We are of our time

Dungeness Bird Observatory

The subject for this post is one that has bothered me for some time. When I say 'bothered' I don't mean that it is a subject that has disturbed me, rather one that has used up far more time in thought than is probably healthy. I even find a description of what it is all about difficult to settle on and describe. Simply put it is my relationship with Dungeness.

I have a deep-seated affection for Dungeness. I have visited far more picturesque places, but it is a site that I adopted early on as a regular haunt. It was where I cut my birding teeth, where I met inspirational people and experienced moments of ornithological elation. I also forged friendships that still exist 30-40 years later. And, as a keen-as-mustard and impressionable teenage birder, there was nowhere that I would rather have been on Earth.

As a youngster finding my way, to have encouragement from older and vastly more experienced and knowledgable individuals was a massive confidence booster. It fuelled me with a sense of belonging, of being valued and of being worthy. As an average school student who lacked a certain amount of confidence in the outside world, such attention was eagerly accepted by me. Dungeness gave me many things - the birding experience, camaraderie, a place of refuge from 'normal life', a chance to express myself and somewhere that I belonged. It was special. It was mine.

Mine. A possessive idea, that a place becomes so much a part of 'you' that you yourself become a part of 'it'. I used to bristle with pride when other birders knowingly referred to me as one of the 'Dungeness' boys.... it's that thing about belonging I suppose.

But after a while - after quite a few years - I drifted away from Dungeness. I grew up. Became independent. Birding took a back seat. But Dungeness was still a part of me, was still a special place, still had a hold. I still wanted to - no, needed to - be identified with it. After all, we were a part of each other, weren't we? Even if I might not regularly visit, there was that bond that held us together, at least in my mind. I might not be there, but in some ways I still was in my mind, maybe even spiritually.

For a while, things got a little dark... If I heard about a good bird, a great fall or a superb sea watch, it hurt. Even though I hadn't made the effort to go there myself, it was as if Dungeness was punishing me for not being there, mocking me for my infidelity. On the rare occasions when I did visit, nothing happened bird wise. But what was worse - much worse - was that there were all of these new birders who were calling Dungeness their special patch! Hold on, it was mine! These people didn't even recognise me as being a part of the scene, therefore I was not a part of the place. It was as if I had been airbrushed out of history, removed from the historical record. I can look back now a see how ludicrous my thinking was, but at the time it sent me into a tailspin.

"We are of our time". A friend said this to me one day, nothing to do with birding. It got me thinking (not always a good thing). I could see what he was getting at. He was alluding to our place in life and the timing of that life. "I saw a three-minute film clip of newsworthy moments," he carried on, "and realised that I remembered them all, from the assassination of JFK to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was like watching a resume of my time on Earth. I looked over at my son who was also watching it, and was aware that he wouldn't have identified with a single item. It wasn't of his time at all".

We are of our time.... Dungeness.... I started to make sense of this 'belonging' thing.

A couple of years ago, when I was staying at Dungeness Bird Observatory, I met an elderly man who's name I cannot now recall. In conversation with him, it transpired that he had acted as an assistant warden there one summer in the late 1950s. He positively glowed about that time and it was obvious that Dungeness was a special place to him. He felt as if he belonged. And he did - it was just that 'our' special times didn't overlap. We could both wander the shingle, blissfully unaware of each other, (or of each others thoughts about the place), and neither was less worthy or less belonging than the other. We were of our time. And there are others wandering Dungeness with such thoughts as these, all with their reference points seated in the 1960s, the 1990s or in 2014. All belonging, all worthy, all of their time.

For too long my perception of 'belonging' was tied up with the need of acceptance from the (whoever were the then) current Dungeness birding community - be they the residents, the big Kent hitters or those employed to warden and manage the wildlife of the peninsula. Sure, it's still good to get the thumbs-up from some of them some of the time. But my Dungeness - my special Dungeness - exists between 1976 - 1979. It is when my love affair with the place was forged. And today's Dungeness is a very different place, one which I most probably appreciate even more than I did back then. That time is never coming back, but it doesn't need to. It was of its time. It served its purpose. It lives in my mind and will always be cherished.

If you've read this far, thank you for persevering. This blog is cheaper than paying for therapy...


Gavin Haig said…
There are the 'went there, saw that' kind, and then there are those a bit harder to classify - like this one!
I know which I prefer.
Nice one Steve.
Steve Gale said…
Many thanks Gavin. I thought the same about NQS...
Holty303 said…
Hi Steve, great bit of thought/blog. I wonder if this could be a chapter in the Steve Gale 'nature writing' book I am looking forward to reading.

Best Wishes,

Paul Trodd said…
Steve, top blogging and spot on. I can relate to your subject matter having had a similar retrospective birding affection, and sense of belonging, to Cley/Salthouse from 1968-72 when I virtually lived there before going away to sea. In the same vein I find the same with pubs; mine was The Cross, in Maple Cross, Hertfordshire, the village I grew up in, where for four or five years I had the time of my life and knew everyone there; return ten years on however and the people have largely changed and it `feels` different - its` no longer `yours`. As for Dunge, I can fully appreciate your affection for the place, as I`m lucky enough to live here where it now gives me not only a sense of belonging, but also the opportunity to mix with like-minded souls - and believe you me Dunge certainly attracts some eccentric and talented naturalist/birders - keep on blogging, Paul
Steve Gale said…
A book? You can be my agent then Paul...
Steve Gale said…
Thanks Paul - we appear to think along similar lines a lot of the time! I'm down at the obs for a week (or two) as from Sunday. Would love to join you and Barney for a wander along Mockbeggar one morning - it's a part of the area I don't know very well.
Paul Trodd said…
Brilliant, I`ll look forward to it

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