It was two days before Britain was to be placed on lockdown, and the grey herons were roosting by the river.
I’d gone for a walk with a cloud hanging over me; a cloud consisting of news bulletins and update emails and statistics I was growing all too familiar with. This might be the last walk I get to take for months, I thought, gazing glumly across the river at the park opposite. Silhouetted people walked there too, in ones and twos, moving as I did like clockwork puppets, methodical and stone-faced. It was a depressing view, like I’d invaded someone else’s Sims world using a monochrome screen.
I kept my eyes on the ground after that. Until I reached the tree, and looked up.
For the first time in days, I felt my heart leap.
They were there!
The tree is old, gnarled, and nests bulged on its branches like arthritic fingers. Within and beside them, a siege of grey herons perched, glorying in the weak sunlight. They held their slender necks regally upwards, tapering beaks tapping gently against one another. Shaggy silver feathers covered their bodies, flashing blue when they caught the light. Their long legs crooked backwards like our elbows do. As I watched, one of the inhabitants swooped in overhead, its wingspan casting streaks of shadow across the empty path.
After a few minutes, an elderly man, dog at his heels, came up behind me and paused, turning his own face to the tree.
“What is it?” he asked, in the low, respectful voice people use when they enter a place of worship.
“Herons,” I replied, with the same reverence.
We talked for a while, staying a distance from one another that at the time felt strange, but would grow familiar all too quickly. We talked about the birds, me telling him how they’d first colonised the tree four years ago, when there’d been nearly ten of them balancing on its branches at once, and how one year they’d been joined by a flock of inky cormorants. About how their nests weathered winter storms, and were returned to again and again. About the way the newly tarmacked path had created problems for the birds; it was too soft for them to crack shells on, by dropping them from great heights and then dropping down themselves to collect the morsels.
Above us, the herons looked on.
All throughout lockdown, I hold onto that memory like a talisman. The gentle rustling of the wind, the shimmering leaves like sunlight over water. The smell of the Thames which is utterly un-replicable, like sludge and wind and the weight of history. The old man in his glasses, smiling at the revelation of the birds.
And birds are a revelation. All throughout the lockdown Spring, they reveal themselves to me: the flash of a garden robin’s breast, the congregation of fledgling coal tits my mother and I come across on our one legally allotted walk, the newly fledged baby as round as a golf-ball and as fluffy as a toy staring bemusedly up at my father, the shadow of a blackbird skitter-skattering across the tarmac below the attic window.
Searches of ‘is birdsong louder’ soar during lockdown, but the answer to the question is not a simple yes. Their songs are not louder, but they are amplified by the silence. Silence we, used as we are to the clashes and crashes of human society, find eerie, but silence that is far more natural than any drill or siren or Underground hum.
Over Easter weekend, during a heatwave I would normally spend on a pool lounger, or picnicking in Hyde Park, I lie out in our small garden, staring up at the sun. Around lunchtime, a single black shape flies across it like a boomerang, or a blot of ink. Then suddenly, the sky is alive with them, tiny pinwheeling birds, which move so fast they seem to flicker in and out of existence.
Google tells me a group of house martins is known by many names; ‘circlage’, ‘flight’, ‘gulp’, ‘richness’, ‘swoop’. ‘Gulp’ seems closest to me, the way that their tiny bodies seem to fall collectively through the endless blue sky, like breath catching. They rise like tears in your throat, then are gulped down in one great swooping cloud.
After a few moments of gulping in the sight myself, I send an excited message to a group chat: there are house martins flying over the garden, it means summer is coming, they’re a good omen!! In this instance, two exclamation marks are not an overreaction.
One martin doesn’t make a summer, a friend texts back, and I think: no, but one is a beginning. One is followed by a flight. Birds are a beginning, not just in the folktale of the stork as the bringer of babies. They begin our mornings, drawing us (sometimes reluctantly) from sleep with their ode to the dawn. The returning martins, swallows, swifts, and flocks of different species mark the start of summer in the British Isles. We have lost touch with these natural markers of time, preferring to set our days by iPhone alarms and our seasons by daylight savings. But the birds and the sun were our clocks, once, the soundtracks to our lives.
I am not Christian myself, but I think it is no surprise that the Bible uses a dove to symbolise hope and the end of the diluvial apocalypse sent to cleanse the world in Genesis. ‘And the dove came in to him at eventide; and, lo, in her mouth an olive-leaf plucked off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.’ I read this as poetry, not as doctrine, and it is not difficult to envision the white breast of the bird — perhaps an echo of another symbol of Christian hope, Jesus’s white robes — against the deep blue ache of evening.
Birds end our days too. The nightingale, derived from the Old English nihtegale, or ‘night songstress’, sings the poetry Keats idolised at dusk. The nightingale is seriously endangered in the UK, with numbers down 90% over the last fifty years. I find this figure hard to conceptualise, just as I find the death rate from COVID-19 hard to understand. I’m reminded of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, haunted by his killing of the albatross which, like the Christian dove, seems to be leading his crew from danger. Once the albatross is dead, the crew are plagued by drought and death, and only attention to the ‘happy living things’ of the world breaks the mariner’s curse. Perhaps we too should take heed of this curse.
Lives once lost cannot be recovered, and nor are they statistics, no matter what government briefings and extinction warnings seem to apply. 2020 has seen a silent spring for mankind — but as Rachel Carson warned us, the far older, precious springtime of nature could soon be falling silent too. The dawn chorus which currently wakes me every morning might not only be muffled by traffic, but muted entirely. The ability of some birds to sing is evolutionarily rare, just as mankind’s capacity for sophisticated linguistic communication is. We’re not that dissimilar; after all, every one of us breathes our own song into the coming dark.
Nightingale calls are commonly seen as laments. To us, they sing the day an elegy, yet their mournful trills are cries for companionship, for a mate. Every ending is wrapped up in a beginning.
Then there is the word swansong. It is perhaps an antithesis to the symbol of the stork, both birds white-winged like the dove, both bearing hope on their wings. Hope for a new life and hope, not for an afterlife, but for one’s memory preserved in this world.
As we search for hope in 2020, we should all heed the Mariner’s curse and pay close attention to the natural world symbolised by birdsong.
By Louder Than The Storm contributor Helena Aeberli.