As I write , in the garden, there are moments when the songs and chattering and pin-thin whistles of birds are the closest sounds; and, there are other moments when invisible cars rumbling by beyond the wall seem much closer than they are. As I noted these simple thoughts, a simple interruption occurred: a tiny but fat green caterpillar dropped onto my page, and curled up, trying to hide as a letter ‘c’. It was the worst disguise ever. I’m not writing in green ink, because I’m not ‘C’. (Google ‘green ink Mi6’ if you don’t have a clue what I’m on about). So, anyway, I helped the caterpillar escape into the grass. And then I got on with the serious business of listening.
Lockdown helped me to hear or notice sounds which were previously hidden under other sounds. When the loud torrents of traffic on our roads dwindled to a trickle, and sometimes to nothing, all I noticed at first was the absence of the familiar growling of cars and buses and lorries. Then slowly, in the garden or walking to the park, I noticed – birds singing a variety of songs.
A thrush makes up a tiny tune and repeats it a few times, and then repeats another tiny tune instead. It’s like me singing in the shower, only it’s actually worth hearing. A blackbird song is like a narrow but fast stream of water flowing over rocks and mixing with a tune played on a penny whistle. The song of a blue tit is – high pitched chirping, ending with the sense of a question being asked or a faint apology.
I am looking forward to cycling and walking to other places where it remains quiet enough to hear birds and other natural sounds. Woodpeckers tapping on the trees under Seven Arches Bridge; and the incredibly calming notes of the Dichty, as it weaves and glitters towards the Tay. I suppose it’s a kind of song too.
I once worked in a textile factory, where the fast clattering of large looms was so loud it always shook your bones. It was a terrible racket – metal sliding against metal, always roaring – as if the herd of large looms was forever fighting a war against silence. The only music there came from our earphones, hidden underneath large, industrial ear protectors.
Another thing I noticed about sound, in the quiet months of the lockdown, was – I began to hear music differently. Not in the first few weeks, but after that: when I had spent a lot of time noticing that there was little or no traffic outside the house, and the garden was quieter, and wherever I walked it was quieter too. And then, when I put a CD on or heard music on the radio, it was like my ears had become thirsty! I wanted to take in more than the tastelessness of silence. And, I started to realise that it’s not absolute silence I enjoy, although I thought I craved that in the hectic past. But it’s not what I want: it’s enough quietness and time to listen to the soundtracks of our lives. From thrushes to streams, from Bob Dylan’s first album in 12 years, to the sounds in my ‘library’. The ticking of a clock, the tapping of keys on a laptop, and a tiny miaow of a cat sitting at my door, reminding me it is time to go down to the garden again.