Birdsong by Jay Griffiths

Little Toller celebrates its tenth birthday this year, so we’re delving into our archives to pick out pieces of writing that have been pivotal on our journey. Jay Griffiths wrote ‘Birdsong’ for a collection of new woodland writing that we published as Arboreal in 2016 – it was our first anthology, and Jay’s piece was the first essay in the book, and now every spring we think of Jay and Hannah’s Wood as the springtime song around us bursts from the woods and fields and hedges and eaves. Do look out for more fragments from our books over the course of 2019 (#TollerTen).


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.


Dawn in the woods. A little riff-raff of sparrows chitter in the hedge. Blue tits and great tits chip in a divertimento in hemidemisemiquavers. The crow’s croak cauls around the dark branch. A robin fills its little red sail with wind and sails into the day. All keel, no anchor. (Not solely a metaphor, that: a bird’s flight muscles are attached to what is called a keel bone.)


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. This imitation seems to be a perennial human desire, from childhood stories with the owl’s to-whit, to-whoo, or John Clare’s transliteration of a nightingale’s song, ‘Chew-chew chew-chew … jug jug jug’, as if to set a filigree net of little letters to catch a song without breaking its wings. It is sweetly futile: the ineffable may be indicated but not reproduced, but still we try and birdsong seems to turn us all into diligent but endlessly frustrated secretaries to St Francis, missing his knowledge that the only way to speak with birds is simply to laugh (aloud: silently) and to let the birdsong blow across his strings.


John Bevis’ book Aaaaw to Zzzzd: The Words of Birds, a compendium of the notation of bird sounds, dedicates itself humorously and eagerly to the acknowledged impossibility of the task, but ever willing to give it a try. But-but is a bullfinch, chack chack a fieldfare, zzzzd is the lazuli bunting and aaaa is a jay, not to be confused (clearly!) with the aaaaw of the black skimmer. Mnemonics also mimic the songs, such as the yellowhammer’s ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ or the wood pigeon’s ‘take two cows, taffy,’ or the great tit’s ‘teacher, teacher.’


Onomatopoeic naming evokes birdsong on the instant, as the cuckoo calls its name in its two-note pan pipe, or the owl (ule in Old English, ulula in Latin) softly cries its way through all the nights of the world: owl, howl and ululation are all thought to be from a Proto Indo-European root, u(wa)l, created in imitation of the owl. The chiffchaff chatters its way to day unless it hears the sinister mew of the kite keening its onomatopoeic name overhead, while the stonechat does what its name tells, making the sound of two stones clacking against each other. The hoarse cries of the crow (crawe in Old English) or rook (hroc in Old English) or raven (hræfn in Old English) speak their own names. The ornithologist-poet Don McKay captures the latter in metaphor, describing the call of a raven as ‘doorbell / crossed with oboe.’


The words peep, pipe and pibroch are onomatopoeic, from Old English pipian, to play on a pipe, which derives from Latin pipare, ‘to peep, chirp’ of imitative origin, because the word itself derives ultimately from the peeps of birds. (Sardinian has pibiare, retaining a form closer to Latin than Italian does, and Sardinian children, chicks nestled in bed, are told: ‘Como muda, mancu unu pibiu.’  ‘Now be quiet, not even a peep.’)


Many collective nouns for birds paint a sound picture: a murmuration of starlings; a bellowing of bullfinches (that’s not kind, now, is it? nor true); a dole of turtledoves; a clattering of choughs or jackdaws; a gaggle of geese; a storytelling of crows; a tittering or a tidings of magpies; a quarrel of sparrows; a clamour of rooks; a party or a scold of jays. (That’s unfair too: they’re too much like Sid James to be cross.)


Whether it is whistled, written, copied, or played, birdsong seems compulsively mimicable – in visual form too, and there are artists who have tried to draw birdsong, or use computer-generated images for it. Seeing birdsong written on a musical score is like concrete poetry, a graphic score, a fizzy dizzicato pizzicato of acciaccatura – that species of grace notes theoretically timeless.


Every dawn they sing up the sun in a vivace creation. Woodpecker braggadocio on the castanets of a chestnut tree. Four finches fiddling fugues in F sharp for a fiddlehead fern. Urchin sparrows flicking cheeps as a fox trots past on a dawn errand (get that pheasant, get that pheasant).


If I offered my notation, birds seem to sing the names of composers (particularly Russian) – Straviiinski, Straviiinski, or Tchaíkovski, Tchaíkovski, Tchaí! Sometimes chirping Tippett, Tippett, Tippett then calling low and sweet Keeats, Keeats, Keeats. This is my scherzo giocoso, undisprovable glee to my ears, and meanwhile the madrigal widens to a crescendo of coloratura as each bird becomes the maestro of its own cadenza into full morning.


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. The cellist Beatrice Harrison famously performed with a nightingale and the duet was broadcast on BBC from 1924 until 1942 when it was interrupted by the drone of aircraft on the ‘Thousand Bomber’ raid.


‘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 off 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.’ Mozart had a pet starling, and when it died, the composer held a full funeral for it, which has a certain sad prolepsis for a genius who would himself have a pauper’s funeral. Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, that sheer saturation of joy, was inspired by George Meredith’s poem of the same name, which was inspired, of course, by the bird itself. Respighi’s Pines of Rome requires a recording of a nightingale, and Magnus Robb’s piece Sprosser: Hallucinations of Purity (1998) uses percussion to imitate the rhythms of the thrush nightingale, the Sprosser.


‘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? As if humanity’s compulsive imitation of birds is because we are collectively unable to forget that we may have learnt language from the birds?


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.


In Western myth, the figure behind every poet and musician is Orpheus, singer in the woodlands, whose music is so sweetly compelling that the trees uproot themselves to come closer to him, the stones hop nearer like birds while the birds become as stones, transfixed. According to Ovid, the shrieking maenads who tore Orpheus apart killed the birds first, and as his spirit vanished down the wind ‘the birds, lamenting, cried for you, Orpheus.’ As if Ovid heard what so many people do, a melancholy in birdsong, longing for the very soul of music.


It seems we humans sing most like birds when we sing most in our Orphic keys of music and poetry, as if to be a poet is to be part bird, and poets have long made the comparison resonant. Shelley’s skylark is


Like a Poet hidden

In the light of thought.


To me, the skylark high in the sky is the cloudless psyche at noon, and yet it has a tension of pleasure which can feel bittersweet. The speck of a bird, a punctuation of pure joy, pierces the sky and my heart. Birdsong, like poetry, tends towards poignancy, sharp, quick and deep: the beak is a flint which strikes the heart of feeling, so Robert Burns hears in the woodlark ‘nocht but love and sorrow join’d’. The nightingale, its nocturne a solo sung in the dark, rhymes with the twilit knowing of poetry’s shadow vision and Keats tends the night of both nightingale and poetry. The word ‘nightingale’ means ‘night singer’, for ‘gale’ is from Old English galan, to sing, which also gives us galdor: song, spell or enchantment; the song of the nightingale releases the song of the poet. To me, every blackbird is John Donne, singing a tender confluence of beauty without knowing whether he sings for the female or for the divine.


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 high as – ha! not kites, please god, not if you’re a small bird in the woods, a wren hushed in quick quiet.


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.’


Rothenberg plays music with birds, a gift between players, an exchange of beauty. Gift culture takes many forms and in my garden, it is strawberries. I give the blackbirds strawberries: they give me song. I think this is a good exchange. Joseph Addison gave his blackbirds cherries for the same reason.


Hans Christian Andersen explores the nature of gift in The Nightingale where the bird works within gift culture, singing free in the woods, responsive to wishes, seeing tears as true treasure. The ethic of the gift is dramatised: it cannot be bought; should not be sold; must not be caged, or held, meanly, in a tight fist. The emperor is sent an artificial nightingale, covered with diamonds, rubies and sapphires and when it was wound up, it would sing. The court decides the birds should sing a competitive duet and while the real nightingale sang its own song, ‘the artificial bird sang only waltzes’. Yes, I thought, reading that: I have never heard a waltzing bird. The real nightingale is scorned, despised and banished, but only she can save the life of the emperor when he is ill, and only if she is allowed to sing for him as a gift.


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, open-heartedly, 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?


Other songs nearby include the nuthatch – do it, do it – and the yip yip yip of the great spotted woodpecker, with the chiffchaff chafing at the bit bit bit. Together, they are getting the dew giggling and creating a pointillist painting in sound. Their calls are so familiar to me in the woodlands where I live that they are my belonging – and it was the wood pigeon which signed the title deeds of my heart’s home, as a child. Chaffinches have dialects: the male chaffinch sings a variation on a shared theme, depending on geography. A Kentish chaffinch is different from a Welsh one, while chaffinch song in Scotland can alter from valley to valley. They co-create their landscapes.


A blue tit banks sharply to perch, an arpeggio in motion. A blackbird glides a glissando stream. A buzzard swoops an octave between hillsides. A pied flycatcher hops a staccato twig. To imagine one’s landscapes without their soundtrack of birdsong is a bitter desolation, a fearful silent spring: air without birdsong is like a garden without flowers; nights without dreams; language without metaphor. Our woodlands would be, year-round, ‘Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang,’ as Shakespeare wrote.


‘If you want a red rose you must build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with your own heart’s blood,’ wrote Oscar Wilde in ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’: the nightingale must sing with its breast against a thorn. This, poets know as well as birds, is the willing though poignant sacrifice. But can you price the sacrifice, or measure this cost?


Could you weigh a nightingale’s song? The very question delights me: there is something joyously pure in its superfluity of curiosity; this is science for science’s sake. And someone has indeed tried to do so. Robert Thomas of Bristol University measured nightingales before singing, at dusk, and after singing, at dawn. The individuals which sang more lost more weight: it costs them dearly to sing.


It is not the weight which fascinates, of course, but the lightness of the birds themselves which is part of their appeal, their weightless flight contrasted with our flightless weight: the light lift of a bird, yet full of such weight of emotional message.


The flight makes visible the gap of yearning, the leaning longing which humans feel for their song. The feathers are the nearest tangible thing to their near-immateriality of music, the blue note of the song dropped on the path, and the mind has feathers which, unfurled, can sing our thoughts soaringly. In a beautiful rhyme of pragma and poetry, a bird-feather quill is a pen for the plumage of the writer, and in myth the god of writers, Hermes or Mercury, is feather-capped with wings at his heels. Feathers are to the air what individual private thought is to public meaning, and a word is like a secret feather of a hermeneutic language, placed carefully, winged to fly, free.


Each word is freighted with its meaning and fretted too with its etymology which draws lines, fret-marks scored to the word’s biography, as a bird’s feathers can have fret-marks, showing for the rest of the bird’s life its history of stress or hunger.


I hate the idea that I am making this wren fret. While it sings, I know it is okay, and if it peeps its alarm call, I will step away. Even as I want to be nearer to it, I know I do not ever want to catch it, hold it or cage it. So much do I love birds and their elemental freedom that injured or caged birds, birds kept indoors, trapped or killed, can disturb me to the point of panic. ‘He who binds to himself a joy / Does the wingéd life destroy’ in Blake’s words.


I have, of course, tried to get close to birdsong by listening to it online, to the great perturbation of my cats. (When it is running at actual speed, they go glittery as predators and pounce on my computer; when it is slowed right down so that a nightingale sounds like a humpback whale, they become fear-warped like prey and hide under the bed. Sorry.) When I heard wren-song slowed down nine times, my ear could finally catch up, and weigh the song’s beauty recalibrated to human scales. In a glorious duet of bird and human voices, Marcus Coates first recorded birdsong then slowed it down up to sixteen times, and asked different humans to take different bird voices: their singing was then played at bird-speed, so the humans sound like the chirping birds.


The gifts of birdsong are given even in our inattention, and sometimes in the woods I have become aware that I have been lost in myself and have not been listening. Then, letting their windfall song wash over me again, I feel as if they had been pouring out a blessing, playing softly on, pedalling the priceless whether I noticed them or not. And what am I to the wren, after all, whose audience is other.


Angels are usually pictured winged like birds, flying to deliver their messages. The word ‘angel’ comes from the Greek word for messenger. Birds, meanwhile, have long been thought to be messengers, whether it is the casual remark, ‘A little bird told me’, or birds in folk tales offering wisdom or advice, and the birds’ manifold messenger-role in myth.


There is a leitmotiv of longing when we humans hear birdsong, whether it is science’s longing to measure, record and question; art’s longing to translate the music; or the human spirit keening for all that quickens the soul. The same tangent of longing is there, yearning for the beyond. Hearing the song without seeing it, seeing the bird without touching it, the quest, not the destination.


The skylark circling higher and higher in the air becomes an invisible source of song always beyond, and a line of Browning is in my mind:


Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,

Or what’s a heaven for?


What the senses can actually grasp is overtaken by the yearning to reach beyond them. Height beyond sight. Pitch beyond hearing. The song beyond the reasons. Reason not the need, Shakespeare wrote, as if only humans yearned for The Beyond. Birds, we know, sing beyond needfulness, and to the human mind they are the angels of abundance, creating and reflecting joy.


Birdsong seems to happen on the horizon of the human mind, just beyond the extent of our senses. Immanent but untranslatable – the dash — ! — the glimpse, the hint, the ellipsis. All birdsong is always partially eclipsed to us, as if it is always leaning towards the leading note, the seventh keening for the tonic, as a skylark, self-leading, rises higher and higher, to the high-octane octave — yet — always — leggerissimo, as lightly as possible, where light is both weight and sound, both brightness and joy, and the octave is reached only at a point of silence created by the very quintessence of its own music.


‘Till lost on his aërial rings / In light,’ writes Meredith.


Till lost in light. The quality of the silence after Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, the silence into which we pour our hushed applause of the heart. Between sound and silence. Between earth and sky. Between visible and invisible. Between literal and metaphoric. Between seeing and dreaming. Between sight and insight. Shelley and Keats alike between waking and sleeping, as the skylark flies higher, sings its furthest reach yet, ‘Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there’, writes Shelley. I am drawn out of myself into its ecstasy of sound, and I have become the tangent of my yearning. Between all categories, this, before memory and beyond longing, both the nostalgic possibility and the charisma of loss at once, a synaesthesia of the soul.


Coda. It is evening now and serene. In the low trees a blackbird is serenading the world, distilling the day to a rhapsody of gold and candle-song.


JAY GRIFFITHS is author of Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, Wild: An Elemental Journey, Kith, A Love Letter from a Stray Moon and Tristimania. ‘Birdsong’ was originally published in Arboreal, a collection of new woodland writing that Little Toller published in 2016. The photograph featured in this article (Dwellings 9) is by Ellie Davies, whose work featured in and on the cover of Arboreal.

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