Three Hundred Years of Birdsong: Sound and Nature

Jess hamstead heath

Last Monday it rained, and on Hampstead Heath a record of birdsong included greenfinch, goldfinch, coot, long tailed tit, song thrush, chaffinch, stock-dove, jay, green woodpecker, crows and rose-winged parakeets (not to forget a pond-life of tufted duck, shoveler, cormorant, gadwall, mute swans and a great crested grebe).

In 1728, after a spring shower, the poet James Thomson listed the sounds of the cuckoo, blackbird, wood-lark, song thrush, nightingale, linnet, bullfinch, stock-dove, rook, crow and jackdaw. He then used this to map human intrusion into a non-human world, to explain the intangibility of the spaces we inhabit, even in our desire to quantify them.

Thomson’s poem is peppered with an incompatibility of natural world and human understanding; a boy disturbing a trout and shattering the water surface, a plough breaking the earth and the toil of the ox pulling it, the corrupt lovers tainting the woods. Faced with this, Thomson tends to look back, desiring an inaccessible arcadia.

Our time is characterised by understanding the natural world through a language of loss and crisis, and, even three hundred years later, it is tempting to view nature through painful nostalgia. A golden age now closed to us.

Searching for nature in his own time, Thomson transposes the non-human into currents of sound, wind and water. His is a poem of noise and light, of elements, breezes, clouds and vapours, filled with mingling winds, ‘rustling deer’ and birdsong. He uses observation of noise to create verse, and places ideas over this, a transparency secondary to the world they exist within.

On Hampstead Heath today, the birdsong is joined by shouting, by flight-paths, sirens, traffic, music, dogs barking [1]. A post-pastoral understanding of the natural world creates space to understand the necessary journey away from Thomson’s golden age. The task now is to understand a natural world free from nostalgia, to accept the mixture of sounds, of nature and of intrusion, and to look at what is left, and what can be done.


Jessica Frith is a PhD candidate in the English Department at King’s College London. She is interested in taking the study of literature closer to the physicality of nature, in reconstructing the eighteenth century poet-naturalist in a modern age, and in the importance of words within the environment. Follow Jessica @lutra__

[1] Audio from the London Sound Survey, Highgate Cemetery, recorded by Chris/dashanna and available at ‘Hampstead Health, Highgate, Archway’ on the sound map.  Listen to and contribute sounds from all around the city via their website.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s