It starts and ends with seabirds, with the first faint wash of rose-tinted light touching their feathers. There are crested auklets perched on lava flows and sea cliffs. They are here in their millions. The sounds they make, as their milk-pale eyes open, creak and grate, as if overnight the salt winds have penetrated their workings. In amongst them are tufted puffins, red-legged kittiwakes, short-tailed albatrosses. Their purrs and shrieks begin.
But no, I have the sequence wrong. Before the seabirds felt the first glow of today, already a soft light had touched the peaks of the Koryaksky volcano, where a pair of golden eagles sat on a broken lava crag, their eyes burning amber. A split second before the first auks began their rusting chorus the female fell into the air, spread her wings and pierced the rock with her screams.
And already I’m lost, trying to imagine something so complex as a wave of sound across a continent. I can’t imagine how the dawn penetrates a boreal forest like this one marked on the map, surrounding a place called Zhigansk, in the East Siberian taiga. Does the light skim the tops of the trees first and the birds perched high in their branches start to sing minutes before those lower down, still muffled in last night’s darkness? Or does one call fire and begin a fusillade of calls, ricocheting through the forest as the light trickles into it in a million places, running down pine needles, leaves and polished bark? The calls of hawk owls, Siberian jays, golden mountain thrushes, rose finches, and red-flanked bluetails. There are other birds whose names I’ll never know, more sensitive to the changing light, whose calls are as soft as breath and only carry the length of a branch. A map is such a crude creation. I’m sitting here looking at a double page spread which contains the whole of Russia, and because I’ve been educated to think that our mark-makings are important I’m starting to think I know something about a place I’ll never see, smell, touch or hear. My focus has been drawn by a green area on the northern coast, punctuated by a hundred blue dots, all of them lakes, tiny to my eyes, little pools. But this is a view seen from a satellite, so each of them must be huge. And I’m wondering how the dawn arrives in a place like this. At home swifts and cuckoos have returned, the last of the migrants. Perhaps the birds of the south are still on their way to Siberia. The lakes I’m looking at now are covered with thawing ice, cracked and splintered like smashed glass, containing a deep translucent blue, the colour of a mind empty of thought, that starts to glow now beneath the first tendrils of light. Millions of broken mirrors begin to reflect space. In the places where the ice has cleared tundra swans are uncurling their necks from the feathered warmth of their wings. Ross’s gulls begin to twitch as the first snow bunting, out on the tundra, calls. A winter chorus begins, low and mournful, full of loneliness, a beckoning to the birds still on their way, beyond the horizon, and the species long gone but still here. Frozen in the permafrost are the bodies of extinct birds, found occasionally in the summer thaw, like the perfectly preserved crested lark which was discovered recently, along with the remains of a woolly rhinoceros.
Light is penetrating the steppe lands to the south. People are already awake, tending to animals, preparing for a long day of work. The freezing wind bends the grasses and the thin light arcs along each blade. A citrine wagtail, heading north to Siberia, flicks into life and emits two thin peeps, drowned in the hiss of the wind. Then a call I know well, but don’t hear often enough, rises out of the distance like a sunrise in sound. Eurasian curlews are breeding here. Many other birds familiar to our northerly island are also resident. There are skylarks, buntings, sparrows, magpies and crows, their calls familiar along a band of the earth stretching five thousand miles. Among them are steppe eagles, saker and amur falcons, their high-pitched screams scissoring through the chorus.
A father is breathing heavily, plumes of steam coming from his mouth as he climbs a slope of scree towards a line of quickthorn trees which have just appeared out of the darkness and now hover in front of a rock wall. He reaches the trees and quickly plucks twenty long thorns from its branches. A little further away is a birch that he will cut a piece of bark from with his knife. Beneath the bark he will prise another piece of sapwood and carve it roughly into the shape of a boat. Then he will hurry home with the light turning purple and pink amid the first calls of harlequin ducks and bean geese which he will ignore as he thinks only about his sick boy whose bed he will sow with the thorns. Just before sunrise he will suspend the boat over the child’s head to carry off the sickness.
A pink-headed fruit dove has just opened its eyes and uttered a soft, almost inaudible hoo, seconds before the low-high pipe of a javan sunbird. The sea is flat calm out to the horizon. In front of it the temple complex is as still as the cliffs. Then, suddenly, the sounds of drums which make the bird flee its perch and retreat up the mountain as a line of people, dressed in white shirts and bright sarongs, round the corner of the rock and climb the steep path. They carry tall flags of every colour and pattern which taper into the brightening sky. All of them are carrying flowers, which they scatter as they walk. They cross the rocks and disappear one-by-one into the water temple, the last of them entering as the first burning line of the sun appears.
Frost is melting on the sand dunes of the Gobi Desert. Far to the south east the light is coming up fast over tropical beaches fringed with trees. All the islands of Indonesia are now illuminated by a purple sky. Here the chorus is short and loud, a brass band of birds with beaks as spectacular as their feathers. In the trees there are hornbills and barbets, flowerpeckers and honey eaters. On the water pelicans, darters, stone-curlews, stilts. The light is speeding. It pours from Jakarta to Medan in minutes and is already crossing the Bay of Bengal. Soon Calcutta, Madras and Colombo will roar into life.
The band of light has already passed over several mega-cities, places permanently illuminated, where songbirds call all night and the dawn chorus is drowned in machine noise. Even when the sun has risen above the horizon, no one sees until it is overhead, staring down like a milky eye. Most of the birds here are silent. Their corpses are being shipped, crammed in boxes between abattoirs, warehouses, and markets. In the fume-scented parks songbirds are singing in remembrance to the green places that still lie beneath the roads and pavements, piped rivers and buried streams. An hour ago the human ripple began with fishermen talking in low voices as they put out their nets. Now their song has gathered into a wave of millions. Small children are chattering to their toys while parents drink tea and whisper about bad dreams that are only just starting to fade. Sons and daughters are listening to the last words of dying parents while nurses softly mutter instructions to each other. Lovers are quarrelling or moaning with joy. Farmers and herdsmen are talking to their animals. Street cleaners and night-workers coming home stop to exchange words about the cold, about sports, about their aches and pains. Many old people are rocking with sorrow, staring out of windows at landscapes they no longer recognise. Athletes are motivating themselves with words that somehow pour energy into their aching muscles. Field workers and factory workers are cursing the way their lives took a bad turn and swearing that things will be different, or that things will never change. Writers are waking with notepads next to their beds and talking to themselves as if they were more than one person. Torturers are dismissing their acts of the previous day. Singers are clearing their throats, expanding their airways, tuning up. Some songs are being sung for the first time, some for the last. A few words are uttered before going extinct. Most of the voices in most of the places are coming out of screens, listened to by a million starers. A few, not nearly enough, are sitting in silence, listening to the birds.
There is a line separating day and night that travels continuously around the world. It is a perfect sine wave, a wave of light, a wave of sound. The line of dawn is also the line of dusk. I can picture it crossing Madras and Moscow. White-throated kingfishers wake and open their beaks, synchronised perfectly with the first calls of great northern divers. Green bee-eaters and jungle babblers, are timing their songs with ptarmigans and arctic terns.
There are huge areas, areas the size of countries, where the light has washed in in silence. The continent crossing forests that once teemed with the multiple symphonies of birds are now islands with ever withdrawing coastlines. They are surrounded by ordered seas of farmland or encroached on by green deserts. Dawn spreads quickly in those places, a uniform line of light that shows a single wash of colour, hand chosen by us. Every time the wave of light crosses the earth, more of the dark green of the wild has been lost. Dawn diffuses in plumes of smoke rising from forest fires, gets mirrored back into the sky off polished metal and glass, pale concrete. The edge of the rising sun glints off masts, wires and turbines where there were trees only weeks before. It is seen high above the earth, long before it touches the ground, by people in aeroplanes staring from windows at the curvature of the earth. The dawn sounds that were once a choir of voices endlessly building now follows multiple and thinning threads, some of them broken. The sound passes along the edges of rivers and streams, down steep ravines, across scrubby plains, over sheer ridges where trees cling to shelves of rock, across bog and marsh, disused railway lines, city parks and corridors, along the edges of multilane highways and over green bridges. Calls diffuse and concentrate. A taper of corvid cries travels along a wire for a hundred miles then suddenly runs into a pool of life, opening into a multitude of song where the old concentrations of life still hold. This pool is a zoo.
I wake in the dark. I sit up and light a small hurricane lamp. Its reach is limited. In a big room you can almost see the globe it makes, how the light curves back into the dark. There was a year in my life when I had no access to electricity and my night-time light came from this lamp. Once I crossed a field in the early hours, holding it up, and I almost walked into a grazing hippopotamus. Only the reflected glint in the corner of the creature’s eye warned me it was there. The universe is a place of permanent night lit by lanterns like mine, globes of light illuminating the surfaces of other globes as they spin and oscillate. On Mercury the dawn lasts a full Earth day and never reaches its poles at any time of its solar year. The time between one sunrise and the next is 176 days. On Venus there are only two dawns in the whole of its solar year. Jupiter rotates so fast that its storm-wracked dawns occur 10,476 times each year. The poles of Uranus point directly at the sun giving each of them 42 years of day, 42 years of night and a single, long, freezing dawn in between. Due to its gaseous composition and speed of rotation days on Uranus are twisted out of shape. At the poles they last 12 hours, at the equator 18. If eyes were ever placed on its surface to witness it, the dawn would be shrouded in clouds being hurled across its skies at supersonic speeds.
The light has reached the great barrier of the Alps and is touching the ice of its highest peaks which are starting to glow. Alpine swifts have been on the wing all night and remain silent until the sun is up, which they will see first of all creatures. An alpine chough nods and grates its first call. Light is crossing the peak of Hochtor, and Zirbitzkogel, minutes later Birkkarspitze and Wildspitze, bringing salutations from rock ptarmigans and black grouse. It touches the knife edge peak of Finseraarhorn, then onto Täschhorn, Dom and Monta Rosa amid the cries of bearded vultures. It touches Pic de Rochebrune, Arcalod, Mont Blanc. It has taken 50 minutes to cross the 750 miles of the Alps from east to west.
It travels across the flat lands of France, silhouetting the shapes of empty castles and ruins where doves shelter in alcoves cooing. It travels down motorways, and picks out the rectangles of warehouses, floods thousands of acres of monocrops where only magpies and crows call. It touches the spires of old cathedrals kindling the blazing cries of peregrine falcons. It weaves into dense woodlands and forests, silencing owls and nightjars and beckoning the tick-tick songs of wrens. It picks out the wings of wind turbines and the feathered corpses that lie on the ground beneath them. It crosses Picardy and Normandy and finally reaches the sea again. Black-backed gulls and herring gulls are raucous.
Finally, it reaches my island home, and 15 minutes later I am up, fog-eyed, preparing tea. I walk into the garden, shivering a little. It is 4am. I am facing east. Above me the last stars are fading out of an indigo sky. On the horizon is a band of burnt orange, graduating to pale turquoise. Strands of cloud hang like tail feathers. A bat is circling the house and on its second lap it comes so low over my head I can feel the air its wings displace. Still silence. Now, the first bird calls. It is a blackbird perched in the ash tree in my neighbour’s garden. And another blackbird, calling back from the oak wood. A pheasant croaks in the field and a robin starts piping, a thin chorus of four. It is still so quiet that I can hear the wingbeats of a bat. For minutes it continues like this while the light changes colour and the field edges across the valley come into view. A crow calls, and another. A pigeon speaks softly. Then, in the wood the finches and tits start to sing. A wren, a jay. The blackbird has hopped from the tree onto my neighbour’s roof and now it is singing loud. My foggy mind is trying to detect the patterns and repetitions but its song has endless variations. The air is changing, a sudden plume of cold, a whisper of wind and on it more birdsong carries, from further off, from the trees and hedges surrounding the village, the old millpond, the river. The rooks are awake. Only a couple, calling to each other. Then four rise into the sky. They swerve, turn and land again. It wakes the whole rookery and now all I can hear are rooks, two hundred of them, like a brass section out of tune with the rest of the orchestra. Magpies join in, and more crows.
It is still an hour before sunrise, an orange curtain slowly rising on the day. Stars have vanished. The world is a theatre of birdsong.
James Roberts is a writer and artist living on the edge of the Black Mountains. His essays and poetry have been published widely. This piece is part of a longer work-in-progress on the subject of half-light. More writing can be found at nightriverwood.com. Follow him on twitter or instagram.
The photograph is by the author.