Nature Studies by Mike McCarthy: Worth being awake at 3am to hear this sound

A A A

Of all our imaginings, one of the most resonant is the idea of transformation. We are instantly fascinated by people changing identities, by things becoming different things, by frogs which turn into princes. Perhaps it's because one of our principal holds on reality is our instinctive belief, so hard to dislodge, that form is fixed, not fluid, and so to encounter any fundamental shift in form or nature gives us a jolt. Not that we do come across such shifts much, in the real world – the caterpillar changing into a butterfly is the prime exception – but our myths and legends and stories are chock-fullof them.

Whether it be Eddie Murphy going from beggar to banker in Trading Places, or Eliza Doolittle going from Cockney flower girl to grande dame, first in Shaw's Pygmalion and then in the musical derived from it, My Fair Lady, transformations capture our imagination effortlessly; they are a staple of storytelling.

Shakespeare uses them all the time, but of course they go back aeons: perhaps the most widely read work of all classical literature has been Ovid's Metamorphoses, his collection of fabulous transformations mostly derived from Greek myth (as well as being a best-seller in the Rome of Augustus, in its original Latin it was probably the most popular book both of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance).

There are various directions which transformations can take, including the tragic, the humorous, and the ironical; but it seems to me that the two principal ones are down, and up. Down is the transformation of ill-fortune, of being turned into a toad by a wicked witch, of being changed from banker to beggar, of being King Lear losing everything; but surely the transformation which most appeals to us is the transformation upwards, when people or creatures or things which are merely mundane, become special, or even resplendent.

That idea seems to strike a deep chord within us, to touch some primal longing. It is much more than the idea of gaining wealth or status, or even the idea of the ordinary girl who becomes a princess, say (although recent events have shown us how powerful that is); it is something at the heart of many myths and many religions, including Christianity, the notion that with all our faults, we might aspire, silly though we know the idea is, to perfection – and I have been thinking of it a lot recently in trying to understand the effect on me of a particular phenomenon of the natural world, the dawn chorus.

For the past six weeks I have been trying to finish a long piece of writing, and to do that I have been working through the night. If you work through the night you see the dawn. Or rather, you hear it.

At eight minutes past four in the morning of Saturday 21 May a sound came to my ears; I stopped typing, got up and went and opened the kitchen door into the back garden. Light was flooding the eastern sky, a great rising tide of pale light, although the surrounding houses and trees were black silhouettes against it; a misty moon still shone; there was no wind, only an absolute stillness; and from the top of a tall copper beech tree two gardens away, liquid and clear on the air, a blackbird was singing.

There was no other sound. The blackbird sang his unending phrases as if the stillness were intended specially for him, for they were floating on the quiet, every one precise, mesmerising in their music and their purity; and then, from a nearby rooftop TV aerial, a second blackbird joined in. Shortly after that there was a robin; then a blue tit; then a goldfinch; and the dawn chorus had begun.

I do not know – no one is quite certain – exactly why songbirds all sing together at first light, and then fall silent (they are obviously proclaiming their territories); but I do know that having been out to listen to it a dozen times in the last few weeks, as it has got earlier and earlier (yesterday it began at 03.34), it is entrancing. At first I thought it was simply the symphony of birdsong itself which moved me so much, but now I know it is something else as well: its transformative power.

For I live in the suburbs; I live in a land of neat gardens, estate agents' boards, car ports, walked dogs, lawnmowers, endlessly similar houses and nothing much happening, a land which my generation, the babyboomers, excoriated as the epitome of boring and sell-out (in songs such as Pete Seeger's "Little Boxes"), a land which no one would ever describe as resplendent; yet the dawn chorus transforms it entirely.

Like the visits of Father Christmas or the Big Friendly Giant, it takes place while most of us are asleep and so we miss it, and I feel as if in the last few weeks I have discovered a secret: that even the land of the lawnmower can approach perfection, and that in the shower of birdsong cutting through the silence, the stillness and the great bursting light overhead, for a brief half-hour of transformation, even suburbia can become a place of wonder

Rarified corners I've just discovered

Having spent six weeks away from following the environmental agenda, I have a certain amount of policy to catch up on, not least the Government's recent Environment White Paper; but time out has enabled me to look more closely at a few more rarified corners of the natural world, and in the coming weeks I hope to report on some of them, including elderflowers, orchids, and damselflies.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year