It’s still dark on the early May morning when we gather. It’s quiet, apart from the few robins who’ve woken early, tricked into an early start by the few street lights that are on. It’s cool, but not cold, and in spite of the fact that all seven of us were out of bed before 4am (not that difficult: as Henry Porter once wrote, this is “easily achieved by drinking a lot of water the night before”), everyone is focused, purposeful, intent. We set off on a 10 minute downhill walk to the place where we are going to sit and listen to the dawn chorus.
As we walk, we hear some other early risers. The first blackbirds are up, and as we head down the hill through open farmland, we hear the beautiful song of a skylark high above us. We reach our final stop, by a bend in the River Dart, with woodlands on the other side, stretching as far as the eye can see. In spite of the near-darkness, the chorus has begun. The invitation from Tony Whitehead, the ornithologist and sound recordist who is leading the walk, is to just listen. To be still, and to enjoy the remarkable concert laid on for our delight. Here is Tony’s own recording of that concert:
The early voices are those of robins, then blackbirds and songthrushes. Soon they are joined by wrens, wood pigeons and crows. Then there’s a Mandarin duck, whose call sounds like one of the splodgy sound effects on Candy Crush. There are mallard ducks, long-tailed tits, chiffchaffs, and chaffinches. And the occasional pheasant.
Some of them I recognize, some I don’t. The song of the blackbird usually comes in two halves. The first half tends to be roughly the same, its signature if you like, and then in the second half, they just improvise, making up something random, different each time. I am reminded of Charlie Parker’s quote: “You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail”. I’m hearing nature’s creativity, nature’s improvisation. Jazz birds. And it’s beautiful.
The dawn chorus goes in pulses of intensity, something you’re vaguely aware of as you listen, but which is clear when looking at the peak/trough sound profile of the recording afterwards. Apart from the very occasional plane going over, or a distant motorbike, we are treated to an intense, spectacular recital.
The dawn chorus, as Tony explained to us on a ‘dusk chorus walk’ the previous evening, happens between January and June, reaching its crescendo in May. What we’re hearing is almost entirely male birds. In order to attract the female of their species, they are letting the world know “I’m here, and this is my territory”, and also “I’m so able to feed myself, and so strong and great, that I can be awake and making this fine, powerful song”. It’s the woodland community communicating with itself. When someone pointed out the similarities with social media, Tony agreed, saying the wood was “literally Tweeting”.
As we listen to the chorus, I recall how Tony explained that when birds notice dangers or threats, they have a different call, so an experienced birdwatcher can follow the passage of people or animals through a forest just by listening to the calls. I’m clearly a novice, nowhere near that level of understanding what’s going on in front of me, but I’m spellbound.
This dawn chorus walk is part of a larger event known as Soundcamp, which happens all around the world on the weekend of International Dawn Chorus Day. Part of it is called ‘Reveil’, where the dawn chorus is recorded around the world and uploaded to a website to allow people to follow it around the world. According to the Soundcamp website:
“Soundcamp exists as the assembled activities of artists, scientists, activists, listeners and others, who contribute live audio streams at daybreak and head outdoors in small or larger forays to explore the sound ecology of strange and familiar places. For 24 hours those sounds are strung together to create a long, live composition and a kind of clock”.
While I was sitting by the river on the Dartington Estate in South Devon, Soundcamp also taking place at Stave Hill Ecological Park, Rotherhithe, in Bridport Dorset, at the End of the World Garden in Cornwall, at South Walney Island, Cumbria, as well as somewhere in Exeter. The Dartington event was organised by the local Soundart Radio.
After about 50 minutes, the chorus has dropped from its crescendo to more of a background noise as the birds decide that all this singing has made them peckish and it’s time for some breakfast. We gather, to reflect on the experience. My companions seem genuinely moved, and clearly affected by what they’ve heard. Words include “beautiful”, “awesome” and “moving”. Tony notes that although he’s heard many dawn choruses, he never tires of it, and that now we’ve had a taste of it, we should get out when we can in May to listen to it. As he observes, “you only get so many Mays in your life”. I’d never looked at it like that before.
I later get to sit and talk to Tony in more depth, and I ask him how, as someone who has led many dawn chorus walks, he has seen them affect people:
“The richness of the experience that people have is just remarkable. I’ve had people say that it’s been on the edge of life-changing. Just walking out in the morning listening to the English dawn chorus. For some it can be genuinely a very, very deep experience. Suddenly the world becomes a little bit fuller. A little bit more diverse. As soon as you start to point out bird song, suddenly, birds start to appear to them. Now they’re hearing birds, hearing individual voices. The world is becoming a much more diverse, deep and more interesting place to be immersed in. And all of these come out of this simple act of simply going outside, first thing in the morning”.
After the walk, we returned to light the camp fire in order to prepare some breakfast, and I took the opportunity to talk to some of my fellow Soundcampers. Shelley, who lives nearby and works in community arts, described listening to the dawn chorus as “enchanting”, and told me:
“I was dreading getting up first thing, but I was so excited that I was awake half an hour before I should have been! I brought my son along to this experience. During the chorus, I was thinking “I hope he remembers this”. Because it might not stay the same in his lifetime, which is a really sad thought. I realized that it might not sound like this in 20 years time, it could just be a lot quieter and really sad”.
She’s right. As Tim Birkhead wrote in Times Higher Education, “if you are over 50, and maybe if you aren’t, then the falling number of UK birds is blindingly obvious”. Due to the impacts of the intensification of agriculture and to the increasing influence of climate change, there has been a massive decline in bird populations, the loss of 44 millions breeding birds in 40 years. 44 million breeding birds! What to me, sat by the river on the dewy grass, sounded like a wildly creative orchestra playing at full volume and with great abandon, is, in reality, a small remnant of what it has been in the past, a tattered fragment of its former glory. Just imagine what we’ve lost.
But nonetheless, what we hear today is still a window into that past. As Henry Porter puts it:
“This is what life was like before the Industrial Revolution and the incessant noise of our world. Dawn is the one time that there is almost no road traffic. Noise from aeroplanes and trains is minimal and the fool across the way, with his bass guitar, is asleep or pharmaceutically coshed. If you rise at dawn at this time of year, you snatch something of our forebears’ experience”.
Or at least, a taste of it. But it’s a decline that has happened slowly, and which, given that we spend so much of our time indoors, we rarely ever notice. As Birkhead puts it, “like climate change itself, insidious change goes almost undetected, because our brains continually adjust to the shifting baseline”. Shelley’s son, Robert, 11, told me:
“I really enjoyed not speaking. I really enjoyed just listening to the birds. Some people might argue that going outside on Minecraft counts, but I don’t think it does. Why? The difference is, this is the real world, and the real thing, and that’s pixilated”.
Laura Irving, a radio student attending her first Soundcamp, told me that listening to the dawn chorus:
“.. allows the space in your mind just to go where it will. I came up with some ideas today that I might use while I was sat there, but you’re not forcing them. You just give them time to percolate. I read a theory somewhere about ideas generation that was called “sending it to the basement”. That you need some time to just send a problem or something to the back of your mind, to the ‘basement’ of your mind, and then in some peace or some walking or something, eventually what needs to happen creatively and imaginatively just will without force”.
So what does all this have to do with imagination? A common experience when seeing something like the dawn chorus, something beautiful, powerful, something that resonates back with human experience for tens of thousands of years, is a feeling of awe. Whether it’s the late evening sun on the Himalayas, the birth of a child, the Northern Lights, awe is a rare but extraordinary thing. There are gradations of it of course (for me, finding edible wild mushrooms in the autumn is pretty awe-inducing), but we all need a bit of awe in our lives. Awe, according to Florence Williams in ‘The Nature Fix’, is considered by psychologists to be one of our core positive emotions, alongside joy, contentment, compassion, pride, love and amusement.
She cites research that indicates that people who experience awe tend to be more generous, more helpful, more compassionate. Awe reinforces social connections. It has even been found that when people experience awe in a terrifying way, like a hurricane bearing down on their town for example, people tend to be more inclined to work together with each other with the best interests of the community, rather than themselves, in mind. Awe is a good thing all round.
She quotes Craig Anderson, a student at Berkeley, who argues, based on his research into awe, that it promotes curiosity because “we experience things out of our normal frame of reference, things we can’t easily categorise or understand”. And curiosity is a key precursor to imagination. As Colin Elland writes in ‘Places of the Heart‘, citing the work of University of Toronto psychologist Daniel Berlyne:
“Berlyne argued that much of our behaviour is motivated by curiosity alone: the need to slake our incessant thirst for the new. It’s this need that drives us both to explore new places and to look at works of art; it is also our inbuilt urge to collect information that determines, in part, what we like when we do so”.
For Tony, his reflections on curiosity take the form of what it would mean to not experience this, to not have that curiosity in our lives. I asked him what, as a society, a culture, we lose when we don’t experience the awe of something like the May dawn chorus:
“Personally I couldn’t imagine my world without being out listening to this. It would be hugely impoverished. And I think perhaps to a degree people’s lives are impoverished if they don’t at least have the opportunity. It’s something you can’t do second hand. You can’t get this experience of listening to these birds second hand through a screen, or through an MP3 player, or through YouTube. You get a simulacra. You get something similar but not in any way the same. And because it’s a shallower engagement, the result of that is a shallower wish to act on behalf of it. Only now, once you’re outside and engaging with this stuff, is the basis for a meaningful engagement and then a meaningful advocacy for the natural world can come about. You have to get out here”.
It builds on the idea that our imagination needs curiosity to feed it. Without curiosity, our imagination dwindles. And if our daily lives contain less and less to stimulate curiosity, it can only have a deleterious impact on our imagination. As Tim Birkhead puts it, “living in a world of rapidly diminishing wildlife is becoming increasingly dull”.
I left Soundcamp deeply curious about being more able to identify different birds from their songs. Bird song is like a foreign language, which inspires you to want to learn some words so you have a way into it. It’s like listening to an orchestra and wanting to understand what the different instruments are. Or watching rugby and wondering what on earth is going on and why they keep stopping all the time (or is that just me?). It’s also about quiet, stillness and space. As Laura put it, she found that she was able to:
“… strip away that confusion, to get yourself into a place where you can stop and then start to re-engage quietly with the world and allow the creativity to respond to what’s around you. And out of that creativity, for your imagination to start re-engaging with the world. Maybe through this, through spending time in beautiful places like this, new ideas will emerge. How can you come up with new ideas, new ways of being, when your mind is so full of noise? You’re going to be confused. You’re not going to be able to think straight”.
Slowing down, stepping away from the over-stimulated world of smooth screens and our “national attention deficit”, is vital to better connecting to place and to a curiosity about the world around us. A 2002 study found that the average 8 year old was able to identify 78% of all Pokemon characters, but only 53% of common British wildlife species. It’s the difference between imagination-lite, if you will, and something that goes much deeper, moving beyond the “shallower engagement” Tony referred to.
And finally, it is easier to imagine a better future when you care about it. As David Attenborough says, “no one will protect what they don’t care about; and no-one will care about what they have never experienced”. Or, as Robert Michael Pyle writes, “what happens to a species that loses touch with its habitat?” In the days following Soundcamp, I found myself far more aware of bird noise, looking out to see what they were doing. I felt more connected to it. I felt curious, deeply curious, about it. I felt as though I had experienced something magical. As Shelley put it:
“It reminded me of my childhood, even though I grew up in London and this wasn’t part of my childhood. It’s what my childhood should have been. It‘s that idyllic childhood. It reawakens your imagination and your openness to the world”.
Once you’ve made that connection, you are more willing to want to protect the natural world, to speak up for it, to cherish it. And it will seep into, stimulate and allow the space that your imagination needs. And, as Alice Miller once wrote, “and if you fall in love with the imagination, you understand that it is a free spirit. It will go anywhere”. A bit like the birds…