Together, they depict a cross-section of the wildlife I encountered on The Long Spring journeys, including cranes, ospreys, choughs, moose, mountain hares, and white-tailed eagles. In the final illustration, even the extinct great auk is featured. And I did encounter some!
The Long Spring is published in March.
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.
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.