The garden turning autumnal. Plenty to do and the migrant birds massing over head. Eventually I stopped. The late afternoon sun still hot in the sitting room and I slowly drank a glass of pastis and listened to Radio France .
It was a Shostakovich string quartet, that irresistible mixture of fear and beauty and for once I listened with all my heart.
The final movement ended and you could hear the needle coming to the end of the record in a delicious crackle . I sat still and waited in warm relaxation for the next piece of music, but it didn’t come. I sipped to the end of my drink, listened to the door bump in the breeze, the clock tick, the commuters driving home in the sunshine.
I imagined what was happening in the radio silence; had someone decided to kiss their lover in the store cupboard instead of changing the record? Had someone fallen asleep in the warm afternoon? Had the great idea finally struck and was it being scribbled down on the back of an envelope or noted on a phone? Had someone finally left and walked quietly down the stairs and out of the building?
The music never started again. The radio eventually took matters into its own hands and shut off. When I turned it back on there was something lively playing.
I think I preferred my unexpected moment of silence.
This Tom cat, in the quiet church yard , was fixated on the mice in the ivy below. The gravestone on which he perched was oddly blank . I assume he would engrave it eventually with the names of his quietly rustling victims!
I forgot my binoculars again, so I had to listen instead.
First there was the conversational croak and squark of frogs. Heavy flops into water and ripples covering the commotion with quiet again. Then there was hissing of ducks, flapping and bell beat of swans wings pushing away invaders. Then a scream like a stuck pig from the reeds. Water rails are rarely seen but unmistakable in their piercing indignation.
Then I was convinced we were being followed as there were rustles behind us but no footsteps. Leaves flinked against the sunlight, branches just moved. Finally we saw the twisting dark line of a red squirrel, so little and so lithe, jumping from hazel branch to hazel branch, stripping the green nuts as she went.
Down on the ground, she looked for the dislodged nuts, but was pulled back up into the leaves by any disturbance, as fast as a children’s toy whipped along by a thread.
Planes growled out of the airport (the covid silence is long gone) . A strimmer ripped up the quiet and then a golden oriole called and its rich exotic tropical note soothed the natural sounds back to the foreground again.
The storks are a great success story in my part of the world. When I arrived here 14 years ago, to see one or two was a great event. Then we found reintroduction sites where nests were protected and numbers grew. We saw storks more regularly and sometimes in great numbers when they migrated south in the winter.
Now we often see great groups of up to 20 huge stately birds picking through the fields with fierce concentration. They nest in all the villages around , but we are just a little too high up and so far no pair has chosen us.
This summer has been cool and very wet and stabbing their great beaks into the earth in search of food has been easy. Many more stork chicks have been reared and last years birds need roof tops spaces to build their nests for next year.
A few weeks ago, for the first time, a young stork perched on the roof of an old house opposite and threw back his head and clacked his beak loudly . He was calling for a mate, advertising the real estate he had located and trying to tempt a female to establish the first nest in our village.
So far he had no takers, but he is the first to try and I really hope he will find a mate who will love this place as much as I do and that the storks will return to my village.
It is warm and still. I forgot to water my two tomato plants and the half row of beans that have shouldered above the soil.
My neighbour sneezes: the sweet chestnut is in flower. Somewhere a food processor churns, or is it a washing machine or a heat pump? Someone calls in a cat who wants to hunt the light night away. The cars have gone, a lone motorbike rips through the silence . Curfew is an hour away and the air is sweet.
Very small white moths appear. The hobby sheep bleats in the bottom of his lucky garden .
A mosquito whines along the gathering darkness, shutters are descending and the last blackbird fusses out of the cherry tree, a half eaten fruit in his yellow beak.
I think there is still a glass of wine undrunk indoors, so I leave the watering can by the butt, bow to the brightening moon and go quietly inside.
Some fungi you remember from their smell, some from sight and just a few from their sound.
This yellow morel was under an open hedge and was already broken, so I picked it up and as I did so the honeycomb shape made the oddest dry hollow sound, unlike any fungi I have ever heard . I have never even considered the sound of fungi before, but on retrospect I expect a largish mushroom to sound solid and sturdy but this was light and reverberated to the touch.
Yellow morels are apparently very good to eat, but I am very wary of eating fungi as they are so astonishingly different at each stage of their development . The only thing I have ever confidently eaten was a giant puff ball as it simply cannot be anything else once it has reached football size!
Foraging for fungi is very fashionable but I was once nearly killed by a forest mushroom sauce at my favourite French restaurant. I have never been back and I have never eaten mushroom sauce again, much better to admire them and even to listen to them then ever to actually eat them!
The pear blossom is over, the cherry blossom is still splashing down and the pink edged perfect apple blossom is just showing between the twin green leaves that seem to offer up the simple flowers to an April morning.
In the thicket a real Nightingale sang. Her song is so rich, so varied, so burbling, so beautiful it needs Keats to do it justice. This poem seems so apt and poignant today, just as it did for Keats struggling with TB and still transported by the astounding beauty of the bird’s song. It is a long poem, but well worth reading again, or for the first time.
“Immortal bird” indeed.
Ode to a Nightingale .
John Keats- 1795-1821
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk: ‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, But being too happy in thine happiness,— That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees, In some melodious plot Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth, Tasting of Flora and the country green, Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth! O for a beaker full of the warm South, Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, And purple-stained mouth; That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget What thou among the leaves hast never known, The weariness, the fever, and the fret Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; Where but to think is to be full of sorrow And leaden-eyed despairs, Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
Away! away! for I will fly to thee, Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, But on the viewless wings of Poesy, Though the dull brain perplexes and retards: Already with thee! tender is the night, And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne, Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays; But here there is no light, Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet Wherewith the seasonable month endows The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild; White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine; Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves; And mid-May’s eldest child, The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine, The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death, Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme, To take into the air my quiet breath; Now more than ever seems it rich to die, To cease upon the midnight with no pain, While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad In such an ecstasy! Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain— To thy high requiem become a sod.
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! No hungry generations tread thee down; The voice I hear this passing night was heard In ancient days by emperor and clown: Perhaps the self-same song that found a path Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, She stood in tears amid the alien corn; The same that oft-times hath Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell To toil me back from thee to my sole self! Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf. Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades Past the near meadows, over the still stream, Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep In the next valley-glades: Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
Today was warm and the cones on the pine trees started to crack open, slow releasing their tough seeds onto the ground.
Green woodpeckers yaffled, spotted woodpeckers drummed and the greenfinches sneered their wonderfully adolescent long single whine from the branches.
Butterflies woke up . There were brimstones, comma, red admirals and small tortoiseshells, bright against the brown mud in my garden as they shook colour back into the world.
In doors I sat at the kitchen table and watched the images from Mars on a laptop.
The rover descending and filming the surface as it came closer and closer, I saw the ridges and the red craters, the tantalising aquamarine shapes and then the sand of the very surface blown by the rover landing, engulfed it all.
I listened to the sound of Mars.
A wind blew between the clicks and bleeps of the machine that had travelled so far to hear it. In my kitchen, as the pine cones split open, I heard the wind on planet Mars and existence was astounding again and again.
I was listening to a program about the importance of the written word: the really written word, made by a human being pushing a pencil along a sheet of paper . I was inspired to share a poem I wrote this morning after listening to bird song from the garden through an open window.
The physical words have an added significance for me, as they are increasingly hard to make. I have Multiple Sclerosis and hand writing can be almost impossible for me some days, likewise typing . Voice dictation does not allow for poetry . The whole point of the unexpected word perplexes the machine and it will change and change it again until it has made dull prose out of something that I wanted to catch the light unexpectedly, like the song of the blackbird.
I hope my writing is good enough for you to read is all senses of the word!
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats
It rained heavily here after weeks and weeks of bright sunshine and the bees were driven in under the shelter of the dripping patio. Luckily there were enough tangled wall flowers half in the rain and half under the cover to provide them with nectar and pollen away from the falling rain. Listening to the bees I thought of Yeats lovely line of poetry and of all the wonderful sounds of the “deep heart’s core”.
The heartbeat, ethereal sound of the first cuckoo, heard and almost not heard in the echoing quiet of our lockdown world. No easy jet roars tearing up the air and stitching us in with trails of pollution. It is now so quiet that I can hear the call of the first cuckoo right over in the valley along the alder stream where I remember them last spring time.
What a long time ago last spring seems!
Walking where we wanted, seeing whom we pleased, being unafraid.
And yet this spring I have heard more birds than I ever had before. I have spoken to more neighbours over the garden fence and wall than ever before. And most remarkable of all; a neighbour tells me he has seen a lynx in the forest for the very first time! My neighbour has cut timber in the forest for 30 years and he knows how rare and remarkable this sighting was.
This spring is so different.
Delius was inspired by the sound of the first cuckoo and so please take a moment to catch a little calm and listen to this gentle music in celebration of some normality.
For me they call the day into being and they settle it to rest at night. Their song is the first thing I hear and blackbird’s rich burbling waterfall of notes is strong enough to be heard through sleepy double glazed bedroom windows and irresistible enough to draw me out into every falling garden dusk.
Each bird has its own sound kingdom ruled from a roof top or tall tree and it proclaims its ownership not in battle or borders, but by pouring the rich cream of its delicious notes over everything that can hear it.
In my garden the blackbird announces the start of the day from the tallest birch tree. Each phrase of its wonderfully complex and satisfying song so round and light they seem to hang on the thin birch twigs like jewels .
At dusk the notes are more defined and the bird chuckles them out like comfortable gossip about the day gone by.
It is always the very last bird to stop singing and the very last to roost: afraid to miss out on anything .
In high summer its final notes are often the prelude to the appearance of the bats and their silhouettes against the gathering dark are sometimes merged as silence finally falls.
Some days have felt like spring: warm sun and gentle air; some days have looked like spring; early bees and daffodils, but today was the first day that sounded like spring.
The air is still cold, there is snow on the mountains and bad news on the radio, but migrants have come on the wind and their song was lovely!
The edge of the woods were loud with bird song, thrushes and blackbirds, a skirl of starlings that could sing like kites and golden orioles and their own whirling popping selves. A raven chuckled over us, green woodpeckers yaffled, black woodpeckers deep drummed and a long eared owl wheezed unseen . There were blue tits, great tits, wagtails and coal tits and then best of all; most unmistakable and gorgeous a chiffchaff sang with its throat full of spring time and the promise of summer.
Two brimstone butterflies appeared, a fantastically edged comma butterfly found some sunshine and ludicrously, a pair of large ruddy shell ducks landed on the top of our neighbours chimney pot, called companionable to one another and flew away!
I dont have pictures of any of these things. Close you eyes and listen for them, though you may have to listen very hard to hear the butterflies!
The fieldfare are here and the starlings too. They have a lot of catching up to do since last autumn and they never stop talking.
I thought brouhaha was a children’s word for a lot of noise until I watched a film with French subtitles for the hard of hearing and saw the noise of many voices in a crowd rendered simply as brouhaha. It is the right word to also describe the racket coming from a pear tree laden with ripe fruit this afternoon. No one had bothered to pick it, the fruit was too small, but the birds were loud in their appreciation of the owner’s forgetfulness.
There seems no limit to the variety of sounds that starlings can make. They pop, wheeze, exclaim, whistle and shriek and they shout over one another with a wonderful lack of inhibition. Add a flock of fieldfare, half drunk on the fermenting fruit and the result is as cacophonous as a bar when the football is on. I love this raucous sound of autumn; everyone has something to say and are determined to say it.
The first snow has fallen on the Black Forest in Germany and on the Grand Ballon in the Voges; tonight there will snow here in the Jura, but today the sun in shining and the birds are making merry in the pear tree!
I love the sun and I love the rain. We have been blessed with a bright Indian summer and sometimes it seemed like the sunshine would never end and it was frankly just too bright and too intolerably shiny.
In the endless good weather my tom cat went decidedly crazy. He stayed out all night and disappeared into the white full moon. This may sound frisky and fun, but we couldn’t sleep when he was out for foolish worry and when we managed to entice him home, him seemed frantic, hunted and frankly deranged! So we have kept him indoors, bought new catnip toys and tried to make friends with him again. He has slowly reintegrated into domestic life, allows strokes, occasionally purrs and kicks the life out of the cat nip toys.
Now it is raining properly . The gutters are running and the roof is pattering. The water butts are bubbling over. We have lit the stove again and everyone (cats included) is calming down in front of the fire. Ahh that’s better!
We didn’t know it when we bought our house. We bought the place because it just felt right, as soon as we arrived and we weren’t really looking, but we bought it anyway. Ten years later we are still here and all you have to do is look up on a day like today to know why we really choose it.
Tens of thousands of birds have passed over our garden today. Their wings are rustling above our heads. Flock after flock, flinking and beating. The first time you see them you just grin with astonishment; the second time you try to really listen and the third time you decide that the dry sound is like a rain shower through summer trees, almost gone before it reaches the ground.
They are pigeons coming out of Central Europe and flying west across France and into Spain and Portugal. Thousands and thousands of birds crossing right over this odd intersection of Germany, France and Switzerland and over my back garden on a still sunny Sunday afternoon.
It appears we unwittingly bought a house on a major migration route for birds.
Spring and autumn birds flow over us. Down the lane serious birders set up telescopes and send in records of raptors and rarities to international migration sites. My husband scans the skies from the comfort of the porch and convenient cups of tea. I look up when I hear the birds: air pushing, confident beats of stocky powerful wings and he indicates that the whole sky from edge to edge is black with the improbable smoke of the migrating pigeons.
So that’s why it has always felt like the right place!
I like listening to the radio in French because I cant really understand it. I like reading in Spanish for the same reason. I like living surrounded by marvellous unfathomable bugs and silent fungi because I can just look and admire and cannot communicate with them.
Scientists have recently found that a plant which turns each day to a regularly timed source of bright light, which is also accompanied by the gentle blowing of a fan, will also turn to the blowing of the fan when there is no reward of light. Pavlov first proved that a dog rewarded with food when a bell rang would, salivate for food as soon as the bell rang, whether there was food or not, thus proving dogs could learn. This new research shows that plants can do the same thing.
Pavlov’s name has gone down in history for his work with dogs. The researcher who found this extraordinary evidence is Monica Gagliano . I think we will have to work on a catchy link for her second name, any idea? https://www.monicagagliano.com.
The intelligence of plants is just beginning to be appreciated and is an amazing field.
It is just possible that in fact I speak plant and the reason that all the other languages dont make sense is that I am tuned into a very different wave length. What do you think?
It is still summer and glittering. Jewels hunt amongst the rose petals and the perfume of heat is strong.
But the night is cooler and the dawn later. The bats are coming into roost over the apple trees when I have to leave for work, their tantalising trails of clicks and whirls are caught by the bat box and then forgotten in the blur of noise and traffic and faces and faces and faces that fill the working day.
This swallow was nesting above the cutlery shelf in a busy English beer garden. Drinkers clattered by collecting knives and forks, ketchup and vinegar and bar staff plonked down ploughmans’ lunches, Sunday roasts and Branston pickle sandwiches on their way to tables ringed by hungry drinkers. The swallow ignored them all and safe between the electrical wires and heating ducts brought butterflies and bugs back to its brood of hatchlings .
I have put up artificial, purpose made nests for swallows and house martins all round my house, just above my garden which is heaving with insect banquets and the birds have spurned them all. I have laughed at the improbability of my neighbour ever populating his huge new house martin monster hotel as he insists on constantly shaving the grass beneath with noisiest lawn mower known to creation. However, it seems I have been totally wrong about what these birds want, as this picture proves. To attract swallows to nest in harmony give them chatter, clatter, the smell of cooking and the fumes of plenty of good bitter beer!
( For those of you who have to study this poem for an exam – trout are fish that make a circular ripple on the surface of the water as they come up for air hence “trout ringed pools”)
While I was watching fat flanked trout flick in a clear stream as the evening fell, I was reminded of the lines from the Kipling poem The way through the woods:
“when the night air cools on the trout ringed pools,
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(they fear not men in the woods because they see so few..)”
I love the repeated ” oo “sound, which makes the line so wonderfully peaceful and elongated like a sigh of satisfaction.
It is a wonderful poem for evoking sounds as well as sights.
I particularly like the alliteration of ” the swish of the skirt in the dew” where the repetition of the ” s” in “swish” and “skirt ” mimics the sound of the fabric brushing through the grass .
The metre of the rest of the line ” steadily cantering through ….” lets the reader actually feel the movement of the horse as it makes that unmistakable jerky double step of a horse cantering on the path in the “Misty solitudes” .
Kipling manages to evoke such a hauntingly lovely place through his almost effortless use of visual and auditory imagery .
As with all poems worth loving, you should read this aloud to yourself, just to feel the words roll in your mouth. Enjoy!
The Road through the Woods.
THEY shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.
Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few.)
You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods.
But there is no road through the woods.
Squeals of delight come easily to children and rarely to the truely grown up. Adult life consists of such profoundly dull things that an unforced squealing is considered an audible anomaly. That is why bramblings are so wonderful.
The odd jaunty red brambling amongst the chaffinches or sparrows in the garden is a smile inducing pleasure, but a wintering flock streaming overhead as the darkness falls evokes a real squeal.
Some years they don’t come. Apparently the prevelence of beech mast has to be just right to tempt them south from their Scandinavian homes in such numbers: they dont take wing in their millions for nothing. But when the conditions are right they arrive in huge numbers and feed voraciously in the woods of Southern Germany, Eastern France and northern Switzerland. We were once in the forest when they descended to forage and every leaf was alive with flicking, delicately rustling birds, as thousands and thousands fed quietly around us.
This year we have seen few on the ground, but suddenly the air has been fabulously full of them. Somewhere relatively close, the bramblings have been roosting on mass and the skies right above our muddy garden have been filled with their sturdy determined silhouettes returning at dusk to their temporary roost.
The first flock flying over make you stop what you are doing and shout for others to look. The second flock makes you shout louder, the third, the forth and the fifth flock leave you rooted to the earth in immobile delight. When the flocks streaming overhead are indistinguishable and there is no sky between them, then you realise you are seeing millions of birds and squealing is the only possible response!
We tried in vain to find the roost, but by the time we had time to give up doing the dull things that grown ups do, the bramblings in their extraordinary, unbelievable millions, had gone somewhere else.
Loss is the sound of a skirt shaken; long hair tossed; snow shrugging from a dark winter pine and whispering down to the ground.
I walked in the thawing wood.
Everything was movement and sound and I felt as if I was walking in the company of multitudes shivering and sliding softly around me. At first the thaw was disorientating, too much movement and unexpected sound and then I became accustomed to the slippery urgency of snow falling into water, everywhere, all around, sliding.
Across the forest path: pigs, little ones, middle ones, aunties, mothers, utterly silent on tiny delicate feet. Fifteen wild boar passed noiselessly right in front of us and followed their line out across the damp snowy field: a line of black piggy perfection against the waning white slush.