Character in Birdsong – by Peter Adams

Among my late father’s writings, I found two essays to post here in his memory, this one on Bird-songs, and another: ‘Mutterings from a Back Desk’ (among first or second violins in the orchestra). His acute ear pleases me. I shall post his ‘Back Desk thoughts‘ later this week, in my other blog, Aquariel.  (now done)

Peter died on 19 February at 93.  I was with him as he went ‘through the opening door’.  What a moment with a parent to share:  in his own words – ‘as into the Now, I bow.’  We planted him in a green churchyard in the North Devon countryside, with his Yule ancestors.  Rest in deep peace.  “Fare forward voyager!” … This which he used to say, is from Eliot’s four quartets.  Not farewell, but fare forward..

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Peter inspects the field 2014

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Character in Birdsong (1952-3)

Often the calls and songs of birds evoke a startlingly clear atmosphere; the long crooning purr of the nightjar brings to mind still summer nights never quite dark.  The middle distant call of a partridge like the creaking of an un-oiled hinge suggests the hayfield in the evening.  Often these sounds can spring the catch of memory.  At all times and especially in lonely moments, bird song can be a part of life, and not just a background to it.

There are many people who take an interest in birds and enjoy watching them, yet really few can enjoy the songs in the same way.  This is strange, for it is so much easier to hear a bird singing than to see it.  The voice of the nightingale may be clearly audible half a mile away, and yet half an hour of search may give no more than a glimpse of the brown body slipping across a freckle of sunlight in a thicket.  For the lazy man there can be few pleasures to surpass lying back in the sun just listening to the birds.  And the ear when trained can give as much pleasure as the eye.

To name is to create interest, and recognition of the different songs and sounds is the first step.  Like most beginnings it is the most difficult, but whenever a little progress has been made, the fresh delight of hearing among the mesh of woodland sounds a known bird-song and of being able to listen to it as an individual will whet the appetite.  Concentrated and accurate listening are the requirements necessary to distinguish between the varying bird sounds until they are known so well that the mind automatically hears, recognises and criticises the songs while the body is intent upon some other task.  This is the aim, to know and enjoy without effort whatever birds are singing at any time.

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wood bird yantra

wood bird yantra

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Certainly the easiest way to learn bird songs is to hear a song and see the bird singing it.  To see is to believe, but it is usually far more difficult than just hearing and often demands more effort.  In many cases it is not essential.  Imaginative reading of word-pictures can enable the keen mind to recognise a bird note never before heard. ‘The Charm of Birds’ by Grey and the writings of W.E.Hudson contain some of the best descriptions of bird sounds in an extensive literature.

Bird-songs differ in four main ways.  To take the simplest first, there is the manner in which the bird sings and its position while singing.  Many birds sing from a perch.  The starling finds the chimney pot useful as a stand for his useful collection of clicks and chuckles, his wheezings and his imitative notes;  a clown’s song.  Mistle-thrushes sing from the top of a tree leaning into the wind, and song-thrushes sit higher and sing longer than blackbirds.  The robin sings from a lower perch and changes it fairly frequently.  Like many of the smaller birds, wrens and dunnocks sing quite spontaneously as they move about.  The lark is easily recognised, his song raining down from that high ecstatic body hung so close to the sky, and the meadow-pippit’s few liquid notes are thrown out as the bird parachutes down to a bush from the climax of its brief upward flight.

Secondly, there is the mood in which the song is cast.  Blackbirds are never young; their song is calm and reflective, born of a controlled emotion, of ‘emotion recalled in tranquillity‘.  The sentences are spaced and meaningful, giving the impression of thought and care, and there is fluency with mastery of the medium.

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Violin for cover - Version 2 copy

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How different is the boyish attitude of the thrush, of constant experimentation and interest. He listens to his short sentences, likes them and repeats them;  but he never does anything with them.  There is no design to his music.  Even so, the thrush of all birds seems to take the keenest delight in his own singing, and is often the last to fall silent at dusk.

Different again is the wild impetuous carolling of the mistle-thrush, a rush of swift sentences with little variety.  Careful listening will reveal little variety in the song of the redbreast, but so masterly is his control, so effortless his phrasing and so sweet his tone that this lack of material is masked. There is great tenderness in this emotional little song.  The willow-warbler sings in a similar mood, a single plaintive falling cadence, one of the purest sounds in all bird music.

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4 Snowy Lullaby

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Few birds are more self-effacing than the dunnock, and his slight musical tinkle is meant not to offend.  How violently compares the ringing mechanical challenge of the wren!  Once the spring is released to set the song in motion, there is no stopping it until all is said.

A rather more subtle difference is the tone-colour or quality of the voice.  Many bird voices have the timbre of the flute;  but each species has its own kind of flute.  The blackbird’s flute is of green wood.  The tone is warm and rounded, has a throaty quality;  almost it might be said that the blackbird never quite clears his throat.  Nor has his voice the carrying power that enables the song-thrush to light up the evening in a higher drier register.  For the thrush is the descant recorder, a more even tone that never achieves the mellowness of the blackbird.  The robin has a silver flute, and how gently he uses it.  So do most of the warblers, but somewhere in their flutes there is a flaw which causes the voice to harshen on occasion.  The hardest metallic voice belongs to the wren – a tempered steel that rings in the ear.

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Trees planted by Peter, near Shebbear

Trees planted by Peter, near Shebbear

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Lastly, the shape of the sentences or what the bird says is often a great help in getting to know a song.  All birds except the larks sing in more or less short sentences.  These sentences may be set and identical, and are easy to learn.  The hearty but uninspired descending expression of the chaffinch ending in a little turn is typical.  So is the yellow bunting’s ‘Little-bit-of-bread-and-NO-cheese’ in a voice suggesting the quivering heat of summer afternoons.  The tremendous vitality of the wren frequently sets in motion his long and pompous phrase with its bouncing rhythm and many trills.  Probably the simplest sentence is uttered by the first spring-migrant to arrive.  In late March the chiff-chaff is heard high in a tree stolidly repeating his single ill-articulated word with the rhythm of a carving-knife being sharpened.  He calls in fact, his name aloud, for all to hear.

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lino cut bird and egg

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All the great singers bring variety into their songs with more or less differing sentences.  Few translations of bird songs into the human language bear much resemblance to the original, but the following fragment of a thrush’s song written about a hundred years ago, is an exception:

“Worse, mocked the thrush. ‘Die! Die!
O, could he do it, could he do it? Nay!
Be quick!  Be quick!  Here, here, here’
(went his lay)

“‘Take heed! take heed!’  Then, ‘Why?
Why? Why? Why? Why?
See-ee now!  See-ee now!’ (he drawled)
‘Back  Back  Back  R-r-r-run away?’

“O thrush be still!
or at thy will
seek some less sad interpreter than I.”

The nightingale also employs repetition on occasion with great effect, but his song is perhaps the most varied of them all, changing not only the phrases but the tone-colour and the strength of the notes.  He is the only bird to employ crescendo, and there are few things more wonderful to hear than his swelling repetition of a single lovely note until the night is filled with it.

To hear one such perfect note as this is worth much, and it is to this end that a knowledge of bird-songs leads.  For in the height of the singing season the birds sing in chorus, and it is only by picking out and listening to an individual that the single strands of beauty can be heard.  The ability to do this can be a great joy, and will open a new world of sensation and interest.

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Written in the early 1950s at The Bows, Glensaugh, Laurencekirk, Scotland
Revised at Breck Farm, Bransdale, Fadmoor, Yorks.

Peter was under-shepherd at the first, and managing a big hill of sheep at the second.

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Peter with Moss and Nell

Peter with Moss and Nell

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My adventure invites fellow travellers. I am a poet, an artist and a seer. I welcome conversation among the PHILO SOFIA, the lovers of wisdom.

This blog is a vehicle to promote also my published work – The Sacred India Tarot (with Rohit Arya, Yogi Impressions Books) and The Dreamer in the Dream – a collection of short stories (0 Books). Watch this space.

aquariel link

All art and creative writing in this blog is copyright © Janeadamsart 2012-2016. May not be used for commercial purposes. May be used and shared for non-commercial means with credit to Jane Adams and a link to the web address https://janeadamsart.wordpress.com/

9 thoughts on “Character in Birdsong – by Peter Adams

    • It is quite something to share. You might read also the ‘pingback’ below this comment. I felt these two writings of his – discovered among many others in the bottom of his desk after he died – make a good memorial for my father, he might chuckle. The rest is private but universal. With you, where the words drop away …

      • Thanks.

        Some Tennyson, marked by my father in a book I found after his death:

        Flow down, cold rivulet, to the sea,
        Thy tribute wave deliver:
        No more by thee my steps shall be,
        For ever and for ever.

        Flow, softly flow, by lawn and lea,
        A rivulet then a river:
        No where by thee my steps shall be
        For ever and for ever.

        But here will sigh thine alder tree
        And here thine aspen shiver;
        And here by thee will hum the bee,
        For ever and for ever.

        A thousand suns will stream on thee,
        A thousand moons will quiver;
        But not by thee my steps shall be,
        For ever and for ever.

  1. Pingback: Back Desk Mutterings – by Peter Adams | Aquariel

  2. So lovely. The words, the artwork (that violin was something else….but so was the tree and…)…I was thinking about your post on the Yantra because as I sat in my living room I saw a “new” (?) way to approach something in glass that would allow me to make a form that formed like a 3-d Yantra and thought of you. I hope you are doing great in the Spring!

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