I’ve gone to bed with the dawn chorus a fair few times at festivals, and woken with it too – sleeping on hillsides and under canvas. Now, with an east facing bedroom, the dawn itself wakes me and I lie in bed listening to the birds each morning. The dawn chorus is one of those many miracles that occurs on a daily basis, largely unnoticed.
It begins with one or two lone voices. Not full blown song, but odd chirrups and calls as the birds rouse themselves. The sounds grows, becoming richer, louder, until every tree and bush seems to be singing in the new day. In the summer it can last for quite a while. Then it ebbs away, as birds start the flying and foraging essential to their lives.
Why do they do it?
Birds have to maintain a very fine weight balance – light enough to fly, resourced enough to survive. They have to meet any night ready for the worst, and so if the night has been gentle, they have energy to spare and can use it at dawn in their singing before the day fully begins. My experience of dawn choruses are that they are bigger, louder and more enthusiastic in summer, so perhaps this is true. But why sing? Why not channel the spare energy into something more obviously useful? What evolutionary purpose can the singing serve? The interesting truth is that while we can speculate, we don’t really know. Perhaps it has no practical purpose at all. And in truth, I hope that’s the case.
Much of the beauty in nature is functional – it is there to gather sunlight, attract mates, or pollinating insects. Some of it, like the contours of a landscape happen by chance. A pebble polished by a stream. Perhaps it says something about humanity that we have the capacity to look at this collection of random and functional things, and experience a sense of beauty and wonder. The beauty of a flower is more than its usefulness as a tool of pollination. It would also be fair to say that this capacity for appreciating beauty doesn’t seem to have any particular ‘use’ either. Sometimes it helps us to lure a mate, but as perceptions of beauty are individual, it’s no guarantee of anything much.
I want to claim that the way we perceive beauty is evidence of spirit, of soul. Something moves in us that is more than about practicalities. Beauty is not about need, resources, power or ownership, it is the simple wonder inspired by encountering something lovely. Seeing, hearing, touching beauty in whatever form, nourishes the heart and mind, and gives more than the useful things alone can.
We can choose to be functional, or we can choose to make our functionality beautiful. We can invest time, care and love in what we do, make poetry of our speech and dancing of our footfalls. That is the bard path – to walk in beauty. We don’t need to focus every action on material or personal gain. Sometimes, it is good to sing, heart and soul, not for an audience, but for the sheer, wild pleasure of being alive and doing something lovely. Sometimes it is good to be a voice in the chorus, part of the effusive celebration but not separately audible. I have yet to find a day when it hasn’t been good to lie in bed for a little while, listening to the voices of the birds, loving what they do, and hoping with all my heart that no one ever pins down a practical, rational explanation for it.