literary journalism

Steven Lovatt’s ‘Birdsong in a Time of Silence’

As Covid-19 and its attendant fears spread during the spring of 2020, Britain was enveloped in a silence unprecedented since the Industrial Revolution, writes Steven Lovatt in this charming and thought-provoking book. Offered an opportunity to tune into the soundscape of the natural world, amateurs took an interest in birdsong. As the national mood darkened, the country experienced “the most glorious spring that anyone could remember”, soundtracked by “a rising choir of chirps, trills and warbles”. Lockdown walks near his home in South Wales rekindled Lovatt’s passion for birds, which had taken a back seat to the demands of work and parenting. Taking the time to listen, he began to identify greater variation in the songs. The disruption of his daily routines also invited a rewiring of his mental habits. “When we attend to different things, we begin to think differently.”

Lovatt blends his lovely observations with a wide knowledge of birdsong. Precisely what birds are “saying” is anyone’s guess, he writes. “Some calls are quite obviously intended to warn of predators, while others relate to rituals of courtship and display.” When survival and wooing are less of a priority, the set-list expands. For human listeners, birdsong is a marker of “the circular, seasonal time that never ceases to follow its own patterns” – whether or not we take notice.

More meditation than field guide, and illustrated with beautiful ink drawings by Katie Marland, Birdsong in a Time of Silence comes with a warning. There are 50 million fewer birds in Britain today than in 1962, when Rachel Carson raised the alarm in Silent Spring that pesticides were jeopardizing a world of natural song. Bird populations are declining due to habitat depletion, hunting and trapping; climate change affects migration and has led to a “catastrophic” decrease in the insects birds eat. It is not just wildlife that is at risk – birdsong grounds humans in a “grammar of reality”, Lovatt argues. “It’s beginning to be understood that the disruption to the seasonal cycle caused by climate change is a cause of both conscious and subliminal disorientation and distress”, he writes. “We might not yet be desperate to the same degree as the Icelanders, whose mental health is being affected by the loss of the glaciers, but our basic predicament is the same.” Lovatt hopes that from that “strangest spring” of last year we will take away the urgency of…

Read the full review online at the TLS

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