Dear Readers, if you were to sneak into St Pancras and Islington Cemetery via the broken fence in Coldfall Wood, you would soon find yourself gazing at a jungle of comfrey, which has sprung up in the past few weeks. It is in a quiet, sheltered, almost eerie spot, not far from the hulks of two rusty abandoned cars, which are gradually being reclaimed by the brambles. It feels like the kind of place where something unexpected could happen at any moment, an unpermissioned, edgy spot. Just the kind of area that I like, in other words.
The air is sultry – the comfrey grove is such a sun-trap, and the plants grow with a tropical vigour. Bees drone from blossom to blossom like miniature bomber planes. Because of their deep, bell-shaped flowers, comfrey plants are mostly used by heavier bee species, such as bumblebees, who have the heft to shoulder their way into get the nectar. I spotted common carder bumblebees, tree bumblebees and buff-tailed bumblebees. At this time of year, you are more likely to see worker bees: the queens are now underground, laying eggs.
The tree bumblebees seem to have a particularly aggressive approach to the flowers, vibrating away with a loud buzz when they enter the bloom. I wonder if this is a way of shaking the pollen loose? Certainly this is a technique that bumblebees use when pollinating tomatoes. In his wonderful book ‘A Sting in the Tale’, bumblebee expert Dave Goulson explains how, in Australia, there are no bumblebees, and importing them could be a biohazard, so tomatoes have to be pollinated by hand. It amazes me how I take the simplest of biological processes for granted.
As I stood in this sunny spot, I noticed the butterflies. Orange tips, brimstones, small whites and speckled woods circled one another in dizzy figures-of-eight. These are fierce creatures, defending their territories and trying to persuade females to mate. I watched as one orange tip chased off anything that came close – not only butterflies, but hoverflies and bluebottles too. So much energy, for something so fragile! They were also very tricky to photograph, and at one point I nearly fell into a nettle patch while pursuing a brimstone. I was completely absorbed in what was going on around me, something I’ve noticed before – when I’m watching wildlife, it’s as if the endless chatter in my head dies away. I become something that watches, listens, notices, wonders. It’s a deeply meditative, concentrated state.
And then, a tiny white dog exploded out of the undergrowth in a skitter of claws, followed by an anxious middle-aged lady owner. She shrieked and I shrieked and then we laughed in embarrassment. I felt as if I’d been dropped back into my body from a great height. I hung around for a little longer, but the moment was gone. Time to move on.
As usual, I headed over to see the foxes, and spent some time ‘hiding’ behind a gravestone to get a few photos for you. The foxes are absolutely not fooled, but I do think they’re getting used to me as a bearer of jam sandwiches.
But there is some other exciting news too. In a tall fir tree close to where I watch the foxes, I’ve been hearing the sound of baby birds for the past week. Yesterday, I noticed a hole in the trunk.
And by standing outside the gents toilets in the chapel opposite for twenty minutes, with my biceps nearly dropping off from the strain of holding the camera, I finally got this blurred shot.
Yep, there is a brood of Great Spotted Woodpeckers about ten metres from my fox-watching site. They sound healthy, and a couple of times I just made out a little head as a nestling looked out for his mum and dad. A lady was filling up her watering can as I was trying to take my photo, and she was delighted to hear about the nest. She comes to visit the grave of her son, and spends a lot of the weekend sitting and talking to him.
‘I love it here’, she said. ‘Some graveyards are so manicured and boring. But here there are the foxes, and the birds, and the butterflies. I spend all day here in the summer, telling my son the news and watching the bees’.
So many people come to the cemetery to commune with their dead loved ones, to sit and have a little chat and to make sure that the departed are kept up to date with the news. It is said that someone is not really gone while they live on in the memories of those who loved them, but there is also something here about trying to make sure that those who have died are still included in the day to day life of the family and community. This would come as no shock in many cultures where ancestors are revered, and it seems to me that it satisfies a profound human need. We are connection-making creatures, and death is the most extreme severing of all, so no wonder that we seek to stitch the realms of the living and dead back together. I know how much comfort it can give to those who remain, and who among us knows enough to say that it doesn’t also bring comfort to those who have gone?