3. Olivier Messiaen
March 29 2016, Côte Vermeille, Pyrénées-Orientales. The headlands stretch out into the sea like crocodiles. In an echoing crevice of the cliff-face a blue rock thrush sings
When Olivier Messiaen came here in June 1957 he wrote into his notebook a succinct description of the landscape he discovered, notes that found their way onto the cover page of his piano piece Le Merle Bleu – the Blue Rock Thrush. He also noted that the blue rock thrush song “blends with the noise of the waves. I hear the Thekla lark as it flutters in the sky above the vines and rosemary. The yellow-legged gulls cry from afar. The cliffs are terrifying. The water comes to die at their feet in the memory of the blue rock thrush.” He was describing the landscape and sounds of the coast near Banyuls-sur-Mer, and provided the clues that would lead me to the same spot nearly sixty years later.
During The Long Spring journeys I walked south from Banyuls along the twisting coast road until I found a path off to the left that took me down to the sea. From there I looked south along a series of headlands – Cap l’Abeille, Cap Rederis, Cap de Peyrefite, Cap Canadell, and Cap Cerbère. Messiaen’s note on the title page of Le Merle Bleu is specific in naming the places he had come seeking inspiration: “Near Banyuls: Cap l’Abeille, Cap Rederis.” I was looking for a cliff face among the many minor capes and inlets, using the clues he left behind.
To my right, the bay reflected a deep, charcoal-infused blue. In Le Merle Bleu, the blue rock thrush represents the sea in its different simultaneous moods. I heard one in the distance to my right. Suddenly, the bird appeared from between two rock stumps to my right, flew over the finger of rock I was sitting on, and disappeared down into the smaller cove on my left. On its short passage through my visual field, its colour changed with each wing-beat, according to its background and the angle it made with the sun. In the score, Messiaen mentions the colour-shifts of both the sea and the bird; the one represents the other. He annotates the score itself: “the resonance of rock faces”, “luminous iridescent, blue halo”, or depicting the horizon of “the blue sea”. The harmonies are intended to complement the “satin texture and the purple-blue, slate-blue and blue-black shades” of the blue rock thrush's plumage.
Olivier Messiaen wrote his first significant birdsong-inspired piece in Stalag VIII-A prisoner of war camp in Görlitz (now Zgorzelec, Poland). Quartet for the End of Time, a staple of modern repertoire, was originally written for Messiaen and three fellow prisoners to perform, which they did on 15 January 1941 to a rapt audience of 400 inmates. For both Maria Àngels Anglada (featured in the second article in this series) and Messiaen, wildlife symbolised freedom and identity and their works mined deep reserves of personal and cultural connectedness to nature, one of the themes of The Long Spring.
The Long Spring will be published in March 2018
2: Poet of the marshes
During The Long Spring I visited Aiguamolls de l’Empordà, in Catalonia, where I discovered not just a wealth of wildlife, but also a poet, Maria Àngels Anglada. Born in 1930, she grew up speaking an illegal language, and when the Franco-era repression was finally lifted, her poetry and novels helped cement the modern Catalan literary heritage. The words she chose to use were those of nature: wildlife symbolised freedom and identity, and her works mined deep reserves of personal and cultural connectedness to nature, something she had in common with other artists in this series.
Aiguamolls is a series of wetlands, once covering nearly 12,000 acres, formed by the rivers Muga and Fluvià where they flow into the Bay of Roses of the Costa Brava. Ten plaques, each a poem or an excerpt from Anglada’s prose, form a literary trail around this Parc Natural.
The first poem on the trail is called Al Grup de Defensa dels Aiguamolls de l’Empordà; the last, Aiguamolls 1985. The two poems are almost identical. The first was written in 1976 at the height of the transformation of the Costa Brava from a remote, rugged and picturesque landscape to the world’s first and most notorious mass-market resort. It foretells the cataclysm of the lost marshes: “Will they invade this living shelter that so many wings yearn for from afar?” …. Lines dedicated to the local campaigners who were fighting against overwhelming odds.
Then in 1983, victory was declared with the designation of the area, first as an Area of National Interest, and later as a fully protected Parc Natural. Anglada rewrote her poem in celebration: “They have not destroyed this living shelter that so many wings yearn for from afar.” …. “Flamingoes, our friends the mallards, return, return, Kentish plover and lapwing, colourful princess of winter.”
The earlier poem’s prediction that “walls of cement, debris, dust alone will be the nests where once pulsated life” became, in 1985, “walls of cement and iron have retreated before nests all pulsating life”.
Anglada’s 1981 short story Flors per a Isabel - Flowers for Isabel – is set in 1810 and relates how in “the first half of March…with the war we had neglected cleaning ditches and a large pool of shallow water lay under trees that broke into bud with their feet soaked.” These words are on a gate at the edge of a flooded field which I leaned on to watch two angular great white egrets making geometric reflections in the still water.
Maria Àngels Anglada i d’Abadal was born in 1930 in Vic, 65 miles from Aiguamolls, and died in 1999 having moved into the Empordà, which reminded her of the ancient and modern Greek literary landscapes she studied at the University of Barcelona and whose idioms she blended into her own works. She visited Mytilene whose “wild flowers, silvery olive trees and intensely blue sea reminds me of the Costa Brava, before they destroyed it.”
I am grateful to the poet's daughters Mariona and Rosa, and sister Enriqueta, for their help in improving my translations.
Next in the series: Olivier Messiaen’s Blue Rock Thrush
The Long Spring will be published in March 2018
1: Celebrating Finland 100
During The Long Spring journeys I encountered many artists, past and present, with close associations with the places I visited. For some, such as Maria Àngels Anglada, the Catalan novelist and poet, and the composer Olivier Messiaen, wildlife symbolised freedom and identity and their works mined deep reserves of personal and cultural connectedness to nature. In Finland, I read some of Elias Lönnrot’s epic Kalevala, the poem that inspired so much of Sibelius’s music. When the poem and the music inspired an independent Finland a hundred years ago this month, wildlife was an inextricable part of the narrative.
In this first in a series of articles, I recall my journey through that young country.
Half world's population of rare endemic affected
Last month’s wildfire in Doñana appears to have had a serious impact on threatened species, including forty species of plants. One, Linaria tursica is endemic to the Doñana area – more than half the known world population is found in the burnt area.
Moorish toadflax, as its scientific name could be translated, is a small, pale purple snapdragon-like flower highly adapted to mobile sandy soils. Also associated with the affected area are the globally-threatened Spanish imperial eagle and other raptors including red kite, short-toed eagle and booted eagle.
However, Carlos Dávila of SEO/BirdLife, sees an opportunity. Much of the burnt area is a plantation of pine, which over much of Doñana has replaced the native cork oak : “It would be good to see an ecological restoration following the fire that is based on planting key elements of the original forest such as wild olive, mastic, dwarf palm, Mediterranean buckthorn or strawberry tree. And when conditions of soil and shade are right, replanting cork oaks will be possible.”
Fire ravages lynx habitat
During The Long Spring, my first port of call in Europe, once I’d crossed the Mediterranean, was Doñana. It is Spain’s most celebrated natural space, and one of Europe’s most important wetlands. It was probably my thirtieth visit, at least, a place I have been drawn to since the 1980s, when I was first sent there by the RSPB. My task was to work with what was then a small organisation, now the mighty SEO/BirdLife, to help build support for conservation in Spain. They were battling against Costa Doñana, a plan to double the size of the already huge resort at Matalascañas, threatening to destroy internationally-important sand dunes, home to the world’s most threatened cat, the Iberian lynx.
After a five-year fight, the plans were cancelled and instead, in 1992 a €344 million investment was announced: El Plan de Desarrollo Sostenible de Doñana – the sustainable development plan for Doñana.
Ten years later, on the night of 26 April 1998, I tuned in to the BBC World Service at the tail end of a news story about an environmental disaster in Spain. A reservoir containing waste from the Los Frailes pyrite mine at Aznalcóllar had collapsed, spilling five million cubic metres of lead, arsenic and cadmium-laden mud and acid water. A tsunami of poison flowed into the River Guadiamar, one of the main sources of water into Doñana, thirty miles downstream. The wave killed everything in the river, and spread over 5,000 hectares of farmland, which will never again produce food. The RSPB and SEO/BirdLife mobilised again. SEO would focus on supporting recovery efforts and pushing for long-term solutions, while the Government’s clean-up was under way. I again coordinated international support.
Three years ago, I went back to make a programme for the BBC radio series Costing the Earth. As reporter Julian Rush and I stood on the banks of the Guadiamar, close to where the wave of toxic waste had flowed sixteen years earlier, we could see poplars and willows had thrived in the humidity of the river and the warmth of Andalucía. The contaminated farmland has been allowed to rewild and has become a green corridor linking Doñana with the Sierra Morena to the north, hopefully reconnecting the fragmented and brink-teetering Iberian lynx population.
So news this weekend of fire raging through the pine and juniper forests to the west of Doñana brought back the same sense of doom I felt in 1998. As the flames spread uncontrollably, whipped by hot, dry gusts of wind, it became clear that the Iberian lynx captive breeding centre in El Achebuche was in their path. The animals and officers were evacuated: nine adult and five young lynx were gathered together for relocation; one sadly died during the operation, and with little time available, another thirteen had to be released to fend for themselves; eleven were eventually relocated and appeared in good health, with no immediate news of the whereabouts and safety of the other two.
Over four days, the fire gutted more than 10,000 hectares of pine and marine juniper forest and matorral scrub. SEO’s preliminary assessment was published on Monday: protected areas important for lynx - including the territories of three wild females -, chameleon, stone curlew, short-toed and booted eagles have been badly affected.
This morning efeverde.com reports that tracks of the remaining two lynx have been seen, and experts have set camera traps and cage traps in the area. The fourteen evacuated lynx have arrived back in the breeding centre at El Acebuche. The fire is under control, but 45 firefighters, equipped with five fire engines and a bulldozer, will stay in the area until the risk of re-ignition is over.
Live action from Alcalá de Henares
A year ago today, the journeys that made up The Long Spring came to an end. I was in Arctic Norway, having reached my final destination via North Africa, Spain, France, Britain, Sweden and Finland. Birds were my constant companions, and some species - cranes, ravens, even bluethroats - seemed to be acting as guides on my path, so constant were they.
For the first half of The Long Spring, right up to the Channel coast, white storks were like emblems of travel. I visited one of the towns laying claim to the title "Stork Capital", Alfaro in La Rioja, Spain. Another is Alcalá de Henares, in Madrid Region, where pride in the local storks is almost universal. Now SEO/BirdLife offer the chance for everyone to enjoy the not-so-private lives of this much-loved bird, live by webcam. The show has attracted over a quarter of a million hits so far.
One of many abiding memories of my encounters with storks last year is of their own special sound at the nest, which you should be able to hear from time to time if you tune in to the Alcalá family. My notes from Alfaro say:
"Each bird’s return is marked by a duet of bill-clattering, a sound like deep castanets, amplified by a resonating chamber in the birds’ throats. This gular pouch under the chin, is turned skywards as the birds draw their heads back to lay their long necks along their backs. It is a sound that in Spain is familiar and distinctive enough to have acquired its own word – crotoreo."
A blackbird sings as I write this. Its evensong – to use Richard Smyth’s word – is surely the defining sound of early spring. A sweet, wild note, to borrow his title, which quotes Gilbert White’s description of the song of another bird, Smyth’s favourite, the blackcap.
Like blackbird song, A Sweet, Wild Note flows in a stream of consciousness. It eddies around subjects such as poetry and music, connecting the science with the lore and meandering into philosophical backwaters. It is a subject about which countless volumes have been written before, and in exploring the cultural history of birdsong, including some less clichéd subjects, Smyth has found a niche. So, alongside the necessary but predictable subjects of Beethoven and Delius, there is plenty of space for composers like Jonathan Harvey and Evan Parker. Smyth’s writing on poetry is insightful but less wide-ranging, with a preponderance of well-studied Romantics. Still, there is room for a Rumi or a Ciardi.
Humans' desire to possess birdsong in caged form is given an unflinching treatment, as is the impact we are having on the very future of birdsong. The impoverishment of natural soundscapes is an unsurprising consequence of the impact we have had on bird populations, but the fact that birds have retimetabled the dawn chorus to fit around flight schedules at Berlin airport was an eye-opener, and a shock.
From two fields away, I hear a blackcap’s free-form jumble of notes that just reach me in the gaps in the blackbird’s phrasing. Smyth loves blackcap song. “I love it so much,” he says, “that I can give you a list of my top three singing blackcaps.” Which he does, in ascending order. He does not explain what made those moments special, and one small fault I could find in this book is Smyth’s relative silence about his own direct responses to the experience bird song. Occasionally he comes out from behind the scenes: at one point he re-imagines his (presumably successful) marriage proposal with birdsong added in, having failed to notice any at the time. It is a quirky moment among many, a feature of an entertaining style that manages to avoid becoming a distraction from a subject that is itself, perhaps, the most ancient and enduring form of entertainment.
A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth is published by Elliott and Thompson on 13 April.
I am delighted that Richard Allen, the artist and illustrator, has been signed up to illustrate The Long Spring, including the cover and seven pictorial maps.
Richard, whose work can currently be seen at Birdscapes Gallery, Norfolk, Rainham Marshes RSPB Reserve, Aldeburgh Contemporary Arts and SeaPictures, Clare, Suffolk, specialises in birds, other wildlife and landscapes. He lives amid the creeks and marshes of the Essex coast. “My great passion is the natural world, particularly birds, and I enjoy the challenge of sketching and painting them directly from life in the field in all weathers. The Colne estuary near my home in Wivenhoe provides plenty of inspiration, especially in winter when large flocks of waders and wildfowl flock to the coast”, he says.
A freelance illustrator with over 30 years experience, Richard has worked in publishing, newspapers, stamp design, and on interpretation illustrations for many conservation bodies, including the RSPB and National Trust.
I was particularly keen to use lino cuts in The Long Spring, and seeing Richard’s Coastal Birds collection of prints, which was published by Jardine Press in 2014, convinced me he was the man to illustrate the book! The Long Spring will be published by Bloomsbury early in 2018.
Marsh harrier by Richard Allen. Linocut.
To mark Sámi National Day (February 6) here are some pictures of the rock carvings at Jiepmaluokta, the Sámi name, which means Bay of Seals, for the place near Alta, north west Norway. The images (recently dyed with harmless red pigment to make them easier to see) were probably produced by stone age and early metal age people whose successors went on to identify themselves with the Sámi. Some of the images are almost identical to symbols found on Sámi artefacts in the period immediately before Christianisation.
I visited Jiepmaluokta the day after The Long Spring journeys came to an end, and saw seven thousand year-old images of reindeer husbandry, the earliest known images documenting the reindeer herding that is the defining tradition of the modern Sámi. A herd of wild reindeer is being corralled: there are thirty inside the fence, where a man wields a stick to keep them under control. Six more are at the entrance to the palisade, walking in, and thirty others are browsing freely, scattered throughout the landscape. Four bears, a male, a female and two cubs, have walked across the scene from their den, leaving their footprints in the snow. On the far side of a miniature mountain, seven moose roam. In the distance, eight people form a line, I imagine them hollering to drive the reindeer towards the corral; nearby, others wield clubs and sticks to keep the bears from the deer.
Exactly when these first images were made is a matter of debate: six thousand years ago based on the rate of isostatic rebound (land rising after being released from the downward pressure of a mile-thick ice-cap during the Ice Age), but recent thinking suggests they may be a thousand years older. There were times when the ice-melt caused the sea level to rise so much that it cancelled out the land-rise and the coastline may have changed little for more than a thousand years. At other times, relative land-rise was so rapid it would be noticed during a person’s lifetime.
Yesterday I sent off the manuscript for The Long Spring to Bloomsbury, bang on schedule. A year ago today I began the series of journeys that the book describes. I stood at 35° 54’N, on Monte del Renegado, looking south from the Spanish North African enclave of Ceuta, to the Rif mountains beyond Tétouan thirty miles away. I tried to imagine the whole continent of Africa before me, and two billion birds beginning their journeys to the lands to the north. The first sign of spring was a gathering of migrant hawker dragonflies preparing to cross the Strait of Gibraltar into Europe when the time was right, when wind direction and warmth allowed.
The next day I crossed the Mediterranean myself. From the ship I noticed a line of dark brown birds flying in parallel to us, effortless in their stiff-winged air-skiing, inches above the waves. Thirteen of the critically endangered Balearic shearwater. It is a species with a tiny breeding range and a small population, numbering around three thousand pairs and undergoing an extremely rapid decline. At their breeding colonies on islets off the main Balearic Islands, they are eaten by introduced mammals. At sea, they are killed as, to use a rather lame euphemism, fisheries by-catch.
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.