The autumn equinox took place on September the 23rd and I rose early to record the first dawn of autumn. The autumnal equinox is that point at which the sun passes southerly across the celestial equator (the imaginary line of the equator projected into the sky), This moment of transit results in equal hours of day and night. The word equinox itself literally means equal night. Most languages when describing the phenomena refer to equalities of night, although in Russian the reference is to day: ravnod’enstviye, splendidly and literally, ‘equidayishness’ (Chambers Dictionary of Etymology).
Autumn dawns quite quietly, the birdsong sparse in comparison to the chorus of summer and spring. With sunrise occurring much closer to the rush hour the background hum of traffic begins to intrude upon the delicious sounds of birdsong.
I follow my habitual anti-clockwise wind around the moors path, the occasional leaf adding a texture of dry crackle to my footfall. At the end of the wooden boardwalk at the mini-stream I could hear the whispered babble of water. I stood still and let the dawn pour in.
There is something meditative in the mingled sounds of water and birdsong, something that seems to promote remembering and idle thoughts. By idle I mean that lack of purpose and agency that allows one to escape from intentional thoughts and the need for accomplishment or organised progression: to idle, to stand still, to tick over.
The rivers babble provides a constantly changing stillness. Listening to it we are occupied by an ‘abiding now’, a moment paused, a nunc stans or now [ever] standing: ‘the instant that knows no temporal articulation, where distinctions between now, earlier and later have fallen away or have not arisen.’
As I resumed my walk around the moors I was splashed with the sounds of paddles pulling through water and propelling canoes and kayaks up and down the Itchen. The Winchester Canoe Club meets every Sunday morning (and Tuesday evening) on the river Itchen, which provides a damp boundary between the moors and playing fields. The auditory wake of the canoes brings with it another vocabulary of watery sounds. Unlike the constant stillness of the mini-stream, this wetness moves in and out of audition providing a spatial and temporal space: sound appearing here and disappearing there. The voices of the canoeist add to our aural mapping of the environment around the river’s edge, whilst my Hydrophone captures the submerged propulsion of paddles.
The sound of water has created a whole thesaurus of onomatopoeic words that simultaneously describe and imitate the wetness we hear. These ‘words’ exist somewhere between language and meaning in the non-sense of babble, splosh, splish-splash, drip and plop. Birdsong too has been verbalised in the concrete poetry of such words, although as with the drip of water these have often fallen into meaning, most specifically in naming birds: the cuckoo, the chiffchaff (the first bird to be identified (by Gilbert White) from it’s sound rather than it’s anatomical appearance).
In their book Songs of Wild Birds (1946), the naturalists and sound recorder, E. M. Nicholson and Ludwig Koch, composed an extensive list of onomatopoeic verse translating specific birdcalls into human speech:
Hawfinch: Deak…waree-ree-ree Tchee…tchee…tur-wee-wee
Mistlethrush: tre-wir-ri-o-ee; tre-wir-ri-o-ee-o; tre-we-o-wee-o-wee-o-wit
Common Snipe: tik-tik-tik-tuk-tik-tuk-tik-tuk-chip-it; chick-chuck; yuk-yuk
The Linguist Otto Jesperson has questioned our assumption that the original purpose of speaking was to communicate meaning and thought:
‘It is perfectly possible that speech has developed from something, which had no other purpose than that of exercising the muscles of the mouth and throat and amusing oneself and others by the production of pleasant or possibly only strange sounds’.
The onomatopoeia of language evidences listening and mirrors the world around us. Through listening we unite ourselves: ‘with the soundscape […] echoing back its elements. The impression is taken in; the expression is thrown back in return.’
(R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape, 1977)