Walter Murray: An Unacknowledged English Nature Mystic

A guest post by Tom Wareham

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Walter Murray: Nature Writer

It would be difficult for anyone who loves the writing of Richard Jefferies to have missed the recent boom in Nature writing in the UK. Following the path of Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin, we have benefitted from the work of some brilliant and thought-provoking writers, like Robert Macfarlane, Rob Cowen and Michael McCarthy – to name just a few. All of these express a growing concern about both the threat to Nature and our relationship with it. Richard Jefferies, of course, ranks as one of the great pioneers in exploring this latter point, and his work continues to inspire new writers. But in the earlier 20th century there were others, often unacknowledged. One of these was Walter J C Murray. If you have come across Murray it is most likely to be because of his book Copsford, first published in 1948. It is his most memorable work and was republished several times, the last being in 1986, the year after his death. But it was not his only work, and a study of all his books reveals how much Murray was a Nature Mystic like Jefferies.

Walter Murray was born in Seaford in East Sussex in 1900. His father was a clergyman and school master: (typically we know nothing of his mother). Murray appears to have served in the merchant navy at the end of WW1, and then made his way to London to try and earn a living as a journalist. He found little enthusiasm for the sort of hack-work he was given, recalling : “…my heart was not in it. I was of the country. I could not dip my pen in the life-blood of the city streets. I needed the very song of the shadow-dappled brook to write, with the sound of wild wings in my ears and the scent of wild flowers in my nostrils.”

Part of the problem was that he also loathed the environment of the big city. In particular he hated his bed-sit in Pimlico, “that third-floor-back with its tiny gas fire, its naked electric light and its distressing view.” A few pages later he again remembered that “appalling view of roofs and chimneys and slum yards.” Desperate to escape, he fled from London and sought sanctuary in a derelict and isolated cottage in the Sussex countryside. His description of his first visit to his prospective new home, gives us a clear indication of his intentions: “There was rain in the wind now, and the sky was as grey and sad as ever, yet there was something magical in this lonely countryside with its rough pastures, its unkempt hedges, snowy with ragged blackthorn, its woodlands hazy green, its winding brooks…..As I looked at the view from the top of the hill I thought of summer days. Through the grey curtains of rain that were now drawing across the wooded landscape I saw in imagination, summer blue, when all the shimmering countryside would be at my very door…I saw the possibility of doing what it had often been my great desire to do, to live alone and at one with Nature.

For the following year Murray lived in relative seclusion and isolation, spending his time by writing and collecting herbs for dispatch to London. In some ways, he seems to have replicated the experience of Thoreau a century earlier, observing at one stage “…simplification is, I believe, what millions are a-seeking, particularly in the appreciation of life and beauty.” Certainly over the course of the year Murray drew closer and closer to Nature. This observation, for example, was inspired early on a June morning: “It sometimes happens, at rare moments in our lives, we are suddenly aware of an altogether new world, different completely from that in which we commonly live. We feel as though we stand at the threshold of an undiscovered kingdom; for brief moments we understand life interpreted, we perceive meaning instead of things. In those golden minutes I understood every word on a single page of the magic book of life inscribed in a language neither written nor spoken. There was sublime tranquillity in the level white mists of the valley, a symphony like the ascending melodies of Greig in the sun rays that climbed aslant the hill, a quiet strength in the stillness of the trees, a brotherhood of life in all living things. I was no longer a single life pushing a difficult way amidst material things, I was part of all creation…It was a baptism into a saner way of living and thinking. The soreness of the slave-collar was salved. It was an outward and visible sign of my inward awareness of at-one-ment.”

Readers of The Story of My Heart will recognise what Murray is referring to here. But Murray also records a change in his relationship with Nature during the course of the year. At one point he describes his search for the herb centaury: “The search for it… sent me far and wide through deep woods and forest rides, into flowery clearings and bracken-clothed commons. I was no longer a fellow of the open lanes and hedgerows, I became a denizen of the woods. I travelled by spinney and copse, through shaw and forgotten corduroy, at first because there I expected to find my herbs, but later because I became secretive and shy. Living so close to the wild, almost instinctively I copied creatures of the wild. I travelled swiftly, silently and unseen. I learned woodland behaviour, I heard woodland sounds.” And in a most telling comment he refers to himself as a ‘Green Man’, signifying consciously or unconsciously, a mystical connection with the mythical being of the medieval period.

He also describes the transformation or transcendence that overtook him. : “…at Copsford there were seasons when time almost stood still, and I too learnt to be still. At first I was restless, miserable, a gnawing discontent tried to eat my heart out, and if I had not been blessed with an inborn love of the countryside it would have succeeded. But I slowly learned to stand and stare. The leaven was working. I not only stood and not only stared, but I began to see. I saw lovely things and rare things…saw the play of light across meadow and wood, saw a shaft of sunlight fill a spring-green copse till it glowed as though the glory of the Light of the World dwelled within. I caught an occasional glimpse of the intricate and complex pattern of life, and once or twice, as fleeting as the rainbow-flash from a trembling dewdrop, I perceived that all these things were but the external signs of a kingdom such as I had never dreamed of; that these colours were as a drop-curtain which, while it might never rise to disclose the stage within, grew transparent before my wondering eyes.

Murray had been permitted entry to the kingdom of Nature. But after a year he was driven out of the cottage by persistent and torrential rain. He had overcome loneliness, depression and the deep snow of a freezing winter, but the derelict state of the cottage offered no protection from penetrating rain, and the year at Copsford came to a soggy end. Not that Murray was depressed about the outcome. On the contrary Murray, who kept extensive notes throughout the year, was noticeably up-beat about the whole experience, and later found that it had a major influence over the rest of his life. In one of his later books he noted of Copsford: ‘Far from forgetting that freedom of meadow and marsh which I had enjoyed I was frequently almost overpowered by a desire to return to it. I longed for the smell of crushed mint in my nostrils, for the hum of insects and the song of birds in my ears, for the close contact with nature that I had experienced. Instead I had to be content with the briefest visits to the woods and streams, with the shortest of holidays among the hills, and from this occasional communion to renew health and strength and try to satisfy my heart.’

Many readers of Copsford are themselves captivated and haunted by the book. It is not just that Murray recreates for us an experience of drawing close to Nature for which we yearn, it is also the fact that he does not have to go to a distant ‘wilderness’ to achieve it. One of the great charms of Copsford is that it presents the ability to find solitude, beauty and a deep communion with nature much nearer at hand, in the English countryside. It is a book with a small but devoted following.

If we were to have to rely solely on Copsford as evidence for Murray’s Nature Mysticism, we might be on weak ground. Fortunately, as I suggested earlier, although Murray was not a prolific writer, this was not his only published work, nor was it his first. By the late 1930s, Murray had already become established as a broadcaster on the BBC Home Service, giving a range of talks on the natural world. At some point he met and began working with L Hugh Newman, (a renowned lepidopterist) and also Peter Scott. In 1944, he submitted the manuscript of his first book to the publishers Allen and Unwin. The book was later titled Nature’s Undiscovered Kingdom, and it consisted of thirteen essays about wildlife and habitat. Almost the first comment made by the reader appointed by Allen & Unwin to evaluate the manuscript, was that it reminded him of the work of Richard Jefferies. This is not surprising, for the work contains many observations about communion with Nature which would have been recognised by Jefferies. For example, this observation on seeing a mountain beck after heavy rain: On seeing a mountain beck after heavy rain: “It was a living thing. The sun shone, and the water leapt into the mountain air a-sparkle of foam and spray…I was translated. It was the river of life, water, the superlative allegory; in the cloud, the raindrop, in the beck, the lake, in the ocean, in a myriad forms yet all one. Life in the heather, in the fish, the bird, in the lamb, in man, in a myriad forms, yet all one, one and the same with the source of all life.
        But I knew more than that in that ecstatic hour. The water and the life are one. No thing, animate or inanimate, can exist outside the mind of the Creator. I could enter into the waterfall, even as the tumbling water swept through me, not in prosaic fact, but in spirit and in truth. The breast of the mountain quivers, the spray blows in my face, the foam washes my feet; I shout aloud for pure joy.

View from E towards Copsford Hill, cottage to left of trees in centre - Copy (2)

View towards Copsford Hill

But Nature’s Undiscovered Kingdom was not just a book of nature observation, it was an appeal for reconnection with Nature itself. “All that I have written in this little book goes to show that every one of us, at almost any time, in almost any place can with a little trying, a little quiet contemplation, find kinship with all creation, maybe in the garden, or in the wood, on the moor, by the waterfall, among the mountains. But…most of us are blunted to that fuller understanding of nature; and perhaps only by such simple experience as that of watching birds from a hide, shall we discover a kingdom, and learn the first words of its language.

Furthermore, anticipating a very modern concern, Murray was also calling for a change of attitude. In the introduction to the book he stated clearly, “Man lives his own life, goes his own way, and sees well-nigh nothing of the teeming life around him, and, when he does, only in relation to himself. Man has striven against the life of the wild so long that he no longer understands its expression, like an old man who no longer understands the life of little children.
The world of wild life is like the world of music, full of haunting melodies and rich harmonies, charged with messages for the spirit; yet to a man, to whose ear music means nothing, a symphony is no more than a noise, meaningless and interfering. In like manner the world of wild life has become meaningless, without melody or harmony. Man has been so long wrestling with nature that he has quite forgotten that Life is common to all living things, and that he plays but his part in expressing it.
       Man is so concerned over his own affairs, that he can only see other expressions of life in the light of and in relation to, his own. He fails to see that all the other expressions of life around him have a way of life wholly different from his. Yet he puts his constructions, his ideals, his sentiments, his conjectures, his fancies, as interpretations of their behaviour. But he is so often mistaken that the inner understanding of wild life is hidden from him.

Two years after the publication of Nature’s Undiscovered Kingdom, Allen & Unwin also published Copsford. The latter received mixed reviews but was snapped up by the Readers Union as its book choice for 1950, which considerably boosted its sales and readership. In 1953 Murray’s third book, A Sanctuary Planted, was published. The book recounts the creation of a wildlife sanctuary during the dark years of World War II. The sanctuary was intended to emphasise life and renewal at a time of so much death and destruction; but it was also an appeal. Anticipating a very current concern, Murray opined – ‘The countryside is continually being invaded by the town and the townsman. Thousands of acres a year are overlaid with city and town, suburb and prefab., roads and railways, bungalow and amusement park. Unique habitats are destroyed, common and forest razed to the ground, and the living space of wild things for ever compressed. We must reserve. We must secure sanctuaries, no matter how small. They will be oases in the desert, and to them living things will come for life’s sake.’ It could almost be the inspiration for the RSPB’s ‘Giving Nature a Home’ campaign.

A Sanctuary Planted is in many ways a less satisfactory book than the other two, but it is still valuable as a source for Murray’s philosophical ideas, which tend to be inserted into the narrative with the minimum of fuss. In fact, Murray was never strident about his thoughts, and the reader has to pick carefully through all of his works to tease this out.

In the early 1950s, Murray produced three more books, co-written with L Hugh Newman. Unfortunately, these are less valuable, as a source for Murray’s mysticism since it is almost impossible to identify his contributions. In a rather sad twist of fate, Allen & Unwin rejected all of Murray’s later works and only Romney Marsh – a whimsical guide cum travelogue – was published in 1953, by Hale.

The paucity of Murray’s work, however, should not detract from the fact that he was both an excellent and respected naturalist, and an important Nature Mystic who deserves to be better recognised.

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Tom Wareham is currently researching the life and work of Walter Murray and would be pleased to hear from anyone in that connection. He can be contacted through his website http://www.tomwareham.com

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The Hard Craft of Writing

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Pevensey Castle, on a visit in November 2011

Rebecca Welshman

I am currently redrafting my first novel and it is a lengthy arduous process. When you are told that the first draft is not right and you have to return to it and come up with something new, and repeat this process, it takes its toll. I was warned that it would be difficult, but you don’t appreciate how difficult until you are in the midst of it.

 

Richard Jefferies understood how difficult it was to perfect your craft as a writer. He spend years drafting and redrafting his novels. His essays did not seem to cause him so much trouble as he was able to edit The Gamekeeper and Home, Wild Life in a Southern County, and The Amateur Poacher from their serialised versions into book form quite rapidly. Fiction writing did not come so easily to Jefferies, and he experimented with attempts in sensation fiction in the early 1870s before finding a reliable fiction voice.

 

But it wasn’t just his fiction writing that troubled Jefferies. He refers to The Story of My Heart as being the record of seventeen years’ thought and feeling. In his notes, and in the text itself, he alludes to trying to compose the book earlier in life, at a spot by the River Churn in Cirencester, and later at Pevensey Castle in Sussex, in 1880:

 

“It happened just afterwards that I went to Pevensey, and immediately the ancient wall swept my mind back seventeen hundred years to the eagle, the pilum, and the short sword. The grey stones, the thin red bricks laid by those whose eyes had seen Caesar’s Rome, lifted me out of the grasp of houselife, of modern civilization, of those minutiae which occupy the moment. The grey stone made me feel as if I had existed from then till now, so strongly did I enter into and see my own life as if reflected. My own existence was focussed back on me; I saw its joy, its unhappiness, its birth, its death, its possibilities among the infinite, above all its yearning Question. Why? Seeing it thus clearly, and lifted out of the moment by the force of seventeen centuries, I recognised the full mystery and the depth of things in the roots of the dry grass on the wall, in the green sea flowing near. Is there anything I can do?”

 

In his notes for The Story of My Heart Jefferies writes that he had burned all previous attempts ‘in anger or despair’, but in 1880, after visiting Pevensey Castle, he made notes which he kept and from which developed the finished manuscript. In the book he describes his thoughts and feelings on entering the site and being surrounded by the Roman wall:

 

“The mystery and the possibilities are not in the roots of the grass, nor is the depth of things in the sea; they are in my existence, in my soul. The marvel of existence, almost the terror of it, was flung on me with crushing force by the sea, the sun shining, the distant hills. With all their ponderous weight they made me feel myself: all the time, all the centuries made me feel myself this moment a hundred-fold. I determined that I would endeavour to write what I had so long thought of, and the same evening put down one sentence. There the sentence remained two years. I tried to carry it on; I hesitated because I could not express it: nor can I now, though in desperation I am throwing these rude stones of thought together, rude as those of the ancient wall.”

 

Throughout history, Pevensey was the site of struggle and capture. Knowledge of its long sieges, starving inhabitants for weeks at a time, caught the imagination of poets and authors. For Jefferies, who borrowed from the Romantic tradition of celebrating heroes and their conquering prowess, the historical fight for freedom translated into a fight for liberty in expression; a personal fight to free the mind from the oppression of engrained social, political and spiritual structures and discover new territory. (from my thesis: https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/bitstream/handle/10871/10921/WelshmanR.pdf?sequence=2)

 

Just how hard the struggle got we will never know. But something of Jefferies’ anguish can be discerned from the record he leaves us in The Story of my Heart of the difficulty of self-expression in a world that seems indifferent to your efforts. In the late 1870s, on a walk to Beachy Head, he pondered what he describes as ‘the bitter question’:

 

“Time went on; good fortune and success never for an instant deceived me that they were in themselves to be sought; only my soul-thought was worthy. Further years bringing much suffering, grinding the very life out; new troubles, renewed insults, loss of what hard labour had earned, the bitter question: Is it not better to leap into the sea?”

 

What was the reward of struggling and striving to produce things that people seemed to have no interest in reading? Jefferies could hardly have been consoled by the poor sales figures of The Story of My Heart when it was published in 1883, and the scathing reviews in the press. Yet, this did not deter him, as he resolved to rework the book and produce something larger and more comprehensive. He says that he ‘regrets’ not having written about his difficulties – ‘to give expression to this passion’ – and that The Story of My Heart, so many years later, is ‘in part’ this expression. Although the book was a failure on publication it went on to become the most successful of any of his books, being reprinted sixteen times between 1891 and 1922. Jefferies could not have anticipated the reception of his ideas, and he died in 1887 without knowing that his efforts had not been in vain.

 

Writing requires belief in the value of the idea and belief in your own ability as a writer to carry it through. Jefferies may have been ahead of his time but he never gave up the fight for creative expression.

THE ROOKS’ ARMY

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Rooks arriving at roost, credit David Tipling in Norfolkmag.co.uk

Simon Coleman

Here is a fine study by Jefferies of the behaviour of rooks en masse, from ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’ (1879). His close observations of their habits eventually lead him to conclude that they, like humans, have their own history etched into the landscape.

“As evening approaches, and the rooks begin to wing their way homewards, sometimes a great number of them will alight upon the steep ascent close under the entrenchment on the downs which has been described, and from whence the wood and beech trees where they sleep can be seen. They do not seem so much in search of food, of which probably there is not a great deal to be found in the short, dried-up herbage and hard soil, as to rest here, half-way home from the arable fields. Sometimes they wheel and circle in fantastic flight over the very brow of the down, just above the rampart; occasionally, in the raw cold days of winter, they perch, moping in disconsolate mood, upon the bare branches of the clumps of trees on the ridge.

After the nesting time is over and they have got back to their old habits—which during that period are quite reversed —it is a sight to see from hence the long black stream in the air steadily flowing onwards to the wood below. They stretch from here to the roosting-trees, fully a mile and a half— literally as the crow flies; and backwards in the opposite direction the line reaches as far as the eye can see. It is safe to estimate that the aerial army’s line of march extends over quite five miles in one unbroken corps. The breadth they occupy in the atmosphere varies—now twenty yards, now fifty, now a hundred, on an average, say fifty yards; but rooks do not fly very close together, like starlings, and the mass, it may be observed, fly on the same plane. Instead of three or four layers one above the other, the greater number pass by at the same height from the ground, side by side on a level, as soldiers would march upon a road: not meaning, of course, an absolute, but a relative level. This formation is more apparent from an elevation—as it were, up among them—than from below; and looking along their line towards the distant wood it is like glancing under a black canopy.

Small outlying parties straggle from the line—now on one side, now on the other; sometimes a few descend to alight on trees in the meadows, where doubtless their nests were situated in the spring. For it is a habit of theirs months after the nesting is over, and also before it begins, to pay a flying visit to the trees in the evening, calling en route to see that all is well and to assert possession.

The rustling sound of these thousands upon thousands of wings beating the air with slow steady stroke can hardly be compared to anything else in its weird oppressiveness, so to say: it is a little like falling water, but may be best likened, perhaps, to a vast invisible broom sweeping the sky. Every now and then a rook passes with ragged wing—several feathers gone, so that you can see daylight through it; sometimes the feathers are missing from the centre, leaving a great gap, so that it looks as if the bird had a large wing on this side and on the other two narrow ones. There is a rough resemblance between these and the torn sails of some of the old windmills which have become dark in colour from long exposure to the weather, and have been rent by the storms of years. Rooks can fly with gaps of astonishing size in their wings, and do not seem much incommoded by the loss—caused, doubtless, by a charge of shot in the rook shooting, or by the small sharp splinters of flint with which the birdkeepers sometimes load their guns, not being allowed to use shot.

Near their nesting-trees their black feathers may be picked up by dozens in the grass; they beat them out occasionally against the small boughs, and sometimes in fighting. If seen from behind, the wings of the rook, as he spreads them and glides, slowly descending, preparatory to alighting, slightly turn up at the edges like the rim of a hat, but much less curved. From a distance as he flies he appears to preserve a level course, neither rising nor falling; but if observed nearer it will be seen that with every stroke of the wings the body is lifted some inches, and sinks as much immediately after-wards.

As the black multitude floats past overhead with deliberate, easy flight, their trumpeters and buglemen, the jackdaws— two or three to every company—utter their curious chuckle; for the jackdaw is a bird which could not keep silence to save his life, but must talk after his fashion, while his grave, solemn companions move slowly onwards, rarely deigning to “caw” him a reply. But away yonder at the wood, above the great beech trees, where so vast a congregation is gathered together, there is a mighty uproar and commotion: a seething and bubbling of the crowds, now settling on the branches, now rising in sable clouds, each calling to the other with all his might, the whole population delivering its opinions at once.

It is an assemblage of a hundred republics. We know how free states indulge in speech with their parliaments and congresses and senates, their public meetings, and so forth: here are a hundred such nations, all with perfect liberty of tongue, holding forth unsparingly, and in a language which consists of two or three syllables indefinitely repeated. The din is wonderful—each republic as its forces arrive adding to the noise, and for a long time unable to settle upon their trees, but feeling compelled to wheel around and discourse. In spring each tribe has its special district, its own canton and city, in its own trees away in the meadows. Later on they all meet here in the evening. It is a full hour or more before the orations have all been delivered, and even then small bands rush up into the air still dissatisfied.

This great stream of rooks passing over the hills meets another great stream as it approaches the wood, crossing up from the meadows. From the rampart there may be seen, perhaps a mile and a half away, a dim black line crossing at right angles—converging on the wood, which itself stands on the edge of the tableland from which the steeper downs arise. This second army is every whit as numerous, as lengthy, and as regular in its route as the first.

Every morning, from the beech trees where they have slept, safe at that elevation from all the dangers of the night, there set out these two vast expeditionary corps. Regularly, the one flies steadily eastwards over the downs; as regularly the other flies steadily northwards over the vale and meadows. Doubtless in different country districts their habits in this respect vary; but here it is always east and always north. If any leave the wood for the south or the west, as probably they do, they go in small bodies and are quickly lost sight of. The two main divisions sail towards the sunrise and towards the north star.

They preserve their ranks for at least two miles from the wood; and then gradually first one and then another company falls out, and wheeling round, descends upon some favourite field, till by degrees, spreading out like a fan, the army melts away. In the evening, the various companies, which may by that time have worked far to the right or to the left, gradually move into line. By-and-by the vanguard comes sweeping up, and each regiment rises from the meadow or the hill, and takes its accustomed place in the return journey.

So that although if you casually observe a flock of rooks in the daytime they seem to wander hither and thither just as fancy leads, or as they are driven by passers-by, in reality they have all their special haunts; they adhere to certain rules, and even act in concert, thousands upon thousands of them at once, as if in obedience to the word of command, and as if aware of the precise moment at which to move. They have their laws, from which there is no deviation: they are handed down unaltered from generation to generation. Tradition, indeed, seems to be their main guide, as it is with savage human tribes. They have their particular feeding-grounds; and so you may notice that, comparing ten or a dozen fields, one or two will almost always be found to be frequented by rooks while the rest are vacant.

Here, for instance, is a meadow close to a farmstead—what is usually called the home-field, from its proximity to a house — here day after day rooks alight and spend hours in it, as much at their ease as the nag or the lambs brought up by hand. Another field, at a distance, which to the human eye appears so much more suitable, being retired, quiet, and apparently quite as full of food, is deserted; they scarcely come near it. The home-field itself is not the attraction, because other home-fields are not so favoured.

The tenacity with which rooks cling to localities is often illustrated near great cities where buildings have gradually closed in around their favourite haunts. Yet on the small waste spots covered with cinders and dust-heaps, barren and unlovely, the rooks still alight; and you may see them, when driven up from such places, perching on the telegraph wires over the very steam of the locomotives as they puff into the station.
I think that neither considerations of food, water, shelter, nor convenience are always the determining factors in the choice made by birds of the spots they frequent; for I have seen many cases in which all of these were evidently quite put on one side. Birds to ordinary observation seem so unfettered, to live so entirely without rhyme or reason, that it is difficult to convey the idea that the precise contrary is really the case.

Returning to these two great streams of rooks, which pour every evening in converging currents from the north and east upon the wood; why do they do this ? Why not go forth to the west, or to the south, where there are hills and meadows and streams in equal number ? Why not scatter abroad, and return according to individual caprice ? Why, to go still further, do rooks manoeuvre in such immense numbers, and crows fly only in pairs ? The simple truth is that birds, like men, have a history. They are unconscious of it, but its accomplished facts affect them still and shape the course of their existence. Without doubt, if we could trace that history back, there are good and sufficient reasons why rooks prefer to fly, in this particular locality, to the east and to the north. Some¬thing may perhaps be learnt by examining the routes along which they fly.

The second division—that which goes northwards, after flying little more than a mile in a straight line—passes over Wick Farm, and disperses gradually in the meadows surrounding and extending far below it. The rooks whose nests are placed in the elms of the Warren belong to this division, and, as their trees are the nearest to the great central roosting-place, they are the first to quit the line of march in the morning, descending to feed in the fields around their property. On the other hand, in the evening, as the army streams homewards, they are the last to rise and join the returning host.

So that there are often rooks in and about the Warren later in the evening, after those whose habitations are farther away have gone by, for, having so short a distance to fly, they put off the movement till the last moment. Before watches became so common a possession, the labouring people used, they say, to note the passage overhead of the rooks in the morning in winter as one of their signs of time, so regular was their appearance; and if the fog hid them, the noise from a thousand black wings and throats could not be missed.”