Drink­ing the wren’s sil­ver laugh­ter

En­tranced by a tiny bird in the woods, Jay Grif­fiths ex­plores the be­witch­ing ef­fect of the avian voice in her es­say Bird­song

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

En­tranced by a tiny bird in the woods, Jay Grif­fiths ex­plores the be­witch­ing ef­fect of the avian voice

IAM thirsty for this mu­sic. I lean nearer. The tiny twig of a tail juts up—the wren stops. I freeze. He sings again. It is as if my lis­ten­ing is stretch­ing out through my fin­gers to hear more nearly this mini-pa­ganini, the chanterelle of birds to me, the sweet­est, high­est string of the vi­o­lin. (Its vo­cal range is one of the high­est-pitched of birds, singing up to one full oc­tave above the top note of a pi­ano key­board.)

My ears, though, are per­plexed by him. I can­not hear fast enough to keep up, so the last notes of his ca­dence fall silent be­fore I have prop­erly heard the first, and by the time I deeply hear his song, he has al­ready fin­ished. If starlight is emit­ted light years ago, and we may only see it af­ter a star has ceased to shine, so I seem to hear this bird only af­ter it has ceased to sing, its song emit­ted just sound-sec­onds ago but al­ways un­catch­able.

It is both fleet and fleet­ing, fast and evanes­cent. Quick and quick­en­ing, it touches the quick of the spirit, in the acute­ness of time. It quick­ens the wood­lands with live­li­ness, as to be quick also means to be alive, ger­mi­nat­ing its seedling songs in the leaves, in­sem­i­nat­ing the air.

As soon as I hear it, I want to de­scribe it, as if once I have breathed in bird­song, I must trans­pose it into a hu­man key and breathe it out in lan­guage.

Mu­si­cians and com­posers have an elec­tive affin­ity with bird­song. Hu­man mu­sic has en­twined with birds since the ear­li­est records of cul­ture: the world’s old­est recog­nis­able mu­si­cal in­stru­ment is a flute made of a hol­low bird’s bone, from a Grif­fon vul­ture.

‘In my hours of gloom,’ Olivier Mes­si­aen wrote, ‘when I am sud­denly aware of my own fu­til­ity… what is left for me but to seek out the true, lost face of mu­sic some­where in the for­est, in the fields, in the moun­tains or on the seashore, among the birds.’ Vi­valdi com­posed his flute con­certo Il

Gardellino, the ‘Goldfinch’, in 1702. Or so they say. But when you lis­ten to that flute solo you know, of course, the bird com­posed it first. When Beethoven com­posed part of his

Pas­toral Sym­phony, he said ‘The yel­lowham­mers up there, the quails, nightin­gales and cuck­oos around about, com­posed with me.’

‘Birds in­structed man,’ wrote Lu­cretius, ‘and taught him songs be­fore his art be­gan.’

There is a case, some lin­guists say, for ar­gu­ing that we sang be­fore we spoke, that the emo­tional con­tent of our lan­guage, in pitch, tim­bre, mu­si­cal­ity, came be­fore the lex­i­cal part. Shigeru Miya­gawa, a lin­guist at Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, sug­gests that, be­tween 50,000 and 80,000 years ago, hu­mans merged the ex­pres­sive songs of birds with the in­for­ma­tion-bearing com­mu­ni­ca­tions of other pri­mates to cre­ate the unique mu­sic of hu­man lan­guage.

Was it their grace notes which sang at the very source of our lan­guage? Is it pos­si­ble? Is that part of the rea­son for my

‘Mu­sic is a song­bird’s ut­most de­sire, an end­less yearn­ing to sing

keen and keen­ing lis­ten­ing, as if I am not just learn­ing to hear but dimly re­mem­ber­ing how we first learnt to speak?

I am drink­ing the wren’s sil­ver laugh­ter, thirsty for its liq­uid song. I’m not alone: ‘One mo­ment just to drink the sound/her mu­sic made’, writes John Clare of the nightin­gale, a beak, rather than a beaker­ful of the warm South. Ge­orge Mered­ith pic­tures the sky­lark’s song as a jet of wa­ter soar­ing ‘With foun­tain ar­dor, foun­tain play’, this care­free—spilling—over­flow as if the bird’s song in its pure liq­uid­ity dis­solves all the dry dis­tinc­tions of joy and light, the lis­tener and the singer, in an au­ral alchemy.

I lis­ten sound­lessly. I breathe in for this wren, but then I am rapt in beauty and each note re­minds me of the jewels I had in my hand as a child when I pre­tended that drops of wa­ter were di­a­monds and I was sur­rounded by price­less trea­sure. Our best ap­plause: first si­lence, then song.

Why do they do it? The ob­vi­ous dead­en­ing an­swers lie at my feet like lit­ter. Court­ing. Mat­ing. Ter­ri­tory. Ma­chines for sur­vival. Me­chan­i­cal em­bod­i­ments of ge­netic com­pul­sion. Oh, I know these things are all true, I know it well. I have watched a wood­pecker al­most sheep­ish with horni­ness un­til, in or­der to broad­cast his mes­sage louder, he be­came a met­alpecker, cling­ing to a tele­graph pole, rat­tling the metal strut with its beak, and I thought he would get a ter­ri­ble headache as he tried to drum up a mate from thin air: roll up, roll up, can’t hold on much longer. Dr­rrrrrrrrum

úp. (Pause.) Dr­rrrrrrrrum úp. (Pause.)

Dr­rrrrrrrrum úp. (Please?) But here’s the thing. Birds are known to sing be­yond what is nec­es­sary to find, im­press and keep a mate, be­yond what is nec­es­sary to get and hold their ter­ri­tory. They sing well af­ter the chicks have flown the nest, long into au­tumn, so late and so well. And this is the gap to watch, the open­ing which begs that the ques­tion is asked again, and will­ingly, why?

The gap be­tween need and achieve that lets the beauty in. The ea­ger pro­fu­sion, the un­mea­sured abun­dance. You can’t miss them, the ones which tickle the leaves of the wood­lands for joy, tin­kling the ivresseries, the ones which can’t stop them­selves, whose songs run rings of bright sound around them­selves like ot­ters chas­ing their own tails at a noon tide.

The mu­si­cian, philoso­pher and writer David Rothen­berg, au­thor of the beau­ti­ful book Why Birds Sing, ar­gues that as well as the ob­vi­ous rea­sons, birds sing for joy. As a mu­si­cian him­self, he feels a ca­ma­raderie, an un­der­stand­ing that birds as much as hu­mans are mu­si­cians and they sing for the sheer plea­sure of per­for­mance, far over and above their need. ‘Mu­sic is a song­bird’s ut­most de­sire, an end­less yearn­ing to sing.’

The wren is watch­ing me. I breathe out as qui­etly as I can. His tiny eyes are a bril­liant, liq­uid black—he blinks. He is the small­est bird I see in these woods, but his song is the loud­est and this is why, open­heart­edly, sim­ply, grate­fully, ad­mir­ingly, I love him. He daz­zles my ears. There is courage here, cocky, proud, brave and beau­ti­ful. This is un­daunted gift; how much sheer mag­nif­i­cence can you pack into one tiny wren?

This is an abridged ver­sion of ‘Bird­song’, first printed in ‘Ar­bo­real: A Col­lec­tion of New Wood­land Writ­ing’ (£20, Lit­tle Toller Books). Jay Grif­fiths is the au­thor of ‘Kith: The Rid­dle of the Child­scape’ (£9.99, Pen­guin)

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