On Tuesday the blackcaps came back
and sang outside my house for the first time this year.
Photo credit – British Trust for Ornithology.
Most blackcaps spend the winter in Germany and Spain - though some no longer migrate now birds are fed all year round in millions of UK gardens - and blackcaps are famed as the champion singers of spring. The return of their song confirms, beyond all doubt, that springtime is here.
Blackcaps are elegant, morning-suit-grey birds the size of robins – males with a sleek ‘cap’ of black head feathers, females with rust brown – and the males sing and chitter to the females each morning – part of the famed, dawn chorus of spring. Their song is higher-pitched and more complicated than those of blackbirds and robins. At this time of year our many songbirds compete for mates – (Eggs Factor?) – by singing their best from first light and I urge you to get up early, open your window and just listen. It is splendid.
There is a tiny patch of scrubby, overgrown trees in a corner outside my street - between flats, the car park and the railway line – and here are robins, blackbirds, song thrush, magpies, blue and great-tits, wrens, goldfinches, magpies and crows. On Wednesday morning I felt anxious and heavy-hearted, lacking air, so I went outside - trying to slow my breathing and quiet my thoughts. I headed for the trees and just stood, breathing, looking and listening. Even in this unprepossessing corner there was beauty; sun was shining through dark-green ivy climbing up tall London plane trees and highlighting white hawthorn blossom. Daffodils, nettles and bright blue borage made a carpet and birds seemed to play a game of ‘catch’ with their voices, taking turns to sing in a circle just for me. A robin, a wren, a blackbird and a blackcap were all less than 2 metres from me, each in a different tree, casting their songs to wrap me up in sound. One by one they took turns to offer me a song and I was transfixed. Anxiety drained away. Breathing, heartbeat and adrenaline quietened. Calm and peace filled me and I felt time slow down. I cannot do justice on this page to the beauty of standing in an intimate cradle of birdsong, but somehow I wanted to store that moment so I could hold it with me through the day – to ‘capture the calm’.
· I sniffed - the scent of the earth, the air, the crushed grass and the blossom. I breathed it in, my lungs filled and I felt more awake.
· I looked - at the light of the sun in patches – highlighting white, yellow and blue flowers and so many shades of green. Dark corners where the sun was not - leaves and bark concentrated to black, the intense blue sky in every gap above me. Lichen of yellow, white, green, grey and buff rocks with sparkles.
· I felt - the warmth of the sun, the cold of the air, the layers of my jumper and coat, the cold of my trainers with too-thin socks for March. The muscles in my face as I smiled in surprised delight and the twist in my neck and legs as I turned to each sound.
· I listened - to the sounds of the birds, each familiar call I can replay in my head, the rustling of leaves in the breeze, a distant radio, the momentary overlay of the passing train which leaves a louder peace when it’s gone. My breathing getting quieter.
· I realised - I was calm and joyous, nurtured and energised. I had stilled the pace and was in a green, gold, blue and brown bubble.
Now, later on, I have left the trees and come back indoors to my working,busy life, but because I imprinted the experience I can shut my eyes, mute my work and take a moment to invite each ingredient back, to recreate the bubble. Remarkably, some of the positive, calming effect returns each time I do it. So this is my invitation to you today - if you can go outside or look outside from a window onto greenery, try to ‘bottle’ the ingredients of sight, sound, smell, sensation and response - experience the moment as fully as possible and carry it back indoors with you, to sustain you through your day and night. It is a magic potion which you can take a swig of any time the noise or the demands or the pressure overwhelm. Nature-lovers like me ‘just know’ that we feel better when we engage with the outdoors and today, I offer you this little technique to keep the goodness going when you have to stay in. If you can’t go outside to capture a new memory, I invite you to recall a pleasant memory of a moment you experienced in nature in the same way and see what it does to your mood. Even better - the more you do this, the stronger the effect it has.
My research and work in psychotherapy are primarily focused on the positive somatic response humans (generally) have to nature and I will talk more about this in my next post. In the meantime, please open your window or step outside early in the morning – especially now as our roads and skies are empty like never before in our lifetimes – treat yourself to the dawn chorus, bottle it and take a drop whenever you need a moment of calm.