Still thinking about birds, I love the following description from Through the Woods, the story of a year in an English woodland by H.E. Bates (1905-1975). He's writing here about the busy, beautiful, bird-filled months of the passage from winter to summer:
"And now, with the cherry in full blossom, the primroses at their fullest floppy lushness and the dark smoke of bluebells obscuring and finally putting out the fritillary lamps of the anemones, there is no longer any doubt about the wood or the spring. They have become synonymous, full of tree blossom and ground blossom and the ceaseless passion and passage of birds. The wood is alive as it will never be again. It is still a month from the edge of summer, trees are still more branch than leaf and all day long the birds have no interval of silence at all. And if the fullest frenzy of song, with nightingales and blackbirds mad in the drowsy hay-noons of June, has not been reached, there is a clarity and a shouting of bird life everywhere that is like a silver mocking of winter. The wood is full of it.
"The trees, just full enough in leaf to form a light sound canopy, seem to take the sound of singing and fluting and pinking and scissoring and throw it down the aisles and ridings until it is magnified through a new crescendo into a new beauty. One thrush fills a whole wood with a clash and jingle of silver. One pigeon moans and moans it into an almost summer slumber. A solitary cuckoo beats it with a bold and endless double note into an echoing monotony. The wood now is never silent. There is a constant mad rushing of blackbirds, low and fierce in flight, from place to place among the hazels, a sudden spring laughing of woodpeckers in the treetops. Noons are as noisy as mornings, evenings even fuller of clamour than afternoons. That summer break for silence, the hot bird-stifled uncanniness of June and July, is still a long way off. There is an everlasting restlessness everywhere. "
But it's not, Bates writes, until a few weeks later (when the bluebells, campions and orchis are in full bloom) that the wood looks its best, and sounds its best:
"Cuckoo and blackbird and nightingale, by the middle of May, are calling together, the blackbird all day long and in spite of everything, the cuckoo and the nightingale passionate in the warm spells, shy and almost silent at the slightest turn to cold and wet. The cuckoo mocks everything in the too bright early mornings and is himself mocked to silence before noon by wind and cloud. He goes with the weather like a cock on a church. He is all clatter of arrogance in the sunshine, charming us to death, monotonously cuckooing us into wishing him silent. The suddenly he shuts up, vanishes. All through the spell of cold and wet we hear him from some mysterious distance, as though he had found, somewhere, an inch of summer for himself.
"The nightingale is also fickle, but on a different plane. He seems amazingly temperamental. Far up in the thickening oaks, nothing but a slim bud himself, he is hard to see; also, like the cuckoo, he often vanishes completely, effaced by wind and wet into silence. But when he sings at last, there is no mistaking it. There is a notion that, since he is so named, he sings only by night. It is quite mistaken. He sings all day and, at the height of passion, all night.
"It is a strange performance, the nightingale's. It has some kind of electric, suspended quality that has a far deeper beauty than the most passionate of its sweetness. It is a performance made up, very often, more of silence than of utterance. The very silences have a kind of passion about them, a sense of breathlessness and restraint, of restraint about to be magically broken.
"It can be curiously seductive and maddening, the song beginning very often by a sudden low chucking, a kind of plucking of strings, a sort of tuning up, then flaring out in a moment into a crescendo of fire and honey and then, abruptly, cut off again in the very middle of the phrase. And then comes that long, suspended wait for the phrase to be taken up again, the breathless hushed interval that is so beautiful. And often, when it is taken up again, it is not that same phrase at all, but something utterly different, a high sweet whistling prolonged and prolonged for the sheer joy of it, or another trill, or the chuck-chucking beginning all over again."
For me, the challenge in writing fantasy fiction springing from the myths and folklore of the land is to evoke the numinous world of nature with such precise yet poetical language. Others have done it. Hope Mirrlees, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Patricia McKillip, Diana Wynne Jones, Jane Yolen, Alan Garner, Robert Holdstock, Graham Joyce...to name just a few. Not all fantasy does this, of course. It's a very broad form of literature, containing many different approaches to the "lands beyond the fields we know." But this is the kind of fantasy that thrills me best, and the tradition I want to follow. Whether writing rural stories or urban stories, whether set in this world or wholly imaginary lands, I want to go further and further into the green....
Following the birds.
The art today is by printmaker and painter Angela Harding, from Rutland, in the East Midlands of England. "For the past 10 years," she says, "I have worked solely at my art practice in the village of Wing -- which is very apt for a women inspired by birds. My studio is at the bottom of the garden and houses all I need to make my work, including a recently acquired Rochat Albion press. The studio overlooks sheep fields surrounded by gentle sloping hills. It’s not a dramatic landscape but somehow a comforting one and to me feels very much like home. The Rutland countryside does have a wealth of animal and bird life that is a constant inspiration for my work. Rutland Water is just over the ridge which attracts a great diversity of bird life that is world renowned."
And one last thing: I hope you all know the Singing With Nightingales project by folksinger, folk song collector, and environmental activist Sam Lee and The Nest Collective. If not, please do follow the link and have a listen....
Words: The passage quoted above is from Through the Woods by H.E. Bates (Little Toller Books edition, 2011). Pictures: The images are identified in the picture captions. (Hold your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artist and author's estate.