Jan 25, 2016

Curlew! The most beautiful sound in the wilderness…

By: Mary Colwell

I heard a programme on the radio recently that said every room has a note. The frequency of a particular sound seems to fit a certain size of room the best, so that when that note is played in the space it is enhanced and enriched.  Musicians know this apparently, but I found it such an interesting concept. For me the call of the curlew fits the wilderness in that way. There is something about the timbre of the sound that enhances the air of wild places.  The call of the curlew makes the atmosphere resonate with a depth that I feel in my core.  Listen to the bubbling, mating call as it rises into a crescendo of notes that spread over a moorland like ripples over water.  There is something so right about that sound, It seems part of the fabric of the land – as essential as the heather, water and moss.

To my mind the call of the curlew is akin to a clarinet or bassoon, it has a soulful quality that reaches into our being and draws out emotions that normally lie quietly under the surface. No wonder then that through the ages it has been associated with that complex emotion that we call yearning.  In the poem, “He Reproves the Curlew,” William Butler Yeats juxtaposes the call of the curlew with a heartfelt cry of despair for lost love.

O CURLEW, cry no more in the air,
Or only to the water in the West;
Because your crying brings to my mind
passion-dimmed eyes and long heavy hair
That was shaken out over my breast:
There is enough evil in the crying of wind.

On the other hand, Ted Hughes wrote that curlew, “hang their harps over the misty valleys … A wet-footed god of the horizons.” Their piping and bubbling described as the most beautiful sound in the wilderness.  The call of the curlew is a shape-shifter, an aural key that unlocks our secret thoughts.

As we head into February curlews will be moving away from the coasts and estuaries towards their breeding grounds in higher lands – the uplands, moors and mountain valleys throughout Britain. Spend some time alone with their haunting call and let it weave its magic through your being.  The renowned ornithologist, Denis Nethersole-Thompson wrote, “It would be a poor creature who cannot delight in the sounds of the curlew.”

Mary Colwell

Mary Colwell is a producer and writer specialising in natural history and the environment.  She has produced documentaries for the BBC Natural History Unit in both TV and radio and has recently series produced Natural Histories on Radio 4.  Her book John Muir, The Scotsman Who Saved America’s Wild Places, was published in November 2014 by Lion Hudson.  In April 2016 she starts a 500 mile walk from the west of Ireland to the Wash in Norfolk to raise money and awareness for projects to help curlew numbers recover in the British Isles.


Sound credit: Benboncan. No changes to audio.

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