On Saturday I stumbled across a radio programme about trees, more properly a love letter to trees, or at least to the sounds that they make. It starts with Thomas Hardy’s assertion that it was possible to learn to identify trees by their sound alone, and speaks to arboriculturalists, poets and composers along the way to testing this hypothesis.
The Susurrations of Trees is the kind of programme that I most strongly associate with Radio 4 – though it’s particular use of music means it could have slotted easily into Radio 3’s output. A gently fascinating programme well suited to being background listening while you work on something else – something perhaps repetitive but necessary, that can be easily paused when the presenter tells you something particularly interesting you need to focus on. I found myself searching for a task of that kind barely a few minutes into listening, and ended up listening with my head out the window as I pruned back my winter-bare herbs, while Bob Gilbert’s reassuring tones drifted up to me. I needed to be able to concentrate on listening but also to be doing something with my hands.
It got me thinking about how different a process it is recording the sounds of the natural world as opposed to recording the human world. Despite having grown up in the countryside, I am primarily a recorder of urban soundscapes. Perhaps it was because when I first started to make my own location recordings, the sound of urban environments were more novel to my ears so more likely to pique my interest and therefore get recorded. I first started making my own recordings while at university in Bournemouth, where my locations for recordings were shaped and circumscribed by not having a car. If I wanted to record something or somewhere, I needed to be able to get there by public transport. The earliest recordings I have that were worth keeping were made inside Christchurch Priory and outside in it’s graveyard, though I distinctly remember filling in a risk assessment for taking the recorder out to record the waves on Bournemouth beach. This seems a sensible reason for why it rarely occurs to me to take my recorder when I’m driving somewhere, but associate it more with trips that involve at least a couple of forms of public transport.
So perhaps it would be more apt to say that I’m a recorder of in between places, transitory places, seashores, graveyards, and public transport. There are so few places that are truly one thing or the other these days. Most location sound recordists have a story about having to call a pause in filming because despite standing in a field in the apparent middle of nowhere due to a plane or a distant quad bike. (Aircon units are my personal bugbear – as if they don’t cause enough problems indoors, their outlets will often ruin the soundscape of an alley or wooded space behind a building with their omnipresence.) Equally though, for every time distant traffic has interfered with my nature recordings, I have been plagued by nature in urban environments – mostly seagulls, but pigeons, cats, dogs and once, memorably a heron, have all made my recordings seem rather more rural.
Last month I spent some time recording – or attempting to make recordings – in Merkinch nature reserve at the edge of Inverness. I probably picked the wrong time of year for it – I’d perhaps have had better luck in Spring rather than Autumn – but despite being a peaceful and pleasant place to walk and feeling like a respite from the surrounding city, the sounds of urban life were obvious and intrusive the moment I turned on the recorder. Recording nature requires much more stillness and patience than recording the human world. Man-made objects are far less likely to stop making a noise the moment you point a recorder at them. The audio cycles of clocks and traffic lights or automated announcements are much more predictable than those of birds or foxes or storms.