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.

  • A Pocket of Wind Resistance by Karine Polwart with Pippa Murphy. I love this album so deeply that I was convinced that I must have written about it extensively on my blog before, but I can’t find any evidence of it. So, stop me if I’ve told you this before, but this is a spectacularly beautiful album. It is a partly sung, partly spoken narrative which weaves together the present day and the past, folklore, science, childbirth and myths which centre on the wetland ecosystem of Fala Flow in Scotland. One of its central themes is the way that humans depend on the kindness and support of others, and the way that our lives are deeply interconnected with the natural environment. It also features many natural sounds and the stories of several species of birds, hence the title, referencing the function of the ‘v’ formation of migrating geese. No matter how many times I listen, it still reliably manages to make me cry when I listen to a couple of the tracks.
  • Solan Goose by Erland Cooper. All the tracks on this album are about the relationship between the birds and the people of Orkney, with each forming a sonic portrait of a particular species, and given its Orcadian dialect name (a solan goose is a gannet, for example). Field recordings of the birds and the sounds from their environment bring depth to the tracks, and there are snippets of interviews with local people about their relationship to the birds.
  • Northern Flyway by Northern Flyway. I think I found out about this album because it features Inge Thomson who has collaborated with Karine Polwart. Again, it is a richly layered composition about birds, migration and ecology. While there is less of a narrative thread running through it, but it does feature snippets of interviews with keen ornithologists who talk about what birds mean to them. One woman says that if she is ever in a coma, the calls of gannets would be what could pull her out if it. A young boy talks about the feeling of seeing white-tailed sea eagles: “I don’t know how to explain, I feel excited, you know the way it leaps into your throat?“.
  • Bonxie by Stornoway. Writing this now, I note that there is a strong thread of my love for the wild parts of Scotland and the birds which live there. This continues with an album by a band whose name (and album name) reflects similar enthusiasms, though they were based in Oxford. ‘Bonxie’ is the Shetland name for the great skua, but this album is a much more subtle and less direct love song to birds and the natural world, though no less heart-felt and passionate. I love Stornoway’s work so I’m sad that the band has now broken up.
  • Aerial by Kate Bush (particularly the track Aerial Tal). The calls of wood pigeons punctuate the second disc of this album, but this lovely short track features Kate improvising with a blackbird, then laughing with the joy of it. It’s glorious, and never fails to make me smile.
  • The Lost Words: Spell Songs. Robert Mcfarlane and Jackie Morris collaborated on a book called The Lost Words in which they celebrated (in poetry and artworks) nature words which were disappearing from children’s dictionaries. They then got together a group of artists (including Karine Polwart — are you sensing the theme here? — along with many other very talented people) to record an album on the same theme, and Spell Songs is the result. In many ways, this album encapsulates what I started talking about at the start of this piece, as their aim is “Singing nature back to life through the power of poetry, art and magic”. There are several tracks on the album about birds, my favourite of which is “Little Astronaut” about skylarks.

    “Little astronaut / Where have you gone? / And how is your song still torrenting on?”

    It’s a beautiful song and encapsulates many of the feelings I was trying to explain when I wrote about skylark song a few years ago.

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.