The Great Bittern and the Measurable Ineffable

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Great Bittern. Archibald Thorburn. Lithograph, ca. 1885.

This is the story, and we are to believe its ending is a happy one. Its hero, a young boy, can repeatedly attempt to solve the problem the story presents, but he will never reach its core. This is because he and the community in which he lives exist at different levels of consciousness, within different realities. Ultimately he will be forced to leave his village, to distance himself from the culture that created him. He is an anomaly, an outlier, an ontological naturalist born into a world of fundamentalists. Even if he manages to find peaceful détente with his native culture, it can never be home, not in any deep sense. There is no happy ending for him.

Near a small Bosnian Serb village, some time between the wars, a group of men hear a strange sound in the reeds while fishing: a sort of hollow booming, vaguely like someone blowing across the mouth of an oversized jug. Having never heard anything like it, they are terrified. When practical understanding fails them, they turn to a cultural understanding. They conclude that it is the voice of the drekavac, a demon of the wild places, only encountered by humans when death is near. A local boy refuses to believe in this fear. So he sets off to discover the true source of the sound. Stalking through the reeds, he hears something in front of him. He pauses and listens closely. The low thumps ripple through him and make his stomach tingle. Despite this odd feeling, the sound is not unpleasant. A dull booming of sorts, yes, but just before each burst there is what he can only describe as an intake of breath. No, an intake of sound. As if whatever were making it were drawing sound itself into its lungs in order to release it multiplied, deepened, transformed. After a moment, he carefully creeps forward. Parting the stalks, he sees a large, drab-colored, long-necked bird: Botaurus stellaris, the great bittern, rare in these parts. His testimony alone will not be enough, so he captures it to take back and prove to the villagers that they are safe from forest demons. His feat is hailed as heroic and brave. His neighbors are relieved and can now enjoy restful sleep.

But his heroic act has only proven the physical source of the sound. As an ontological naturalist he has missed what is perhaps the most important part of the scenario: how a sound with an unknown origin is received in a given culture. In human terms, its mythological reality is every bit as important as its measurable reality. In later life the boy will learn to bridge this gap. He will also learn that ontological naturalism is as much a dogmatic reality tunnel as superstition or fundamentalism. This bridging, this knowing, this becoming unstuck from described realities, is gnosis. But humans are social creatures, and their social structures are built upon fragile subjectivities. Happy endings are always compromises. There is no room for gnostics.

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The MV Olga Patricia, somewhere in the North Sea, 1960s.

It is the summer of Swinging Radio England, 55,000 watts of mainstream pop rock broadcast across the North Sea basin from the MV Olga Patricia, a ship anchored just off the coast of Essex. By winter it would be gone, its place on the radio band replaced by jittery static. Later in the century rumors touching upon the US intelligence community would swirl around the ship. A couple of hours up the coast, near the Norfolk village of Hickling Heath, an Austin A40 Farina is parked at the side of the road. The sun has not yet broken over the eastern horizon. A path through a marsh leads to Hickling Broad, one of the many brackish inland lakes that dot this part of the county. A lone figure stands silhouetted in the midst of the reeds. In his right hand he holds what appears to be a small satellite dish. He sweeps it across the landscape as if searching for something. It would be easy for the casual observer to mistake both his identity and intent. A character from a science fiction novel? A foreign spy? Then, from an indeterminate point in the reeds comes a low thumping sound. He swings his device towards it and remains very still as the bass notes ripple across the broad. Is it bird, demon, or something else? The observer changes the observed.

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The Norfolk Broads. Peter Henry Emerson, 1886.

In 1965, the British arm of Royal Dutch Shell began releasing a series of seven inch EPs of field recordings of birdsong. Not being expert in the manufacture of records—despite the fact that vinyl records are effectively made from crude oil and salt—Shell subcontracted the run to the Discourses label out of Tunbridge Wells, Kent. The label was primarily known for its light classical and educational material. Much of its catalog was instantly forgettable, but the company did release a few interesting curiosities such as a pair of ten-inch discs of ancient Greek literature read aloud by classical scholars, a rare chance to hear Homer as he may have sounded to his contemporaries. Discourses had also released a handful of field recordings, so Shell’s partnering with the label to release its British Bird Series made sense. At first glance it might seem odd for Shell to enter the recording field, but just about every major oil company that existed during the golden age of vinyl released records at some point. Most of these were created as promotional items or as premiums to give away to customers, but it’s not clear whether the British Bird EPs were distributed at petrol stations in Britain, sold in record stores, or both.

In a practice now known as “greenwash,” Shell was as early as 1955 disingenuously attempting to associate its brand with environmentalism via a series of magazine advertisements called Shell Nature Studies. The logic seems to have been that to escape from urbanization and reach nature in its most untouched form required a car, and a car required petrol. February’s advertisement from that year showed a tableau of various birds that Britons might see in late winter, painted by Maurice Wilson. A collection of the paintings that Wilson created for Shell was released the following year as a 48-page booklet called Shell Nature Studies: Birds and Beasts. Later books followed, featuring other artists illustrating other aspects of the natural world. By the 1960s bookstores were carrying titles such as Shell Nature Lovers Atlas and the Shell Bird Book.

When Shell decided to begin releasing field recordings in 1965, it initially planned to release a series of records for children. For the first of these— Sounds of the Countryside, Shell Junior Record No. 1—the firm recruited Johnny Morris, the presenter for the popular BBC television program Animal Magic, to provide lighthearted voiceovers to John Kirby’s recordings. The sleeve notes very specifically stated that the disc was intended for use in primary schools.

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By the time the second installment appeared in 1966 Shell had shifted its focus. From this point on, and throughout the life of the series, the sleeve notes made no more mention of children or of schools. The language and presentation were now pointedly angled towards the adult market. Beginning with catalog number DCL-701, the next nine releases bore the subtitle, A Shell Nature Record—British Bird Series. With this change of focus also came a change in personnel. Shell now turned to Lawrence Shove for its field recordings. In 1963 Shove had released a seven-inch EP called The Country Sings: Songs and Calls of British Birds for the Midriver Recording Company in Gloucestershire, a tiny label that seems to have specialized in recordings of birdsong (although only two releases by the label have so far been identified.) In 1964 he won first prize in the BBC’s Council for Nature wildlife tape recording competition. Because of his association with Shell’s British Bird Series, by the end of the decade Shove would become one of the most recognized names in British field recording. In 1968 the BBC described him as “the only full-time freelance recordist of wildlife sounds in Britain.” He also appeared regularly on television and radio into the early 1970s, at which point he hung up his parabolic reflector and became manager of the Minack Theatre in Cornwall.

Birdsong is language. In many folklore traditions, understanding this language is seen as a sign of great wisdom. Both the Quran and the Talmud mention Solomon’s ability to understand the language of the birds. Indeed, to the uninitiated birdsong can sound like nothing more than abstract noise. But as one learns to identify the sounds of individual species and then the purpose of the various calls, the meaning behind this Babel is revealed.

In a 2014 article for Fact magazine, sound artist Lawrence English pointed out that mid-century sound recordists worked in an environment in which it was believed that they were transmitting objectivity: “The pretense to being objective brought with it an inferred negation of agency, that somehow the recordist was simply capturing moments of the real when they started the tape rolling.” Perhaps a naïve recordist, one with no knowledge of the natural world who simply pointed a microphone in a random direction, might be able to claim a “purer” objectivity than one who was familiar with the sounds being captured. From this point of view, as knowledge increases, so does the level of mediation. As the majority of Shove’s recordings were intended to demonstrate the sound of a particular bird, there is no question that he was a knowledgeable observer who went into the field fully intending to capture subjective, edited sonic events.

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The little that has been written about Lawrence Shove often highlights his 1966 recording of the great bittern at Hickling Broad—released by Shell on a 1967 EP called Marsh and Riverside Birds—and its inclusion as the first item in the British Library’s British Wildlife Recordings collection. The great bittern is extremely rare in England. Although numbers have rebounded, by the late 1990s you could nearly count the number of male birds in the country on your fingers. The bird is also nearly impossible to see, a master of camouflage, and has even been known to move in sync with swaying reeds in order to better blend into its habitat.

I would suggest that Shove, in his pursuit of these rare sounds, could be viewed in two ways, sometimes simultaneously: as collector or as ghost hunter. The collector analogy should be fairly obvious. There are a finite number of bird species native to Great Britain and, as a collector of their sounds, he could simply tick them off a list as he captured them. This would naturally lead to a handful of difficult species left at the end, just as a collector may spend years tracking down the very rarest piece of Mauchlin ware or an impossible to find postage stamp. The ghost hunter analogy may be less obvious, but I would argue that ghost hunters do not actually hunt ghosts. They hunt measurable phenomena that they, and sometimes their audience, interpret as ghosts, often in the form of recorded sound. It is unlikely that Shove ever saw his famous great bittern, just as a ghost hunter never sees the source of a mysterious rapping caught on tape. Both the bittern’s foghorn call and the unexplained sounds from a “haunted” house can be measured, captured. The methodology for their capture is the same. The difference is in our interpretation of them.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Lawrence Shove Discography

Lawrence English. A Beginner’s Guide to…Field Recording

 

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