Saturday, 18 April 2009

Listening to the Landscape

Hoo Bit Nature Reserve, Easter Monday

It is early in the morning, about 8.30am, and I am sitting on a stile overlooking Hoo Bit Nature Reserve. This is a small patch of chalk grassland tucked away in the middle of the woods above Pegsdon. It is cool, misty and damp and it could either rain or turn out warm and sunny.

What can I learn about communication from this landscape?

I am surrounded by birdsong. I would like to have been up here several hours ago to hear the main dawn chorus, but I didn't make the effort. The air is still filled with the songs and sounds of many birds. This is a place where birds have the space to communicate without constraint. There is singing, cooing; pheasants, tits, pigeons and a wealth of songbirds whose melodies and utterances carry across the surrounding woodland and into the morning air. Sounds that seem natural, no birdsong seems out of place in this landscape.

Human noises, whether the chatter of people talking, or that of distant cars and aeroplanes, would be an intrusion in this soundscape. The song of birds is never, I assume, full of idle chit-chat; or created just for the fun of it; or caused as a by product of other activities (in the sense of how we create noise by driving cars just to get us from one place to another). I expect that, for birds, their song is truly a matter of survival - whether for mating, feeding, warning or territory marking. We humans have no significant predators in the natural environment here and so our communication would have significant differences, methods and impacts here. Humans would always be talking and chattering and many may be oblivious to listening and really observing to what was going on around them as they passed by here.

So much birdsong and yet most of the birds are invisible to my eye, hidden away in the trees and undergrowth. Air is such an effective medium for the carrying of sound and birds are perhaps adapted to using it more than animals do. How many animals do I hear in places like this? I am aware of the presence of deer, rabbits, squirrels, mice, stoats and other animals by more subtle clues, but birds just want to shout it out! They are a very vocal component part of the landscape.

I notice how noisy pigeons are when they fly around - wings are quite "flappy"!

Trees and plants are almost the reverse of birds, highly visible and yet totally silent to our senses. In the grass are some violets, almost unseen at first glance but then I become aware of the delicate purple flowers. These must be first of the grassland flowers to appear here before the grasses really begin to get growing. Cowslip buds and spotted orchid leaves indicate some flowers that will appear later. I wonder how the violets are pollinated? Some plants and small and inconspicuous. Others, like the bramble, are aggressive and vigorous colonisers. Thorny and untouchable, yet producing a wealth of flowers and fruit to the benefit of other wildlife.

And the trees - still and silent. Crowded in the woodland, but yet always finding their own space. Buds are beginning to open and varied green tinges are beginning to cover bare branches. I wonder what a tree communicates or symbolises to a bird? Perch, food reserve, roost site, song post, territory marker, nest site, security...? Trees can be very symbolic to humans - often in green imagery and art the human form is depicted as blending with that of a tree. Connection? Spirit?

A flock of pigeons rises noisily from a distant oilseed rape field. The 50 or so birds twist and turn as a group before landing again in a different part of the crop. How do birds fly in groups like that?

Two male blackbirds appear briefly at the edge of the woodland, squawking twisting through the undergrowth - a display of male aggression?

The ecology of the landscape is a total interaction between the elements, organic and inorganic. It is always changing. Every part of the landscape here is managed by man somehow, whether that has been in the past or now in the present. The whole ecosystem and it component parts revolves around this intensively farmed landcape. Even this nature reserve is managed by the clearence of invasive silver birch, the fence built all around it and the conversion of an old reservoir into a bat hibernaculum.

The landscape has to accept the weather and adapt to the changes that we impose upon it - within the limits of what it can tolerate of course. It changes all the time, one big organic system where everything has an effect on everything else.

Here I can learn about being still, observing, learning, touching, coaching, encouraging, nurturing, not damaging, clearing, space, colour, inspiration, individual needs, networks and communication.

* * * * *

I had been up here last week and one reason for my returning again so soon was to try and identify some birds I had seen then. At first I thought they might have been something exotic, but I am sure they were just Jays. For most of my time here I heard nothing unusual and I thought I might have been disappointed, but then the group appeared again, flying from tree to tree and traversing the woods around me. What first had caught my attention was the variety of sounds they made. I almost felt I was in the depths of a tropical jungle with sort of whooping, hooping noises and other loud grating/see-sawing sounds. It felt a bit spooky - a small flock of medium sized birds that seemed to command the woods around them and take hold of the soundscape for themselves. I have always known the typical Jay alarm call, but here there seemed a variety of bubbling and chattering noises as well as a loud call that just filled the space around the trees. The birds were always moving and always keeping well ahead of me so I could only really identify them in flight.

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