There are House Martins nesting under the eaves of the tenements near my flat. I see them each morning and evening as I walk to and from work, swooping and flying above my head. I hear them too as they constantly call to one another, noisy in flight. A sound that helps to define my summer. It is a musical noise alongside the rumble of the traffic nearby and the bustle of the city.
Seeing, and hearing, these birds gives me great joy. Whenever I walk past that row of tenements, I crane my neck as I try to follow the fast flight of the birds above. I look too for the cupped nests that I know to be tucked up near the roofs of the tall tenements. Sometimes I am rewarded with the sight of a parent bird flying in to feed their youngsters. Sometimes I catch sight of small heads poking out of a nest, chirping for their parents.
But how many other people notice this life living alongside them, or register the summer’s chatter in the air above? Certainly, I see no-one else stopping and looking up as I do, so I suspect I am in the minority. Yet House Martins have likely nested here for generations of birds, and generations of humans.
These are nest sites that the birds return to year on year, so how long have house martins nested at these tenements? At well over one hundred years old, the tenements are ancient in bird years. It is possible, and perhaps very likely, that birds have been constructing their nests under the eaves of these buildings for almost as long as the buildings have been standing. So this is an ancient settlement, a place where generations upon generations of birds have raised their young. An historical, an archaeological, site in its own right. It is somewhere that the constructions of humans and birds meet and mould, and have been doing so for generations. It is a place of intersection.
For as those House Martin nests, attached to the tenements as they are, have become a part of the human-made buildings, those buildings have become a part of the House Martins. In a sense human-made and animal-made constructions have become almost indistinguishable. They are entangled. We are entangled. How amazing.
These are birds that have learnt to live with us, and to raise their families alongside us. By the 19th century House Martins had begun attaching their nests to buildings. By 1900 they had all but abandoned traditional nest sites on cliffs and elsewhere. Their lives had become dependent on ours. Even their name ‘House Martins’ speaks of this relationship. It is a bond that is long and intimate, a relationship that has come to define these little birds when they enter our air space. That naming, too, tells of an acknowledgement and celebration of the interrelationship between humans and birds.
But, despite this acknowledgement, we rarely think about the way in which past processes and past lives have affected the other creatures with which we share the earth. For as we have modified and changed the landscape, animals and birds have adapted and changed too. We have shaped these more-than-human lives. And they have shaped us too. For we are interrelated, not separated.
House Martins are not the only animal to have adapted to our human landscape. It is not just those we recognise as domesticated, those more obviously shaped by humans, but those who have quietly come to live alongside us, who have found a space with us and the places we construct. We recognise them, but do not always value them. They are there, but we do not always see them.
This is a long-standing affiliation. One that must have been recognised by those who came before us. For we have learned to live in partnership with far more birds and animals than we tend to acknowledge or recognise. As a species, humans have been living alongside, and with these more-than-human beings for as long as we have been around. They are part of our history. They are part of us. Their place in our human landscape is important. Our place in theirs is just as valuable and, at times, crucial.
Their sounds and their presence will have filled those human landscapes of the past as much as, if not more, than they do today. For I feel, in the city at least, we have become less aware of those creatures that fill our physical landscapes with their presence and our soundscapes with their cries. So many of us miss the richness of life around us or fail to recognise the part that the more-than-human world plays in our lives. Our narratives of the past often (though not always) miss this too. I wonder sometimes about the soundscapes and animal-scapes of the past. Of how much a part of life these aspects were. And how much richer our understandings of the past, as well as the present, would be if we could grasp them.
I wonder, too, about how much the lives of those in the past were shaped and altered by the birds and animals around. How much their understandings of the world were moulded by the presence of such creatures, by the soundscapes and visual-scapes they would have accepted as normal, as a part of life. For these things form, not just the backdrop to life, but the foreground too, shaping us and forming our understanding of the world and our place in it. What part have these creatures played in making us, us? Both as a human species and as particular groups of people. How have they affected past and present culture and understandings? Can we trace that in the archaeological remains, in the things we leave behind?
And how much are our lives today shaped by such interrelations? Shaped by the presence of wildlife around us, even as many of us are unconscious of this life and the sights and sounds that accompany it?
Perhaps it is only in the absence that we become aware.