Over a year has passed since I wrote a piece on here called The Birds at Midnight, which pulled together various instances involving birds and gave the blog its highest daily viewing stats. Stats are important to me – except in my research. My general approach to the blog is to attempt to find common threads in my day to day life, hence the apparently frequent appearance of nature and the built environment, and then write a semi-substantial piece about them. The blog started out/is loosely concerned with my thesis, but more and more I find myself drawn to topics aside from that, as if this is in fact the home of catharsis for everything outside of my academic focus. For example, I set myself title and subheadings in WordPress to remind me what I am supposed to be writing about, and the ones on Roland Barthes/Adorno and Marcuse’s Theories of Aesthetics/Benjamin’s Arcades Project/The Past as the Future and so forth remain sitting there, unfinished. I think part of it is to do with the fact that some of the stuff is going in to the thesis and I’m concerned about putting up anything concrete on here prior to completion, in the unlikely chance that someone will beat my opinion/research to publication. How ridiculously amateurish of me. Anyway, this piece is a companion to The Birds at Midnight and goes against much of what I’ve just complained about:
The sound and the smell are overwhelming this time. I think it is something to do with time of year; the temperature is up on last time (though it is hard to tell this from the cliff top) and the birds are nest building. At the far end, past the listening station where a small group of appropriately booted structural decay enthusiasts are preparing for their descent in to the mine of Cold War secrets, the gannets gather around a grass covered promontory. They pick at the grass, and then soar out in to the head winds, back to line the nests with whatever they have collected. Further up, away from bigger birds, razorbills and guillemots jostle for space on rocky outcrops, while kittiwakes ride the wind in between the levels of gliding gannets. There are puffins here this time, which was the primary reason for a later return. Earlier last year there were none, or perhaps just the mythical one that the RSPB man spotted. This time I have my ridiculously heavy astronomical binoculars and there are plenty to pick. As everyone says, they are highly comical, like unconvincing orange tipped bullets. They are better in the water we are told.
The sound reverberates in strange ways. On the approach to the cliffs, there is little but weather, or the sound of goldfinches in the hedgerows and the distant rush of water, but once you approach the edge the calls and cries bounce around off every tiny surface and fissure. At one of the further platforms, which juts out over the cliff with the sea a hundred metres below, I find it hard to balance. The combination of the movement of the water, roar of the wind, and the sound ricocheting around my head is unexpectedly disorientating. I step back on to the path. In front of me, a huge lump of seaweed falls from the sky, from the mouth of a wheeling gannet. The bird’s wing span is a wide as I am tall. The path is littered with other unintentional tokens.
On the way to the car, a reed bunting pulls at sunflower seeds by the wooden shed and paystation.
‘Whenever I hear the sound of church bells, it reminds me and takes me straight back to moments in time when I was small, vividly to the time every summer I’d travel to our family house in a small village in the south of Italy where we would visit my grandparents for a family holiday…the sound gives me a secure safe feeling, but also very sad, the sound always makes me cry. The bells always seem to be ringing, a very particular low hollow ring, the church being below us a little down the mountain, every quarter hour, Mass, or feast days the bells would ring all day long, interspersed with cannon fire which ricocheted around the mountains in the valley.
Lying in my bed in the bright sunny mornings, the bells ringing every quarter hour, I’d have the white sheets completely over my head, stopping the little flies tickling my face; there were so many flies in my room buzzing around my head, with the church bells ringing every fifteen minutes.’
Toop says this is an example of what Michael Forrester calls a sound conglomerate, a marker of aural security. I heard a story, and I’m not sure of its provenance, about how the way in which we listen to the environment has changed since the Industrial Revolution. In the alpine fields of Austria, cattle herders would attach cow bells to their cattle and send them off up the mountain to graze. When the time came to bring the cattle back down to the relative warmth of the lowland valleys, a skilled herder could stand at the bottom of the mountain and from the sound alone, tell how many cattle he had and whether any had wandered further out of earshot. Now it is aeroplanes and factories. R Murray Schafer’s worst nightmare.
An elderly woman had tried to commit suicide. A low throbbing noise was causing her distress, though nobody else could hear it. Eventually a noise consultant was brought in. He heard nothing, yet made tape recordings any way, and during his analysis of the tapes discovered a strong peak signal in the 30-40Hz range. Newspaper accounts of this result generated similar case studies from all over the country. The origin of many of these subliminal, profoundly unsettling sounds was pinpointed to power transmission lines. In other cases, houses and thin trees were amplifying vibrations ultimately attributed to the wind.
As a sort of extension to the words I had read in Macfarlane’s Wild Places, I followed his breadcrumb trail; it coincided with a piece in the Independent on Baker’s The Peregrine which has recently been reprinted. One of Macfarlane’s recommended reads, aside from the work of Roger Deakin and John Muir, was a book by T.H White, author of The Once and Future King. White’s book, The Goshawk, details his failed and then successful attempts to train goshawks (which, as dedicated falconer’s know, is the most difficult of all hawks to train), initially using a 16th century text that suggests breaking the birds in by starving them and keeping them awake for 3 days – which of course as the trainer you’d have to do as well. His first bird, Gos, escapes part way through the first section, and the notes detail White’s anger and frustration at his inability to train the bird and his quiet heartbreak at the idea of Gos catching his jesses and starving to death in the high branches of a tree. His subsequent hawk is a greater success.
Now I know nothing about falconry at all, though more now than I did, so I was a little worried that I would have another All The Pretty Horses moment, but that was far from the case. This book is a beautiful one, a sort of paean to a lost way of living – the hawks are central of course, but the environment that White describes is equally crucial – a life ultimately destroyed by the horrors of World War II. I wanted to take up a bit of space here recommending it to people, because I found it moving, primal, ethereal. That sort of thing.
The book was written, White explains candidly at the beginning, because he was running out of money. It took him decades to complete however, distracted as he was during the note taking for his training manual by another idea; he went off and wrote The Once and Future King as an aside, a book that opens with an escaping hawk.
‘I was up in Glen Affric at dusk in October trying to record the sounds of the red deer rut. I had set up my recording equipment on the edge of a clearing with the microphones pointing up at the hillside. As the light faded the distant roar of stags rolled down through the forest and in to the clearing. As usual I heard the rushing sound of the wind blowing through the glen and across the canopy but just at the point when the light was almost gone, the wind changed. The effect was dramatic. The atmosphere changed very quickly, as did my mood and perception. I can honestly say that I felt something blow down that hillside in to the clearing – the quality of the sound changed, the deer seemed to stop calling and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck – what few I have – stand up. I packed up as quickly as I could and left. Over the next few days I went back up there to similar locations and made a series of recordings without ever feeling the same effects’.
December 20th was a song I recorded in my second year at University. The song was composed using microsamples from a piece by Henryk Gorecki, combined with a number of field recordings I had made in Norwich over the previous year. There were two particular recordings that I wanted to include – the first was of children playing in the snow at the bottom of my road and the second was a recording I made in first year halls. I had woken up at around 3am, and noticed from my window that a freezing fog from the lake to the south of the halls had engulfed the campus. I decided to go out with my minidisc recorder and see if I could pick up the sound of the fog. It was disquieting experience, light from the ziggurat windows above me streaming out like luminous barbs through the fog. The recordings I eventually used contained a strange crackling noise that I do not remember hearing at the time, though it is equally likely that this is a quality issue. Subsequently, I now find it impossible to listen to the track without being transported to this particular time in my life. During the week in which I put the piece together there were frequent snow storms and power outages; at the time they seemed foreboding and in retrospect this has added another layer of association to the disjointed and distant sound of the music. This piece of music was the first thing I had created that I was completely happy with; it is made up of personal resonances I can never replicate. When I put it together I remembered the specific places I had been to, the time of day, the unnerving atmosphere. I wanted to make sure the final piece still sounded like this, even when transposed to what is essentially a commuter’s hub thirty minutes on the Thameslink line to London.
As Barthes suggested, a tapestry of meaning is woven from the music, a pyschogeographical map of narratives of sound, memory and experience which others can follow should they wish to.
The upstairs windows are open as far as they can go in a pointless attempt at generating some breeze on a sticky afternoon. The light is hazy, the air thick and unpleasant. From the front bedroom, where my little office desk sits facing pictures of burnt out oil refineries and endless Chinese tower blocks, I can hear what I assume to be two birds fighting. They’re blackbirds – I can tell by their calls, which I believe marks me out as the lowest rung on the twitcher ladder (I was genuinely surprised to hear a Chiffchaff calling in early April, alerting me to the end of a long migration from Africa, the official start of spring and a rude awakening as to how much of a loser I have become). I went to the back window to see what the problem was, what they were fighting over. The trees are in full leaf so it is largely impossible to see what is going on, but a male and a female blackbird are flying from fence to fence in considerable distress. I head downstairs and open the back door. At the back of the garden, nestled in a large pot full of early garlic, is a baby blackbird emitting some fairly pathetic peeps. On the opposite fence doing little but sitting about is Molly, the cat from No.30 that periodically visits us for attention. The blackbirds are flying about her, but Molly just sits there. She isn’t doing anything. At the point at which I step out of the back door in to the garden the baby blackbird, seemingly unaware of the stupidity of its actions, flies at the cat. Instinctively Molly grabs it and falls backwards off the wall in to next door’s garden. The male and female blackbird follow. I go back upstairs to see what is going on. The wall obscures much of the scene. Periodically I see Molly emerge, close to the ground, in predator mode. The blackbirds are swooping down at her, screeching, terrified. She gives up pretty easily, the birds chasing her in to the alley way and then out in to the street. They remain flitting between both my garden and next door’s garden until dark. I don’t see the baby.
The main issue with this for me is that I have obviously fallen in to the trap of romanticising nature (which is nearly as bad as treating it like a ‘perfect system’), and this has fundamentally changed my relationship with the cat.
Although I’ve done it several times before, and broken it as often, I promise to get something up here that people smarter than me (e.g. most people) can complain about in relation to something I am actually pulling apart in my thesis. Though of course it’s not for others really is it, it’s for me and my own sense of getting-things-done-the-right-way. Perhaps a good purge will enable me to see that the right way is always an illusion.
Also, I managed a post without footnotes. Ta ta