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From the NS archive: Country sounds

29 September 1917: All the wonderful things we can discover if we only open our ears.

By J Arthur Thomson

The First World War still had a year and more to run when J Arthur Thomson wrote this piece about the myriad sounds of the countryside. In the still of a pastoral night, the guns in Flanders were unimaginable to him as the woods and meadows unleashed their own ripples of sound. Life, he mused, unfurls noiselessly and cells divide and split “yet all is quieter than a dumb-show”. But to an ear attuned to its frequency, the countryside is full of sound – birdsong, dry ground soaking up rain, leaves rustling, animals stalking and insects humming. Silence in the countryside is never silent and its noises are associative and take us back into deep time. There are wonders, he believes, in even the tiniest noises.

Man’s resting instinct is not strongly developed, and even those who are not tethered to toil are apt to go on too long. The stimulus of psychological motives is often strong enough to make us disregard biological warnings, and there are familiar devices, such as a pipe, by which fatigue signals can be muffled. But one of the well-known symptoms of approaching the danger-zone of fatigue is a hypersensitiveness to sounds, especially noises, to which unfogged brains with plenty of energy to spare are quite indifferent.

Cases have been recorded of the jaded hearing the ringing of the door-bell in a house many yards off, and when ordinary urban sounds begin to be an unusual source of irritation it is a hint to those who can that they should seek the country. For there can be no doubt that part of a country holiday is in the rest to the ears. The great hush that wraps the hills is more refreshing than sleep.

They say that the noisiest thing in the world is a sunspot, a roaring whirlpool of gases in the sun’s atmosphere sometimes thousands of miles in diameter: but of the whirlpool which Huxley discerned in every organism we usually hear no sound. Matter and energy are continually passing in and passing out – a turmoil of molecules, yet all to us seems quietness! There are combustions and explosions, solutions and hydration, reductions and fermentations; the living body, Sir Michael Foster used to say, is “a vortex of chemical and molecular change”; and yet our ears hear nothing of the bustle. In all these growing creatures round about us in the woods and meadows there is in every dividing cell an extraordinary manoeuvring and meticulous splitting of nuclear rods, yet all is quieter than a dumb-show. Walt Whitman has spoken. We think, of the bustle of growing wheat, but the striking feature about vital processes is their silence. How quietly are the houses broken down and built up again in the streets of the living body; how silently, like ghosts, do the molecules of these colloid crowds rush past one another!

Lucky, indeed, this is for us; in the midst of the crowded life of the country we enjoy quietness, and one panting locomotive in the distance makes more to-do than all the millions of animals and plants, except in the season of the singing of birds (some golfers complain of the larks on the links putting them off), and on such unusual, rather artificial, occasions as the separation of the lambs from their mothers. Then the whole night is full of clamour.

In temperate countries, where violent changes are rare, most of the sounds of the inorganic world are subdued. There is, indeed, the roll of the thunder, the battery of the angry sea, the howling of the storm, the ominous crash of avalanche and land slip, the roar and cannonading of the forest fire, the groaning and travailing of the earthquake, and the booming of the cataract, but all these arc more or less unusual. What we are more accustomed to, what we have come to love, are gentler, subtler sounds with some music in them – the sob of the sea, the sough of the wind in the wood, the song of the purling brook, the crickle-crackle of the brittle, withered grass and shrivelling herbage, the sigh with which the parched ground receives the heavy rain, and the little sounds that the breeze makes when it rings the sun-dried bluebells by the wayside, or makes the aspen leaves quaver, or sets the heather tinkling, or gives a whisper of gossip to the bulrushes beside the lake.

It always seems worthy of remembrance that for many millions of years inorganic sounds were the only sounds upon the earth, for it was not until living creatures had been cradled and fostered for many aeons, that they found voice. Insects were the first to break the silence, and, as is well known, their sound-production is almost wholly instrumental. Buzzing or humming is mainly due to rapid vibrations of the wings, which often strike the air more than a hundred times in a second, but there is sometimes a special quivering instrument near the base of the wing. Chirping or trilling is due to some sort of “stridulating” organ, one hard part being scraped against another, as the bow on the fiddle – it may be leg against wing, or limb against body. A true voice, due to the vibration of vocal cords as the air from the wind-pipe passes over them, began in the amphibians, but did not come to its own till birds and mammals appeared on the scene.

As the inorganic sounds of Temperate zones are, on the whole, less violent than those of the Tropics, so is it also with the sounds made by our animals. They may be included in the reproach implied in Heine’s definition of silence as the conversation of an Englishman. How little we have that can be compared with the serenading of the tree-frogs, the orchestra of grasshoppers and cicadas, the chatter of parrots and monkeys in warmer countries! Except during the time of bird-courtship our country is certainly very quiet.

We visited the other day an apiary with about a hundred hives; the air was thick with bees, and their coming and going along the broad glass-covered tunnel of an observation hive was like the Strand at a crowded hour. There were hundreds of thousands of bees, and though the hum was stronger than we ever heard before, even in an avenue of lime-trees in flower, it simply filled the air with a pleasant, tremulous bourdon of sound.

We went in the August gloaming to a beautiful lake hidden in a forest of Scots pine and spruce. As far as one could see there were only two birds visible, a pair of dabchicks, diving every minute or two, and uttering now and then the gentlest possible whit-whit which one would not have heard if the hush had not been almost inviolate. Now and again a silvery trout leaped high, suggesting Excalibur; but that was all – till suddenly a ring-dove gave voice, with its deep, rich coo-roo, wonderfully soothing and tender. (One must not allow agricultural interests to obtrude on such occasions.) Not far off, someone, we know not why, had set fire to a giant ant-hill, which was flaming on the top and glowing deep red in its recesses. But from the conflagration, with its tens of thousands of victims, and from the mêlée hurrying from the burning city there came no sound at all.

[Also from the NS archive: Easter Sunday in the Highlands]

It is not so much that the country is sparsely peopled with animals – a fallacious impression due to the “cryptozoic” habits of the great majority – it is simply that relatively few animals act rapidly on matter, for that is the cause of sounds like the woodpecker’s hammering, or the snipe’s drumming; and that most of our animals have soft voices, or have not very much to say.

In midsummer in the north of Scotland there is hardly any darkness at all – one can sometimes see to read at midnight, and there are not more than two hours when the larks at least are not singing. Now, however, the silent hours must be longer, yet in the very dead of night we hear the dwellers in darkness on the hunt. There is the hedgehog, for instance, which calls incisively in the stillness with a peculiar voice between grunt and squeal. Even in Aberdeenshire the whirr of the nightjar is sometimes heard and the loud clap of its wings together, as it hawks for nocturnal insects, or the vibrating “churr” of the male seated lengthwise on a branch. The shriek of the barn-owl and the tu-whit, tu-who of the tawny owl are familiar night sounds, and some people say they can hear the voice of bats. Soon after cock-crow one is wakened by the rather startling, raucous bark of certain black-headed gulls who come to see whether there are any fragments left where the hens are fed, and they are soon followed by the more cheerful jackdaws. Then, on the adjacent moor, the cock grouse welcomes the sun, swifts then begin their chase – they will be soon leaving us – and their half-triumphant, half-delirious cry, in bad weather and in good, is the last thing we hear at night.

Particular places have their characteristic sounds, which we listen for expectantly. The moorland would be incomplete without the melancholy cry of the curlew, with a melodious ripple at the nesting time; in the bed of the stream we wait for the oyster-catcher’s alarm-whistle keep-keep; by the estuary we enjoy the redshank’s warning with a pleasant trill in it, which the male raises to a higher power in spring; among the furze-bushes beside the dry wall the stonechats seem to “chap” the stones together; the peewits cry plaintively from the farmer’s fields; as we take a short cut across the heathery “preserve” grouse after grouse proclaims our trespass with a ridiculously silly cachinnation kok-kok-kok; but best of all we like “the moan of doves from immemorial elms”.

It is only in manuals of psychology that we get pure sensations and pigeon-holed perceptions, for around all the country sounds that have become clear to us there have gathered memories, associations, ideas, and we hear with more than the hearing of the ear. As we walk at nightfall across the common, noiselessly we think, a dog barks just once or twice from a cottage door half a mile away, and then, before the utter quietness is resumed, we hear the children turn in bed, the click-clack of their mother’s knitting-needles, the rustle of the newspaper which the shepherd is reading by the fireside; and we see back into prehistoric times when man, whose life depended on recognising and interpreting sounds, began to evolve the first cousin of a wolf into the trusty guardian of his herds and hearth.

So is it with the other familiar country sounds; we hear not them alone, but what they are symbols and crystallisation centres of; for man is ever reading himself into the so-called outer world. It is his particular magic to hear in the lark’s miracle of song the music of Shelley and the wisdom of Meredith, to infer the cherubim from the chaffinch, and to find in the “lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee, some coupling with the spinning stars”.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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