Kingfishers and the Meaning of Life

I have finally taken a photo of a kingfisher, and I decided to write about it, not knowing that it was the start of something way more meaningful than a simple photograph. Yet as a photo it still has pride of place in this post.   _DSC5146-002

Most mornings for the past 6 weeks I’ve swum in the river. And most mornings kingfishers have been my constant companions- a  kaleidoscope of colour streaking up and down the river with their familiar call, occasionally espied perched  on a branch, or swooping down to catch a fish. Occasionally I see more than one, sometimes chasing one another, and once a whole battle going on as (probably) the adults were chasing the fledged young off their territory.

As I write, I wonder why I haven’t been doing this all my life. I learnt to swim in Coniston Water, in the Lake District, an auspicious start, and then spent my teens pounding up and down the swimming baths, garnering house points.  But it was reading Roger Deakin’s  Wildwood, and then Waterlog, that gave me the desire for swimming in nature. And what a happy indirect consequence of moving to Devon and to this particular place that I can take a 5 minute walk and swim in the river with kingfishers.

The photo came about out of frustration really. About a week ago I was walking with Selkie over Staverton bridge, and stood watching a kingfisher dive off a branch, catch a fish, and swoop onto a rock. It sat there, maybe in a post-prandial way for what seemed like ages, and I was simply annoyed with  myself for not having a camera with me. So a few days later I set out with my camera, and with deliberation and hope on the same route. I saw a kingfisher from the bridge, but couldn’t get my camera out fast enough before it darted off. Losing hope but carrying on I walked on into North Woods, part of the Dartington Estate, where for a while I walked quite close to the river. And there it was, sitting on a branch, surrounded by dappled light shining through the leaves.  I’ve never seen a kingfisher in that spot before, and I only managed one shot before it flew off. But that was good enough for me.

Then something quite profound happened as I was writing about this. I’ve been reading a trilogy of books by a Franciscan nun, Ilia Delio. Not easy reading, she writes about scientific developments over the past century such as understanding matter as energy, and the interconnectedness of all life. She writes eloquently and hopefully about the possibility of living the way of Christ integrated with this new knowledge. Towards the end of the book I had noticed she quotes a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins that I know and resonate deeply with. The poem speaks to me of living out of our deepest Self, something I desire but seems to be a life-time’s struggle to achieve. But what I had forgotten completely, and what moved me to tears and left me with a profound sense of awe, when I re-read it, is how the poem starts.  Here is the poem:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells Stones ring;

like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came. 


I say more: the just man justices;

Keeps grace: that keeps all his going graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –

Christ – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces




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