Not that many summers ago, a friend was visiting with her two sons. We enjoyed the warm summer evening in the hot tub, watching the sun’s light slipping lower in the sky and casting long shadows, briefly providing a filter of flattering egg-yolk lighting. Laughing at our own dim-witted jokes, her youngest son put his hands up and said, “People, can we please stop talking and listen to the sounds of Dartmoor?”
That’s us told.
And he was right. To pause. To listen. To hear the sounds that are all too often muffled by the busy buzz of our lives is a gift.
With this global shut down, the usual drone of cars and people chattering have all gone COVID Quiet. Even in a remote location like Dartmoor, we are all once again hearing the “singing of the real world” as Virginia Woolf once wrote. Energetic bird song pulsating the air as the gang claim territory, attract mates, and twitter the beginning, middle and end of each day. The rustling sound of the breeze sifting its way through trees newly in bud . Sheep and cattle calling in the distance. Our chickens proudly announcing the laying of an egg. And once, the puttering sound of a tractor engine across the valley.
Nature boosts my mood, possibly more so now in “lockdown times”. There is a smell of spring in the air as the earth warms up. Oh, if only we could bottle this scent! After a long winter, the landscape is waking up and stirring the senses.
All of nature is having a different time of it. Migrating toads enjoying their breeding season since they aren’t likely to be squashed by passing cars. Birds, foxes, badgers, and the lovely hedgehog may all welcome a respite from the effects of human activity. I recently read there is a precipitous drop in air pollution, noise pollution and even surface seismic activity from trains, cars and busses across the globe. A big change.
I’m not certain if I am imagining it, but the sheep seem less on guard. They know Millie and Brock, so barely give a glance from their grazing when we pass. But unknown dogs are rightly viewed as potential predators. To look out upon the hillside and down the valley is to see sheep keeping their distance from one another, enjoying a patch of spring grass, rather than being clustered together. Safety in numbers.
Our COVID Quiet is giving rise to the sounds of a newly settled landscape. We’re not hearing hundreds of people each day who noisily walk along the foot path near our house. We’re not hearing cars rumble over the cattle grate a mile away. No calls to misbehaving dogs. No arguments between couples. No crying children. And a quieter Brock who is no longer barking at people walking past with their dogs. All of this is the stuff of life, but not the natural sounds of Dartmoor. With damping of our collective human noise, I am certain I heard a giant sigh as the moors relaxed themselves like a tight muscle easing. No one walking across her land.
With the old noises gone and the new sounds resonating a new choral song, I am determined to learn more bird songs. I know the chipper tittering of the sky lark when we are walking through the reedy grasses. The outrageous squawk of the Grey Heron and the yaffle of the green woodpecker are familiar sounds. And at some date in the future the well-known coo-coo, coo-coo of our most mischievous migrant birds will fill the air. But deciphering the calls of the Great Tit from a Chaffinch challenges me like remembering someone’s name at a crowded party. I can hear it, commit it to memory, but when the time comes to introduce this new person to Roger, I’m at a loss if her name was Christine or Caroline.
With nothing more than birdsong and hearing Millie and Brock sniff the ground on our morning walks, I am beginning to tease out a few different sounds. I now head out with the dogs and my binoculars. I am working to hear a unique bird call and then locate the source. If I can identify the bird, then I can link its call. I can happily say that with greater confidence the Great Tit, the Chaffinch, the Skylark, the Black Bird and the Robin are almost easy for me since I set out with this project. I, a complete novice, am growing in confidence and soon hope to decipher the sounds of some more recent returners to our garden: The Green Finch and the Goldfinch.
This COVID Quiet is not the same for everyone and has underscored the inequalities of life across the globe. I recently heard from a friend in New York City who wrote me, “We’re well and so far so is all our family. We hear sirens constantly though. All day and all night.”
Here at Crockern, we’re grateful to have one another’s company, technology to connect with friends, the energy and happiness of Millie and Brock, fresh eggs from our hens and the unfolding secrets of Dartmoor. And through our different experiences of this new sound scape across the globe, I am reminded we’re all in this leaky boat together.