The last thing I was expecting our lockdown to bring was a serene and eerie atmosphere. It is something I am not used to, and it leaves me unsettled. I could not put my finger on it, until I realised it was a lack of modern noise that was unnerving. It is the thing science fiction is made of. As well as eerie, I find it a pleasure. Another world has opened to me.
There are no planes in the sky. This means there is no noise coming from above. Similar to most of south east England, I live under some form of flight path. You cannot get away from it, from 4am through to just gone 11pm, there is a perpetual sound of engines just after taking off and preparing to land. It has become a norm for the sky to be full of planes, with at least two or three constantly in sight. The lack of planes is noticeable because when a plane does go overhead, such as the 4.45pm FedEx to wherever, we all stop and look at the unusual sight. We have an ongoing eerie silence of no planes.
There are no cars on the roads either. I think this was the first thing I noticed. It is growing, but I do not hear the distant rush of the nearby A-road. I do not need to take care on my own road as hardly any cars go past now. I tend not to look up or down the road until I am well in the middle of it. Everyone’s cars are tucked up in the driveway collecting pollen.
Children have a newfound freedom. They have space to scoot, cycle and skateboard instead of keeping to the paths and close to the parent. They fly away on their scooters, skimming around kerbs, leaning into corners and zipping to either side of the road. Chalk arrows and symbols adorn the road surface, marking children’s newfound ownership of the tarmac. The chant “Car!” has regained its meaning.
Roads and paths are covered in detritus from the trees and plants. Dried dead branches, twigs, petals, and pollen, creating a delicate, dusty layer. It blows around in the wind, lolloping in a slight breeze and whipped into a mini cyclone with something a bit stronger.
Cats walk nonchalantly down the middle of road. They swagger at a slow pace, watching everything with a thick set brow.
The birds are prolific. I have not seen so many since my childhood. Not only do I see them flying around us, but also nesting in the tress, eaves, and chimney pots. Along with the usual blackbirds, thrushes, starlings, blue and great tits, there is a multitude of sparrows, something I’ve not encountered for decades. I’ve watched the daily activity of jackdaws nesting in an opposite chimney, first creating the nest followed by the continual food deliveries. The fledglings have now stretched their wings, but still behave like children and hang out together in the vicinity. I hear them caw in the air. Nearby somewhere is a cuckoo. I’ve been divebombed by swifts, watched a blackbird attack a kite in mid-air and kept awake at night by an owl. Birdsong echoes down my chimney.
The local robin makes his presence felt every night by chirping from the top of a tree, possibly 30 feet up. He is very loud. That is the other thing. With the lack of planes and cars, other sounds have taken over, birdsong especially. In the place of the first plane taking off, I now hear the morning chorus the like of which I have not heard since I lived out in the sticks (in a tent). The blackbirds kick off when I go into the garden, all of them warning each other that I’ve appeared. Are we hearing them because there is no background plane noise, or are they making more noise?
It is across the landscape, not just my house and road. Friends have talked about being in Richmond Park without planes overhead, cars and cycles travelling through.
The air feels clearer. It rained today. Almost rained. We could smell it before it arrived. Even my boys could smell it on the air. I can smell flowers, blossom and trees. It’s a strong smell and not fleeting as it would have been before. The constant monoxides have lessened, leaving the air clearer and us able to pick up on other scents. I haven’t taken any antihistamines this year, compared to the one a day last year.
First thing one morning, I could smell a strange maltiness in the air. It took me a while to work it out. It was the brewery a few miles away.
I revel in this of course, and it makes me think. This is a glimpse of life before the plane, train and car. The silence and the noise. For an agrarian society from, say, the early 1800s and before, this is what the background world would have been like. I get a bit of a deeper understanding of their world and their relationship with it. Being able to hear and smell the world around them; experience the changes, the rainstorms coming and the activity of the birds. No pollution induced “hay fever” or shortage of breath. Having a physical space within their world, where they do not have to keep to a pavement, watch-out for others, limiting their speed and staying close to one another.
There would have been an affinity with their world, as we have with ours. I am sure we can all tell the difference between a diesel car and electric car by the sound. The same goes for birdsong and what that means at different times of the year, or even day. In historic literature there are plenty of poems, songs and plays with references to animals and birds. One of the oldest we have is “Sumer is icumen in”, the original manuscript dating back to the 1260s. The song itself would have been around much before that, before it was put to paper. The first two lines are:
Sumer is icumen in Lhude sing cuccu
The literal translation is
Summer has come in (arrived), Loudly sing, cuckoo!
And the cuccu sings merrily on throughout the song. There is much debate about the time of year this represents (spring or summer), but keeping away from the debate, the cuckoo indicates that summer is on its ways. Later in the summer, the cuckoo isn’t as much a novelty. In Shakespeare,
He was but as the cuckoo is in June Heard, not regarded.
Henry IV Pt. I, Act 3, Scene 2
This is a message to the Elizabethan audience, about Prince Harry and his commonality with the people, using a comparison the audience would understand. By June, the cuckoo is no longer a novelty, but part of the background. It is a sign of spring, not summer. Shakespeare’s audience, who were living in the City of London, knew about cuckoos. We get excited when we hear a cuckoo whether it be April or June. This week I have twice heard on Radio 3 the cuckoo being linked with the solstice and it being mid-summer. Perhaps the meaning of the cuckoo is changing for a society that hardly ever hears it.
The eerie and pleasurable silence and noise arrived in a very short period of time. When it happens, it will disappear just as quick.
Wikipedia reference to Summer is icumen in
The Dufay Collective performing Sumer Is Icumen In