BIRDSONG IN A TIME OF SILENCE
by Steven Lovatt (Particular £12.99, 160 pp)
Now that lockdown is over (if you have faith to believe our regained freedoms will last and we’re not merely in the midst of a temporary reprieve), those who last year were suddenly able to hear the birds as they took their allotted exercise time may look back wistfully and yearn for that peace.
I suspect author Steven Lovatt feels this way. While (obviously) acknowledging the grief of the pandemic, he writes: ‘It also seemed possible, even in the grimmest days, that this spring  might be remembered . . . as the time when we first heard the birds and, hearing them, began to recover an appreciation of something universally necessary but which we somehow mislaid in our heedlessness and haste.’
He sums up: ‘Finally, the Earth could hear itself think, and the voice of its thought was song.’
Steven Lovatt who has been a bird-lover since childhood, has penned a book about the joy and hope represented by birdsong. Pictured: Goldfinch call
This slim, beautifully observed book (his first) begins last March when Lovatt, a bird-lover since childhood, finds his old passion re-ignited on daily walks in his local park in a small town in South Wales, when his time is not circumscribed by family duties.
Lovatt is no professional nature writer — he’s a down-to-earth bloke who looks and listens carefully, and as a result sees his own relatively humble locality afresh every day. Then he describes what he sees in exquisite prose that soars as high as his beloved birds.
The first songster he introduces is the blackbird — beautifully drawn (like all the others) by Katie Marland. He tries to analyse its various songs and calls, although he comes to realise that our need to describe birdsong in terms of the sounds we make is usually doomed to fall short.
The blackbird’s furious whistle is, he says, ‘like scalding steam seething through a crack in the earth’.
Combine that with his gloriously unpoetic description of feathers that show ‘the ripple of sheen that sometimes flashes across a cheap black tracksuit’ — and you quickly get a flavour of the author’s exhilaratingly original style.
Birdsong, he says, is unchanging and forms a background to human life — even when unnoticed. Pointing out that birds ‘have neither lips, nor teeth, nor vocal chords’, he discusses the ways birds make sounds, concluding: ‘It should enhance our appreciation of birdsong to recall that its beauty has a physical basis in the exertion of tiny lungs, muscles and membranes’.
The dawn chorus of spring is familiar to any country dweller, but Lovatt encourages urban folk out into the parks to listen, too.
BIRDSONG IN A TIME OF SILENCE by Steven Lovatt (Particular £12.99, 160 pp)
Failing that, he suggests, just look out of your window and marvel at the birds: the way they stop singing in the wind, how a gull is ‘white as aspirin’, the fact that a city bird may have to sing louder above the sound of traffic, how a goldfinch sounds like ‘an unmistakable little geyser of bubbling bells’.
His keen observations tumble over each other in infectious joy at all there is to be heard and seen as he invites us to walk with him through that year of lockdown — and wonder at the birds.
Lovatt believes that by focusing on the smallest things, you learn to understand the big things, too. Seeing swallows leads into a fascinating digression on migration; hearing a chiffchaff reminds him that the sound of the bird is ‘heard’ differently in different languages: a zilzalp in Germany, a tjifttjaf in the Netherlands and a siff saff in Wales.
Why? Because ‘how we hear birds is influenced by our own linguistic environment’.
In playground, waste land, park and allotment he observes starlings, thrushes, pigeons, a collared dove and many more — his pleasure in the relatively ordinary surroundings is contagious, since, ‘even in the most unpromising inner-city areas’ people can hear the ‘intermingled voices of ten or more species, all welcoming the sunrise in their own way, and each intent on pairing and finding suitable places to raise their young’.
It’s all going on out there!
Of course, there is an expected vein of sadness here, too. For there are ‘millions fewer birds in Britain’ than when Lovatt was a child, because of habitat depletion, hunting and trapping on the migratory journeys and ‘the catastrophic decline in insects’ due partly to pesticides.
This melancholy truth should drive us all to be fiercely, protectively attentive to what is on our own patch and to share with Steven Lovatt the joy and hope represented by birdsong.