It's spring! The Red-winged Blackbirds announced their arrival with gusto from the tree outside my window. That's the sound that woke me up this morning. Konk-a-REEEEEE! They weren't here yesterday. I've heard reports of them in the Pioneer Valley for the last two weeks, but they didn't make it up onto our hill until today.
After laying there for awhile, listening, and picking out voices and numbers of voices from the chorus, I began to reflect upon the presentation Lang Elliott gave at the Hoffmann Bird Club meeting last night. Lang has spent his life recording bird song, among other sounds from nature. Most birders are familiar with his recordings on Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs, but his work is extensive.* Last night he talked about the way we listen to the sounds of nature, and because we were all birders, he spoke about the way we generally listen to birds. Some of us are more analytical and scientific, and others of us listen more for aesthetic and artistic reasons. I tend to be one of the former.
Birders often listen to recordings of bird songs so that we can find and identify birds in the field. We hone into one song, "slice" it out of the rest of the chorus, and identify it. "Zee zee zee zoo zee:" Black-Throated Green Warbler. "Che-bek!" Least Flycatcher. We wander through the woods or fields or along the river's edge straining our ears to catch the nuances of a new or unique song through the chatter of chipmunks, frogs and abundant birds. "What's that?!?! Sh! Behind the sound of the Chickadees. No, not the White-throated Sparrow. Under that layer of sound and in that direction. Hear it? I know; the Red-winged Blackbirds are very loud. There it is again! Hear it? There! Northern Waterthrush! I know it's in there! Right back there. It sounds as if it's coming from down low. Can you see it?"
Once we hone in on the direction of the sound, we're now straining our eyes, waiting for any hint of movement, binoculars at the ready to catch at least one tantalizing glimpse of the singer. Triumph! We found it! We follow it with our eyes, chasing it visually and aurally through the swampy tangles of brush and forest edge, pointing it out to one another, until it has melted from sight into the habitat. We move on into the woods. Then, "There! Do you hear that?!?!? It's really loud! What is it? Sounds like a Red-eyed Vireo: 'Here I am. Where are you? Here I am. Where are you?' There, up there on the branch at 11 o'clock in the birch next to that clump of new leaves!" And so it goes... one bird after the other gives away it's location and it's name with it's song, and we dutifully record it's presence on the earth.
That's what Lang refers to as the Analytic/Scientific end of the spectrum. You can delve very deeply into birdsong, indeed. You can record it, and plot it in sonograms. You can analyze the frequencies of different portions of the song, or the pitch and speed of the song sung at different times of day. You can try to understand the evolution of song and how and why birds sing by comparing the songs of the same species from different geographic locations. The list of questions to ask, and things to learn goes on and on and on.
The other side of that spectrum is Aesthetic/Artistic. This is when people listen to bird song and its entire soundscape, including the insects and frogs and common birds and wind and water, perhaps while meditating, for pleasure, to relax, to feel it, to heal stress, to lose oneself in the sounds and to reconnect with nature. That's the part of Lang's presentation that I was reflecting upon this morning as I lay snuggled in bed. The reconnecting with nature bit. I haven't done a lot of connecting with nature this winter. I am easily intimidated by large amounts of snow.
"I want to blog about his presentation and what he conveyed about listening to the music of nature for aesthetic reasons, but I don't know how to describe it. I don't do it often enough," I think. "I'm becoming more skilled at analyzing the sounds around me. I am able to name all of those birds singing outside my window from my cozy nest under the covers behind closed curtains. I can pick out this or that and add it to the list. I should listen to more of his recorded soundscapes," I analyze. "I should go out into the world and take the time to close my eyes and lose myself in the sound and not think about it," I remind myself. "When do I have time?" I ask myself.
It's really early in the morning for all of that thinking. My dogs adjust themselves and snuggle in a bit closer. I can feel their warmth. The drowsiness of comfort begins to creep over me. My mind relaxes. The dawn chorus gently lifts me up and out through the window. Now I'm in the tree. The chill wind with a hint of spring softly whistles as it tickles my nose. The sun warms my face through the chill. I am singing in harmony with the world around me, announcing the arrival of spring. I lose myself in the sound of the world only to find that I am not lost; a part of me has been found in the dawning of spring. I am the world around me , and it is me. "Konk-a-REEEEEEEE!"
*You can find Lang Elliott's work at these websites: