Essay from ‘Songs Of Place And Time’: A Peregrine’s Eye

This essay was written for the anthology Songs Of Place And Time: Birdsong And The Dawn Chorus In Natural History And The Arts (Mike Collier ed, Gaia Project, 2020). It’s a wonderful collection and I was a privilege to be asked to contribute. You can buy the book here.

Google Maps has changed the way I think about the world. The spaces between here and there seem less linear, less a question of distance, more to do with scale, scope, depth of zoom. Pan out far enough and all places are the same place.

We have a peregrine, now. It too makes me think again about place and scale. From 70 metres up, at the top of our town’s towering mill chimney, it sits in a hunch, circled by swifts, and watches the streets, the allotments, the trees, the road verges, the birds that come streaming through the middle air in the just-dawn: pigeons, mallards, oystercatchers, jackdaws, starlings, black-headed and herring gulls. It watches me and my daughter as we sit on the back step at half-five or so, with blankets, milk and coffee. It can see us well enough, if it wants to (its vision is around eight times better than mine: easily good enough to make out the Eeyores on my daughter’s pyjamas). I think about the hurtling scale-lurch you’d experience if you climbed that 70 metres at peregrine pace.            

I asked a clever friend to do the sums. From 70 metres up, he told me, after a minute, the horizon would be 30 kilometres away. Beneath you, there’d be a broad wash of land spanning around 3,000 square kilometres: an area just a bit bigger than Lancashire. A vertiginous reverse-zoom and a peregrine-specific reshaping of the landscape: all at once, from the top of this chimney on the Aire, a hundred different towns, a half-dozen different cities, all that sprawling human landscape (human names, human borders, human ideas of here and there) is drawn as if by a drawstring into the scope of one bird’s raking binocular vision. It’s not, of course, that the pergrine can see clear from here to Burnley or the south Pennines (the woodpigeons of Slaithewaite are safe from her, for now); it’s just that, framed by lightning conductors there on the chimney-top, the peregrine has a transformative idea of what ‘here’ means.

Not far down the road from here there’s a very old woodland, mostly beech and oak, and the morning birdsong there rains down from the canopy like a spring storm. Wren, song thrush, nuthatch, jay, blackbird, woodpigeon, chiffchaff, robin (I list them here in descending order of loudness). The chiming density of sound does something else with the idea of ‘here’: it intensifies it, creates something closed-in and self-contained; standing with your back against a forty-metre beech, you feel that you’re inside a cell of bird noise – that there is, of course, a world outside, just at the other end of the footpath, but it is just that: outside, and beyond the birdsong’s event horizon.

On our back step, for April and most of May, we were early enough to hear the birds’ first songs. In the woods there are layers of birdsong, but they are tightly packed, complicatedly interleaved, layers defined by pitch, tone and volume, not by place (all the songs are just THERE); from our step the layers of song are functions of distance, and they’re laid out as clearly and crisply as the layers of a landscape on a blue winter morning, as the fine layers of a paper diorama – the voices of the birds range outwards, outwards, outwards from where we sit. Of course they don’t go on forever. But they go on far enough to make me think, once again, about where I am, and where everywhere else is, and how those ideas fit together.

Adlestrop has been athologised half to death, but it too says something about birdsong, here, and there. Edward Thomas’s famous little poem begins in the confines of a railway carriage on an ‘afternoon of heat’ in June (I’m writing this halfway through another afternoon of heat in June, a hundred-odd years later). Exactly halfway through it begins to open out (‘ – And willows, willow-herb, and grass – ’) and in the final stanza –

And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,

Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire

 – Thomas, or Thomas’s spirit, Thomas’s sensory self, leaps completely out of the stifling cabin and follows the birdsong, leap by leap (‘farther and farther’), over the fields and hills of the English south-west. Here is birdsong, again, throwing the world wide open.           

The blackbird is first, and closest to home. The blackbird is singing when I open the door and he sounds like he’s been going a while. His song – that familiar rustic hurdygurdy burble, in this case centred on the point of a neighbour’s gable-end – is our innermost point of sound. The goldfinches set up a cordon of whitenoise chatter on the surrounding rooftops. From one of the mill towers a jackdaw colony looses off a dog’s chorus of yaps and jacks and in the trees that abut the allotments at the bottom of the road a chiffchaff starts up, ticking like some erratic but unstoppable mechanical toy – all of which has taken us about a hundred yards from where we sit. It isn’t quite all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire (or for that matter West Yorkshire) but we aren’t done yet.

The pointless reeling of dunnocks (supposedly ‘shy’, but in fact just inconspicuous, and that only when they want to be); lyrical, effortless robin-verses, like Bing scatting; the off-the-cuff madcappery of thrushes; magpies, capable of raising a yammering hullabaloo whatever the hour; the blue tits, seeming to take in a breath, eeee, before the song proper, dididididi. All of these come rippling in, sooner or later, louder or fainter, and each one draws us a little further out into the world – each one places us, subtly, incrementally, without us even having to move off our step or set down our drinks, more fully and completely in this hotchpotch hybrid landscape. Sometimes wild nature can seem to enrich or consecrate a single point in space (where a bird perches to sing, where a butterfly alights, where a flower grows); at other times, times like this, the single point – second step down, below the empty milkbottles, beside a potted plant – is almost erased, because as the birds’ noise yard-by-yard maps out the landscape, we’re not just here, we’re everywhere.

And all the while of course I’m trying to keep my daughter from spilling my hot coffee and I’m shouting choo-choo as a freight train comes honking over the points by the mill and she’s doing her best to fall through the railings and into the compost and I’m thinking about a hundred other things (things that are about ‘here’, about the work I need to do today, about whether the recycling needs emptying, about whether I’ve paid the windowcleaner, about what we’ve got in for lunch). I don’t know who has the time for transcendence. It’s a glimpse, a flicker of an insight: for a minute or two at a time, the focus is pulled back, and the world becomes different.

In the quiet early days of the Covid-19 lockdown I could sometimes, to my surprise, hear the whinnying of curlews up on the moor, a good way off to the north. Each time I did, it made the trudging miles between me and them seem somehow less substantial – it made all that space and stuff weigh less heavily, have less clout, figure less prominently in how I thought of where I was and where they were, and this is a thing that birdsongs can do; it’s what they do for me, in those early mornings on the step, though each one is just a moment’s noise, a handful of air – the songs are a new way of seeing, like a Google zoom from the edge of space, offering dissolution of our disparities; like how we all (me and my daughter, the blackbirds, the curlews, the houses, streets, allotments, cars) become one when caught in a peregrine’s eye.            

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