Book Review: A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth

SWNI’ve never found learning birdsong particularly difficult, though when I started birdwatching something over a decade ago I certainly spent a lot of time staring at a singing bush waiting for the songster to reveal itself and thus its identity. In 2011 I agreed to take on an MSc research project that involved surveying woodland birds by ear, and suddenly the need to be able to identify birdsong took on a fresh urgency. That spring I finally sorted out nuthatch trills, great tit improvisation and the perennially tricky blackcap vs. garden warbler* and now consider myself a passable bird listener, though my talents are as nothing to the true masters of the art. It’s a useful skill, whether for utilitarian purposes such as surveys or the mildly smug feeling of knowing something that many people don’t.

But as Richard Smyth shows in A Sweet, Wild Note, there are many more ways to listen to birdsong, as varied as the songs themselves and the experiences of their human audience. ‘Birdsong is a wonderfully malleable material’, as he puts it, beginning a learned yet lighthearted tour through poetic and other literary interpretations of birdsong stretching from Old Testament times to the present. These can be ecstatic, often metaphorical and sometimes stretch birdsong to the point of subversion—thinking particularly of how poetry ‘planted an English flag in the skylark’s song’ even though larks are equally likely to be singing over German or Spanish fields.

When not playing with birdsong as poetic raw material, human culture has tried to capture it altogether. Smyth takes us through the history of recorded birdsong and how this has fed back into culture through its use in music. A form of captured song that is perhaps less obvious to us today is the practice of caging birds and the surprising follow-on idea that birdsong’s natural state can be improved upon. Yet of course birdsong is, as Smyth writes, ‘tied in tightly with lots of other things—ideas of place, nature, of biophony … diminished when it’s made to stand alone.’ Today this is recognised by ecologists: for example, Smyth touches on Bernie Krause’s fascinating work on soundscape ecology and the acoustic niche hypothesis.

Ultimately birdsong is, together with other natural sounds, the sound of the landscape itself. It becomes for us ‘a means of orientation’, a phrase I particularly appreciated, thinking of how the sounds of birds bring up memories or impressions of particular places and times:

In this context, when we ask ‘what does the bird’s song mean?’ we don’t give an answer like ‘freedom’ or ‘exultation’ or challenge’; we might say ‘Wytham Woods in spring’ or ‘a saltmarsh in winter’, or ‘a seabird colony in the breeding season’. It’s about what it means to us.

As a self-confessed recent ‘birdsong sceptic’, Smyth has been accumulating his own meanings and shares them throughout. Though the experiences are his own, I recognised and enjoyed his delight at the mad beauty of blackcap song or the thrill of hearing your first turtle dove. The fact that one needs to seek out a first turtle dove at all is a good clue that all is not well in the world of birdsong, and Smyth does not shy away from talk of future silent springs. Even for those with no particular appreciation of birdsong, the idea of a world where the birds are silenced is probably an ominous one. Smyth points out that this is an effect exploited by filmmakers to induce a sense of threat, one in fact deployed pre-cinema by Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. He summarises the threats to songbirds with a single word: neglect. I think that’s a fair assessment, and his proposed solution of greater attentiveness captures well the starting place for all the best endeavours of human culture, whether poetic or scientific.

Smyth writes: ‘Birdsong … comes with baggage. But maybe we could work with that’. This brief yet comprehensive reflection on the meaning of birdsong works through baggage very well indeed. I would highly recommend it as a thoughtful, accessible and witty introduction to the world of birdsong and defy anybody who reads this book not to resolve to pay more attention themselves.

A Sweet, Wild Note: What we Hear When The Birds Sing is published today (April 13th) by Elliott & Thompson. Thanks to E&T for providing a review copy.

*When I say sorted out, that’s not to say we don’t all need our annual period of getting our ear in. That’s part of the charm of migrant songsters.

A few singing birds I’ve filmed in a very amateur way. Much better to go out and listen to the real thing!

March 19th (Gardening)

The earth may be a tiny blue speck lost in the mind-numbingly vast depths of space, but compared to the scale of a single human life it is big enough. And as if the very big-ness of the planet wasn’t enough to contend with, it often feels so beset with problems that it’s difficult to know where to start living a good life—one which, we hope, might make some small positive difference. Sometimes the easiest place to start is right where we are. On Sunday afternoon I ventured into the garden and did some semi-purposeful digging: it always feels good, amid our over-connected and over-sedentary lifestyles, to spend a while with fingers literally in the ground. Even if I do reliably complain of being exhausted afterwards.

Gardening is at once a form of escapism from the intractable problems beyond the fence and a way of participating more fully, of taking responsibility for one small slice of the planet. Whether I do any actual good is another question. If anything, I feel mildly guilty as I interfere in the most direct ways with the path of wild nature: evicting slugs and woodlice from under a spare fence panel, disturbing a little group of pale brown beetles that must have wintered in the long dead grass I was gathering up. Hacking back the bramble and nipping out a sycamore seedling just as it had become established in our lawn.

Still, it’s a good reminder that my footprint on this earth is bigger than my size nine and a halves. I struggled for an hour or so trying to clear a small plot to grow some vegetables in. Elsewhere in the country farmers do this on a bigger scale on our behalf, and, given the difficulties of uprooting weeds and tangled grass clumps, I can hardly blame them when they reach for the glyphosate—though I’m pleased to say our friendly veg growers at Riverford manage without. One afternoon with spade in hand hardly counts as being connected to the land, but it’s a start. The sour note comes when I remind myself how fleeting this control and connection must be: we rent this house and the garden behind it, whilst the real power, influence and security belong to those who privately ‘own’ their dwellings and sometimes plots many times the size of our temporary abode.



Kite’s Eye (1)

It’s easy to imagine that red kites are absolutely everywhere in this part of the world. By appearance and perception they are: they occupy higher sightlines than we do. If a kite is flying nearby, soon enough it drifts into view. This masks their true rarity, for whilst kite populations are undoubtedly higher than they were (not difficult from a starting point of zero) the current Berkshire breeding population is probably in the hundreds only. By contrast, there are over 800,000 of us just in this little county (1,000 humans per red kite!) yet sometimes it is remarkable how few people are visible at any particular time. Even scanning across a Reading street from the top deck of a bus on my commute home I often see only a handful of people actually out and about (occupants of cars don’t count).

Human beings are dwarfed by our own dwellings and transport contraptions. We hunch down in a maze that is mostly of our own making, but aren’t we supposed to have a deep-seated longing to fly with the birds? Perhaps there’s still some evidence we do. A few weeks ago I drove past Watership Down in Hampshire and noticed a fair number of people out flying kites. It’s been many years since I have flown one, but I recall how the tug of that thin nylon string gives just a hint at what it feels like to ride the wind. Flying kites in high places like the Downs offers not just a better chance of favourable winds but a vantage point that might just let us into the secret of what the kite sees.

And what does the kite see? Their colour vision is not dissimilar to ours, true enough, but image is only a part of the picture. Perception is what counts. Where we see an abstract mosaic of features that might be considered beautiful  – fields, copses, villages, woods – is a kite more likely to process that landscape in terms of what it might offer by way of food, shelter or danger? Or does that over-emphasise the gap between species? It’s entirely possible that our aesthetic judgement of a landscape has some evolutionary underpinning in terms of searching for resources. In the same way, I suspect the kites know more about joy than we give them credit for. Whatever is happening when a red kite’s neurons fire, I reckon it’s doing a better job of being fully alive than I am.


The Reading skyline in May 2015