Listening for the return of spring

· life · mumblings ·

Do you ever experience that thing where an inability to tackle something new and difficult means that you become able to tackle something else which was the previous thing you were unable to deal with? Perhaps that’s just me. I just can’t put my thoughts together about the recent General Election result in the UK yet, but this has somehow unblocked my previous inability to write about how I felt in the early months of this year when I feared that we might never hear birdsong again. So here goes…

I think that part of my difficulty in expressing how I felt was that I was deeply embarrassed about admitting to these fears. It seemed to me a ridiculously archaic, pre-scientific folk belief, like believing that the sun will not rise tomorrow. Nevertheless, there it was: a gut feeling, a primordial fear that would not be allayed by commonsense thinking.

Of course, knowing what is happening at the moment with the pace of species extinctions, and knowing how perilous the state of much of the natural world is, it isn’t that crazy. It’s certainly not impossible that one year, there might be no more birds to fill the dawn chorus in spring, but it was unlikely that it would happen so quickly and this particular year.

I have written here before about my particular love of the songs and calls of birds (particularly those of blackbirds). I love all natural sounds, but for me birds epitomise the natural world waking from winter quietness. Birds also provide precious contact with nature in urban areas where you can feel very distant from anything that wasn’t built by humans. I am interested in all wildlife, not just birds, but while other wildlife is often difficult to see, you can always hear bird song. It therefore provides a visible (or rather, audible) tip of a wildlife iceberg, reassuring you that there is more of it below that you can’t see. By the same token, not being able to hear bird song feels like a catastrophe: if even the common birds are gone, what else might have we lost?

While I was living with this secret, gnawing anxiety, I started to listen regularly to music which was about birds or featured their songs, calls or other natural sounds. These recordings helped to calm whatever it was in me that needed so desperately to hear them. Perhaps it was also a higher tech equivalent of old folk practices in which people perform rituals to encourage natural events. I’m thinking of customs like wassailing to make the apple trees healthy and fruitful in the year to come, or of lighting fires and torches in the depths of mid-winter to bring the sun back.

I ended up compiling an informal playlist of albums and tracks which gave me what I needed to fill the winter silence, and I have added to them since. I’ve been playing many of them since the winter dark has set in and I’ll continue to do so until spring.

It’s interesting thinking through these ideas as I’m writing. It seems to me that what these pieces have in common is not just recordings of bird songs, calls and natural sounds, but also confirmation that this matters to people. As much as anything else, I think that knowing that other people feel the same ache you do, that you are not alone in feeling this way, is an enormous comfort.