Jay Griffiths, entranced by a proud, cocky wren, explores the bewitching effect of birdsong.
I am thirsty for this music. I lean nearer. The tiny twig of a tail juts up—the wren stops. I freeze. He sings again. It is as if my listening is stretching out through my fingers to hear more nearly this mini-Paganini, the chanterelle of birds to me, the sweetest, highest string of the violin. (Its vocal range is one of the highest-pitched of birds, singing up to one full octave above the top note of a piano keyboard.)
My ears, though, are perplexed by him. I cannot hear fast enough to keep up, so the last notes of his cadence fall silent before I have properly heard the first, and by the time I deeply hear his song, he has already finished. If starlight is emitted light years ago, and we may only see it after a star has ceased to shine, so I seem to hear this bird only after it has ceased to sing, its song emitted just sound-seconds ago but always uncatchable.
It is both fleet and fleeting, fast and evanescent. Quick and quickening, it touches the quick of the spirit, in the acuteness of time. It quickens the woodlands with liveliness, as to be quick also means to be alive, germinating its seedling songs in the leaves, inseminating the air.
“I am rapt in beauty and each note reminds me of the jewels I had in my hand as a child when I pretended that drops of water were diamonds and I was surrounded by priceless treasure”
As soon as I hear it, I want to describe it, as if once I have breathed in birdsong, I must transpose it into a human key and breathe it out in language.
Musicians and composers have an elective affinity with birdsong. Human music has entwined with birds since the earliest records of culture: the world’s oldest recognisable musical instrument is a flute made of a hollow bird’s bone, from a Griffon vulture.
‘In my hours of gloom,’ Olivier Messiaen wrote, ‘when I am suddenly aware of my own futility… what is left for me but to seek out the true, lost face of music somewhere in the forest, in the fields, in the mountains or on the seashore, among the birds.’ Vivaldi composed his flute concerto Il Gardellino, the ‘Goldfinch’, in 1702. Or so they say. But when you listen to that flute solo you know, of course, the bird composed it first.
When Beethoven composed part of his Pastoral Symphony, he said ‘The yellowhammers up there, the quails, nightingales and cuckoos around about, composed with me.’
‘Birds instructed man,’ wrote Lucretius, ‘and taught him songs before his art began.’
There is a case, some linguists say, for arguing that we sang before we spoke, that the emotional content of our language, in pitch, timbre, musicality, came before the lexical part. Shigeru Miyagawa, a linguist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests that, between 50,000 and 80,000 years ago, humans merged the expressive songs of birds with the information-bearing communications of other primates to create the unique music of human language.
Was it their grace notes which sang at the very source of our language? Is it possible? Is that part of the reason for my keen and keening listening, as if I am not just learning to hear but dimly remembering how we first learnt to speak?
I am drinking the wren’s silver laughter, thirsty for its liquid song. I’m not alone: ‘One moment just to drink the sound/Her music made’, writes John Clare of the nightingale, a beak, rather than a beakerful of the warm South. George Meredith pictures the skylark’s song as a jet of water soaring ‘With fountain ardor, fountain play’, this carefree—spilling—overflow as if the bird’s song in its pure liquidity dissolves all the dry distinctions of joy and light, the listener and the singer, in an aural alchemy.
I listen soundlessly. I breathe in for this wren, but then I am rapt in beauty and each note reminds me of the jewels I had in my hand as a child when I pretended that drops of water were diamonds and I was surrounded by priceless treasure. Our best applause: first silence, then song.
“He is the smallest bird I see in these woods, but his song is the loudest and this is why, openheartedly, simply, gratefully, admiringly, I love him. He dazzles my ears.”
Why do they do it? The obvious deadening answers lie at my feet like litter. Courting. Mating. Territory. Machines for survival. Mechanical embodiments of genetic compulsion. Oh, I know these things are all true, I know it well. I have watched a woodpecker almost sheepish with horniness until, in order to broadcast his message louder, he became a metalpecker, clinging to a telegraph pole, rattling the metal strut with its beak, and I thought he would get a terrible headache as he tried to drum up a mate from thin air: roll up, roll up, can’t hold on much longer. Drrrrrrrrrum úp. (Pause.) Drrrrrrrrrum úp. (Pause.) Drrrrrrrrrum úp. (Please?)
But here’s the thing. Birds are known to sing beyond what is necessary to find, impress and keep a mate, beyond what is necessary to get and hold their territory. They sing well after the chicks have flown the nest, long into autumn, so late and so well. And this is the gap to watch, the opening which begs that the question is asked again, and willingly, why?
The gap between need and achieve that lets the beauty in. The eager profusion, the unmeasured abundance. You can’t miss them, the ones which tickle the leaves of the woodlands for joy, tinkling the ivresseries, the ones which can’t stop themselves, whose songs run rings of bright sound around themselves like otters chasing their own tails at a noon tide.
The musician, philosopher and writer David Rothenberg, author of the beautiful book Why Birds Sing, argues that as well as the obvious reasons, birds sing for joy. As a musician himself, he feels a camaraderie, an understanding that birds as much as humans are musicians and they sing for the sheer pleasure of performance, far over and above their need. ‘Music is a songbird’s utmost desire, an endless yearning to sing.’
The wren is watching me. I breathe out as quietly as I can. His tiny eyes are a brilliant, liquid black—he blinks. He is the smallest bird I see in these woods, but his song is the loudest and this is why, openheartedly, simply, gratefully, admiringly, I love him. He dazzles my ears. There is courage here, cocky, proud, brave and beautiful. This is undaunted gift; how much sheer magnificence can you pack into one tiny wren?
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This is an abridged version of ‘Birdsong’, first printed in ‘Arboreal: A Collection of New Woodland Writing’ (£20, Little Toller Books). Jay Griffiths is the author of ‘Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape’ (£9.99, Penguin)