8 July 2015
Guardian Country Diary, Wenlock Edge
by Paul Evans, first published in
The wild rose flowers over a chain-link fence at the edge of the quarry. In a Sleeping Beauty moment, this tangle of thorns has been transformed into the sweetest rose: sweet briar.
Because of their promiscuity, wild roses can be hard to identify accurately, but this one, with its apple-scented leaves and classic open, yellow-centred, pink-edged flower has more sweet briar than dog-rose about it. It is the rose Keats knew as the “pastoral eglantine” in the swoony psychedelia of his Ode to a Nightingale.
I am distracted from the sweet briar by a bird as unlike a nightingale as it’s possible to be – a poet less sweet, more briar and a lot more dog. A raven flies overhead to land in a copse of tall ash trees behind the quarry. It sounds barking mad. I walk into the wood below as quietly as I can and wind my way up badger tracks to the top of the hill, following the raven’s calls. The raven is perched atop the tallest tree. From there it’s about 150 feet straight down the ravine to the ferny shadows of the quarry floor.
The raven is raving, calling out strings of phrases which sound as individual as words in sentences, lines, stanzas. Some are loud and declaiming: rasping, throaty shouts interspersed with yelps, the pitch varying; challenging and accusatory. Some are soft, mournful, as if muttering to itself. There is such energy in the raven’s voice, such authority and passion that it swings between bardic oratory and ranting madness.
I move to where I can see the bird. It is pulling bunches of ash-key seeds with its beak and tearing them apart like a dog as it speaks. A few jackdaws clucking in surrounding branches pacify it, but the call of a crow is answered by a stream of abuse. What has brought the raven to this poetic outburst must remain a secret. I think of the sweet briar and remember the term “sub-rosa”. It means “under the rose” – the tradition of having a rose in the ceiling of a council chamber or meeting place under which anything spoken remains in confidence, a secret.