Open Ears


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Posted on March 11, 2015


The sound of the curlew’s song looping in the cool air was a cause for celebration last week. And then the sight of its familiar inverted ‘W’, wings in mirrored arches led by a curved beak, added to our joy.

It seems like a simple thing, and in some ways it is. In other ways, it’s not. The sound not only heralds the coming of spring and tells us that this pair of curlews has survived the winter, it also taps into an ancestral place somewhere in our brains that once formed sonic maps to place us in time and space. It reassures us that the seasons are going as they should be, that the chill winds of winter’s tail will soon blow themselves out, and our own life cycle is continuing.

Curlews aren’t the only ones that bring tidings in their song. Blackbirds greeting the dawn; blue tits chatting over scattered bird seed; sparrows, by their dozens, raising a high-pitched babble from the hedge; rooks, diving and fighting in between their nest building spree in a sycamore that’s yet to put out leaves; and an occasional buzzard, calling with a piercing mew as it circles in the high thermals.

crows flying from a leafless tree

Reeling off these names of birds today, in 2015, makes me feel a bit like my aunt who used to name the makers of songs in our garden thirty years ago. At the age of fifteen, I could hear only tweets and twitters while she would listen, head tilted back or to one side, to our local feathered orchestra. She would name and then describe each one to me. I marvelled at the way she could do that. And although in the intervening years I have learnt to identify some of the birds that I hear, I may never be in the position that my aunt was – research suggests that there are 421 million fewer birds in the skies of Europe than there were thirty years ago. Not only that, it may be that humans are losing the knack of hearing the sounds of nature – and with fewer sounds and weakened listening, we’re surely missing out.

It’s like this, Brian Briggs points out in his recent article in the Guardian: ‘As increasing numbers of us live in cities and spend most of our working lives indoors, is it very easy to become disconnected from the natural world. Research shows that rising levels of background noise from traffic and other human activity are making people oblivious to natural sounds, because we are quite simply screening it all out. We are conditioning ourselves to ignore the information coming into our ears, and as a consequence we are losing the ability to engage with the environment in the way we were built to.’

Having had a day confined indoors, windows closed against driving rain and a screen drawing my eyes to a narrow focus, I reached the point where I began to feel numb. I was involuntarily drawn outside. The clouds lifted and there was even a smudge of blue between them. The curlew sent an echo into the air from the stream at the bottom of the hill, and a blackbird let out a rising repeated cry, a warning. Somewhere deep inside my brain, synapses were firing, forming an internal map drawn from sounds as much as sight and smell. I had been re-placed and re-grounded and within minutes, my nervous system found a new and calmer frequency. Without knowing it, the birds had sung me back into place.

gold finch nest in the hedgrow

Read more :
Brian Briggs writes about bird song in the Guardian
How humans are losing the ability to tune in to natural sounds

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