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


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.

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