Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Tony Whitehead on imagination, birdsong and the need for quiet.

Last week I published a blog called “You only get so many Mays in your life”: why our imagination needs the dawn chorus.  It included quotes from a discussion I had with Tony Whitehead of the RSPB at the Dartington Soundcamp a couple of weeks ago.  The interview in its entirety was so interesting that I am posting it here in full.

Why in the 21st century does it matter that people get out and listen to the dawn chorus do you think? 

There’s an awful lot of talk recently about connection to nature and the opposite of that which is lack of connection to nature.  We all know that the natural environment is in trouble; there are problems out there.  At the same time, we know that people, many people, want to do something about that, but we also know there is an increasing disconnect between people and the natural world.

We know that maybe people don’t necessarily know what particular birds are nowadays.  Identification of birds, all this sort of thing, is not as perhaps as common a skill as it used to be.  So on the one hand we have people who are aware of problems in the natural world, but don’t necessarily have a deep connection to the natural world.

For me, one of the ways into connection and a very real and present way of connecting with the natural world is through sound.  Certainly if you’re into birds, you know, we always talk about ‘bird watching’, well actually, bird watching is probably about 80% listening.

So to get a connection to the natural world through sound is what I’m particularly interested in.  Beyond the whole idea of connections and that it’s good for you and all that sort of thing is just the simple pleasure in listening as well.  Simply the pleasure of engaging with the natural world through listening, such as to the wood pigeon above us just now.

What happens do you think to our imagination when we live in a world where don’t pay any attention to what’s going on?  When we live in a world where we don’t know what any of the birds are, we hear it but we don’t listen to it?  What happens?

It becomes almost like looking at the screen.  It becomes two dimensional.  You lose a dimension.  You lose a depth to it.  When you move away from that flat screen and all that that implies, both physically and imaginatively, and you move out into a 3, 4 dimensional world of real things happening around you, you regain a deeper connection with your surroundings, and through that, perhaps a more meaningful, more soulful connection with the world beyond that flat screen.

You do a lot of this dawn chorus stuff.  What kind of impacts have you seen it have on people over the time?  How have you seen it affect people?

It’s quite remarkable.  It’s the simplest thing in the world.  All you need to do is get up early, go out, find a nice spot, and listen.  And it happens every morning.  From January through until June, this phenomenon happens.  And yet, when you take people out and you offer people that opportunity, the richness of the experience that people have is just remarkable.

Participants in the Dartington Soundcamp dawn chorus walk heading back to camp.

I’ve had people say that it’s been on the edge of life-changing.  Just walking out in the morning listening to the English dawn chorus.  But of course we don’t do it.  We just don’t do it.  We don’t have that connection.  But it can be for some people genuinely a very, very deep experience.

The other thing that you find beyond that is that suddenly the world becomes a little bit fuller.  A little bit more diverse.  As soon as you start to point out bird song, suddenly, birds start to appear to them.  Before maybe people weren’t even hearing birds.  Now they’re hearing birds, and now they’re hearing individual voices.  Blackbirds are starting to appear to them.  Woodpeckers are starting to appear.  Wood pigeons, and so on and so on.

So the world is becoming a much more diverse place.  A deep place and a more interesting place to be immersed in.  And all of these come out of this simple act of simply going outside, first thing in the morning.

I was reading some research recently about awe, which talked about how there’s something about when people experience awe, that their brains work in a particular way that is really powerful for cultivating empathy.  Maybe that’s part of what you’re saying people experience?

And beauty as well.  I do spend a lot of time out with people.  What I find is people are full of questions.  They suddenly become full of questions.  This thing has been revealed to them and they’re full of questions.  They want to know what is going on, and why they’re doing it, and detail.  I want detail.  I want to know what’s happening here.

So you’re explaining all this stuff and these explanations are based on science.  Research we’ve done; it’s fascinating research.  But stepping a few paces back from that, the original experience is just the experience of listening to the bird and enjoying the beauty of that song.  In the English dawn chorus you’re listening to blackbirds, and a more beautiful song you couldn’t imagine to encounter.

Is that awesome?  I would probably associate awesome maybe with the sublime and the romantic poets in the 18th century encountering the Alps or something like that.  But I think awe comes into the very simple every day experiences such as listening to blackbird song.  And it starts at that point.  That simple point of beauty and contact and everything else really devolves from that in terms of that relationship.  And I think people are more willing to act and advocate on behalf of wildlife and nature if they have that original experience of awe or the sublime or just that connection.  Just that connection.  They’re more willing to actually want to make a change in the world that makes the world a richer place for wildlife and for us.

And what happens to us if we spend the majority of our time indoors and we have no connection to any of this?  What kind of impacts does that have when we never even hear the bird song anymore?  Certainly don’t connect to it.

Personally I couldn’t imagine my world without being out listening to this.  It would be hugely impoverished.  And I think perhaps to a degree people’s lives are impoverished if they don’t at least have the opportunity.  And it doesn’t have to be birds.  It could just be going out and marvelling at the trees, and marvelling at the landscape or whatever.  But without that, there is an impoverishment, and it’s something that you… You can’t do it second hand.

You can’t get this experience of listening to these birds second hand through a screen, or through an MP3 player, or through Youtube.  You get a simulacra, but you get something similar but not in any way the same.  And because it’s a shallower engagement, the result of that is a shallower wish to act on behalf of it.  Only now, once you’re outside and engaging with this stuff, is the basis for a meaningful engagement and then a meaningful advocacy for the natural world can come about.  You have to get out here.  You can’t do it through YouTube.

We were talking yesterday, you were saying you have a label, ‘Very Quiet Records’?  There’s this growing world of field recordings and people making music out of that, so people choosing to listen to music which is all about quiet.  It seems like a really fascinating scene to me. 

It is.  We live in an increasingly noisy world.  Noisy not just in terms of the sounds out here, anthropogenic sounds but also sounds… The business of our minds is busy, and it’s noise.  We’re so bombarded with information.  That information is a form of noise.

One of the reasons that I think simply going for a walk in a quiet place is good is because you’re stripping away that noise and allowing yourself some space to expand, and to be able to think thoughts.  Quiet spaces are I think incredibly important to people’s well-being and ability to be in the world.  Effectively to be in the world creatively.

We don’t have enough of that.  And so the idea with Very Quiet Records was really simple.  It was just to give sound artists around the world the simple instruction of just send me something that you think represents quiet.  And of course when you think quiet, you would think it has to be low volume, and a lot of the recordings I’ve been sent are not low volume, but many of them are done in natural environments that to the author, to the field recordist represents quiet I think quiet in the way of a disconnection from the noise of the world, and a re-engagement with the real world.

Do you have any last thoughts on the thing of why doing this kind of thing is important for our imagination?  Particularly our collective, cultural imagination?

I suppose it’s a spring.  It’s a starting point.  It’s a point where if you’re out here, to give yourself some space from all that noise and that bombardment of information that we have that just leads to confusion.  To strip away that confusion.  To get yourself into a place where you can stop and then start to re-engage quietly with the world and allow the creativity to respond to what’s around you.  And out of that creativity, for your imagination to start re-engaging with the world.

Maybe through this, through spending time in beautiful places like this, new ideas will emerge.  How can you come up with new ideas, new ways of being, when your mind is so full of noise?   You’re going to be confused.  You’re not going to be able to think straight.  So you need these spaces, these quiet places.  These times of breaks from the noise in order for your imagination to really kick in, and for your imagination to come up with new ways of engaging with the world.  New ways maybe of solving the world’s problems.

If you were running in this election that’s coming up in a few weeks, if instead of “Make America Great Again”, you were running on a “Make the UK imaginative again” platform, your first 100 days might include what, do you think?  Is there anything we could be bringing in, that we could learn from what’s happened here, that could maybe inform policy shifts that would really… the kind of space, mental, that we’ve created for ourselves here over the last couple of days?

So first 100 days?  That’s really interesting isn’t it?  One of the first 100 day things would be to do with education, to create the space within schools for children, young people, to start re-engaging with the natural world.  To create quiet within schools for them to be re-engaging with creativity and imagination, rather than seeing children as places into which you put information.  Instead of that, reining back from that a little bit, creating space and quiet within schools so they can re-engage with their imagination rather than being receptacles for stuff that we think they need to know.  So that would be one of the things.

I would love to see us thinking more about our natural environment in terms of its therapeutic benefits as well.  You know we talk a lot nowadays in nature conservation about ecosystem services.  We talk about nature constantly as a provider of some sort of economic good, where we should be thinking about nature as a source of inspiration, and a source of well-being.  And there’s a lot of talk about this at the moment and I think it’s absolutely true.  You know the health service is on its knees.  What can nature help us with?  People’s sense of health and sense of well-being can be vastly improved by just giving them a bit of space in a natural environment like this.  It has these real benefits.

So my first 100 days would be looking at how we put the space, quiet and nature back into the curriculum, into schools, and thinking more about the offer nature has to our health and well-being.  And it’s a vital underpinning of our health and well-being.

Thank you Tony.

Thank you.


  1. Arthur Battram
    May 22, 2017

    Miles Davis is said to have said, so not verbatim, that jazz is about “freedom and space to hear things”

    In my book, Navigating Complexity, I said, long before I was aware of that Milesism, “good conversation starts with listening”.

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