Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah

May 15, 2018
Photo by:
Laurence Rose

“Over there behind those trees is the most extensive area of scrap metal yards in Europe” said Steve Ely, poet

Nine poems inspired by one rare bird

“Over there behind those trees is the most extensive area of scrap metal yards in Europe” said Steve Ely, poet, academic and birdwatcher, to remind us that Carlton Marsh, Cudworth, despite appearances, is an authentic piece of post-industrial real estate.  That’s important because what drew us there, some fifteen or so of us, was the willow tit, a bird described by Steve as “nowadays a bird of old colliery sites, dismantled railways and canals.”

Steve Ely by Laurence Rose

We were on the first of the season’s poetry walks run by the Ted Hughes Project (South Yorkshire).  It was also the launch of Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah, Steve’s single-poet, single-species pamphlet, dedicated to the bird he first encountered in 1979 (an encounter memorialised in one of the nine poems, titled, therefore, ‘1979’).

Carlton Marsh, South Yorkshire by Laurence Rose

The willow tit has not always been associated with such places; that is, the remnants of lost industry, although it has always inhabited wet, wooded areas rich in insects and a supply of half-rotten tree trunks in which to excavate a nest.  ‘Post industrial’ is human speak for what a willow tit might call ‘that’ll do nicely’.  Speculating on what a willow tit might actually be saying when he (the males do the singing) says Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah is the subject of poem number 6 – ‘The Song of the Willow Tit’

The willow tit has suffered a reduction in its numbers in Britain of 94% since 1995, and a 50% contraction it its range.  As we walked along a former railway, raised above the surrounding marsh, Pete Wall and Sophie Pinder of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust explained that the wetland was excavated only a few years ago, almost instantly bringing a lushness and natural diversity to the area.  Under a national species recovery programme called Back from the Brink, Sophie is part of a local team responsible for willow tit habitat management in the Dearne Valley.  She is one of over thirty project officers dedicated to restoring the fortunes of 200 of England’s highest conservation priorities, from the pine marten to the narrow-headed ant.

Willow tit by Laurence Rose

The first reed warblers of the year provided a sonic backdrop with their rhythmic rasping song; blackcaps’ mellow but tuneless warble, and chiffchaffs spiky pulse completed the accompaniment to Steve’s nine readings.  Inspired as they are by one small bird, nevertheless they riff on subjects as diverse as the former coalfields’ heroin problem, the evils of capitalism, and Plenty Coup, chief of the Crow nation who wore a chickadee (the North American version of the willow tit) plaited into his hair. The willow tit, appropriately enough, contributed its silence, as unfortunately did Ted Hughes’s swifts, making us wait a few more days for confirmation that the globe’s still working. 

Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah is published by Wild West Press, an imprint of the Ted Hughes Project (South Yorkshire)​

Back from the Brink is a programme run by this partnership of eight conservation organisations and nine main funders.  Under the programme willow tit work is carried out by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and the RSPB.

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