According to some versions of the story, Tiresias, the mythological figure from Greek mythology, was made blind when he witnessed the beauty of the Goddess, Athena. As a gesture of what I can only assume to be pity, she gave him the ability to understand birdsong.
It’s interesting that I went blind in the year after my marriage to Elisabeth. She must have made me blind, after I had seen her beauty! And I have learned to listen to the birds.
Birdsong is mysterious. It comes to me from the darkness, weaving a story of the wild, for these are the sounds of wild animals that totally ignore my existence and problems.
Some bird sounds I already knew. Some of that knowledge was undeniably “townie”. All ducks were ducks, and if it made a noise on the water, it was a duck. All gulls were seagulls, and birds calling over rubbish tips were all seagulls. A bird with an identifiable and melodious song was a blackbird, and little brown birds were all called sparrows.
Even a proficient birdwatcher has problems with small brown birds, but she wouldn’t call them all sparrows or pretend she knew what they were when she didn’t. Proper birdwatchers just call them LBJs, or Little Brown Jobs.
Now I can’t see, I can now only identify birds by the sounds they make. Though I say it myself, I’ve got quite good at it, and spend my walks identifying the ones around me. It means I walk through an invisible world of song, and I feel like I am wandering, blindfolded, on Prospero’s island.
Understanding the language of birds isn’t difficult. Essentially, they only seem to say four things.
In the spring they are saying, “Come here. I am beautiful and strong. I have a good territory, and I’ll protect and feed you. I will make a superb father for your babies. But, unless I’m a swan, don’t ask for commitment and don’t try to flirt with anyone else, because I won’t tolerate it.” This is the song, the pretty stuff.
All birds also have an alarm call, which can either mean “All of you lot can fuck off”, or it is used to warn of predators, like cats, or sparrowhawks. I remember walks in twilight woods on warm summer evenings when the world would be alive and wary with the panicky chinking of alarmed blackbirds.
This is why bird sounds are mysterious to me. They bring the physical world into existence, surrounding me with woods and meadows that breathlessly hover on the brink of being born. For me, the birds are the midwives.
The fourth message is the contact call. Contact calls can be mistaken for alarm calls, but they are much quieter and insistent but unhurried. They are made to keep in contact with other birds, like the honking of geese in flight, the ticking of a robin, or the quiet chick-chick of the blackbird. It is saying, “I’m still here. Where are you?”
All social animals do this. Dogs whimper, elephants rumble, people talk nonsense. Some researchers believe that humming is a remnant of a very ancient human contact call.
So I sit in the middle of the wood, and slowly, bird by bird, the world materialises around me. For sighted people, the world comes into existence all in one instant, when they open their eyes. As soon as they look at it, the world is crammed full of stuff. The world is so full of stuff that it is not surprising that most people are not very aware of it.
But, for me, the world comes into my awareness bird by bird, and I have to sit still and let the magic happen.
It is, indeed, a mystery.