Falco peregrinus: undisputed virtuoso of sonic diffusion, angel of death.

John Alec Baker’s book The Peregrine is, at one level, a detailed document of the author’s investigations into the behaviour of two pairs of peregrines between autumn and spring along a stretch of coastal Essex. Long considered to be a classic or even a masterpiece of the nature writing genre, the book is certainly worth its reputation, certainly as a work of stylistic excellence. In his introduction to the edition I refer to (NYRB Classics, 15 Feb 2005 ) Robert MacFarlane sums up the author’s style very well:

a style so intense and incantatory that the act of bird-watching becomes one of sacred ritual. (p viii)

In writing this essay as someone who works with sound, my interest in Baker is twofold. I’m interested to a certain extent in the way that Baker’s awareness of sound helps to drive his narrative. More importantly, I cannot avoid referring to Baker’s work by way of introduction to my own story of a sonically charged experience with falco peregrinus, my lifelong favourite creature.

Baker’s world is predominantly one of intense, almost obsessive attention to visual detail, which is understandable given the observational basis of his field work. Furthermore he succeeds very well in representing his engagement with a sombre landscape whose muted tones overshadow every outing. His awareness of sound is not exceptional, in comparison say, with that of Thoreau, Susan Fenimore Cooper or Aldo Leopold. This is not a weakness – Baker has other specific concerns in his work. In drawing the reader’s awareness to matters of sonic interest he simply wishes to add interest to the documentary agenda.

Nonetheless I should mention his very effective similes, for example this one on short-eared owls:-

One bird called; a sharp barking sound, muffled, like a heron calling in its sleep. (p64)

Here one bird sounds the same as another bird, like a circular dictionary definition for the non-twitcher.

I also found the occasional touch of exquisite attention to detail:-

I heard a dead leaf loosen and drift down to touch the shining surface of the lane with a light, hard sound. (p65)

Light and hard at the same time? How does he remember these details? Does he note them down at the time or do they just come to him afterwards? Perhaps they are even fabrications, made up as he writes in order to enhance the narrative. In his favour I would say that I’ve heard a similar sound myself waiting in a forest whilst recording high winds. Both light and hard at the same time.

As you’d expect we have flurries of onomatopoeia:-

…a sharp hissing and thrumming of wings… (p65)

Sparrows shrilling in tall elm hedges near the river. (p74)

along with rhetorical devices such as this where he evokes the presence of absence, the ominous presence of silence:-

The flat land was a booming void where nothing lived. (p67)

Overall I found the book to be a dour read with its spirit of relentless obstinacy around the whole enterprise which to me, as an environmental field recordist, was too close to home. Yet the darkness of the seasons, the cold and wet weather, the days spent slogging it out in order to cover the falcon’s extensive domain have contributed to the enduring appeal of Baker’s work. A morbid love of disgusting British weather is a perennial feature of homegrown nature writing.

My meeting with falco peregrinus was a less punishing affair. The Highland setting was to my mind more typical of an encounter with, I am told, the fastest creature on the planet.

Lochnagar in the Cairngorms of North East Scotland is an excellent walking and climbing mountain, especially in winter when snow and ice conditions become alpine and occasionally arctic, though less so recently with the milder winters. The summit Cac Carn Beag is only 3789 feet above sea level. The pressure of too many visitors nowadays means that every winter more and more climbers fall off the cliff, a unique way to spend a holiday. Added to that inconvenience is the slow but sure erosion of the paths and gullies. For my part, as a teenager with the mountains close by I was fortunate to have this wilderness as a personal playground for long months every year.

The mountain’s corrie (cirque, cwm – there’s not really an English word for it) is like a deep funnel of rock with a heather and boulder-strewn base. Three sides of rock buttress, gully and wall enclose the climber. The fourth is the very narrow hidden entrance to the corrie, where two folds of ridges rise and overlap, deepening the impression of being closed in. Dramatic, serious, it is a place where even insensitive humans will become alerted to signs in the environment, especially of a sonic nature.

On some summer days when the wind drops, the skies clear to light blue and you can climb on the warm granite with a single layer of clothing. On one such day I found myself ‘gardening’ a rock climbing route along with fellow obsessive compulsive Doogie Dinwoodie, a legendary climber of his generation. Gardening means that you climb a route in summer, taking as much time as you need to check out every feature: handhold, ledge, crack and slab. As you go you clean up the route using all sorts of brushes and scrapers, removing as much vegetation from the line as possible. Then, having mapped a template of the route into your mind/body complex by means of feeling, caressing and penetrating your way over and into every inch of it, you return in winter and grab a first ascent, thereby promoting your alpha male attributes throughout the group.

The route, appropriately named Nymph, was (and still is unless it’s become hopelessly eroded) a highly enjoyable and fairly straightforward steep ascent with good exposure and a perfect panoramic view of the corrie. For much of the time gardening involves long periods of inactivity as you wait for your mate to clean up his pitch – climbing is a secondary concern. Thus, high on the upper reaches of the face, a good few hundred feet above the corrie floor, I balanced on a ledge belaying my climbing partner above, lazily teasing out rope every few minutes, enjoying the smell and touch of warm rock, listening to the breeze, looking for new unclimbed lines, scanning the corrie walls for signs of recent rockfalls.

Looking up I saw that Dinwoodie had stopped gardening to pay attention to a commotion in the corrie. I had noticed it some time after it started, having taken it for granted for about quarter of an hour. Baker describes a similar experience as follows:-

A monotonous ‘keerk, keerk, keerk’, sound began, somewhere to the west. It went on for a long time before I recognised it. At first I thought it was the squeak and puff of a mechanical water-pump, but when the sound came nearer I realised that it was a peregrine screeching.(p55)

It was the sound that pulled me in. A peregrine (I’ll opt for the female, larger and more powerful than the tiercel or male), flying two hundred feet or so below me, was letting out its hunting call, more like a war cry than a birdcall, hurling itself round the corrie at unbelievable speed in ever decreasing spirals. At first I thought she was upset because we were closing in on the nest, but it became clear that this hawk wasn’t interested in us in the slightest. It also crossed my mind that perhaps she was under threat from a predator, but what on earth would have the skill and speed to threaten a peregrine up here? Besides, falco peregrinus is a bold one – I saw a fine adult perched on a fence post once as I drove past in the car. I stopped the car, got out and walked to within five feet. She looked at me lazily, turned away and carried on scanning the moor. And of course the peregrine doesn’t have too many predators, outside of psycho redneck farmers who shoot or poison anything that isn’t a sheep or a cow. The only other real threats are patterns of unnatural predation in territory caused by human intrusions into the mountains (crows and seagulls raiding bins and extending their range), erosion, humans eliminating the peregrine’s prey.

Eventually something intuitive kicked in and I pieced it all together as if I had known all along: hawk, raptor, hungry, prey, angel of death. Read the rest of this entry »

Aldo Leopold ( 1887 – 1948)

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…words (a sort of sign) are not separate from nature in the pre-Modern period, but intrinsic to it, woven in with everything else to make a single cloth… Prior to the Modern framework, language and discourse are part of nature residing among the plants, the herbs, the stones, and the animals…

(according to Foucault)

Vernon Pratt with Jane Howarth and Emily Brady (2000). Environment and Philosophy, Routledge.

There are certain sound artists with whom I’d love to spend some time. For different reasons. With some I’d talk about field techniques, with others I’d share experiences; some would have much to say on aesthetics, others could keep me up to speed on geek tech talk – I love the whole discourse.

But the only person I’d actually want to follow on a field trip is writer, ecologist and environmentalist Aldo Leopold. It would be like having meditation lessons with Buddha, or at least a guitar lesson with Jimi. Unfortunately Leopold is no longer with us, but before he passed on he left behind a priceless treasure in his classic work:  A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There.

As lovers of American nature writing will know, two books in particular are frequently flagged up as essential reading : Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. To those two I’d have added Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard as well as various works by Susan Fenimore Cooper and  Thoreau, but broadly, yes, I’d agree that the two volumes in question are essential reading.

Leaving aside the issue of whether Silent Spring is nature writing as such, it would be fair to say that anyone interested in the natural environment, in human intervention in the environment and in ecology, will appreciate Carson’s courage in bringing to the attention of the world the worst abuses of pesticide and insecticide spraying programmes. She is often credited with having established the major discipline of ecology and a raft of related sub-disciplines. I’m not qualified to comment but I believe that  Carson was unique in establishing a strong bridgehead from which to launch offensives against the polluting agencies and the underlying corporate greed and institutional stupidity which supported them.

So we should of course read both Carson and Leopold diligently, cover to cover, except that I’d suggest we read Leopold twice, or, for good measure, once a year every year. I say this because I always have the uncanny sense that something else, another world,  lies behind Leopold’s writing. I can’t put my finger on it so I have to keep reading it to find out more. And I am never disappointed after subsequent readings – readings which render such a powerful representation of the natural environment that the reader might believe he or she is revisiting an actual physical location. There’s a beckoning transparency in his narrative  – we ‘read through’ his prose and in doing so are invited to contemplate a different world. If we follow the trail back to the historical roots of the word Almanac, we will find a word with a resonance of the mystical and prophetic. Perhaps Leopold has captured something of that resonance in his masterpiece.

Whatever the resonance, Leopold achieves his transparency with elegance and tenderness, without pontification, without assuming an aggressive and radical philosophical posture. Above and beyond all of this we are privileged to accompany someone whose awareness of sound in the natural environment is second to none. His overall aims converge with the aims of many a contemporary sound artist.

Read the rest of this entry »

Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813 – 1894)

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While writers interested in visual media have for some time gestured towards a conceptualization of visual culture, no such parallel construct – sound culture or, simply, sound studies – has broadly informed work on hearing or the other senses. While sound is considered as a unified intellectual problem in some science and engineering fields, it is less developed as an integrated problem in the social and cultural disciplines.

STERNE, J., (2003). The Audible Past. Duke University Press, p3.

If she were alive today, Susan Fenimore Cooper would be spoiled for choice. She would have the free range of any number of  careers: environmentalist, photographer, ornithologist, documentarian, film-maker, sound artist. I rather like the idea of Susan Fenimore Cooper as an environmental sound artist, out and about in the field, extending her already superlative listening skills, probing the soundscape with the finest microphones.

You’ll recognise the name –  she’s the daughter of father James who wrote Last of the Mohicans. Overshadowed for many years by her father’s reputation, she is now recognised in literary circles as an extremely gifted writer.

Her world is alive with vital energy, colour, movement, and of course sound – sound perceived and sound imagined, from the tiniest murmuring deep in the hollow of a tree in the forest, barely heard at all, to the thundering cacophony of millions of birds in continental migration.  In her writing we are invited to engage with a sensual, vibrant and beautifully balanced representation of the natural environment – most unlike the one on offer from Emerson. Her writing, like that of Thoreau, is profoundly inspirational, especially  to the sort of person like me who spends hours in the field in all weathers listening and recording. Both writers have clearly embedded themselves firmly into their respective soundscapes.  Though some would have us believe otherwise, deep listening strategies have been with us throughout the ages and across cultures.  I’m encouraged to have that confirmed.

Her work demonstrates fine listening skills allied to subtle narrative technique. She possesses the rare skill of being able to  inhabit clearly defined yet detailed settings, conveyed to the reader by means of allusion to a variety of perceptual strategies, listening being of the utmost importance. In my reading experience, the distinctive subtlety and clarity of her style is matched only by the likes of fellow American Ernest Hemingway and the Scottish anthropologist Victor Turner.

Most readers will head directly for Rural Hours and rightly so. I chose to wander along the path less trodden, investigating instead A Dissolving View, Later Hours, Otsego Leaves I – III and A Lament for the Birds, all brought together in Essays on Nature and Landscape.

In A Dissolving View she writes of ‘the music of the woods as the seasons change’, observing how each season has its own sonic characteristics:-

There is a difference in the music of the woods as the seasons change. In winter, when the waving limbs are bare, there is more of unity in the deep wail of the winds as they sweep through the forests; in summer the rustling foliage gives some higher and more cheerful notes to the general harmony; and there is also a change of key from the softer murmurs of the fresh foliage of early summer, to the sharp tones of the dry and withering leaves in October.

A year’s work summed up in two sentences.

Otsego Leaves is an exquisite series of three pieces, each going further back in time. The final piece, The Bird Primeval, is remarkable for its quasi-cinematic treatment of the subject and its consideration of sound in the narrative. The reader is invited to occupy a particular  space, that of a dominant and nurturing elm tree, and at the same time to look at it, and listen to it, from a variety of vantage points . Susan Fenimore Cooper is clearly writing here from direct experience. The richness and legitimacy of sonic detail is incomparable – we are treated to the sounds of birds entering and leaving the hollow upper part of the tree, to the murmur, roaring and rumbling of swallows as they breed and raise their young, to the elm as resonating chamber.  Finally in a passage of the utmost elegance, we witness passing deer, bear, wolf and panther who pause to wonder at and listen to the tree. Wild nature as a listening Narcissus, self-absorbed in the act of listening to herself.

I’ll finish by mentioning another astonishing passage, this time from A Lament for the Birds in which she refers to accounts of the roosting grounds of native wild-pigeon, ‘the uproar from this roosting ground being heard at a distance of three miles’. Her imagination is drawn to the sound of reported flocks ‘covering 240 miles of country in length’:-

so vast as to obscure the sun at noon as though the country lay under an eclipse, while the ceaseless rapid motion of millions of wings produced a loud roar like an approaching tornado…

I invite the reader to take time to read her work at leisure.

Next up, Aldo Leopold….

Henry David Thoreau

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‘Wildlife artists select the best and discard the rest. The aesthetician repairs nature before admiring it. Landscape artists and architects are like flower arrangers.’

‘Aesthetic experience of nature is in engagement as much as in detachment… a forest is entered, not viewed.’

(ROLSTON III, H., (2002). From Beauty to Duty: Aesthetics of Nature and Environmental Ethics. In: A. BERLEANT, ed. Environment and the Arts: Perspectives on Environmental Aesthetics. Ashgate.

Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) published Walden in 1854. The book remains one of the best known and best loved accounts of one person’s engagement with the natural environment. I mentioned earlier my impression that certain authors come over time to represent more than the sum of their works. Thoreau is such a writer – mention of his name or work often leads to an exchange of knowing glances between nature lovers of all denominations. He was far from being the first to remove himself from the bustle of everyday life, but the procedures he adopted in setting up the project and methodically documenting his experience are truly innovative and original.

A good background to Thoreau and his work, including a link to a download of Walden itself, can be had at this Wikipedia entry. There is a lot of academic suspicion around the value of Wikipedia, some of it justified, but in this case the entry is well presented, thorough, and will save you many hours trawling through a variety of sources. My only gripe is with the description of the work as a novel. Calling a literary work a novel implies a degree of fabrication and I agree with the implication so far. But I prefer to read the work as a documentary, an artful fabrication or representation of a series of experiences in which a carefully considered plan was set well in advance and consciously followed through to its conclusion. (I’m not giving an academic paper here so I’m not going to go into a detailed justification. Call it a hunch, based on the fact that artists involved in large scale process-and field-based research projects (like me) do this all the time.)

Although my primary interest is in Thoreau’s awareness and literary investigation of sound, I’ve also been considering related topics, such as his treatment of space and location. This investigation also invites a closer look at how he goes about representing the natural environment, into his use of the documentary form and into the blurring of boundaries between ‘real life’ (whatever that may be), field work, and the making of the work of art. In the context of a wider study of documentary art it would be rewarding to look at how Thoreau went about his work. For example, did he decide to document his stay in the woods from the very beginning? If so was it possible for him ever to really step out of his role as documentarian? Did he write as he went along, keeping a regular journal, or did he fabricate the semblance of this? After all he must have kept notes throughout his stay, but I can find no mention of this. Did he ‘set up’ events and scenarios in order to heighten interest? A cursory investigation of early American documentary photography opened my eyes for ever to the element of fabrication in so-called ‘realistic’ documentary…. But I digress so let me return to Thoreau and sound. Read the rest of this entry »

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Throughout my preparations in 2008 /2009 towards a sound installation based on a local archive of environmental field recordings, I decided to delve into the work of some of the classic nature writers, initially because I was beginning to feel a strong affinity with artists from other disciplines whose primary objective, as I saw it, was the representation of nature. For some reason I was drawn towards the American canon: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Susan Fenimore Cooper, Aldo Leopold and John Muir. I should point out that this is not a chronological order, but the order in which I read them.

Something else appealed to me. These writers stand for something particularly inspiring. Thoreau, Leopold and Muir, perhaps also Emerson, seem to me to embody wholesome values and attitudes which America and Americans still have in abundance. They offer alternative histories which resonate with all of us, but which have over the years been seriously eroded, corrupted by corporate greed, media amorality and the abuses of various political systems. In other words, many people continue to read these writers because they adhere to or would like to have the opportunity to adhere to the values they promote in relation to the natural environment.

After a second read I became interested in how each writer approached the world of sound in the natural, and to a lesser extent, the human environment. At the time I was also reading various Marxist, feminist and other ‘ideological’ critiques of the arts and wondered about the validity of a new criticism which put the author’s awareness of listening and sound at the heart of the critical process. Why not? Much has been written about sound as the poor sister of sight throughout the ages. Might there not be in our culture, in some abstract sense, a bias which can be expressed in terms of politics or gender, towards sight and against listening? Could this be a new way of reading certain literary genres? Perhaps not in the long term, but the fantasy entertained me and still does in my reading and research.

This approach – looking at writing form a sound artist’s viewpoint – is naive and leaves me open to the sort of criticism levelled at an extreme Marxist, feminist or structuralist positions in that I’m only looking at the text from one very narrow angle. But that is the nature of the text and critics have done this for centuries. It’s a function of the inevitable culture -specificity in both writer and reader. Read the rest of this entry »