Momentum is gathering as people prepare for the COP26 Summit in Glasgow (31st October – 12th November). Lots of rallies and actions and conversations are happening as eyes turn northwards. The Camino to COP pilgrims stopped off in Carlisle and it was inspiring to hear their stories and to get a chance to wear the Coat of Hopes that will be placed on the shoulders of world leaders to feel the warmth and the weight of the prayers and wishes stitched into this beautiful garment, worn all the way from Newhaven on the south coast, up the country and across the border to Glasgow.
Tynedale XR made their own splash today with a march and a rally in Hexham, led by the rousing Dead Canaries samba band and a poignant rising and falling wave of blue. People are finding their own creative ways to add their voices to the unfolding climate story and I was pleased to be able to share our collective Dawn Chorus as part of Durham Book Festival last week.
This article is intended to give a sense of the background to Dawn Chorus and the process of making it. I hope you find it a useful complement to watching and listening. All responses much appreciated – and please do share it with anyone you think might be interested.
Poetry saves the world every day. It is how we declare our love for things and for other animals. It is how we remember… Poetry is how we give shape to our griefs, the better to see and measure and, in time, heal them… folding each individual experience of place and time into the shared music of what happens.
John Burnside (The Music of Time, 2019)
Dawn Chorus is an ode to new beginnings. Every day the sun rises once more – enacting a miracle powerful enough for it to be worshipped by ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians and the Aztecs. The sunlight brings everything back to life after the long dark night. The first to wake are the birds, who sleep with lidless eyes open. Their song welcomes the returning light and sings the day in. At its peak around springtime, the traditional mating and nesting time, the dawn chorus will start at around 4am and the waking birds will carry on singing together for several hours. A few years ago, out recording with Chris Watson, we identified calls of tawny owl, robin, song thrush, blackbird, blackcap, wood pigeon, pheasant, wagtail, great tit, chiff chaff, goldcrest, wren and redstart. The sound and the light that morning did indeed feel like a miracle. But we forget to notice a miracle that happens every day.
It’s hard to think about new beginnings when we’re witnessing so many endings. In his wonderful book Songs of Place and Time (co-edited with Bennett Hogg and John Strachan, Gaia Project Press, 2020), artist Mike Collier tells us that ‘during the past 500 years about 187 of the world’s 11,147 bird species are estimated to have gone extinct. But it is projected that during the next 500 years three times as many – 471 – species may go extinct.’ This alarming prediction sits alongside everything else we know and fear about Climate Change, happening now and forecast for the future. I was disturbed to discover that studies have shown birdsong is changing in response to increasing noise levels in urban areas. Lower tones have disappeared, replaced by higher noises that are able to compete with human interference. It’s harder for these birds to attract a mate, so fewer eggs are laid and fewer birds hatch. Something else that goes beyond our notice.
Our Dawn Chorus project is part of my Writing the Climate Residency with New Writing North and Newcastle University, supported by Arts Council England. Working with Christo Wallers, artist and film-maker, I wanted to capture the energy of the waking birds in ‘a collective sound poem for the beginning of the world’. In my mind’s ear, many different voices melded in a polyphonic audio piece, a kind of ear-mosaic to wake us all up to the climate and ecological crisis we are facing.
Tackling the challenges of changing an archaic carbon-heavy system into a sustainable and fair one, we need to begin again every single day, with renewed commitment. This very human endeavour will never be perfect – we will try and fail many times – personally and politically. But no matter, we must keep going forward with our net-zero, low-impact destination in mind.
An emergency is a separation from the familiar, a sudden emergence into a new atmosphere, one that often demands we ourselves rise to the occasion.
Rebecca Solnit (A Paradise Built in Hell, 2009)
I wonder if most young people see the situation more clearly than most older people, worn down by years of struggle or clinging to the status quo. The younger generations deserve better – lives ahead of them of abundance, opportunity and freedom. This can only happen if we keep the rise in global temperatures below 1.5 degrees C. Already, at around 1.2 degrees, we are seeing wildfires and floods and life-threatening extreme weather events creating chaos and displacement. The concerted effort required to respond to the ‘Code Red for Humanity’ signalled by the most recent IPCC Report is waiting to be more broadly harnessed. There still seems to be a massive gap between what people need and want and what governments and corporations are choosing to make possible. The carbon emissions of the world’s richest 1% are more than double those of the poorest half of the world and 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
There are hopeful signs of people working for change all over the world. Every day we have a chance to begin again. Every day we ignore this opportunity intensifies the crisis, making it harder to address. The COP26 summit in Glasgow in November is an important date in the Climate Calendar. Will we hear a chorus of voices raised to commit to lowering emissions and consumption to safe levels as soon as possible, or will what we see be another missed chance, ‘a circus of corporate corruption’?
The Dawn Chorus is a symbol of community – grass roots, non-hierarchical – with space for everyone to be heard. In response to an open call, 115 people all over the world sent in their recordings – short and longer pieces of poetry, often with birdsong (especially the blackbird’s, flying in and out of so many lines), sometimes water, or other ambient sounds: one church clock, one cock crow, one full-blown song, complete with piano accompaniment. The sound quality was variable, but every single crackle and blur spoke of a human being making the effort to add their voice to the call for change and starting over. As well as their words, close up to the microphone, we could hear the sound of their breathing, the nuances of accent and intonation, against the background of noises off. Although we asked for no more than 30 seconds, in a very human fashion, quite a lot of people ignored our ‘guidelines’ and just did what they felt was right and sent in whole poems.
My task as curator/editor was to listen carefully and hear what was being sung in all the contributions, amounting to hours of audio, to catch the flavour and intention of the piece, and then to tune in to the individual voices and the shaped breath of their words. I approached the orchestration of the piece collage-style (not unlike with our previous collective project Murmuration, 2020), first transcribing all the submissions so I’d have a text to work with and refer to. The initial document ran to 20 pages (5,540 words) and by the end the poem was distilled into 1571 words. Ten people sent in their lines via email rather than as audio and we recorded those with family and friends.
I made a page of notes of the themes and images that kept recurring, using the touchstone of the prompts I’d offered in the initial invitation – I am…, I want…, Today…, We are… . The lines fell naturally into a pattern of time – the course of a single day from night to dawn to dusk and back to night again, as well as incorporating the wider sense of past, present and future, whole generations who’d shared the gift of the dawn chorus. I kept that as a loose template for the ordering of the extracts.
It was important to me to use all 115 voices, though we hear more of some than others. I hoped to give a sense of the immense richness and variety in the readings. There is real freshness and surprise – the true spirit of the dawn chorus, and the courage, innocence and optimism needed to broach the thorny tangle of the climate crisis. All 115 people from all corners of the globe are singing their hearts out – along with the birds summoned by their words. You only have to listen to be persuaded that, despite some appearances to the contrary, humanity has plenty going for it, enough to make the trajectory towards positive climate action manageable and creative.
This soundpoem is in the long tradition of oral poetry, spoken word, uttered with the ear, the imagination and the heart in mind. Continuity and survival are contained in it. After the long dark night, we can begin again.
Why add more words? To whisper for that which has been lost. Not out of nostalgia, but because it is on the site of loss that hopes are born.
John Berger (And our faces, my heart, brief as photos, 2005)
In the studio with Christo, 115 people’s diverse voices filled the room. There was much listening, discussing, rearranging and listening again. Initially we spent full days together, with both of us working and reflecting in between. The pace matched the process, careful, attentive, minutely focussed. Reflecting on the editing process, Christo adds: ‘I think of the notion of the People’s Assembly as a dawn chorus for our times. Each voice steps forward in the sound piece with conviction and clarity of mind. The difference in recording quality is mainly controlled by the technology people have to hand, and we expected a variation considering the open call welcomed everything from Whatsapp voice messages to studio-recorded audio files. Softening the difference was important to erase a hierarchy between voices, but we didn’t want to do so much that the specificity of each person’s contribution was diminished. My mind is so steeped in video conferencing imagery as a new democratic forum that it felt very natural to hear this type of sonic variation.’
We incorporated some of Chris Watson’s dawn chorus recordings at certain points to complement the various background and foreground sounds from the submitted audio pieces and this added to the sense of creating a community of human and beyond-human contributions. Before all the recordings came in, I’d imagined using an existing abstract artwork as a backdrop. We knew we didn’t want anything too illustrative that would distract from the listening experience. As we became more familiar with the atmosphere of the piece, it became clear that something else was called for, something created especially for the words. Christo also had ideas about integrating the text as ‘subtitles’ as the words were spoken.
He set up his camera to film the North Pennines landscape early in the morning as the light changed and the mist lifted in the valley. The ash tree with its signs of dieback is our protagonist, muse, bird-shelter and shadow-keeper. ‘The visual element of the tree, which plays daily host to the dawn chorus, stands also as an open object onto which listener-viewers can project their thoughts and hopes as they hear the poem. It forms a passage between thinking as a human and as non-human. The single take is purposefully ‘slow’, like James Benning’s films or Larry Gottheim’s Fog Line (1970). In that slower present, different thoughts and possibilities are more available’, adds Christo.
Another day together in the studio brought sound, image and subtitles in sync. Then further refining and adjusting before we finally settled on a version we were happy with. Watch and listen – watch or listen: your choice. We hope Dawn Chorus works with your eyes open and with your eyes closed – try both for a different experience. We hope too that it bears repeated listening so its rhythms percolate into your own dreams and plans for a kinder future.
Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so that it can be thought… For poetry is not only dream and vision, it is the skeleton architect of our lives.
Audre Lorde (Poetry is Not a Luxury, 1977)
birds courtesy of wikipedia