isles’, David Lack’s war work was connected with the development of radar. His ability to interpret the mysterious progress of the ‘angels’ that started to appear among radar signals gave him influential insight into the patterns of bird migration; radar, he discovered, revealed its complexity and amazing scale for the first time.

Then, after the war, as director of Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology in Oxford, he studied the swifts that nested in the tower of University Museum and Science, the building where the first great debate on Darwinism took place in 1850 and Thomas Huxley, grandfather of Julian, famously scolded a Bishop that he would rather be descended from an ape than from a divine who used authority to stifle truth.

As with the Galapagos finches, so with the Oxford swifts, the focus of David Lack’s work was adaptation – how a mechanism as simple as natural selection could produce such astonishing complexity in the behaviour of a tiny bird – one capable of cruising at 105mph, of mating on the wing, of flying to Africa and back three times without touching down, of winging and needling, in its short lifetime, a distance equivalent to travelling to the moon and back – eight times!

To the end of his life, David Lack struggled to free his scientific intellect from the possibility of the supernatural. He concluded his study of the swifts with an unexpected reflection: ’The issue is not so much whether man could evolve moral feelings or intellectual discernment, but whether, if they have been evolved, his ideas of goodness and trust can be trusted’.

From our baseline it is tempting to say self-evidently they can’t.

But the simpler point is that with the loss of the swifts from the Dartington tower, Dartington has lost a little more of its own evolutionary memory. It has lost meaning.

Perhaps there is another kind of shifting baseline syndrome to investigate. Each generation remembers less and less, and what little it remembers is ever more likely to be remembered incompletely. Or should we just call that ‘change’?

In his own copy of Swifts in a Tower, Leonard glued a nature note from The Times from August 2 1965 about swifts on the verge of departure. He added his own observation underneath: August 2nd – six swifts still around Dartington Hall at 5.45pm.

graphy found in the Lack Room (number 40) of Dartington Hall's East Wing
graphy found in the Lack Room (number 40) of Dartington Hall’s East Wing
  • One of the Courtyard bedrooms is named after David Lack, as is the small copse at Foxhole beneath his old biology laboratory window. Shortly before his death in 1973, he was awarded the Darwin Medal by the Royal Society.
  • Read more: David Lack biography, Dartington Who’s Who

2 thoughts on “Mary’s blog: a swift journey to the moon and back

  1. I read your article with interest as I have become up a bit obsessed with swifts and am trying to get them nesting on my house in swift boxes.
    The Oxford swifts are world famous and it’s interesting to know that David Lack was at Dartington and had swift boxes there too so it’s sad to hear that they are not being used now or maintained; it would be a good memorial to him if they were still used.
    Crossed my mind I wonder if it would be possible/feasible to reinstate them? Now would be the time to do the work before next summer.
    I would be happy to come and have a look and see if it is feasible.
    Regards
    Alistair

    1. Dear Alistair,
      thank you for your comment. I love them also.
      My late husband who was estate warden did the boxes annually.
      You will need to contact the estate manager John Channon for an update as I think they have tried hard to help them. I think part of the problem with the church tower is the jackdaws, which I don’t think nest but like the space in the churchyard. There could be other options or places to put boxes.
      Kind regards,
      Mary

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