“This is the only bird whose note affects me like music. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It changes all hours to an eternal morning.” ~Henry David Thoreau
This year, a wood thrush has come to live in our woods. I knew its song immediately, the distinctive two part harmony it sings through its Y-shaped syrinx (voice box). It is an elusive woodland bird that is related to the robin (and sometimes called a wood robin), but seldom seen – I have yet to spot him. His song goes on each day from pre-dawn to early evening and accompanies my every move in the garden, a lovely soundtrack to my days. Here is a clip of his song that I captured a few mornings ago.
Yesterday, we reached the equinox where night and day are equal in length. The official start of the spring season in the northern hemisphere, the day was cold and windy, winter lingering in reality in spite of the calendar and the turning of the world. Yet, the birds knew it had begun. The sound of morning outside my door has evolved from the spare songs of winter, lonely calls punctuating the silence of a sleeping world to the bubbling orchestra of songs and calls that greeted me this morning when I stepped outside. More than anything else, the sounds of returning birds signals the massive change about to occur in the natural world.
The sound of morning birdsong in January.
The sound of morning birdsong in late March.
The snowdrops began blooming last week and the hellebores are starting to show their flower buds (see above). Yes,the garden is beginning to emerge but bloom will be about two weeks later than normal, or at least what has become normal in our changing climate. I’ve already pruned most of the shrubs and trees and began raking the leaves scattered and mounded by winter winds. For me, the garden season has begun, another year of beauty and adventure. Regardless of the weather, I long to spend every moment outside, a witness and participant as the world comes to life. But for now, March is demonstrating its unsteady temperament; this morning’s sunshine has been replaced by a wintery snowfall.
Interested in seeing what the world looked like on the day of the spring equinox? See the photo from space at space.com and learn more about the phenomenon of the vernal equinox. Think spring!
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all ~ Emily Dickinson
The silence this morning was deafening. The dark days are upon us in the northern hemisphere – each bright day shrinking, each dark night expanding, until the solstice shifts the tide in a few weeks. A full moon and its subsequent reduced appearances have awakened me each morning long before daylight. I admit to a modest glass of chardonnay sipped yesterday morning at 5:30 A.M. – the moon was so bright that I couldn’t sleep, it seemed more like night than morning, and so I paid homage to its lingering light. Balanced on the edge of night and morning on an unseasonably warm night, the moon and stars ruled the pre-dawn sky.
This morning, however, the moon had already set and I stood in the dark before dawn, with no dawn “chorus.” A moist and silent cloud of dampness filled the air – no birds, no insects, no creature noises filled the void, only a distant hum of traffic. Who is up and about at 5:30 A.M.? And so a damp cloak of emptiness became a shroud of sorts. I can do without sunlight but can I live in a silent world? Isn’t that the real nightmare of the imagined apocalypse? Not the visual destruction but the absence of sound?
Now, at noon, a dozen birds have added their voices to the world. Bluejays, cardinals, sparrows, woodpeckers, and hawks all spin their songs around me as Angel and I venture into the woods. It is a comfort, to know that stillness and silence may dwell within but the murmur of the natural world goes on, each voice in its perfect place in nature’s orchestra. I sigh and something inside, a tight kernel of fear and tension, relaxes and dissolves. I take a deep breath and enjoy the quiet murmur of nature’s world around me, every sound, every voice, every song present and accounted for. All is well, and if it is quiet, that is the way of things in nature in this season.
Music is nothing else but wild sounds civilized into time and tune. ~Thomas Fuller (17th Century English clergyman)
As autumn deepens with shorter days and cooler nights, the creature chorus in the woods around my house begins a long diminuendo. After a warm rainy day, the frog chorus returned but not with the lusty enthusiasm of July and August; on a cool night, they barely make a peep. The cicadas continue their cheerful instrumental bowing but in pianissimo – softly, softly. It is the gradual fading away of the wild sounds of summer that brings on a faint regret. Even as the woodland shifts into high gear for a spectacular visual feast of foliage color, the orchestral concert of sound through my window fades into the quiet of autumn, with the silence of winter not far behind.
In the midst of this, I am preparing to embark on a year long project of recording the sights and sounds of nature in western Pennsylvania, an area rich in woodlands, meadows and watersheds, and using them as core elements in a set of musical pieces “A Year in Penn’s Woods.” The idea of bringing nature into music is not a new one – the great French composer Oliver Messiaen transcribed the songs of birds and used them in his compositions. Other composers ranging from Alan Hovhaness in “And God Created Great Whales” to Paul Winter in his Missa Gaia (Earth Mass) have incorporated recordings of wild creatures, from whales to wolves, in their works.
Although always inspired by nature, moving into our present home intensified the influence of flora and fauna on my music making. Surrounded by the remnant of a eastern hardwood forest and gardening in a way that supported wildlife of all kinds, the sense of living in the middle of a grand ecology began to emerge in lyric and note as well as inspiring photographs and videos.
Influenced for years by the writings of author and bioacoustician Bernie Krause, I began to use the example of orchestration in the wild while teaching orchestration in music to my students. (Read about his newest publication The Great Animal Orchestra) Each creature has a niche of sound, a bandwidth if you will, that gives them aural space to communicate with their kind, what Krause terms biophony. This concept has long been an internalized model for me when I begin composing and orchestrating my own pieces, so that each voice has its own niche and is audible even as it contributes to the many layers of instruments. Here’s a video of Krause speaking at Cal Academy – once there, click on “The Role of Biophony in Sound” to see and hear his findings.
This past July, Krause wrote an opinion piece, The Sound of a Damaged Habitat, for the New York Times on the effect of habitat destruction on sound ecology. (A special thanks to my friend Margie for alerting me to this article) Even as I move deeper into the sounds of nature around me, I am also aware of voices that are starting to disappear. The recording of frogs and cicadas made on our property a few years ago was far richer, deeper and more varied than the ones I recorded this summer, which worries me. I feel an urgency to move ahead on my project, recording the sights and sounds of our local habitat while sharing it in a musical context.
Here is a video of Krause talking about his discovery of a “singing cottonwood tree” while recording the sounds of brown bats.
When next you walk in nature, I hope you hear the wild sounds, the orchestra of the earth all around you. Perhaps it will inspire you to sing and dance along.