Why Our Imagination Needs the Dawn Chorus
Rob Hopkins writes, “It’s still dark on the early May morning when we gather. It’s quiet, apart from the few robins who’ve woken early, tricked into an early start by the few street lights that are on. It’s cool, but not cold, and in spite of the fact that all seven of us were out of bed before 4am (not that difficult: as Henry Porter once wrote, this is “easily achieved by drinking a lot of water the night before”), everyone is focused, purposeful, intent. We set off on a 10 minute downhill walk to the place where we are going to sit and listen to the dawn chorus.
As we walk, we hear some other early risers. The first blackbirds are up, and as we head down the hill through open farmland, we hear the beautiful song of a skylark high above us. We reach our final stop, by a bend in the River Dart, with woodlands on the other side, stretching as far as the eye can see. In spite of the near-darkness, the chorus has begun. The invitation from Tony Whitehead, the ornithologist and sound recordist who is leading the walk, is to just listen. To be still, and to enjoy the remarkable concert laid on for our delight.
The early voices are those of robins, then blackbirds and songthrushes. Soon they are joined by wrens, wood pigeons and crows. Then there’s a Mandarin duck, whose call sounds like one of the splodgy sound effects on Candy Crush. There are mallard ducks, long-tailed tits, chiffchaffs, and chaffinches. And the occasional pheasant.
Some of them I recognize, some I don’t. The song of the blackbird usually comes in two halves. The first half tends to be roughly the same, its signature if you like, and then in the second half, they just improvise, making up something random, different each time. I am reminded of Charlie Parker’s quote: “You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail”. I’m hearing nature’s creativity, nature’s improvisation. Jazz birds. And it’s beautiful.
…So what does all this have to do with imagination? A common experience when seeing something like the dawn chorus, something beautiful, powerful, something that resonates back with human experience for tens of thousands of years, is a feeling of awe. Whether it’s the late evening sun on the Himalayas, the birth of a child, the Northern Lights, awe is a rare but extraordinary thing. There are gradations of it of course (for me, finding edible wild mushrooms in the autumn is pretty awe-inducing), but we all need a bit of awe in our lives. Awe, according to Florence Williams in ‘The Nature Fix’, is considered by psychologists to be one of our core positive emotions, alongside joy, contentment, compassion, pride, love and amusement.
She cites research that indicates that people who experience awe tend to be more generous, more helpful, more compassionate. Awe reinforces social connections. It has even been found that when people experience awe in a terrifying way, like a hurricane bearing down on their town for example, people tend to be more inclined to work together with each other with the best interests of the community, rather than themselves, in mind. Awe is a good thing all round.
She quotes Craig Anderson, a student at Berkeley, who argues, based on his research into awe, that it promotes curiosity because “we experience things out of our normal frame of reference, things we can’t easily categorise or understand”. And curiosity is a key precursor to imagination.
FULL STORY (INCLUDING AUDIO OF THE BIRDS) by ROB HOPKINS, via TRANSITIONNETWORK.ORG