Guest blog by author and journalist, Tessa Boase
Etta Lemon is some ancestor to lay claim to. The woman who built the early RSPB was fierce, uncompromising, obsessive and driven. She was nicknamed ‘The Dragon’ – but also, in softer mode, she was known as ‘Mother of the Birds’. A Victorian director of the Natural History Museum once hid down a stairwell rather than face Etta Lemon over some bird protection failure. She was that kind of woman. She got things done.
Portrait of Margaretta Lemon, founding member of the RSPB – (rspb-images.com)
Etta was militant from an early age, calling out the fashion for feathers in church in the 1880s, naming and shaming any women wearing ‘bird hats’. Later, as Honorary Secretary of the new Society for the Protection of Birds (1889) she took her crusade out onto the high street and into the department store. Together with co-founders Emily Williamson and Eliza Phillips, Etta Lemon drove her campaign against ‘murderous millinery’ all the way up to Parliament – and returned victorious. The Plumage Act kicked in on 1 July 1921, spelling an end to the voracious trade in bird skins and ‘fancy feathers’. This July, the RSPB celebrates that landmark centenary.
But until my book Etta Lemon was published, Hannah Lemon had heard nothing about her great, great, great aunt, the pioneering eco activist. To be fair, hardly anybody had. Now that Hannah is aware of the connection, she’s musing on Etta’s family legacy. Does a passion for nature pass through the generations? In the case of RSPB founder Emily Williamson, this has turned out to be the case. Emily’s great, great niece, Dr Melissa Bateson, is a starling scientist. What about Hannah?
Hannah Lemon, 30, lives in North London with her partner Jordan and 60 houseplants. She has always had a keen eye for nature. Her father, Tim Lemon (a source of many Etta anecdotes and pictures) told me his daughter was born with an uncanny ability to find the smallest bird or insect. Hannah has put her sharp eyes to good use: she’s a photographer. But when lockdown struck last spring, she found herself unable to work. Her normal busy schedule of travel and events was cancelled. Life contracted, and her mental health began to suffer. Like so many, she felt anxious.
But Etta Lemon’s descendent is, fortunately, made of sterner stuff. Hannah looked at a map of her neighbourhood, and was surprised to find how green it was. There was even a park – Brent Park – with a pond, ‘right next to the thundering North Circular’. It was this pond, and the wildlife it sustains, that kept her sane through lockdown.
Robin perched on a branch – Hannah Lemon Photography
Taking her camera, Hannah began to visit it every day. ‘I’d never really looked at the nature on my doorstep,’ she told me. ‘Brent pond is small, but it’s rich in wildlife. There are herons, egrets, coots and jays. It’s a surprisingly peaceful place.’ Spotting a pair of swans building a nest, she took to watching them every day. ‘Just as we were being confined to our own homes, two swans were building theirs. Nature was not going into lockdown.’
It turned out that others were watching the swans too, and they started chatting. This was the first time in six years, since moving to London, that Hannah Lemon had chatted to strangers: ‘Not a sad, scary conversation about the Coronavirus, but positive, happy chat about the birdlife on the pond, and about the swans. Our swans.’
Her anxiety lifted. She found herself waking up excited for that one permitted daily exercise activity.
The swans, a mute swan and eight cygnet – Hannah Lemon Photography
‘I knew nothing about swans,’ she says. ‘I imagined them as quite dangerous and territorial. I didn’t know that they mate for life, and are capable of expressing great tenderness towards each other and their young. I found out online that they might lay seven to eight eggs, and that only two might survive to adulthood.’ Hannah assumed that only the female swan would sit on the nest – but then she saw them swapping nest duties, ‘giving each other a break.’ She noticed how they would stand up and look tenderly at their eggs, using their beaks to rearrange them.
Soon there was a local Whatsapp group, sharing news and pictures of the swans. But Hannah was the first to see the eggs hatch. She’d woken that morning, 17 May 2020, with a feeling. ‘I rushed to the park – and there were two wet cygnets, newly hatched, and one breaking out of its shell. The male swan was looking at me as if to say “Now! This is the moment!”.’ A heron was watching the hatchlings from its perch on a tree; the parents circled around protectively. Seven cygnets emerged.
By mid-summer, when lockdown lifted, the swan family disappeared. ‘It felt almost as if they’d been there to entertain us,’ says Hannah, ‘and now life had got back to normal.’ She missed them. But this winter, during the next lockdown, she went to photograph the snow around the pond – and saw the adult pair. They had returned.
Hannah’s photographs are testimony to the rewards of watching nature closely. It’s something that her great, great, great aunt Etta, living in a far slower age, would have understood.
‘The swan family brought me so much joy last year,’ Hannah says. ‘I would love to keep that feeling in my life. No matter how busy I get, I want to still appreciate the small details of nature.’
Mute swan fluffing feathers during winter – Hannah Lemon Photography
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