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The Magical Sounds of Nature

This article was published in the Spring 2008 issue of Beautiful Britain magazine

Alan Burbidge

There is something magical about the songs and calls uttered by wildlife. Perhaps it is the element of mystery that is so appealing. Being able to see images is fantastic and something many of us take for granted, but in looking, everything is revealed. If one restricts oneself to listening, you create your own imagery. What I am trying to say is that listening is akin to reading a book; you can idealise the scenery and the characters and withdraw into an imaginary Eden of your own creation in a way that watching a film never lets you do.

For me, ''Eden'' is the key word next to ''listening''. I have a deep love for the natural world around us and I dream of a time when we will have learnt to live more harmoniously with the rest of the life that surrounds us; less pollution, less noise and less environmental damage. Until that day comes, I simply fantasize about it - and here's how.

I love listening to bird-song, the rutting of Red Deer in the autumn , the cries of a fox on a crisp, frosty winter's night in his hunt for a mate. But being out in the wilds listening (and watching) is not enough; the innate hunter-gatherer instinct is still strong in me, I am the ''Victorian collector'', it is somewhere deep in my nature but, I stress, in sanitised form. So, I don't just go out into the woods and fields to listen, I take a tape recorder and microphones with me to capture the sounds.

My hobby of wildlife sound recording has become an obsession: the drive to capture on tape the purest recordings of wild creatures in their natural environment is only tempered with the frustrations that come with the territory. like it or not (and I don't!), Britain is a noisy place. All of us seem to be rushing endlessly hither and thither on some perpetual motion treadmill - no time to rest, we are just full of 'sound and fury' (we are noisy!). There are sadly increasingly few laces in this beautiful land where one can feel free of the hustle and bustle of the modern world. If you really concentrate and listen hard, even in those places you think of as quiet, there will almost certainly be the distant roar of a motorway or other busy road.  I should not complain, without technology I would have no tape recorder and without transport I could not easily get to those wild places I love so much.

The frustrations of being a wildlife sound recordist are many, in the remotest parts of Britain the elements, especially wind, frustrate the sound recordist and even here the noise of man is evident: the vapour trails and rumble of aircraft pervade everywhere. But when they have flown over, peace descends and it is possible with luck to capture those beautiful calls and songs of our natural world free of intrusive noise. Like many hobbies, the frustrations are there in abundance, but the rewards are much, much greater - for those obsessed with sound. The sense of achievement in making a crisp, clean recording of a skylark singing his heart out on a summer's day high above the heather, with the bubbling song of a curlew in the distance is a jewel to be treasured. And treasure them I do, for that is where the magic, the fantasy, comes in. Listening to those recordings on a cold, dark, wet winter's night takes me back to that summer's day. In my mind I bask in the sunshine, I can hear the distant crashing of waves on a deserted shore and the bubbling song of the curlew and, above me, the clear ringing soliloquy of the skylark fills the air - not a man-made sound to be heard, just nature at her most perfect, de-stressing and relaxing me in my own perfect fantasy land.

Editor's note: Alan is the Honorary Secretary of the Wildlife Sound Recording Society which aims to promote the importance of wildlife sounds in scientific research and for their own aesthetic beauty. Further details about the society can be found at www.wildlife-sound.org.

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