Category Archives: birds

The Sounds of Summer

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How do geese know when to fly to the sun?

Who tells them the seasons? How do we humans

know when it is time to move on? As with the migrant birds,

so surely with us, there is a voice within if only we would listen to it,

that tells us certainly when to go forth into the unknown.

                                                               Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

‘Compass’, a new sound installation, created especially for Cheeseburn Grange in Stamfordham, Northumberland, is a new collaboration with Chris Watson, one of our leading wildlife recordists. On Google Earth, Cheeseburn sits at just a few minutes past the noon of North. As well as North, South, East and West, ‘Compass’ also refers to other concepts that come in fours – the seasons, the elements and the four quarters of the day. So, in four separate locations around Cheesnburn’s grounds this Bank Holiday weekend, visitors can listen to an orchestrated soundscape of birdsong, wildlife, weather and original poems composed for each setting, time of day and season.

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As Cheeseburn’s first Writer in Residence, I visited over the span of a single year, on solstices, equinoxes and cross quarter days, to create a calendar of the place, based on simple observation and reflection (You can read the ‘notes’ of this experience here).  The intimate awareness gained from this research informed both the concept of Compass and the poems I wrote to accompany Chris’s recordings.

The two of us spent time at Cheeseburn together over another year to create this exciting new installation, where a world riven with migration and change finds a compass in the sense of sound itself, the poetry of everyday listening. Filtered through the ears and the imagination, visitors are invited to travel across time and space, through light and darkness, life and death, home and away, whilst also being able to experience the wonderful gardens and grounds at Cheeseburn in ‘real time’ on a summer afternoon.

As well as ‘Compass’, there will also be new work from Mike Collier and Sarah Dunn, also referencing the natural world and its winged creatures.

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Hoping the sun shines for us and looking forward to seeing you there – Saturday, Sunday, Monday 11 – 4.

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Birdwings

imageYour grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror

up to where you’re bravely working.

Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,

here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.

Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.

If it were always a fist or always stretched open,

you would be paralysed.

Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding,

the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated

as bird wings.

 

Rumi

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Wild at Heart

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Love is a wildness that has been falsely domesticated.

Pico Iyer

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I thought of the bypass patient’s chest being closed, the message being: You can’t see this wild place again, you can’t witness this beauty. But the moon was hidden in there, and the sun, and neither of these would rise or set, and the birds that flew up out of it were planets and constellations because the chest was really an aviary, too full of fluttering, and when it was closed no avian life would be seen again.

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 The thoracic cavity must have been the place where human music began, the first rhythm was the beat of the heart, and after that initial thump, waltzes and nocturnes, preludes and tangos rang out, straight through flesh and capillary, nerve ganglion and epidermal layer, resonating in sternum bone: it wasn’t light that created the world but sound. And the sewing up of the man’s chest was like the closing in of a house with a roof and walls: where would passion erupt? How could the spirit fly free?

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Extract from Gretel Ehrlich’s ‘A Match to the Heart’ (Penguin 1994)

Photos from Cragside, Northumberland

Even in the Leafless Winter

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As a counterpoint to Christmas I’m very happy to post this piece and accompanying video by Malcolm Green, bird lover and storyteller.  His captivating collaboration with Tim Dalling, Shearwater, has this year toured the length and breadth of the country and will be returning to Orkney for next year’s Festival.

I like the idea that the starlings are putting on a show for those with time to stand and look in North America too.

Reed (Phragmites australis) is the species in the Celtic Tree Calendar for October 28th – November 23rd.

Starlings at Lambley

I first noticed the starlings on a walk with Pat on November 10th (2013).  They were in the reed beds of the Lambley water treatment plant; the reeds alive with their pre-sleep twitter as they found their best perch for the night.  Sometimes five or six excited birds clung to one stalk so many had collapsed.

Then another night from a distance, a ball of them flew through the sky – in turn visible and invisible, expanding and contracting, like a breath.  Breath-taking.

Again on December 8th, I went to the same spot with Paul and we stood beside the reed bed from three o’clock in the afternoon. We watched them assemble; one little flock after the next joining the gathering cloud – a ballet of birds that whipped and whooped through the sky, round and round our heads.  How many were there? Perhaps 20,000 or so individuals that joined together to become a single gyrating organism.

I read on Google that it is possible to understand the movement of the flock mathematically.  It’s also easy to project all sorts of meanings onto this extraordinary dance. But the experience seems to defy rational explanation and this, in a way, is its power. The sight and sound transcends our mental murmurings and busy calculations to simply set our cells aflutter with excitement and awe. A reminder that there is a real, living world away from the desk and the screen.

I believe they have left the little reed bed now.  Perhaps they flattened all the available stalks and it is no longer a refuge.  Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…

Malcolm Green

Starlings in Winter

Chunky and noisy,

but with stars in their black feathers,

they spring from the telephone wire

and instantly

 

 

they are acrobats

in the freezing wind.

And now, in the theater of air,

they swing over buildings,

 

 

dipping and rising;

they float like one stippled star

that opens,

becomes for a moment fragmented,

 

 

then closes again;

and you watch

and you try

but you simply can’t imagine

 

 

how they do it

with no articulated instruction, no pause,

only the silent confirmation

that they are this notable thing,

 

 

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin

over and over again,

full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,

 

 

even in the leafless winter,

even in the ashy city.

I am thinking now

of grief, and of getting past it;

 

 

I feel my boots

trying to leave the ground,

I feel my heart pumping hard, I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.

 

 

I want to be light and frolicsome.

I want to be improbably beautiful and afraid of nothing,

as though I had wings.

 

Mary Oliver

 

 

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The Garden at Holly Hill

Allium

Allium

Since embarking on my Botanical project I have been asking various folk if they might contribute a piece for this blog and was delighted when my longtime friend the photographer Karen Melvin sent me this – as well as some wonderful images of her beautiful garden just outside Slaley in Northumberland.

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In my first year of work here I was caught by the gardening urge when a colleague brought some plants into college for a friend. I visited their garden. It was Frank and Margery Lawley’s first garden at Wallington. It was like nothing I had seen before. Some flowers were 8 feet high! I thought- I had to have some of these dramatic giant plants. Everything was new to me. Our childhood gardens in Michigan were wild places with birch and willow trees, asparagus growing in the meadow grass, a hybrid tea rose by the door, a conifer to mark the edge of your yard. We mowed to keep the woodland back.

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Eryngium

In Slaley all the first plants I got from the Lawleys died. I later found out what treasures they were as I got my eye in. I visited gardens. We cut trees down around the cottage. I carried little plants home in my pocket from Newcastle covered market. I started collecting architectural plants. Cottage garden plants with flower structure like eryngiums, astrantias, aquilegias, tall lilies, poppies, alliums give such a nice mix of soft colour along with things that seed around like campanulas, geraniums, sisyrinchium. I clipped a yew hedge, half of it grown from seed, into Bauhaus shapes, a cube, a cone, a globe, a spiral, a half arch like the kids’ blocks with the other half over the drive like it was just thrown down. A larch tree appeared growing out of a quarry wall crevice so I am trimming it like a Japanese bonsai in the ground. This leads to the moss garden, drying up now. It did so well last year. Dead moss covers the whole length of a dry stone wall in undulating dried-up mounds.

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A peacock arrived at Holly Hill out of the blue and stayed all winter, roosting high up in the sycamores. Last year he ate all my gooseberries and blackcurrants. This year he got old enough for a mate, and we (in the five Holly Hill cottages) were all debating whether to get rid of him or to find him a mate. He left just as the gooseberries and blackcurrants were coming into season. Silly peacock. And we have had more strawberries this year than the past thirty years put together.

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Rudbeckia

Karen Melvin 21 July, 2013

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