Walking the Winds: Bora

Writer Nick Hunt walked the invisible pathways of Europe’s named winds for Where the Wild Winds Are. In his third extract, Nick follows the freezing Bora –named for Boreas, the ice-bearded Greek god of the north wind.


510 words: estimated reading time 2 minutes  


Gornje Sitno was the highest village, the end of the road. Six inches of powder snow squeaked under my boots as I climbed, snowballing at the tips of the laces, making lion’s tails. The snow had favoured the windward side of every leaf and blade of grass, while tree trunks and telephone poles were vertically scored with a furred white line angled precisely northeast, as if magnetised to a new pole. The world had been perfectly bisected, divided between spring and winter.

The Bora on Mount Mosor, Croatia. Photograph by Nick Hunt
The Bora on Mount Mosor, Croatia
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2017
www.nickhuntscrutiny.com

Sheltered by the slope at first, I could only hear it. But then I reached the top, and the Bora was upon me.

It was on my skin, freezing my face, blizzarding into my eyes. My eyelashes were frosted, my beard stiff with ice. I made the mistake of removing my mittens and my fingers throbbed so much it felt as if they’d been slammed in a door. The chill of it pushed me back, forced me to proceed in a crouch, as if advancing under fire. Or as if I was bowing.

It was in my ears, but it wasn’t blowing; nor was it moaning, whistling, howling, or any of the other words usually used to capture wind. It was less a sound than a sensation, a nameless energetic thing that erased the line between hearing and feeling; for the first time in my life, I understood sound as a physical force. It was in my lungs, under my skin. Like a religious maniac, I roared my appreciation.

The Bora roared right back at me, and the mountainside ignited. An eighty-mile-per-hour blast lifted veils of powder snow, frozen spindrift that swirled like smoke, spinning itself into ice tornadoes that leapt from slope to slope before blowing apart again in mists of agitated dust. It happened again and again as I watched, each white eruption spreading and merging to create gyrating clouds that travelled as fast as a forest fire, hurtling down the mountain. The Bora’s face was visible in each fleeting pattern of snow, each convolution and curlicue, each vortex, twist and coil. I saw the invisible appear, the formless given form.

What did the Bora say to me, on that frozen mountainside?

I could not read its words. Its language was too large.  

***

Nick introduced this five-part series with an extract of the book’s opening essay and, in his second extract, tracked northern England’s Helm windIn his next post, Nick shares his experience of the ‘snow-eating’ Foehn of Switzerland, bringer of wildfires and insomnia and clear skies.


Find out more

Where the Wild Winds Are is published by Nicholas BrealeyNick works as an editor for the Dark Mountain Project.

Nick Hunt
Nick Hunt
A fiction and non-fiction writer and editor for the Dark Mountain network of writers, artists and thinkers who've stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.
Read More

Walking the Winds: Helm

Writer Nick Hunt walked the invisible pathways of Europe’s named winds for Where the Wild Winds Are. Here, he’s on the trail of the Helm, which blows from desolate Cross Fell to wreak havoc in the Eden Valley.


680 words: estimated reading time 2.5 minutes  


The view resembled a different country to the one I’d seen the morning before. There was no sodden cloud, no murk; the land was bright and loud again, the weather vane of the topmost pines twitching to the west. I made coffee in a pan, cowboy style — a mouthful of grits and a mule-kick to the heart — and as I was thinking of going out, the door banged open.

It was a cheerful pink woman who had hiked up from Kirkland. ‘You can hear the Helm up there,’ she announced breathlessly. ‘It’s horrible, howling and moaning and groaning. I was too scared to go up.’ I was already pulling on my boots, fumbling with the laces. ‘You know why it’s called Cross Fell?’ she continued, taking out her sandwiches. ‘It used to be called Fiends Fell. People thought that demons lived there, so they sent a holy man to bless it. He exorcised the evil spirits, built a cross to drive them away. But I don’t think it worked. It still sounds like it’s cursed.’ I was halfway through the door. I didn’t want to miss them.

The Helm Bar, over Cross Fell. Photograph by Nick Hunt
The Helm Bar, over Cross Fell
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2017
http://nickhuntscrutiny.com/

It certainly looked like the home of fiends, despite the bright sunshine. Dramatic events were occurring above, in the fathomless workings of the clouds; it seemed that opposing weather systems were engaged in epic warfare. To the north and west a ragged mass scoured the lower slopes of the fell – Grey Scar, Black Doors, Man at Edge, said the place-names on my map — hazing the air with a smudge of rain, leaving shreds of itself behind. Autonomous mists of water vapour travelled in long vertical trails high above the Eden Valley, and grandiose crepuscular rays poured down on the mountains of the Northern Lakes, where Ullswater distantly shone as bright as a mirror. The Helm Bar was not in place, but developments were moving so rapidly it seemed that anything might happen. Scattering Swaledale ewes I hurried on the Pennine Way, up the long, deceptive rise that led towards the summit.

Who was this mysterious holy man? I wondered as I climbed. Unsurprisingly, research suggests that no one really knows; some say a bishop, some say a saint, some say a wandering monk. A local clergyman, the Reverend Robinson of Ousby, wrote in 1709 of the

evil Spirits which are said in former Times to have haunted the Top of this Mountain; and continued their Haunts and Nocturnal Vagaries upon it, until St. Austin, as is said, erected a Cross and built an Altar upon it, whereon he offered the Holy Eucharist, by which he countercharm’d those Hellish Fiends, and broke their Haunts. Since that time it has had the Name of Cross-Fell, and to this day there is a heap of stones which goes by the name of the Altar upon Cross-Fell.

What had the woman from Kirkland meant, talking about howling and moaning? Alone in that empty place I soon found out. Something must have shifted in the air, for the aural landscape suddenly changed: above the buffeting blows of gusts that banged recurrently on my ears, flatlining like microphone distortion, rose an unearthly whispering like dozens of tiny voices. It was a mischievous chattering accompanied by a hissing that suggested branches and spirals, complex patterns being woven in the air, and under it all a low moan, like an animal in distress. 

***

Nick introduced this five-part series with an extract of the book’s opening essay, and in the third part he shares his experience of the Bora, walking the Adriatic coast from north-east Italy through Slovenia and Croatia.


Find out more

Where the Wild Winds Are is published by Nicholas BrealeyNick works as an editor for the Dark Mountain Project.

Nick Hunt
Nick Hunt
A fiction and non-fiction writer and editor for the Dark Mountain network of writers, artists and thinkers who've stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.
Read More

Walking the Winds: Blown Away

Writer Nick Hunt has walked the invisible pathways of Europe’s named winds, to discover how they affect landscapes, people and cultures through which they blow. Five extracts from Where the Wild Winds Are begin with the book’s introduction.


780 words: estimated reading time 3 minutes 


The wind almost blew me away for the first time in 1987, when the Great Storm hit the British Isles. I was six years old. It was on the mountainside of Ynys Enlli, the holy island off the coast of North Wales, where my mother took me every year to volunteer for the local trust and hear the seals sing at night. Now the storm had stranded us there, for the weekly boat was cancelled. There was no shop on the island, and food supplies were running low; one of my most vivid memories is my mother, by the glow of a paraffin lamp, inexpertly skinning a rabbit the farmer had shot for stew. I remember hugging the cottage wall on trips to the outhouse in the yard, and my fear of slates zipping off the roof to brain me if I ventured far. But what I remember above all else is standing on the mountainside and the wind filling the coat I was wearing – many sizes too large for me – and my feet actually leaving the ground before my mother grabbed my legs and dragged me back to earth. We laughed about it afterwards. It became one of those stories. Could it have actually blown me away, across the foam-flecked Irish Sea? I’m not sure, but for years part of me secretly wished it had, and I imagined being borne through the sky to Ireland, France, America, Iceland, the Arctic Circle or any of the other wonderful places waiting in the world. I’d only travelled a foot off the ground. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling slightly blessed.

Where the Wild Winds Are – cover
© 2017

Despite being moved by the wind in this way I did not grow up to be a glider pilot, a windsurfer, a paraglider or a wind turbine engineer. My attempts with kites mostly ended in dismal tangles of string. I did not become a meteorologist, one who understands weather as a science, as I’m sure this book will make only too clear. What I did become, however, was someone with an urge to travel, and especially to travel by walking, which allows you to follow paths not dictated by road or rail, paths not marked on any map, or to follow no path at all; to wander and to wonder as freely as your feet can take you. But every journey has a logic, even if it’s an invisible one. All travelling, I came to understand, is an act of following something, whether a coastline, an ancient migration, a trade route, a border or someone else’s footsteps. Scanning the travel section of a bookshop, it appeared that everything had been followed that it was possible to follow. There seemed to be no trails left that hadn’t been traversed.

And then one day I saw a map with paths I hadn’t seen before. It was a map of Europe transfigured by coloured lines, marauding arrows like troop advances that ploughed across borders, over land and sea, connecting regions and cultures that seemed quite separate in my mind: Latin with Slavic, continental with coastal, North African with southern European. These mysterious corridors had names every bit as tantalising as the Silk Road or the Camino de Santiago: the Mistral, the Tramontana, the Foehn, the Sirocco, the Bora. There was even one in the north of England, more brusquely named the Helm. The map showed the routes of local winds, which blow with tremendous force at specific times of year – normally at the transitions between seasons, such as when winter turns to spring – and, I was intrigued to discover, they were said to influence everything from architecture to psychology. The fact these invisible powers had names, rather than simply compass directions that described where they were from, gave them a sense of majesty, even of personality. They sounded like characters I could meet. Those swooping, plunging arrows suggested routes I might follow, trails that had not been walked before. As soon as I saw that map I knew: I would follow the winds. 

***

In the second in this series of five posts, Nick describes his encounter with the Helm, England’s wild wind, in the landscape of the North Pennines.


Find out more

Where the Wild Winds Are is published by Nicholas BrealeyNick works as an editor for the Dark Mountain Project.

Nick Hunt
Nick Hunt
A fiction and non-fiction writer and editor for the Dark Mountain network of writers, artists and thinkers who've stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.
Read More

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #1

Anthropocene objectClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe set Members a challenge: share your choice of three objects with personal significance for you and that say something of the past, present and future of the emerging Anthropocene. Here is his personal contribution.


2,190 words: approximate reading time 9 minutes


From the here and now …

I’d booked ahead for a B&B, so my only task here was to trawl leaflets and maps and get some local tips. Although it was the Easter holidays and as busy as I’d expected, two advisers were free, chatting behind the counter. Both turned to help me as I approached.

“I’d like to see the Scallop,” I said. “I know it’s on the beach; which direction from here?” 

I’d not expected this to open up an argument in a Tourist Information Centre, even a good-humoured one. But, smiling, the woman immediately responded.

”Oh, don’t start your visit with that. It’s very unpopular around here!”

I’d hardly had time to wonder if this was an unusual tack from someone paid to promote the local sights when the man butted in, equally cheery.

“Don’t listen! Lots of people love it, and not just tourists. I think it’s wonderful.” 

It was maybe unwise to reveal that Maggi Hambling’s famous sculpture was the main reason I was visiting the town, or that I’d heard it had helped “put Aldeburgh on the map”, but I think I said something along those lines. I’d already heard that this very public artwork had divided opinion quite starkly; that was part of its attraction for me, although from photographs I already knew which camp I was going to be in. As I discovered, however, the photographs don’t do Scallop justice. Its setting does (and is repaid in kind). Being in its presence was to experience very direct communication with both environment and history, and an unsettling encounter with the future.

Aldeburgh, like many Suffolk coastal settlements, has been disappearing from the map for centuries. On my way from Tourist Centre to Scallop that morning in 2007, I also had my first encounter with the town’s 16th century Moot Hall. Once both the geographical and political centre of the town, this is now right up against the beach. All the streets and buildings on its eastern side have long gone, the sea moving in by stages over the centuries. Where Maggi Hambling’s massive, 4 metre high stainless steel seashell stands might once have been fields; now it’s shingle. 

Aldeburgh is famous as the home of composer Benjamin Britten and the annual music festival he founded there in 1948. Scallop, a tribute to him and his legacy, is also testimony to coastal changes that have sculpted Aldeburgh. Britten’s opera Peter Grimes tells the story of a fisherman, the deaths of his apprentices at sea and his own stormy fate. It’s based on a 19th century poem cycle, The Borough, by George Crabbe. Carved into the giant metal shell – actually cut right through it, so the sky writes the words through the absence within the solid matter – is one line from the opera: “I hear those voices that will not be drowned.” 

Scallop, by Maggi Hambling, on Aldeburgh beach.
“I hear those voices that will not be drowned.”
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe, © 2014

Every time I see these words on my visits to Scallop or in my photographs of it, it has the same cold-heat effect on my scalp. 

The coast-eroding waters have taken so many lives, but still we are here. Part of the flux, and subject to it, we’re drowned in a natural history that’s also, increasingly, made by our species. The fears and anxieties that coastal change brings can split communities from each other and from the institutions charged with planning for the impacts of future change: landowners, heritage bodies, councils, coastal agencies, government departments. The divided response to Scallop somehow exemplifies this ever-present potential for conflict over our local places, and (evoked in the words cut through solid matter) conflict over our national responses to refugees from climate impacts around the world.

‘For Maggi Hambling, the phrase has universal significance: “”We all have voices inside us all the time, whether we’re awake or asleep.” She wants those visiting Scallop to “contemplate the horizon and the movement of the waves, and have a conversation not only with the sea but also with themselves. To listen to their own voices.”‘ – Text on Scallop from website of the Britten-Pears Foundation

Scallop therefore continues to resonate, ten years on from my first encounter. We’re able to experience the lives of others in distant times or places – to ‘undrown’ and hear their voices – through our inner voices and empathies. 

Through the Great Acceleration

When did the Anthropocene begin? The candidates for ‘trigger point’ cover such a broad expanse of our species’ time – from Neolithic Revolution 8,000 years ago to Industrial Revolution 250 years ago and its Great Acceleration in the 20th century, to the widespread nuclear weapons testing of the Cold War – that we have the luxury of choosing our own personal start-point. My choice goes back to the early 17th century: the onset of significant European expansion around the world and the scale of species changes this brought. The diversity of plants, animals and microbes introduced ‘over there’ or brought back ‘home’ — and the species lost – had direct and permanent impacts on humans and others across entire continents, as future archaeologists will know even if the historical accounts we have don’t survive. 

But my chosen object for ‘Anthropocene Past’ doesn’t date from so long ago. The first technology for recording sound was the phonautograph, patented in 1857. Although its recordings could not be played back, an 1860 phonautogram of Au Clair de La Lune was finally heard for the first time in 2008. I’m intrigued that this first replay of the first recording leapfrogged the entire 20th century; the century that made mass recording and consumption of sounds possible and enabled cultural forms that have enriched billions of lives over that time. As with other technologies of capitalism’s Great Acceleration, this benefit comes at its own costs in materials, habitats, energy, waste and pollution. It possibly facilitates other impacts and makes it easier to ignore them: with so much recorded sound within instant reach, not only does it add to the incessant ‘anthrophony’ surrounding us; it masks the erosion of the remaining ‘biophony’, seemingly ‘compensating’ us (but not the other species) for that loss. For me, this complex mix of pluses and minuses hints at the wider Wicked Problem of the Anthropocene.

And my actual object? In 1945 British engineer Marie Killick patented Sapphox, the first truly reusable stylus for playing gramophone records. The innovation of a bevelled flat with sapphire tip made it possible to ride the groove without wearing away either the record surface or the stylus itself. Before this, the gramophone stylus was essentially a ‘one use’ technology that soon became unusable as it wore away. Now a disposable item became a lasting one, produced far superior sound quality and was safer to use with the discs. This must have been part of what made the mass production and enjoyment of records possible after the Second World War. Led Zeppelin wouldn’t have been possible without it! But modern audio technologies, including records, cassettes, CDs and mp3s, have played their part in spreading not only music and spoken word but also the learning of languages and enjoyment of natural soundscapes from around the world, and from the past. Sapphox represents this progress, but also some of the pitfalls of the age.

Killick's Sapphox - sales pamphlet by Killick & Company
Killick’s Sapphox – sales pamphlet
Text by Killick & Company, 1946
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe, 2017

I’m unavoidably biased in my choice, however; Marie Killick was my grandmother. I never met her. Born in 1914, Marie died the year I was born, 1964. Her patent was infringed and, although she won a famous court case, the infringement and the battle for justice left her impoverished and in ill health. After many years of dodgy dealings by her industrial opponents, she was forced into bankruptcy before the damages from her court victory could be awarded. ‘My’ object for our ‘Anthropocene Past’ therefore has many nuanced associations with my own life as well with the stories of the unfolding Age of Human.

And into the dark 

My choice of ‘Anthropocene Future’ object perhaps seems to bend a rule, because the thing itself is current, not something originating in the future. But I’m imagining it at some future time, an uncertain number of decades or centuries away, and at barely imaginable distances from where it started. Already, it’s so remote that for almost all of the tiny proportion of humanity that’s even aware of it, it’s practically an object only of our imaginations.

In 1977, NASA launched two Voyager spacecraft on journeys that would eventually take them out of the Solar System. 40 years on, Voyager 1 has passed that particular environmental boundary and is headed on into deep space and deep time. Voyager 2, not far behind, is yet to emerge from the outer edges of the heliosphere, where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas.

Both Voyagers carry a specially commissioned gold-plated gramophone record and a stylus (descendant of sorts of Sapphox), in the hope that if any extraterrestrials ever encounter it they might decode the instructions and play the sounds and images of Earth, human and more-than-human.

“The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilisations in interstellar space. But the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet.” – Carl Sagan, Astrophysicist & member of the Voyager team

Or perhaps the aliens will just eat it. But in a sense it’s human thought that has gone with the lifeless spacecraft, and maybe there are other thoughts out there that can connect with it, thousands of years from now, light-years from here. Will we still be here, then? Will the other species captured on the discs?

The Voyager Golden Record, photograph by NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Voyager Golden Record
© NASA/JPL-Caltech
Further info: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/voyager/index.html

The future I’m imagining for the Golden Records is not an alien discovery, or what birdsong and human voices might mean to them, but a future where those recorded sounds are the last to escape from Earth. Not because of a final holocaust or natural cataclysm that might wipe us out, but because at some point humanity might well switch off the technology that has indiscriminately been broadcasting our signals into the universe. Signals that were only ever intended for us – radio and TV shows and adverts from the Great Acceleration – have been radiating outwards for the past 70 years, ever since Earth went ‘radio bright’. For everything else out there (and down here), our radio signals are just another form of pollution. At some time, when inefficient technology is superseded, this expanding signal sphere will start to hollow out at its core and a second, more subdued sphere of more-or-less radio silence will grow outwards into the polluted zone. Our radio brightness will go dark again. No doubt by then we’ll have new, more interesting ways of making our presence known. But at the moment that the inner surface of the old radio sphere passes the two probes, the Voyager Golden Records will for the first time be surrounded by an unhuman quiet, and the discs will remain to be decoded. 

“This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” – President Jimmy Carter’s printed message on the Voyager spacecraft.

An Anthropocene timeline

I didn’t expect to pick three objects linked by sound. But the technologies for capturing the sounds of different cultures and times, and mixing these into a new, global mesh of music and learning; a seashell – long used by human ears to imagine a distant sea, and now also the voices of those who will not be drowned; the real voices of people and species frozen in time and cast off into the ultimate deeps; the fading echoes of human technologies broadcasting to the universe; these pick up one small thread among an infinity of possible timelines from whenever the stories of the Anthropocene began to wherever they go.


Find out more:

A past

A Sound Revolution – By Cynthia Killick: a personal history of Marie Killick, her life and invention of Sapphox, her struggle and legacy. There is much of the story of Marie Killick’s life, invention and struggle at Marie Louise Killick.

Mega Invention 6 – The place of Sapphox in the history of inventions?

The Phonautograph – The history of the first known sound recording device. This article also has a sound file of the first phonautogram recording to be played back; although it maybe sounds more like a disgruntled bee than a human reading Au Clair de la Lune, it’s still remarkable to hear a voice from 1860.

A present

Aldeburgh Museum at the Moot Hall – The history of Aldeburgh

Maggi Hambling – her site and her work 

A future

Voyager 1 & 2 Missions – The history of the NASA mission, its discoveries and ongoing journey.

Voyager Golden Records – What is on those records?

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
Read More

Interstices of Things Ajar

intersticesMark Goldthorpe explores interstices — a “space that intervenes between things, especially between closely spaced things; a gap or break in something generally continuous” — and associations with birds that play off his fascination with two mythical ravens.


2,060 words: estimated reading time 8 minutes


The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines an interstice as “a space that intervenes between things, especially between closely spaced things; a gap or break in something generally continuous; a short space of time between events”:

‘You don’t need to read between the lines to understand the history of interstice; its etymology is plain to see. Interstice derives from the Latin interstitium, which is itself formed from the prefix inter-, meaning “between,” and -stes, meaning “standing.” Interstices are the cracks and crevices of life, and the word is often used for both the literal and figurative gaps of the world. In modern uses, interstice can even refer to gaps in time or to special niches in the larger expanse of something else. Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould used it, for example, to comment, ‘Dinosaurs held sway for 100 million years while mammals, all the while, lived as small animals in the interstices of their world.’

I first discovered interstices in Robert Frost’s On a Bird Singing in its Sleep:

A bird half wakened in the lunar moon
Sang halfway through its little inborn tune.

It could not have come down to us so far,
Through the interstices of things ajar,
On the long bead chain of repeated birth,
To be a bird while we are men on earth,
If singing out of sleep and dream that way
Had made it much more easily a prey.

Philosopher Gaston Bachelard maybe saw the value of getting into the “space that intervenes between closely spaced things” when he wrote of “The minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world.”

In a review of Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space in The Independent, landscape writer Ken Worpole explains that “Bachelard was a phenomenologist, holding the view that there was a dynamic interplay between an active mind and its surroundings.” In a passage that seems to suggest something for our approaches to the Anthropocene, Worpole describes his conversations with architects designing hospices:

“Architects will tell you that designing intimate buildings is much more difficult than erecting monoliths. Those I have talked to in writing a book about the new hospice movement have employed Bachelard’s vocabulary of intimacy; they have described the need to create distinct psychological thresholds between open and closed, inside and outside, arrival and departure … places of contemplation and a gathering-in of memory and self-discovery.”

When metaphors take flight

When I reread Mike Hulme’s article Why We Disagree About Climate Change for Culturing Climate Change, his repeated use of ‘circulating’ became ‘circling’. Memory carrying me to buzzards circling over my local woods quickly triggered an image of a bird high above a group of desert exiles. Oblivious, the humans are trapped in arguments about where they are, how they got lost and which way to go. A second bird joins the first. More gather, their shadows crossing and recrossing below. The arguing wanderers don’t notice until their patch of land is completely shadowed. Circling, birds wait for humans to … what? Fight themselves into extinction? Give in to weakness and fatigue? Finally act together? Fanciful, but the birdish metaphor stuck with me, and slipped into the cracks where I was busy dividing up ‘culturing climate change’ into wickedness, uncertainty and navigation.

These associations play off my fascination with a reference to ravens in Anticipatory History – a creative glossary on landscape and wildlife change. In one entry, Birds, writer and radio producer Tim Dee evokes the nearly supernatural skills that the power of flight gives birds in many of our myths:

“Two ravens tumble from the sky cronking and surfing towards the shoulders of Odin, the man-god. One is called Hugin, the other Munin. One whispers into Odin’s ears what it has seen; the other, what is to come. They fly with the world’s past and its future held in their black eyes. Later, ravens were thought able to predict the outcome of a battle because of their uncanny habit – it seemed – of coming around armies waiting to fight. How did they know? We read them as able to foretell what was to come; in fact, they read us based on their knowledge of how things had been in the past.”

Appearing in the 13th century Norse Poetic Edda, Hugin translates as ‘thought’, Munin as ‘memory’: twin abilities (or afflictions), bringing both futures and pasts into mind. Such troubling powers, perhaps, that myth puts distance between them and mere humans, gifting them instead to gods and animals…

Raven Banner
Artist: Skydrake 2014
Public Domain: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raven_banner#/media/File%3ARaven_Banner.svg

Over the next few days, birds kept cropping up. Browsing the BBC archives for late night listening, I found Radio 3’s Is Birdsong Music? What is the relationship between what the 4,000-or-so species of songbirds produce and what we think of as music? Are they ‘simply’ speaking, or actually singing? As presenter Tom Service says, “This is all territory that skirts boundaries of language, music and anthropomorphic wish fulfilment.” Many composers have tried to capture the sound of birdsong in musical notation; an attempted translation that’s doomed to fail, but fails beautifully. Birdsong is too fast, too high and uses notes that don’t exist on anyone’s piano, operating “in a different scale of time and meaning than any humanly produced system of sounds, whether we’re taking about music or language.” Meanwhile, in 1889, 8 year old Ludwig Koch recorded his pet Indian Shama onto a wax cylinder: 128 year-old birdsong.

The Great Animal Orchestra by sound recordist Bernie Krause has featured as Book of the Week on Radio 4. He chronicles how human sound (anthrophony) drowns out the biophony and geophony of the (rest of the) natural world. Maybe a small part of that deluge is recordings of long-dead birds… Krause also appears in Is Birdsong Music?, explaining how we should always hear the sounds of any species in the context of what else is going on in the local soundscape: “birds fill the niches left empty by other species in that particular habitat … where there’s no other acoustical territory being occupied by other creatures.” He suggests that humans learned the art of orchestration from the structure of sounds in the animal world, where each species has to find its niche in the overall ‘animal orchestra’: Nature as ‘proto-orchestra’.

He was there again, in The Listeners, a series about people whose professional lives revolve around listening. Krause’s work reveals a different facet to extinction than ‘simply’ eradicating the species: “Of the 4,500 hours of marine and terrestrial habitats that I have recorded, 50% are altogether silent or can no longer be heard in their original form.”

In Raven, presenter Brett Westwood and bird rearer Lloyd Buck go blackberrying with Brann the raven. Lloyd takes Brann for a flight every day and likens him to a ‘flying dog’. In the Mabinogion, Bran The Blessed — a Celtic king associated with ravens — was killed by invaders and his head buried on a hill, facing south to defend the land from further invaders. Clearly, he fell asleep on the job, as that hill became the site for the Norman invaders’ White Tower: the Tower of London. Bran’s association with ravens has led to the legend that if they ever disappear from the Tower, England will fall (a legend revisited in White Ravens, a Second World War re-interpretation of the Mabinogion tale from novelist and poet Owen Sheers).

Raven also told how when sound recordist Chris Watson saw a woodcut of Odin in Reykjavik’s Sagas Museum, there were Hugin and Munin on the Raven God’s shoulders, whispering in his ears. Remembering his own encounters with the call-and-response of roosting ravens, he says “I was struck by what I’d heard in that forest in North Wales, because I really felt as if I’d heard some of these conversations that Hugin and Munin must have had with Odin in the halls of Valhalla.” Watson later created a raven-based sound installation, Hrafn: Conversations with Odin, in Northumberland’s Kielder Forest: a twenty channel speaker system in the forest canopy. When he led his audience through the darkening forest to hear the sound of 2,000 ravens returning to roost, everyone was silent, the ravens’ conversations with their god the only sound.

Psychologist, and Scientist in Residence with the Rambert dance company, Nicky Clayton studies how ravens and other corvids “think in terms of movement rather than words.” She’s interested in the ‘mental time travel’ abilities of Hugin and Munin:

“the ability to remember the past and to think about the future. So you could see this as being memory and forethought. You might think that these are different skills but actually the two are interlinked. Specifically, our ability to remember the past, to project oneself in time to remember what happened where and when, that kind of memory really evolved for the future. So these are memories of the future, memories of tomorrow, and that’s why they’re linked to forethought. Ravens and corvids in general have absolutely stunning memories of past events, and they are one of the few animals other than us who are known to be capable of forethought, of being able to plan ahead.” 

But ravens can’t remember everything. They cache many small food hoards across their territories, to return to when food is scarce. But some is never recovered, and seeds take root. In Corvids Could Save Forests From the Effects of Climate Change, journalist and fiction writer Annalee Newitz summarises recent research on how this rather haphazard behaviour might help forests survive climate change, given the inconvenient fact that trees can’t ‘up sticks’ and move themselves. “Over millennia of evolution, this arrangement has become mutually beneficial” and now conservationsts make use of this ‘ecological silviculture’; encouraging corvids to cache seeds in areas needing reforestation. Newitz says:

“Corvids have unwittingly become a key part of a virtuous cycle. By planting seeds, they lay the groundwork for entire ecosystems. Many plants thrive in the shade offered by trees like oaks and pines, and animals flock to the area as well. Finally, forest floors are excellent carbon sinks. Scatter-hoarding corvids are, in fact, guardians of the forest – or, as the researchers put it, geoengineers.” 

When I started seeing birds circling in my mind, I was thinking back (and ahead) to Hugin and Munin and their ability to help Odin navigate past and future. Ever since I first read Anticipatory history, this has struck me as a hopeful metaphor for our potential to cast ourselves back and forth in time and geography, to imagine ourselves beyond the impossibilities of climate change. So it was a natural bridge between the Culturing Climate Change and what was going to be a second part, on navigating complexities. Somewhere in my nighttime podcasting, I’d heard someone mention that Vikings used ravens to guide their ships far from shore: birds as real navigational aid(e)s, not simply metaphorical ones. But, listening again while I made my notes, I’ve failed to find this reference. Maybe I saw it somewhere else, or dredged up some other association, or just missed it on the second hearing? Memory has let me down, appropriately enough. But Wikipedia did offer a brief reference; Flóki Vilgerðarson, the first Norseman to (deliberately) sail to Iceland, took three ravens with him. When the first flew back to the Faroes, Flóki knew he wasn’t yet halfway. The second bird circled and returned to the ship. When the third raven headed northwest and didn’t come back, Flóki followed it to Iceland.


Find out more:

Miriam-Webster Dictionary, Interstice

Robert Frost, On a Bird Singing in its Sleep and other poems are available at The Hypertext Poems

Ken Worpole, Book of a Lifetime: The Poetics of Space, The Independent 23rd April 2009

BBC Is Birdsong Music?  The Listening Service, Radio 3 19th June 2016

BBC The Listeners, Series 2 Episode 2, Radio 4 18th August 2014

BBC Raven – Natural Histories, Radio 4, 14th November 2016

Tim Dee – Birds, in Anticipatory History (edited by Caitlin deSilvey, Simon Naylor & Colin Sackett) Uniform Books 2011

Bernie Krause – The Great Animal Orchestra – Book of the Week, Radio 4 April 2012, rebroadcast on Radio 4 Extra February 2017

Annalee Newitz – Corvids could save forests from the effects of climate change, Ars Technica, 8th February 2016

Owen Sheers – White Ravens, Seren Books, 2009

Chris Watson – Hrafn: Conversations with Odin

Wikipedia – Bran the Blessed

Wikipedia – Flóki Vilgerðarson

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
Read More