Are The Birds Singing Us Home?

Robin Grille

(from quarantine, on the 12th floor, somewhere in Auckland)

The road can be such a clarifying teacher. We’re constantly awakening to new and unfamiliar places. Before our eyes open to let in new light, what greets us first is … the soundscape. I had not fully comprehended just how much that would matter. And how the sound of a morning can set the tone for the day.

Last week, it was all traffic. You can feel the rumble of traffic in your back teeth. Buzzy, yet hollow. Allegro … ma non troppo. Like the sadness you get from eating white bread. Sometimes it takes a minute or two to understand the nature of an empty space, as when a familiar, awaited joy has failed to show up. Where are they? 

For years, before we left our home on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, we had been sung awake each morning by an ever-changing chorus. A pining lament here, a warbling melody there, some cheeky chatter, some raucous revelry. Every new day announced by riotous, avian acapella. A jam in the canopy. Curious thing; how it takes an absence to know you’ve been happy. The kind of happiness you don’t even notice when it’s there.

The music given freely by our flying friends comforts our souls – though we may not know it. I’m sure if we lay there for a few extra breaths, eyes closed, feeling our chest, we would feel how birdsong plays upon our heart-strings. Easy to miss, what with all the important boxes we have to tick in a day.

How do these sky-concerts affect our sensitive nervous systems? Humans love to set up serious experiments – to show us the obvious things we refuse to see. To find proof of the things we are afraid to believe in. Like the recent German study of thousands of people across 26 different countries, showing increased happiness among those who live near abundant birdlife.  Apparently, you can predict levels of public happiness by the diversity of bird species in the vicinity (I say: ‘wow!’ to that, but … should it have been obvious?). Studies like this one abound; Green is essential for mental health. Remove us from our ecological roots, and we become sad, anxious, gloomy and sick. But the music of Nature is hardly on Medicine’s and Psychology’s radar, at least not yet. How little we know ourselves.

Enter biologist Dan Carlson from the University of Minnesota. He demonstrated how the sounds of birds singing or crickets chirruping – he calls these “green music” – possess frequencies that boost plant growth and yield. A plant’s stomata – pores on the underside of leaves that absorb water and nutrients and expel oxygen – get wider when exposed to the melodies of Nature. Carlson made his point stick with a Guinness World Record-winning Purple Passion (Gynura aurantiaca), fertilized by birdsong.

There is a quest to know more about how music animates life (tangential musing: was biological life sung into being?). Scientists have called it: ‘plant bioacoustics’: the study of biological transformations triggered by “green music”. Repeatedly they find Nature’s frequencies are beneficial to plant size and yield, healthy leaf formation and the volume of seeds. Plants have an ear for music – “green music” especially has been shown to increase oxygen uptake and polyamine content (key compounds for cell proliferation).

So, if Nature’s music has a vital, chemically recorded impact on plants, how does it affect humans? Does this explain why I am enraptured sometimes, or deeply comforted at other times, when birds serenade from above? Like a plant, I’m made of chemicals and cells. Wouldn’t “green music” play me like a keyboard, and nourish my health just as it does for plants? If these flying balladeers can transform plant chemistry, what do they do for yours and mine?

And here is Side B. Outside Nature’s symphony, we fall out of tune. Dissonance within, discord without. Like I felt waking to those highway sounds: ejected, an alien in my own body. The phenomenon of Nature Deprivation Syndrome is gaining increased attention around the world. Surrounded by concrete, we are fish out of water. Our greatest handicap is our ability to adapt to deprivation until we no longer feel it. We settle into a new normal until we forget to crave what we actually need. Disconnection and anxiety become the baseline; unremarkable and unexamined. Dislocated from our true nature, it’s too easy to be distracted by the easy rush of a purchase, a stimulant, a substance or an ‘entertainment’. Like a starving person who forgot all about food.

In Japan, doctors prescribe ‘forest bathing’. Scottish medics too have begun sending their patients into the wilderness. That makes so much sense to me. I love how quickly the rambunctious cockatoos or the warbling magpies can lift my spirits. Sons and daughters of music, we are instruments and we are meant to be played. The wind strums the canopy like a giant’s harp, and we are lullabied home.

For most of what pains us, we need to come Home. We have overstayed in aircon and concrete, listening to jarring sirens and roaring engines.

If you haven’t done this already, I invite you to try. Next time a bird sings near you, pause everything, even if only for a few seconds. Close your eyes, if you like, and bring your attention to where and how the sounds made by the bird move through your body. Play close attention to your mood-state, notice any shifts. Bring your awareness to sensations, even the most subtle. Notice what happens in and around your heart – it’s a physical thing. Give yourself this time as a gift; the gift of discovering how your body is moved by “Green Music”.

And when you notice the living connection between yourself and the birds you hear, what do you suppose that means about us – about who or what we are, where we begin and end?

Birds are joined by the tunes they make. As the sun sets, how do lorikeets so easily and instantly locate their mates in the bustling cacophony of an over-crowded Norfolk Pine? Can we too find ourselves, through these interconnected webs of sound? Is music what holds the universe together?

We’ve been gone from our place in The Great Orchestral Field for too long. So long that we’ve forgotten why we hurt, why we are sick, why we are angry. But perhaps the birds can help sing us home. If we listen.

I would love to hear about you, what bird songs move you the most? How do they affect you? Do you have a special bird anecdote you’d like to share? What do you understand about birds, and what they teach us? I wonder what we might learn from each other’s bird-tales. I invite you to add your voice, friend and reader, below or at my home page blog here.

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