March morning. Walking in the woods I heard
A hollow knocking, like Fate at the door
Beethoven-style. Hard looking flushed a bird,
Slate-grey-and-clotted-cream, who crept with sure
And certain stealth along a rot-racked limb
And, with his testing tapping, set the tree
Reverberating. I could have held him
Between my thumb and finger easily
And yet, he made a towering oak resound
And showed me that, small as we may appear,
When time and place are right, we too can sound
Like giants, with a voice all men can hear.
I’ll hammer on the world’s dead wood and make
A noise no-one can silence or mistake.


The nuthatch is one of my favourite woodland birds: small, not showy and rather tricky to spot, but seemingly able to defy gravity, running head-first down treetrunks and along the undersides of branches with perfect aplomb. This one was looking for insects in a big oak tree in our local woods; I could hear him tapping the bark with his beak from a hundred yards away.

20 thoughts on “Nuthatch

  1. Hi Nick,
    bravo, for this poem and for the nuthatch. (funny name!) “Like fate at the door, Beethoven style” 🙂 that’s great.

    I think I know the sound; I wouldn’t know what the bird looks like though.

    It is lovely to read this and see the woods and tree as you describe them vivdly, with a new dimension thanks to your words!


    • Thank you Ina – the reference is to the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. As I’m sure you know, legend has it that Beethoven explained this motif – one of the most famous in all of Western music – by saying ‘Thus Fate knocks at the door!’ However, others claim he was inspired by the song of the yellowhammer (another lovely bird name!) – which I didn’t actually know until I did a quick Google search just now, after writing the poem! And the woods are absolutely gorgeous just now. N. x

  2. Hi Nick,

    I was walking in the other day in Golden Acre Park when I saw what I thought were Treecreepers – real good fun to watch.

    Now, having read your poem I wonder if what I saw were Nuthatchs.

    Which is a reason to go back and walk in the park again so that I can check them out. 🙂


    • Treecreepers are great value; they’re like the Commandos of the bird world. Not as pretty as nuthatches, in my opinion, but just as much fun to watch. Whichever you see, I wish you joy of them! N.

  3. Nick,

    This is a truly fabulous poem and (how many times have I said this now???!) one of my favourites of yours.

    AND it totally negates (think that’s the correct word) what you said in your reply to my comment on your last poem.

    This says tons!!!!! And shows that we all have a voice worth listening to and also I think shows that we are able to garner strength from somewhere, both physically and emotionally, however small we may think we are and whatever “lemons” life deals us.

    And there is a bonus – I have had my nature lesson for the day! I have never heard of a Nuthatch; *ashamed look with head down* 🙂 They sound like the most amazing creatures – we can be amazing too if we want to be!!

    Christine xx

    • Thank you, Christine – nuthatches take some finding, but they’re well worth the trouble; beautiful little birds in their own quiet way, and seem able to cling on just about anywhere on a tree. Spiderman with feathers. You’ve got the ‘message’ absolutely; what appealed to me was the idea that this small, seemingly insignificant creature could fill a whole wood with his sound, just by being where he was. Really very heartening, especially in the light of recent thought processes! N.xx

  4. Quite a charming poem; I love the way you “follow” the nuthatch, seeing it clearly, building up to a crescendo, though I’m less enchanted by your wishing to copy it in human terms. What would this mean in human terms? I think the poem could turn away from that ambition towards a “reserve” of respect for the “otherness” of the bird, thus showing the poet’s gift is not to “hammer” but to judge the differences that make the world more than a subjective mirror for human desire. Is there room for such haiku-traditions (going back to the Chinese rivers-and-mountains poets) in your neck of the woods?

    • Thanks for your comment, Tom. I take the point about ‘otherness’; the bird is just doing what he’s doing, with no thought for any wider effect he may be having. He’s certainly not doing it for my or anyone else’s benefit! Maybe the nub of this lies in the fact that as human beings, we instinctly (and for good or ill) want what we say and do to have an impact on the world around us – and as writers, many of us feel we have a responsibility, if not a duty, to make connections and tell stories that the ‘dead wood’ we’re surrounded by simply doesn’t see or hear – and the only way to get it across is to hammer a bit! As to the haiku tradition: all kids in British schools get to write them, but I use the term advisedly; we’re taught that they have three lines, of five, seven and five syllables – and that’s about it. As long as a piece of writing satisfies those basic criteria, it’s a haiku. Which of course it isn’t, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion! I haven’t even dared to try, myself – it’s such an exacting form and, like playing the guitar, something almost everyone can do badly and almost no one can do well!

  5. I’ve been teaching haiku for over a decade now and each time I think to write one it’s not like anything else. But the key to haiku, and to the great tradition that it re-presents in boiled-down form, is the distinction between singular beings and the “other” out of which each singular being springs. The Chinese had a word for this “moment’ of appearing: tzu jan.
    You have a haiku-understanding of the nuthatch. To build a haiku from this understanding is to place that singular nuthatch into the strange light of its possible non-being — well, that’s one way to put it.
    This requires a lot of humility for the writer because that element which so places the singulars is often the simplest of phrases. Much of the poetry of a haiku by Basho doesn’t survive close translation, but you can see this structure here:
    the first cherries blooming: / right now, today / is such a fine day. (trans. Barnhill, Basho’s Haiku, a VERY good book.)
    You can see the difference between the single line — the first cherries blooming — which frames the singular in a repeated moment of the natural cycle (some call this the “vertical” element in the haiku because it points to cosmic order), and the personal expression. Together they move the reader to wonder and perplexity that this very “day” — such a fine one it is — should have happened at all.
    I wrote this today waiting for my wife to get out of a doctor’s appointment:

    the earth dark / under the flowering cherry — / spring begins.

    • Now that’s got me thinking, Tom! Fascinating, but very tricky. Let me see if I have this straight. We start from a single point; something that speaks of the natural order and cycle of living. Say, a bird on a branch. This is the ‘vertical element’ – birds are ‘meant’ to be on branches; it’s part of what they do. But then – and here I get a little hazy! – we find the ‘other’ that it comes from (the tzu jan) A personal expression, with a sense of wonder that it has happened at all.

      Nuthatch on a branch / After such a harsh winter / The sun feels good.

      So we have our singular – the nuthatch on his branch – and the otherness – the harsh winter, which he has clearly survived, but equally might not have done; his possible non-being as you put it. And on a very simple level, the sun does feel good on a spring day – to me, certainly and possibly to the bird (but we don’t and can’t know that!) Am I even close??!!

      I knew it would be hard – but not THIS hard..! Thank you for giving me something to ponder while I’m away; will let you know how I get on! N.

      • The “vertical” can appear at various spots in the structure, but it is “best” (this instead of a 1000 word treatise!) that it go in a single line. Haiku have two parts: the single line fragment and a double line narrative. So, to cut to the chase, “the sun feels good” would be your “vertical” because it is a “universal.” Life as we know it depends on the sun and in general it makes us feel good to feel the sun: there’s an aesthetics of sunlight that involve biology and other ways of perceiving life!
        Your “narrative” involves the bird sitting on a branch. Having broken it down that way, you can see you have work to do: what does the bird do? If you are talking about early spring, does the nuthatch do something different in early spring? Perhaps the song is different (sung for specific purposes).
        Can you draw a picture in two short lines of a nuthatch sunning itself? singing a spring song? YOu do want the two parts to “click” so that the reader FEELS something between himself and the bird, something not directly stated.

      • Ah, OK. Single-line fragment, double-line narrative/vertical = universal, narrative = singular. That’s a lot clearer now – thank you for explaining (and in less than 1,000 words!) But getting the two elements to work together in such a way that the reader ‘feels’ a connection with the subject – that, I can already see, is much harder to achieve. You’ve really whetted my appetite now: I shall work on this…N.

  6. Nick, Sorry I’ve been neglecting you for a short while, but the cancer treatments have been making it harder to keep up. I don’t understand why. The infusion treatments are not pleasant, but do not seem that difficult, but I get so tired that I struggle somedays. Only three more weeks to go, though.
    This sonnet is so good that it makes me want to get up out of this chair, go in the pygmy forest above our house, and sing my lungs out. Tom D’Evelyn’s comments are much more intelligent than mine will be. He is an outstanding philosopher in the realms of Poetry, but one thing I will say, this reader feels connected to this sonnet.
    Part of that connection comes from the universal experience of hearing a bird sing in the woods after a long winter. The song awakens something deep in human beings. I especially like the phrase from Beethoven: “like Fate at the door,” although I’d like to believe I too can
    … hammer on the world’s dead wood and make
    A noise no-one can silence or mistake.
    There is no doubt that Nick Moore can hammer that loud. He does so in a sonnet so technically exquisite that, as I said, it makes me want to go out into the woods and sing.
    And, with his testing tapping, set the tree
    as Nick Moore does in a magnificent sonnet.

    • My dear friend, there is nothing to apologise for. I always treasure your comments, of course, but there are bigger things going on in your life right now. I’m just humbled that you can find the time to read and respond to my work in the midst of it all. And be assured that your splendid hammerings on the world’s dead wood are heard, respected and delighted in by many, many people. Your generous, uplifting comment on this piece has restored my faith in it, and myself – and for that, I am eternally grateful. N.

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