The Bard of Beckenham

Gordon Burness in his London home in 2014 aged 86
Gordon Burness in his London home in 2014 aged 86

Gordon Burness was born in London on May 7, 1928. When he died in the same city aged 86 he left no large footprint in history, but those close to him knew that a remarkable man had passed. He had none of the career achievements we expect in a notable life, but instead he excelled as one of those “great amateurs” British people are proud of.

In his own words, his school education “was virtually terminated” in 1939 by the outbreak of War. Two years later he was evacuated to the safety of Wales where he often got into trouble and “was punched to the ground by the headmaster for being the worst behaved boy in school.” He was exiled to a remote hill farm from which he rode on horseback to school, and absorbed practical knowledge birthing cows, slaughtering pigs and learning how to fish and shoot. He returned to London in time for the V-2 rocket bombardment in 1944, but the family home was spared.

His first phase of life over, he enrolled as an apprentice toolmaker in a factory until it closed when he received a redundancy payout of ₤200 ($300). He had no other paper qualifications, but eventually found a job as a security officer on a property where he had once hunted illegally: the poacher turned gamekeeper.

In the post-war years of meat rationing, poaching on private land was an irresistible temptation because he could earn a savory supper for his family and sell pheasants and rabbits to buddies at his factory. When the factory and poaching were behind him, his third phase was a deepening interest in wildlife for which he exchanged his shotgun with a camera. He learned how to track animals and became an expert mimic of bird song, but apart from a single trip to Scotland he never traveled far from his home turf. He published beautifully illustrated articles in magazines, and became widely known in naturalist circles after discovering a very rare albino badger in 1962, accompanied by two young brothers, Gary and Phil Cliffe.

Gary with Snowball, the albino badger
Gary with Snowball, the albino badger

That was when I met him for the first time, under rather inauspicious circumstances. I was a young teenager watching the same badger den (“sett”) one night when they surprised me by shining a flashlight up to my perch in a tree. Gordon was unhappy that I had stumbled on his project, but after our next meeting, this time in daylight, we became life-long friends. The first of his two books, The White Badger published in 1970, sold well, and the story was featured nationally on children’s television.

After Constable (unfinished) by Gordon Burness
After Constable (unfinished) by Gordon Burness

His fourth phase began in the early 1970s when he took up oil painting. He completed thirty-two canvases, which hung around his home gradually glazing with nicotine. He painted to a background of classical music, and particularly loved Wagner’s Ring Cycle which he called “a thirteen-hour cerebral orgasm.” His brush technique was excellent, especially considering he was untutored in the art.

When he was no longer inspired to paint he turned to poetry, his fifth phase. Despite little education in English prose and poetry, he was a natural wordsmith and told me his compositions reflected “our personal frailties and his personal views.” This oeuvre is not a large legacy, but as revealing of the man’s character and broad interests as his paintings. He could be very droll, loved concocting jokes and limericks, and was unfailingly cheerful even towards the end when nearly blind and weakened by ill-health. His fun-loving heart could spend weeks poring over a painting or poem created to amuse himself or a rare visitor.

Dreams Afloat by Gordon Burness
Dreams Afloat by Gordon Burness

He loved the ladies and they returned the favor because he was charming and funny. Although several fell in love with him he never married, which was a great kindness because he prized his privacy.

From 1987 he looked after an ailing brother and an elderly mother. For nearly two decades after they died he was virtually a recluse, only leaving home (and most reluctantly) for a medical emergency or a follow-up. His retiring habits were badger-like. Josie, a good-hearted neighbor, mailed his letters and brought home shopping, including the all-important cigarettes.

He smoked heavily from boyhood days in Wales, and over the years I noticed his ceilings and walls yellowing and finally turning orange. “Fags help me think,” he told me.

He had a deep interest in science, sometimes asking searching questions about astronomy and biology. He was ahead of me with news about the Hubble telescope, and invented plausible theories about the clocklike pineal gland and the tapetum in the eyes of nocturnal animals. His ingenious mind led to the manufacture and marketing of a couple of mechanical devices, but he forgot to take out patents.

I wonder what he might have achieved had he started life in better times and with more advantages. But he never complained and had no wants beyond a smoke, the latest test cricket score, and to chin-wag with a friend. He said he felt lucky because he had done everything he wanted. It is a rare privilege to have known a fully satisfied human being.


Book cover from Gordon's painting titled "Ice Cream" after Edvard Munch's "I Scream"
Book cover from Gordon’s painting titled “Ice Cream” after Edvard Munch’s “I Scream”



Gordon’s poems and samples of his nature writing have been compiled in an anthology published on the day of his funeral by Jamestowne Bookworks. It is available as a digital book for 99 cents from Amazon.





Gordon was an all-round naturalist, but he had a special fondness for badgers. My favorite poem is Badger Watch.

Badger poem

Next Post: Paleo Pantry

Virginia Nature Journal for February

William Carlos WilliamsWe had exceptionally chill temperatures and heavy snow throughout February up and down the East Coast this year. Cold air that normally hangs over the north-west was pushed down to the Plains by the jet-stream, leaving Alaska feeling relatively balmy. As if that affront was not enough for one winter, we were also battered by a nor’easter in early February. Virginians with long memories tell us that not since 1980 can they remember a deeper winter in Williamsburg.

Snow disappears first under trees
Snow disappears first under trees

The melt always starts first on roofs and asphalt driveways because the dark colors absorb even the feeblest infra-red rays that penetrate the translucent snow cover. The next place for snow to go is on the compost pile, which shows that our microbial and fungal friends are not  slumbering but can still generate a little heat. Snow starts its ground retreat from under bushes and trees and reaches open ground last, where there is plenty of solar radiation. Perhaps the snow that settles on evergreen foliage and boughs rarely falls to the base of the tree but melts in situ, disappearing more quickly on darker colors.

This is a good time for gazing at the bare skeletons of sleeping trees. The verticality of their trunks is more obvious as they snub gravity; their crowns are so marvelously balanced and finished with a tracery of fuzzy twigs. Any gaps caused by wind damage will be filled in the growing season by disproportionate new growth. Under the boughs, there is a litter of small branches and twigs among the fall remains of acorns, walnuts, and maple wing-nuts. The wood looks wasted like unlucky victims of storm damage, but this kind of pruning is so necessary because branches multiplying each year by compound interest would soon become overloaded. Shedding weaker twigs is a picture of natural selection in motion.

oak tree
Pin oak

When Leonardo da Vinci mused about the shapes and dimensions of trees he recorded a curious fact. Irrespective of height above ground, the cross-sectional area of a branch equals the sum of the same dimensions in the branches it subtends. This rule applies at each transition from trunk to uttermost twig. The standard explanation is plumbing. We might expect to find this correspondence because the living cambium and conducting vessels continue from each branch to its daughters.

According to a recent paper in Physical Review Letters from a UCSD biophysicist there is another explanation. He formulated a mathematical model that closely fits Leonardo’s observations but suggests that this geometry gives the branches the best strain resistance to high winds. Perhaps we don’t have to choose one theory over another but can accept that both may be correct. Biology is neat and good at math.

The clearing patches of snow under trees are good places for wildlife that can’t migrate or hibernate. Small birds and rodents scratch for a living among the brown leaves between the green spears of daffodils while sapsuckers drill neat holes above for licking at the weeping sap. Bird feeders are the avian equivalent of soup kitchens: they can save lives in hard times. But they also offer easy pickings for predators like our pair of red-shouldered hawks unless the prey dashes into cover nearby. Despite the continuing grip of winter, lengthening days make spring brains. As soon as their breakfast is over, cardinals and Carolina wrens burst into song and a crow proudly carries a twig to an untidy matt in an old pine tree.

Next Post: The Bard of Beckenham