Category Archives: listening

Light, texture, sound, movement

9am

Blue sky with a gossamer layer of misty cloud

Warm sunshine

Light movements in the air

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I’m sitting outside the studio in the sunshine. For the first time, in what seems to be weeks, the biting Easterly wind has blown itself out and it feels warm. The water is glassy with only the faintest sign of the slowly ebbing tide. The blue sky is reflected in the shallow water and combined with the sand/mud just visible below the surface, it is a dappled green/sludge/blue colour. Above me the sky is blue, but over on the horizon the colour washes away to be almost white. The pines on the East Hills are a hazy green and looking East, almost into the sun, the landscape becomes monochrome as the mud banks and marsh are silhouetted by the brightness behind.

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There is no noise coming from the working fisherman’s huts (at low tide there is less activity), but just on the pontoon to my right a couple of men are painting a boat and I can hear their companionable chatter. Most of the sounds I can hear are of birds, but looking out there is no movement – the birds are hunkering down on the marsh. Calling but not seen.

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I sit and look and wait. Immediately opposite 2 black-headed gulls start squabbling with a third gull who flies in, taunting them with food. They rise up and try to wrest it away before flying away down the channel still squawking. A tiny money spider falls onto my sketchbook and I trace its path down the page until it falls off. Two black cormorants fly fast and low over the marsh –  determined dark arrows that know where they are going.

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I hear an oystercatcher and look up, but scanning the muddy bank opposite I fail to see it. A few minutes later it appears and starts to preen itself at the waters edge – it’s reflection clear in the water. It restarts its monotonous peeping and others, feeding on the mud, take up its call. It’s a hectic conversation that sounds like a warning – keep away from my patch!

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I can also hear the contented chattering of Brent geese feeding on the marsh. Most of the visiting winter geese have left by now but there are still a few left that seem happy to over summer here. A small group of them lifts off with a burble and a flap of wing. They fly west to join the main flock, their white bottoms shining out in the sun. More geese rise up, chattering as they go, and split into groups as they hurry off to different feeding grounds.

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I get a watercolour pad and paint and start to draw. As always I start literally but after a time I loosen up and focus on two areas: the patch of mud just opposite and a flash of light that is an area of sand away on the marsh. As time goes on the light and the colours intensify. I use more dark and start to splash paint around, not trying to  represent what I see and hear exactly, but to use my imagination to capture light, texture, sound and movement.

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Notes from my sketchbook

Burnham Overy Staithe

Blue sky – sunshine

NE wind – strong. It makes the otherwise warm temperature feel rather cold, especially walking out to the beach into the wind.

Oystercatchers – windroar – cold ears.

Sitting on the south side of the dune overlooking the marsh surrounded by intermittent wind/grass susurration. Facing the sun and sheltered by the dune from the wind it almost feels hot.

Small twittering birds.

Haze on the far horizon.

By my side, nestling in the marram grass are minute white shells.

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Early morning

8.15 am

Cold: -3 degrees

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The early morning news tells me that last night was the coldest night of the winter so far and that other parts of the country have been disrupted by snow. As yet we haven’t seen snow but looking out all is grey and white . A thick frost blankets the fields over towards Holkham and a light haar is hanging in the air.

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Down on the quay a grey mist hangs just above the marsh and the water is completely still. There isn’t a breath of wind but it is bitingly cold. Behind the granary there is a slight golden glow as the sun begins to appear above the town.

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I walk down the beach bank towards the sea. Coming in from the North East are skeins and skeins of geese and I can’t miss their woodwind chatter as they call to each other high up in the sky. The low sunlight catches the underside of their wings as they fly right overhead – a fluttering sparkle in the clear blue sky.

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In the water a cormorant dives and I follow its underwater path by the stream of small, meandering bubbles that rise to the surface. It stays down for so long that I almost look away and walk off, but suddenly it reappears, a black shadow reflected back by the water.

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Yet more geese fly over and their calls fill the air. The sun has now risen fully above the town and other bird sounds join in: gulls, oystercatchers and a curlew. It almost seems as if they have waited for the sun to begin their day.

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I walk back along the quay and the sun has begun to burn off the light mist and the contours of the marsh are highlighted by a golden yellow glow.

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It promises to be a beautiful day.

 

 

Dusk

A grey day of dull flat light.

Late afternoon.

A walk along the footpath by the pines at the back of the beach.

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The rustle of dry branches and the steady, hushed tramp of boots on a slightly sticky surface is accompanied by the gentle chattering of pink-footed geese as they fly overhead to their night-time roost.

It is peaceful in the almost quiet stillness.

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Behind me, on the horizon, is a thin clearing of clouds. The dropping sun appears below, a scant semi-circle of glowing light that is diffused softly through the surrounding sky.

I walk on. And look round. Brighter now. In the clear sky is a line of brilliant orange, a streak of golden colour in a grey world.

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I walk on. Tall reeds and spiky blackthorn to my right. I glance round and look through the lacework vegetation turned black by the brilliant light beyond.

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I walk on. And look round again. The heavy sun sits poised between cloud and horizon. A burning sphere waiting to drop.

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I walk on. Moments later the light dissolves. I turn yet again. The sun has gone down below the horizon leaving a final blush of colour.

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I walk on. The light flatter, and greyer than before.

Night walking

Dark. Clear. Crisp.

A trip out to the bin late in the evening and the sea roar is so loud that it lures me out, into the dark, and down to the quay to hear more clearly and to look at the stars.

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It’s very dark with no moon. Catch at the back of your nose cold and very, very clear. Looking north, away from the sodium glare of the town, more and more stars are revealed as my eyes become accustomed to the dark. I start walking out along the unlit bank towards the sea. Only a few hundred yards away from the town the sky is even darker – this part of the coast is designated a black sky area – and the  number of stars I begin to see is astonishing.

To the west, an indistinct smudge of light above is the Milky Way and down towards the horizon in the south-west a large, bright, reddish star – Mars I think. And then in front of me a star falls, and another, and again, out of the corner of my eye in my peripheral vision, another falling star and another. Four shooting stars in a row are a rare treat.

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All the well known constellations are clearly visible, more stars in their make-up than usual are showing. Orion’s spear is clear and bright beneath his three-starred belt and W-shaped Cassiopeia. To the north the Plough.

But there are so many stars and I don’t know their names. Night walking and looking at the night sky is something that I have had relatively little experience of over my lifetime. I have lived in the centre of brightly lit towns for the majority of my life and encounters with stars have, for the most part, been through the orange glow of street lights. Brief forays to the dark skies of the coast and country were few as a child and going out in the winter darkness just wasn’t done. Even now there is the temptation, as we approach the shortest day and the longest night, to huddle inside in front of light emitting boxes. But this darkness, with tiny pinpricks of light is magnificent and so beautiful …. so, so beautiful.

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Out on the beach bank, enclosed as I am, and wrapped in darkness with sprinkled light above, my hearing sense is heightened. A loud  Cr-aaaaaa-ck makes me look down and out into the darkness where a large but indistinct form has landed on the edge of the water. A heron. More bird sounds emanate from the marsh. A curlew calls and then calls mournfully again, and then a redshank. Geese, Brent geese I suspect, keep up a woodwind mumble. Do you think they chatter all night? And in the distance, but seemingly close, the continuous sea roar – a never-ending ssssssh, as waves break over the sand bar.

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My eyes look up again. Across the sky a winking light moves from east to west. It is a plane, full of people. Are they looking down?  This part of the earth must look like a reflection of the night sky, the reverse of my view, as pockets of habitation light up the darkened land.

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With natural light levels low at this time of year, it is surprising how lifted I am by this encounter with the darkness. This morning as I write, I have that bubbling feeling in my chest – a son of excitedness. A creative bubble waiting to rise. The conditions last night may not occur again soon. I’m just thankful I noticed them and was able to experience.

The black drawings were done a while ago.

 

Skylark

The sun is out, and I am walking behind the dunes at Holkham with no coat on. After all the recent rain spring seems to have finally arrived and there is no better reminder than hearing the skylarks sing high in the sky above the marsh.

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The skylark, Alauda arvensis, is a small, non-descript brown bird, but its song is a complete joy. Rising from the ground it flaps its wings faster and faster to gain height, and as it flies upwards it sings. Its song goes on and on and on without a pause. If you stop and listen, it is more likely that you will give up listening before it stops singing. What is more astounding is that it doesn’t seem to stop for a breath.

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Being a flautist, I’m interested in breathing and I wondered if, like didgeridoo players, oboeists, and other wind players they could do circular breathing. Circular breathing allows for continuous sound. It is a technique where you breath in and fill your cheeks with air and then with the next breath, simultaneously squeeze out air from your mouth and breath in through your nose. It’s horrendously difficult and I never mastered the procedure.

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However, skylarks and indeed all birds can do it. Their respiration system is different to ours and their circular breaths allow for their song to continue almost endlessly.

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On Holkham beach, with the dunes and the sea beyond to my left and the skylarks singing above I am reminded of one of my favourite poems by Gerald Manley Hopkins, The Sea and the Skylark. In the first two verses he compares the sound of the sea, both low and high tides, and the musical sound of the skylark. Here they are:

On ear and ear two noises too old to end
Trench—right, the tide that ramps against the shore;
With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar,
Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.

Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend,
His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinèd score
In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none’s to spill nor spend.

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I’m sorry not to have been able to take a sound recording for you, but have a listen to the skylark’s music pelting down from the sky here.

Walking without seeing

It’s freezing in Wells at the moment, but a sunny morning has enticed me out of the house for a brisk walk. The tide is up and the easterly wind is bitter. As I head, north, up the beach bank I pull the hood of my coat up to try and get a bit more protection. It is one of those deep hoods that have a furry edge and it comes right down to almost cover my eyes. My vision is severely restricted with it up but today I can’t do without it.

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As I walk my hood forces me to look down at the ground. If I try to peep up the furry bit goes into my eyes. I try pulling it back but it slips forward immediately. I resign myself to looking at the ground.

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The ground is not very interesting – black tarmac with puddles, but with my sense of sight essentially disabled the other senses kick in. It’s very cold. I feel my right side getting colder and even with a long coat the side of my leg starts to ache. My fingers are freezing in their gloves and I slip them out of the woolly fingers so I can form a fist and get a bit more warmth from my palm. I step briskly out hoping to heat up with the exercise.

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The wind blowing over me is the loudest, most continuous sound I can hear, but underneath this other sounds appear. A car on the other side of the bank, and in the far distance the dredger is at the never-ending task of keeping the channel clear. Occasionally a seagull flies over – squawking.

A low, pitched moan comes to my attention. It is coming from the air so must be either a plane or a helicopter – the moan gets louder and I hum its pitch. Middle C I think. I don’t have perfect pitch but I can often accurately pitch a note if it is in my vocal range. This note is four notes higher than my lowest sung note – the G below middle C (I have quite a low voice and always sing alto in the choir). I pull back my hood and peer out to try and fix it with my eyes but I can’t see it. Throbbing blades get louder  – so it’s a helicopter – and as it gets nearer and passes overhead the pitch drops down a third to A ands as it moves away it drops still lower – the doppler effect in action.

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Eyes down I hurry on. I’m not really looking at what is happening around me but I pull back my hood at the end of the bank and look around. Over in the east, towards Blakeney, the low lying land is completely concealed by grey cloud and the sun has gone in. Rain, or possibly snow is coming towards me. I take a quick look to see if there are any seals about (there aren’t) and put my hood up and hurry back to try and beat the cloud burst. The wind strengthens and the snow hits. Driving onto me from the east it is now hitting my left side. My coat is soon covered – white. It’s freezing and all I can think about is the cold and getting back home quickly. I pass a few other people and we grin and comment on the cold.

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And then, as quickly as it started it’s over. I’m wet and cold and by the time I get back to the quay the clouds have passed and the sun is threatening to come out again. It occurs to me that I haven’t seen much on this walk but I have felt and heard quite a lot and that highlights the fact that deadening one sense brings the other, equally important,  senses to the fore.