“You’ll know it when you hear it,” she had said, but I was in the garden listening to birdsong, and I didn’t know it.
It was a brief sunny interlude in a fortnight of heavy rain in the first week of February, and despite my weak limbs and lack of energy, I thought it would be good to sit out in the garden for a few minutes. I was sitting in the middle of the lawn on a portable chair dressed in pyjamas, trainers and a long faux-fur coat, my sleeves and pyjama trousers rolled up, exposing the skin on my arms and legs so I would get some Vitamin D from the sun. I was enclosed by the trampoline to the left of me, apple tree to the right of me, and behind me the dark wooden fence, but I reckon the neighbours could probably see me from their upper floors: a strange figure with unbrushed hair and red glasses. I didn’t care – I was enjoying the sun.
I remembered my new friend asking me if I had heard a blackbird sing this season.
“What does a blackbird sound like?” I had asked, and she had said, “oh, you’ll know it when you hear it.”
I lifted up my new iPhone to send her a Voxer message.
“I’m in the garden,” I said, “and I can see lots of birds, but I don’t know if any of them are a blackbird.”
I listened. “See – there – dee-dee-dee, dee-dee-dee – sung like a question with the intonation going up at the end: dee-dee-dee? – is that it?”
I listened again, and the wind shook some drops of rain from the apple tree. It wasn’t the cooing of pigeons or the caw of a magpie, I knew that much. I wish I could have remembered all my childhood knowledge about birds from Enid Blyton books – but then again, they had always frustrated me. She had claimed that certain birds called out “a little bit of bread and NO cheese” but I had never heard such words from a bird’s beak, and couldn’t associate that rhyme with any tune.
She voxed back later. “There is usually only one blackbird in a garden,” she said. “You won’t see lots of them, just one couple. They find a partner and mate for life – the male blackbird is black, and the female is brown.” I liked this idea, and imagined them sharing a worm with their beaks meeting in the middle, just like that clip from Lady and the Tramp.
“You’ll usually see them high on a fence or roof, so they have a good vantage point. I used to think their song was a mating call, and that one blackbird was calling out to the ladies, ‘hey – I’ve got a great house with double garage. Check me out!'”
I smiled as I thought about Twitter and Facebook and the blogosphere. Why do we write? Sometimes we write to boast, to make people think better of us: “check me out!” I glanced at the fence, but there was no blackbird there.
I turned to hear a pair of birds chattering away at each other, seemingly squabbling over some food or some territory. They sounded irate. ‘We do that, too’, I thought.
“Actually it’s not a mating call, because they mate for life,” she was saying. “It’s more like a territory thing, but not even that – it’s just like they are saying ‘I am here, and this is my space around me.’ It’s like an auditory fence.”
She then apologised for this analogy, saying she didn’t know how else to describe it, but I liked it. A friend had emailed me yesterday and asked, “why did you start writing?” – and I knew the answer immediately: I wrote because I could no longer talk. I was so isolated in the eighteen months after giving birth, and the lack of people-contact was driving me quietly insane.
I wrote because I wanted to say I was still here, and I had thoughts. I wrote because I didn’t want people to forget me. I wrote simply because I had ideas swirling around my head, and they needed to be let out. I wrote to tell the universe: “I am here, and this is my space around me. This is where I start and stop. These are my thoughts. This is my world.”
“They sing on their own, very early in the morning, when it’s still dark but not pitch black. If you’re woken up by a bird in the middle of the night it’ll probably be the blackbird. I don’t know how to describe it – it’s not like a repetitive call like the ones you heard in your garden, it has its own song, and they change it all the time. I love hearing them.”
Maybe I should have said something more holy, I suddenly thought. Maybe I should have said I write to bring glory to God, or that I write to minister to others or something. Weren’t you ‘supposed’ to say those kinds of things? This is why I so often hesitate to call my writing a ministry. How could it be a ministry or glorifying to God when really it’s just self-indulgence, giving space to my thoughts?
But a blackbird’s song is beautiful, even though it doesn’t have a particular purpose, and beauty gives glory to God. All the best artists and writers said they did art for its own sake – a seemingly narcissistic thing – and yet it is that kind of art that moves people. And a poem by Keats gives glory to God in its own indirect way – the beauty points back to the creative generosity of the Creator.
(At least – I believed a blackbird’s song to be beautiful. I still didn’t know what it sounded like.)
“They start singing about some time in February, and I always feel sad when they stop singing at some point in August, because that means it’s the end of the summer. You’ll know it when you hear it,” she said again, but I thought she was vastly overestimating my ornithological ability.
This morning I woke early. I looked at the curtains: the light was dark grey but softening at the edges. It must have been just before sunrise. I could hear a lone bird singing a long song – a warbling, gargling, ever-changing melody. It sounded so full of joy.
She was right – I knew it when I heard it.
Over to you:
- Have you heard the blackbird’s song yet this year? (And would you know it if you heard it?)
- Why do you write or create?
- Do you think that ‘art for art’s sake’ is narcissistic or that it gives glory to God?
With thanks to Lorraine for the blackbird knowledge. If you want to check out her version of that conversation, go here.