Chapter 5: Communication – Sound into Form

Communication – Sound into Form

I have returned to the Sierra hot springs pool that opened this book, nestled in the skirts of an alpine meadow. It is very early this spring morning, the sky still dark, though fading to light behind me. A forest of cedar and Douglas fir slopes up to the jagged ridgeline; before me lays a grassy marsh. To the east the horizon begins to show the promise of a new day, dimming the stars of Cassiopeia – hung upside down there by the Gods for her hubris. The Big Dipper lays upright across the north sky; stable and open, ready to receive. Bats tangle above the pool, polishing off the last of the night’s mosquitoes before turning in. My soundscape is intimate; the drip of water, the sound of breath.

Suddenly the hoarse single chirrup of a robin shoots through the trees. As if in alert response, a quail’s rhythmic wallow reports from the meadow. Then almost at once, birds of all stripes and feathers rise up to sing – chirb, twitter, buzz, click; low and bay, gargle and pliew, fling and vleet. It is loud, urgent. A cacophony clutters the soundscape that only moments before seemed empty enough to contain the universe. The dawn chorus has begun.

For the first hour the birds are singing as if it were their last song, without regard for space or cadence; whistles and cliews, shrills and clacks all jumble and clash into each other. But as the last stars fade in the west and the sky takes on a more even hue, the racket has calmed a bit – in volume, if not in density. Somehow the chorus begins to breathe in a more common rhythm.

By the time the sunlight starts grazing the uppermost mountain tops it feels as if the birds have synchronized somewhat, waiting for clear spaces within which to place their song. This invites sets of ‘call and response’ among the birds: a sparrow, a wren, a robin; a sparrow, a wren, a robin – grazed across the top by the laughter of a troop of woodpeckers or the bouncing zips of a killdeer. Underneath, the rhythmic swells of the quail in the meadow. A cadence is set up – the birds are listening to each other. The fabric of sound has the delicious musical tension of a tight ensemble of jazz improvisers; dropping that exquisite phrase in at the perfect moment, bouncing lightly off the ride cymbal; pizzicato bass stabilizes the free flight. These birds are swingin’! Or is it just my swingin’ mind putting order and cadence onto the chaos of mindless birds? (I seem to recall that it was a question like this put Cassiopeia in her inverted predicament.)

I listen for hours: The players change, the shape of the soundscape shifts in size, proximity and pitch. Some birds are in flight as they sing; others bounce from limb to limb, and scuffle with their kin in nearby trees. Some strafe the warm pool I’m in, picking off insects in flight.

The overall density of the song diminishes. An occasional thrush lets forth a spectacular sonic diadem; a song sparrow captures a long minute to himself. By the time the sun has bathed the meadow the dawn chorus has ended, only individual songs patch out of the soundscape, now washed by the morning breeze through the pines; the distant sound of a tractor; the scolding of a gray squirrel; the sharp snaps of cicadas in the surrounding treetops promising a hot day.