Book Review: ‘A Sweet Wild Note’ by Richard Smyth

When I turned the pages of this book for the first time, as when I open any new book, I couldn’t help but smell that gloriously comforting and inviting aroma of freshly published manuscript. All pages have their own smell, but it is something that few of us truly appreciate. Similarly, all landscapes have their own soundscape but few properly listen to its constituent parts. We all have a million and one things to do and we rarely take the time to acknowledge what is around us. Richard Smyth’s book on birdsong, out on 13th April, reminded me of the joys of ‘actively’ listening.

When I play the piano my whole being is subsumed into a cacophony of sound that emanates through my body. If you are a musician you will understand how this feels. A similar experience can be had in the outdoors, particularly at dawn or dusk, as the birds begin to sing. Depending on where it is that you live, these sounds will be joined by human generated sounds, mostly derived from transport. Nonetheless, the sounds are present. Many of us are sadly now too distant to recognise or even acknowledge them. We have ‘untrained’ our aural instinct to ‘read’ the sounds of birds.

Birdsong has connected with human culture for centuries and in A Sweet Wild Note Smyth goes beyond mere recollections of birdsong, although he has had a lifelong interest in birds. This book is as much to do with cultural associations and translations of birdsong into poetry, prose and music, and the science of how their songs are formed, as it is to do with birds themselves.

Often, we hear what it is that we want to hear. We translate sounds through our own experiences, world views and agendas, which has resulted in some extraordinary cultural masterpieces. The Romantic poets were particularly fond of writing of birds and birdsong, which culminated in works such as Coleridge’s 1798 poem The Nightingale: A Conversational Poem’ and Wordsworth’s To the Cuckoo (1802). As a consequence it could be said that birdsong is as apparent on the shelves of a county library as in a spring garden at dusk. However, it is not really birdsong itself; it is merely birdsong from a human vantage point; anthropomorphically moulded into something more human than avian.

Smyth reminds us that we should appreciate birdsong for what it is, and how it makes us feel. Listening to birdsong is a highly personal experience. We all hear different things and we think differently accordingly. As Smyth writes, ‘’I still think that there’s more babble than beauty in birdsong. I’m allowed to think that and still think it’s wonderful.’’

For me, the final chapter of the book is the most sobering. In this closing section Smyth engages the prospect of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as becoming everyday reality. What would happen if the birds were to stop singing? Would we remember it? Would we care? Would life be poorer for it? I would answer the final question with an emphatic yes. We usually take things for granted because we cannot imagine life without them. They are so endemic to our reality that we rarely consider their becoming absent from our everyday experience. I think that for most of us, if we really thought about it, birdsong would be one of these things. A silent spring seems unthinkably foreign, and yet we are moving in that direction. We have come a long way from the negative trajectory of the 1960s and 1970s, but the birds are still in trouble. In the last decade turtle dove numbers have plummeted by 77%. Since the late 1980s, skylarks have declined in abundance by a third. As for the nightingale, this little bird’s numbers have halved in twenty years.

This book is a sobering reminder that we should appreciate birdsong in both its cultural and natural forms. It has a rich cultural history, which should be appreciated, but the conservation of songbirds must be the headline. Thankfully, this book is not solely a history book. The sounds of the birds described remain relatable, given that they can be heard today. For how long this will be the case, we simply do not know.

A Sweet Wild Note: What we hear when the birds sing is published by Elliott & Thompson and is available from 13th April 2017 with black and white illustrations. Credit must be given to Lynn Hatzius for her splendid cover design. 

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