In honour of Silent Spring, I spent two hours wandering around my neighbourhood and listening. Listening not just for birds, but for everything, including all those sounds we usually tune out. But yes, especially for birds, even though I could identify only a few and was reduced to trying to describe their calls.
In The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd writes: “Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness, is in itself total experience. This is the innocence we have lost, living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.” I was attempting, albeit only for a short time, to live in my hearing.
It is 2.35pm – I leave the house, with my notebook in my hand, and turn right along Grecian Way
Cars. Wind in the trees. Carpentry. Wind pressure on my ear-drums. Chirping. One crow on a roof-crest and one caw. My boots on the pavement. The zip tag on my hoodie. A distant mew of a gull. School sports (St Peter’s).
2.39pm – I turn left into Quarry Lane
Chirping. Leaf blown along the pavement. Peeping. Traffic (omnipresent). Churr/caw.
2.42pm – I turn left into Quarry Park Road
Chitter chirrup. Chirp. Dogs barking. Lawn mower. Peep. Beep-beep.
2.47pm – I turn right into Woodwater Lane
D and H buses. Peep. Peep-peep-peep. Churr/caw. School playground (Walter Daw). Three-wheeler buggy. Moped nipping past.
2.52pm – I turn right into Heath Road
Water feature. Chirping. Building. Humming from a BT box by the pavement.
2.56pm – I turn left into Rifford Road
Digger. Cars, vans, buses, traffic, traffic. Bicycle’s tyres. Light aircraft. Northbrook. Loud humming from another telecoms (?) box. Squeal of brakes. Acceleration. Go slow strip. Baby chuntering and two women talking. Music from iPhone earphones. Prolonged chirping. Gull mewing.
3.05pm – I turn left into Ludwell Lane
Buzz of insect. Reeds in the wind. Water feature. Mewing. Car door and couple laughing.
3.06pm – I turn right into Wonford Playing Fields
Cheeping. Prolonged mewing. Car fob. Trees in wind. Some crunching of leaves. Churr/caw. Light aircraft. Buzzard’s keen. Glissandeek. Chip chip. Dogs barking. Horns. Herring gulls on the field, mewing in full view. Boots on the grass. Jogger’s tread. Commercial aircraft. Dog. Wings beating as doves start up from bushes. Insect chirping. Baby laugh turning to cry. Scolding mother. Building. Churr/caw. Chirp. Northbrook. Boots on gravel. Weir. Falling acorn. Twittering. Shouting children. Insects. Ford. High caw. Squeaky gate. Muddy steps.
It is now 3.15pm – I am in Ludwell Valley Park, and I put my notebook away
I found it a struggle to focus on just listening, and not to observe with my eyes or retreat into my head, and I constantly had to retune my attention. And most of what I was attending to was the grating urban noise that I usually and automatically tuned out.
I began to feel very weary as I walked round the perimeter of the Park, so I took it into my head to try out another trick of Nan Shepherd’s: “the senses must be trained and disciplined… I can teach my body many skills by which to learn the nature of the mountain. One of the most compelling is quiescence. No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it. As one slips over into sleep, the mind grows limpid; the body melts; perception alone remains.”
I lay down on the nearest bench, warm in the sun, a couple walking their dog on a distant slope but otherwise in solitude. I wedged my right arm between the backrest and the seat, clasped my fingers, crossed right ankle over left, and shut my eyes. I didn’t actually fall asleep, but in my snoozing found that it was my sense of touch that was sharpened – the warmth of the sun, and the cool as it went behind a cloud, the wind as it rose and fell, the warmth of the bench, my clasped hands and crossed ankles. As Shepherd wrote, “Touch is the most intimate sense of all”, and I truly found that lying down in green pastures restored my soul.
As for my auditory audit, other than prolonged mewing of gulls, birdsong was occasional at best, even in the playing fields and park. It was a rarity that the traffic on Rifford Road parted for long enough to hear background noise, let alone birds. Granted that it was the wrong time of year and the wrong time of day, but I find it sad that there is so little song, and so much drowning out the call to rise above the mundane.