Walking on Eggshells
The relationship between ornithology and mental health might not seem immediately obvious, but like so much in this strange new world it seems to be becoming clearer. Re-tuning to birdsong has been one of the bright spots in a dark time. From the superbly named Cosmo Sheldrake’s sonic journey through the woodlands [here] with hooting tawny owls, churring night jars, warbling nightingales warbling, and trilling skylarks …
… to Steven Lovatt’s observation (‘The Earth could hear itself think’):
“The pandemic had struck the northern hemisphere at just that moment in the natural calendar when birdsong resumes in full force after the quiet and solitary winter months. Millions of people were not just hearing but actively listening, perhaps for the first time, to the songs of birds – ancient songs, perhaps unchanged from the stone age.”
“The calls and responses range across various bandwidths, and some speak to the soul more readily than others. Some bird calls seem to have the power to short-circuit time and take you straight back to childhood. Above all the other birdsongs of March, the blackbird’s rises unmistakable – strident and clear. In the sombre spring of last year, when the usual noise of people and cars was absent, the song, transmitted from aerials, trellises and lamp-posts, felt loud and life-affirming, compelling in its variety and the emotion it seems to contain.”
That sense of going straight back to childhood triggered memories for me.
As a nerdy slightly disturbed un-cool pre-teen I had a serious obsession with birdlife. Trecking out across fields to peer through cheap binoculars, and compiling endless notebooks and scrapbooks I collected pellets and single feathers, searched for eggshells, climbed trees to squint into nests and dreamt of Golden Eagles and Peregrine Falcons. My favourite film was Ken Loach’s Kes and my favourite books was Storm Boy, an Australian book about a boy who has a Pelican which dies. I remember weeping buckets over both.
Springtime and Soundscapes
It seems like sound, like smell can evoke memories and transport us back away from all this hell.
Now it’s March again and (technically) Spring time.
It’s not surprising that ‘birdsong became the sound of lockdown’ because we’ve had little alternative than to walk, and walk and walk often on our own. We’ve been forced to appreciate parks and the remnant scraps of urban wild spaces. The cycle paths are teeming with prams and e-bikes, scooters and joggers vying for the physical space.
With our stressed and anxious minds unable to process the enormity of what we are experiencing we are switching off our analytic brains and absorbing pure sound.
Maybe also it’s an alluring alternative to our existence glued to our screens, or maybe it’s a longing for natural restoration in the face of overwhelming evidence that that’s unlikely.
Phoebe Weston has pointed out that while Sheldrake is an artist his approach is very similar to a new breed of “acoustic ecologists” who are noticing how birds have a sonic as well as a physical niche in the ecosystem:
“Part of his aim is to highlight how we may not be conscious of the loss of wildlife from our lives. Many of the birds featured on his album, such as marsh warbler, mistle thrush and dunnock, are no longer a ubiquitous part of our soundscapes. The star performers from today’s chorus – blackbirds and robins – didn’t make it on to Sheldrake’s album because they are not (yet) on the red or amber list of endangered British birds.”
This is similar to what Satish Kumar, editor of Resurgence magazine has pointed out – that the dawn chorus is really an audible metric of the health of a local ecosystem.
But this hasn’t come out of nowhere.
Think of Carel Fabritius (and Donna Tartt’s) melancholic pop sensation The Goldfinch, think of Helen Macdonald’s 2007 H is for Hawk which reached The Sunday Times best-seller list within two weeks of being published, or Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun which combines reflections on alcoholism with nature memoir. Think of the internet obsession with murmurations or remember the phenomenon of The Lost Words – A Spell Book by writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris, or Wind Resistance the surprise runaway hit of the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival, Karine Polwart’s deep-dive into the world of Fala Flow which featured bird lore, field recordings and memoir. Or take the work of Glasgow-based Finnish artist Hanna Tuulikki and her ground-breaking 2014 project Air falbh leis na h-eòin (Away with the Birds) which focused on the mimesis of birds in Gaelic song. Here she performs a wordless improvisation based on musical patterns of four songbirds: Blue tit, Great tit, Song thrush and Wren.
Folk radio report that this is: “Described as an invocation to spring, in which Tuulikki explores what it might mean to become-with-bird”, this is from her album Little Drum Wood:
Gathering these contributions from Helen Macdonald, Amy Liptrot, Jackie Morris, Karine Polwart, Hanna Tuulikki and noticing the (well overdue) Nan Shepherd revival you might ascribe a gender focus to this phenomenon, but I think that would be a mistake. If we are taking notice of bird and song and the natural world on our doorstep it is because we are in crisis like we never have been before and these are just some of the best people who have articulated that relationship.
Is it calming our neurotic selves to listen to the birds?
Are we drawn to bird song because we’re surrounded with such bleakness?
In a lovely essay (If I Were a Blackbird) Mairi McFadyen quotes the Irish philosopher William Desmond:
“Compare a singing being with something inanimate. The wind blows around a bush and makes a whirr or a low burr, but neither the wind or bush properly sings. But a bird chirps, a thrush sings out again and again a line of lush notes, and we sense a presence there that was not manifest before. Something is coming awake in singing life … Song is a witness of affirming presence …The bird’s song is an unselfconscious, effortless, celebration of being.”
This could all be nonsense. I have no idea whether people are really listening to birdsong more. Maybe it’s all just an online phenomenon regurgitated in pointless media. I don’t know. I listen more but maybe I’m just regressing to my pre-teen geek self.
What I do think is funny – and one of a billion dark ironies about all of this hellscape – is that air quality and a reduction of pollution is a very real thing, it’s a tangible gain from the massive reduction in air travel (as is a quietening from a reduction of flying – one of the reasons you can ‘hear’ better). It’s funny that all that’s going to be destroyed as we all go back to ‘flying’.
Away with the Birds eh?