Away with the Birds

Two years ago, in a Monday Tunes post, I recommended Away With the Birds by Hanna Tuulikki. This week, while we're on the subject of birds, I'd like to look closer at this powerful, unusual composition and performance project. Tuulikki, of English and Finnish heritage, studied environmental art at The Glasgow School of Art and is now based in Edinburgh, where she creates interdisciplinary works deeply rooted in myth, folk history, and the natural world.

In an interview by Sharon Blackie, Tuulikki explains:

"Away With the Birds/ Air falbh leis na h-eòin is a multi-artform project exploring the mimesis of birds in Scottish Gaelic song poetry, and at its heart is a vocal composition written for a ten-person female vocal ensemble. The score reinterprets archive recordings, texts, and living traditions, weaving together fragments of songs and poems that are imitative of birdsong into a textural tapestry of sound. Over five movements, the music journeys through communities of waders, seabirds, wildfowl and corvids, evoking sea, shoreline, cliffs, moor and woodland habitats. Within the composition, there is never a soloist -- rather, each vocal part contributes to the whole. The ensemble sing the sea, the winds, and the motion of birds -- wading on the shoreline, swooping before cliffs, and beating skeins, calling to mind the ecotones were species meet. 

"Two years ago, on the Isle of Canna, in the Hebrides, we performed the composition within the harbour -- along the shoreline, in the water, and on a skein-shaped platform -- with speakers set up, to amplify and drift the voices across the water to the audience, mingling and interacting with the sounds of the island. As the music ebbed and flowed, my intention was to create a space for listening and for becoming present, for tuning into a sonic continuum that reaches into the 'more-than-human' world.

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

"The idea for the work emerged from my interest in music from around the world, and noticing that in cultures where people have intimate connection with the land, they are also good mimics of the sounds around them -- their music seems to grow directly out of the sounds of the environment....

"Ethnomusicologist Ted Levin describes this tradition as 'sound mimesis' -- the use of sound to represent and interact with the natural environment and the living creatures that inhabit it, and more broadly the exploration of 'representational and narrative dimensions of sound-making.' He describes a spectrum of sound mimesis ranging from 'sound' to 'song,' from iconic imitation to stylized evocation, and symbolic metaphor or representation. It's my belief that our music, and perhaps even our language, have their origins in 'sound mimesis,' evolving from our listening to the sounds of the animate landscape. And so I began to seek out a musical tradition like this, closer to home.

"I decided to focus particularly on birds because of my childhood interest in them, but mostly because I am deeply affected by their sounds! The complex musical patterns of songbirds never fail to impress, the haunting calls of the waders across the water move me, and the chattering vocalizations of certain seabirds make me laugh! I listen in awe at this more-than-human music."

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

"When I began to investigate traditions in the English-speaking world, I found only two songs imitative of actual bird sounds -- 'The Cuckoo' and 'The Blackbird,' which are actually of Irish and Manx origin. There are plenty of songs about birds -- for example, 'The Birds in the Spring' or 'Polly Vaughn' -- but it appears that the only symbolic and representational aspect of mimesis remains here.

"As my search continued, I discovered a wellspring of Scottish Gaelic tradition, preserved mainly in the Western Isles, which seems to reach deeper into mimesis, perhaps because people's intimacy with the land was maintained for longer. The songs and poem imitate the sounds and evoke the movements of various species of birds -- mainly waterbirds -- which is indicative of the Western Isles landscape. There are songs of seabirds that nest on cliffs -- kittiwakes, guillemots, Manx shearwaters, Leach's storm petrels; waders such as oystercatchers and redshanks; wildfowl such as whooper swans and geese; and poems of corvids and cuckoo. The bird-sounds ghost through the melody of the songs, expressed in the words, vocables (non-lexical sounds) and rhythms and, collected together, reveal a spectrum of mimesis: some are directly imitative and others are more stylized. I think Gaelic lends itself to the mimesis of birds, because I believe the language has evolved through a close relationship with the land and its community of sounds.

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

Away With the Bird

"As well as imitating the birds, the songs carry symbolic and cultural meaning. One thing that I love about them, and it came as a surprise to me when I realized it, is that they are nearly all matrilineal -- either sung by women, from a woman's perspective, or about women. From work to leisure, birth to death, the songs have a social function rooted in women's activities and domains -- songs about the men out hunting the seabirds on the cliffs, and waulking songs about love; to magico-religious songs such as those about the redshank, a keening song to sing the departed safely over to the spirit world, and the oystercatcher, who does St. Bride's work of caring for children. As much as this project is about birds, and ancient traditional culture, it is also about women and, in the same way that Gaelic culture preserved sound mimesis, I often wonder about the significance of how women's songs appear to have also preserved those older traditions.

"These two aspects, the ecological mimesis and the matrilineal, became the conceptual and compositional framework for the piece, from the macro to the micro, from the wider shape of the project, to minute details. It is no coincidence that the piece is called Away With the Birds, with its double meaning! Contained within this musical portrait of the inter-relationship between bird and human is the recognition of a lineage 'outside' the written word, that stretches back to early hunter-gatherer cultures, for whom bird-calls and animal cries had magico-religious symbolism -- like the slay-toed fowlers who scaled the cliffs of St. Kilda, and the women who bore the song-poems."

Away With the Birds

Hannah Tuulikki

To learn more about Away With the Birds, visit the project's website and Tumblr journal. (The photos in this post are from the latter.) To follow Tuulikki's current projects, visit the artist's website.

To read Sharon Blackie's interview with Tuulikki in full, seek out the March 2017 issue of EarthLines Magazine. The magazine has stopped publication, but backlist issues are still available and I highly recommend them.

Videos above: "Away With the Birds, a taster" (2013), and "Red Bird Red Bird," another exploration of birdsong by Hannah Tuulikki (2014).

Words & pictures above: The quoted text is from "Voice and Gesture: Sharon Blackie Talks to Hannah Tuulikki" (Earthlines Magazine, Issue 17, March 20170); all rights reserved by Blackie & Tuulikki. The photographs are from the Away With the Birds Tumblr page; all rights reserved by Tuulikki.

Related posts: When Stories Take Flight (myths & folklore of birds) and The Speech of Animals.


Little gods of the field

The Haywain by Constable

In her essay "Crex-Crex," Scottish poet & essayist Kathleen Jamie reflects on a print of Constable's The Haywain hanging in her B&B on the island of Coll. When Constable packed up his easel after finishing the painting, she imagines:

"what he would have heard as he walked home through the fields  -- indeed, what we could hear if we could step into his painting -- would be the call of the corncrake. A corncrake is a brown bird, a kind of rail, not ten inches tall, which prefers to remain unseen in tall damp grass. It's call -- you'd hardly call it a song -- is two joined notes, like a rasping telephone. Crex Crex is the bird's Latin name, a perfect piece of onomatopoeia. Crex-crex, it goes, crex-crex.

"Perhaps, as he strolled home, Constable had a bit of fun trying to pinpoint the sound in the long grass. Perhaps he thought nothing of it, the corncrake being such a commonplace. 'Heard in every vale,' as John Clare said in his poem. The vales of Northamptonshire, the New Town of Edinburgh, in Robert Burn's Ayrshire, it was recorded in every county in the land from Cornwall to Shetland. In the last century, though, it has been utterly eliminated from the mainland, and if you'd like to hear or even see this skulking little bird of the meadow, you must set sail to the Hebrides."

Corncrake hidden in the meadow grasse

Ballyhaugh Coastline  Island of Coll; photograph by Allan McKechnie

Jamie does precisely this, traveling to Coll in the Inner Hebrides -- where she is met by Sarah Money, warden of the RSPB reserve on the island. One night, Money takes her to a distant field, which the two women quietly enter by torchlight:

"Hear them?" she whispers, and I nod.

What does is sound like? Like someone grating a nutmeg, perhaps. Or a prisoner working toward his escape with a nailfile. Crex-crex, crex-crex. We move forward a few paces at a time...it's almost impossible to tell where the sound is coming from. It's obviously on the ground -- you'd swear it was right under your feet, but it seems to jump and flit ahead. We walk on carefully, speaking in whispers until we've crossed the whole field, but the sound heard so clearly from the gate is still, somehow, ahead of us.

"It's unchancy. Fairy music is said to do this; to lead a man on in his confusion and drunkeness, to start, then stop, then begin again from another place, ever luring him on. This was not a beautiful music, it has to be said; hardly the art of the fairies. Mind you, it could be a goblin carpenter, sawing away at his little workbench, if you've had too many at the island disco and were of a fanciful mind."

Corncrake on the Isle of Coll

Explaining the corncrakes' demise, Jamie writes:

"The grim reaper came for the corncrake in the form of the mechanized mower. In the days of the scythe, when hay was long and cut later in the year, then heaped on slow-moving wains, the corncrake had long grasses to hide and breed in. The chicks would be fledged before the meadow was mown, and had plenty of time to escape the swinging blade. With mechanization, however, and a shift toward earlier cutting for silage, corncrakes, eggs, fledglings, and all have been slaughtered wholesale.

"The corncrake has long been in relationship with humans, its fortunes have waxed and waned as our own farm practices changed. When prehistoric people cleared woodland and developed agriculture, the bird's range extended: corncrake bones have been discovered in Stone Age middens. Indeed, Mrs. Beeton gives a recipe for roasted corncrake. You need four, and should serve them, if liked, with a nice bread sauce. But since Clare's 'mowers on the meadow lea' were likewise banished before the machine, the corncrakes' range has been reduced to a few boggy meadows on the islands. They are the same islands, ironically, whose human populations suffered such decline as ideas on farming changed. But old mowing practices lingered longer in the Hebrides, the fields being too small for machines, so this is where the bird is making it's last stand, and where conservation efforts are taking effect."

Corncrakes in the grass  RSPB photograph

The Isle of Coll

Jamie is determined to see, not merely hear, her bird, so she plants herself on an RSBP "corncrake viewing bench," with a view of two lush meadows, and waits.

"Corncrakes don't feature on Christmas cards, or sing after the rain. Their migration has none of the romance of swallows', though they cover the same distance. They arrive in spring, but we've forgotten that they are spring's heralds. They skulk in the grass like guilty things, hardly encouraging us to look to the skies. They offer us no metaphors about fidelity, or maternal dedication; they are just medium-sized brown birds. Nonetheless, I feel robbed -- denied one of the sounds of summer, which all our forebears would have known, that irksome little crex-crex. Why conserve them, other than it being our moral duty to another life form on this earth? If there is no 'clam'rin craik,' no 'noisy one of the rushes,' it betokens something out of kilter with the larger ecosystem on which ultimately, in as-yet-undiscovered ways, we all depend.

"That's what the ecologists and scientists will tell you. But there are things which cannot be said -- not by scientists, anyway. Another person arrives at the viewing bench...a man in young middle age, a holiday maker. We fall into conversation -- he obviously knows his stuff about birds. He has a young family with him on the island and, while they're on the beach, he has slunk off for an hour in the hope of spotting a corncrake. So here he is, an Englishman of higher education with a professional job, a family, a cagoule and good binoculars.

" 'Can I ask you why you like them? Corncrakes, I mean.'

" 'Well,' he said. 'They're like...little gods of the field, aren't they?'

"I could have punched the air. If corncrakes are rare, animism is rarer still. Anyone can clear his throat and talk about biodiversity, but 'Corncrakes...little gods of the field' will not get you published in ornithologists' journals. That's how I picture them now, however: standing chins up, open-beaked, like votive statues in the grass....

"There is talk of reintroducing corncrakes to England, so it might again crex through Constable's Dedham Vale. Till then the mainland's a diminished place; a thousand miles of country without one little god in the field."

Essays by Kathleen Jamie

Last photograph: Tilly snoozing on her fleece on the studio sofa, with Sightlines and Findings by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books/Peguin, 2012 & 2005). Both essay collections are highly recommended. The passages above are from Jamie's corncrake essay "Crex-Crex," from Findings. All rights reserved by the author.


The mnemonics of words

Scorhill

Following on from last week's discussion of the language of place, this week is devoted to Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane's extraordinary book on the subject:

"Ultra-fine description operates in Hebridean Gaelic place-names," writes Macfarlane, "as well as in descriptive nouns. In the 1990s an English linguist called Richard Cox moved to northern Lewis, taught himself Gaelic, and spent several years retrieving and recording place-names in the Carloway district of Lewis's west coast. Carloway contains thirteen townships and around five hundred people; it is fewer than sixty square miles in area. But Cox's magnificent resulting work, The Gaelic Place-Names of Carloway, Isle of Lewis: Their Structures and Significance (2002), runs to almost five hundred pages and details more than three thousand place-names. Its eleventh section, titled "The Onimasticon,' lists the hundreds of toponyms identifying 'natural features' of the landscape. Unsurprisingly for such a martime culture, there is a proliferation of names for coastal features -- narrows, currents, indentations, projections, ledges, reefs -- often of exceeptional specificity. Beirgh, for instance, a loanword from the Old Norse, refers to ' a promontory or point with a bare, usually vertical rock face and sometimes with a narrow neck to land,' while corran has the sense of 'rounded point,' derived from its common meaning of 'sickle.'

Dartmoor sheep

Scorhill

"There are more than twenty different terms for eminences and precipices," Macfarlane continues, "depending on the sharpness of the summit and the aspects of the slope. Sìthean, for example, deriving from sìth, 'a fairy hill or mound,' is a knoll or hillock possessing the qualities which were thought to Looking into the Faery Hill by Alan Leeconstitute desirable real estate for fairies -- being well-drained, for instance, with a distinctive rise, and crowned by green grass. Such qualities also fulfilled the requirements for a good sheiling site, and so almost all toponyms including the word sìthean indicates sheiling locations. Characterful personifications of place also abound: A' Ghùig, for instance, means 'the steep slope of a scowling expression.'

"Reading 'The Onomasticon,' you realize that Gaelic speakers of this landscape inhabit a terrain which is, in Proust's phrase, 'magnificently surcharged with names.' For centuries these place-names have spilled their poetry into everyday Hebridean life. They have anthologized local history, anecdote and myth, binding story to place. They have been functional -- operating as territory markers and ownership designators -- and they have also served as navigational aids. Until well into the 20th century, most inhabitants of the Western Isles did not use conventional paper maps, but relied instead on memory maps, learnt on the island and carried in the skull.

A tributary of the Teign

"These memory maps were facilitated by first-hand experience and were also -- as Finlay [MacLeod] put it -- 'lit by the mnemonics of words.' For their users, these place-names were necessary for getting from location to location, and for the purpose of guiding others to where they needed to go. It is for this reason that so many toponyms incorporate what is known in psychology and design as 'affordance' -- the quality of an environment or object that allows an individual to perform an action on, to or with it. So a bealach is a gap in a ridge or cliff which may be walked through, but the element beàrn or beul in a place-name suggests an opening that is unlikely to admit human passage, as in Am Beul Uisg, 'the gap from which the water gushes.'  Blàr a' Chalchain means 'the plain of stepping stones,' while Clach an Line means 'rock of the link,' indicating a place where boats can be safely tied up. To speak out a run of these names is therefore to create a story of travel-- an act of naming that is also an act of wayfinding.

Scorhill

"Angus MacMillan, a Lewisian, remembers being sent by his father seven miles across Brindled Moor to fetch a missing sheep spotted by someone the night before: 'Cùl Leac Ghlas ri taobh Sloc an Fhithich fos cionn Loch na Muilne.' 'Think of it,' writes MacMillan drily, 'as an early form of GPS: the Gaelic Positioning System.' "

Dartmoor sheep

Dartmoor cows

The history and significance of place-names in land-based societies is something that those of us writing mythic fiction would do well to bear in mind -- whether we're working with myth or folktales born from a specific landscape, or creating an imaginary one.

"Invented names are a quite good index of writers' interest in their instrument, language, and ability to place it," says Ursula Le Guin. "To make up a name of a person or place is to open the way to the world of the language the name belongs to. It's a gate to Elsewhere. How do they talk in Elsewhere? How do we find out how they talk?"

Perhaps by knowing the land they walk. Which begins with knowing our own.

Dartmoor sheep

Scorhill

Words: The passage by Robert Macfarlane is quoted f rom Landmarks  (Hamish Hamilton, 2015; Penguin Books, 2016). The passage by Ursula K. Le Guin is quoted from her essay "Inventing Languages," in Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie (Picador, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures:. There is a mismatch of words and photographs in this post, I'm afraid, for my own recent journey north took me only to the Isle of Skye and not to the Lewis moor. The photographs above are of our moor, Dartmoor, near Scorhill, a bronze age stone circle. The illustration is "Looking Into the Fairy Hill" by my friend & neighbor Alan Lee. It's from his now-classic book Faeries, with Brian Froud (Abrams, 1978); all rights reserved by the artist


A language of land and sea

The Fairy Glen 1

While thinking about the stories and language of place, I was reminded of the following passage from Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting. I read Bunting's book on my recent journey from Devon to the Isle of Skye, where it proved a fine introduction to a landscape steeped in Gaelic history, culture, and folklore.

"Every nation," she writes, "has its lost histories of what was destroyed or ignored to shape its narrative of unity so that it has the appearance of inevitability. The British Isles with their complex island geography have known various configurations of political power. Gaelic is a reminder of some of them: the multinational empires of Scandinavia, the expansion of Ireland, and the medieval Gaelic kingdom, the Lordship of the Isles, which lost mainland Scotland, and was ultimately suppressed by Edinburgh. The British state imposed centralization, and insisted on English-language education. Only the complex geography of islands and mountains ensured that Gaelic survived into the 21st century.

"What would be lost if Gaelic disappeared in the next century, I asked, when I visited hospitable [Lewis] islanders who pressed me with cups of tea and cake. There is a Gaelic word, cianalas, and it means a deep sense of homesickness and melancholy, I was told. The language of Gaelic offers insight into a pre-industrial world view, suggested Malcolm Maclean, a window on another culture lost in the rest of Britain. As with any language, it offers a way of seeing the world, which makes it precious. Gaelic's survival is a matter of cultural diversity, just as important as ecological diversity, he insisted. It is the accumulation of thousands of years of human ingenuity and resilience living in these island landscapes. It is a heritage of human intelligence shaped by place, a language of the land and sea, with a richness and precision to describe the tasks of agriculture and fishing. It is a language of community, offering concepts and expressions to capture the tightly knit interdependence required in this subsistence economy.

The Fairy Glen 2

The Fairy Glen 3

"Gaelic scholar Michael Newton points out how particular words describe the power of these relationships intertwined with place and community. For example, dúthchas is sometimes translated as 'heritage' or 'birthright,' but conveys a much richer idea of a collective claim on the land, continually reinforced and lived out through the shared management of the land. Dúthchas grounds land rights in communal daily habits and uses of the land. It is at variance with British concepts of individual private property and these land rights received no legal recognition and were relegated to cultural attitudes (as in many colonial contexts). Elements of dúthchas persist in crofting communities, where the grazing committees of the townships still manage the rights to common land and the cutting of peat banks on the moor. Crofting has always been dependent on plentiful labor and required co-operation with neighbors for many of the routine tasks, like peasant cultures across Europe, born out of the day-to-day survival in a difficult environment.

The Fairy Glen 4

"The strong connection to land and community means that 'people belong to places rather than places belong to people,' sums up Newton. It is an understanding of belonging which emphasizes relationships, of responsibilities as well as rights, and in return offers the security of a clear place in the world."

The Fairy Glen 5

Bunting also notes that "Gaelic's attentiveness to place is reflected in its topographical precision. It has a plentiful vocabulary to describe different forms of hill, peak or slope (beinn, stob, dún, cnoc, sròn), for example, and particular words to describe each of the stages of a river's course from its earliest rising down to its widest point as it enters the sea. Much of the landscape is understood in anthropomorphic terms, so the names of topographical features are often the same as those for parts of the body. It draws a visceral sense of connection between sinew, muscle and bone and the land. Gaelic poetry often attributes character and agency to landforms, so mountains might speak or be praised as if they were a chieftain; the Psalms (held in particular reverence in Gaelic culture) talk of landscape in a similar way, with phrases such as the 'hills run like a deer.' In both, the land is recognized as alive.

"Gaelic has a different sense of time, purpose and achievement. The ideal is to maintain an equilibrium, as a saying from South Uist expresses it: Eat bread and weave grass, and then this year shall be as thou wast last year. It is close to Hannah Arendt's definition of wisdom as a loving concern for the continuity of the world."

And, I would add, to the Dineh (Navajo) concept of hózhó, or Walking in Beauty.

Howard in the Fairy Glen

Lamb nursing in the Fairy Glen

Words:  The poem in the picture captions is by Kathleen Jamie, from the Scottish Poetry Library.  I highly recommend her poetry volumes, and her two gorgeous essay collections: Findings and Sightlines. The passage above is from Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting (Granta, 2016), also recommended. All rights to the prose and poetry in this post is reserved by the authors. Pictures: Sheep in the Fairy Glen, near Uist on the Isle of Skye. 


The Writer's God is Mercury

Skye 1

Skye 2

I was sad to learn that EarthLines magazine has come to an end after an excellent run of 17 issues -- although I understand the need of its editors (Sharon Blackie and David Knowles) to move on and make time for their own writing, as this is precisely what Midori Snyder and I did when we ended our Journal of Mythic Arts after a decade of publication.

I recently came across the very first issue Earthlines, published in March 2012 from a remote croft on the Isle of Lewis -- not far, as the crow flies, from where I was staying last week on the Isle of Skye. One of the issue's treasures is an interview with Jay Griffiths, whose brilliant work (Wild, Kith, Pip Pip, etc.) takes up a fair amount of space on the Favorite Books shelf in my studio. In an exchange that seems even more timely now (in our current political climate), Sharon asks the author:

"How can you bear to see what is happening to the wild places of the earth that you see so clearly and love so much? The places, the ways of life that you write about with such passion in Wild, and that are threatened -- do you feel powerless because of the nature of the threats; does it instead force you to action (and if so, what's the source of the energy needed in that action -- anger? Desperation? Love?) Put simply, how do you live with it?"

Skye 3

"It is an injured, limping world, yes," Griffith responds. "Its vitality is reduced, yes, as if the full spectrum of the rainbow is being painted out with grey. The extinctions of this era -- extinctions of culture and of species, extinctions of minds and philosophies and languages -- will haunt the future in bleached and muted reproach, yes. And yet, and yet, and yet -- I want to paint the rainbow, as far as I can, prismatically, through language. You cannot ultimately break a rainbow, you can only fail to see its myriad, shattered beauties. And I believe in beauty as I believe in goodness, that people are profoundly good in spite of it all, and that when people know about a situation they can care about it.

"That is where the role of the writer comes in. The writer's god is Mercury the messenger, speaking between worlds. We listen to the world we can hear and see, and we speak to the other side, to the world of the reader."

Skye 4

Trotternish Peninsula

"What do you make of the new growing interest in writing about nature, place, and the environment?" Sharon asks. "Do you see it as part of a process of change, a good thing, a vehicle for transformation -- or does it just refect a passive nostalgia for the things people have already given up on?"

Skye 5

Griffith answers: "When the tread is thinnest...when we sense the tragedy of endings...when life and grace is threatened by deafness and ugliness...when tenderness is bullied...when fences of enclosure overshadow the last scrap of commons...then, which is now, comes a ferocity on the side of life, to protect, to cherish and to envoice what cannot speak in human language."

It is my belief that this is a task that belongs to writers and other creators in the Mythic Arts field as well.

Skye 6

The first and last issues of EarthLines

Words: The passages above come from EarthLines: Nature, Place, and the Environment (Issue 1, May 2012); all rights reserved by Sharon Blackie and Jay Griffiths. Back issues of the magazine are available here, and well worth collecting. Pictures: The photographs were taken last week on the Isle of Skye. Descriptions can be found in the picture captions.