Defending the Dawn Chorus

Linda France

The world is not a problem to be solved; it is a living being to which we belong.
The world is part of our own self and we are part of its suffering wholeness.
Until we go to the root of our image of separateness, there can be no healing.
And the deepest part of our separateness from creation lies in our forgetfulness
of its sacred nature, which is also our own sacred nature.

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee1

In my role as Climate Writer with Newcastle University and New Writing North, I am currently preparing a new participatory project (following last year’s filmpoem Murmuration) to gather people’s voices in a Dawn Chorus, a collective sound poem for the beginning of the world.  Remember Caedmon’s dream, when God told him, no singer till then, that he should ‘sing the beginning of created things’, and he woke up a poet (Bede 351).  Who would think it necessary once again to ‘sing the beginning of created things’, to defend a dawn chorus – that magical chiming of the return of the light, the trilling and fluting of an orchestra of birds singing their hearts out, simply glad to be alive to live another day, build their nests and nurture their young?  Why do we not wake up like that ourselves every single day – astonished at the miracle of life, the intricate engines of our bodies, connected within and without to all the elements and the beyond-human world, open to every possibility that comes our way?  When did it get stale and humdrum, bleak and burdensome, a labour, not of love, but of Sisyphean effort and frustration?

In 2020, in the UK alone, 40 million fewer birds took part in the dawn chorus than 50 years ago.  Across the planet, 40 per cent of bird species are in decline. In North America, 2.9 billion fewer birds take to the air than during the 1970s. Some countries in Africa and Asia have charted even more catastrophic declines.2

Imagine, as Rachel Carson conjured in 1962, a ‘silent spring’, a world with no dawn chorus, no bird song.  Waiting until this beautiful phenomenon we take so much for granted disappears will be too late.  And so we must defend, preserve, remember, re-imagine our deep connection with these creatures from whom it is said we learnt our own human ways of speaking and singing.  Keats summoned the eery possibility of a silent spring in his 1819 poem ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, where the speaker, like Caedmon, wakes from a dream, but his is of a world under a spell, where, life starved of itself, ‘The sedge is withered from the lake, | And no birds sing’ (Keats, ll.  3-4).

Birds didn’t just teach us the beauty of shaped breath, language and melody, they have also offered us the gift of their lightness, the mechanics of flight, the grace of flowing movement and their faith in flocking, roosting and nesting.  In some cultures they represent the soul and its transmigration, sky-borne cycles of transformation.  Trying to imagine a world with no birds is as difficult as it is, for a poet at least, to conceive of a world without poetry.  Isn’t that the moribund state Keats is imagining at the end of ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ – human death, the poet’s death, and the end of everything?

Climate Change threatens us with just that – the end of everything: a threat very few people are able to wake up to, to feel in their own bodies, rather than simply “know”, as in mostly ignore, seek distraction from, despite the evidence.  We see it in the media, where The End of Everything rarely makes the headlines, less important than dramas of much less significance or more celebrity appeal.  Jorie Graham pointed out the cynical manipulation of reporting in a 2014 interview, still shockingly relevant today:

‘When the Secretary General of the UN, at the climate conference, in Bali, said we had a small window of opportunity to take real action as a planet or we faced “oblivion”, that comment ended up on page 8, I believe, of the New York Times, in a tiny story. I actually called the international desk of the Times to ask them what on earth (literally) they thought they were doing? … And when the kind editor at the paper of record answered me it really took my breath away: yes, she said, what you say is true, but no action was taken by the US at Bali, and if nothing happens then that can’t really be a front page story. NOTHING HAPPENING is the story, I tried to say, as calmly as possible. But there you have it. That is, to my mind, how we are ‘coming to terms’ with it.‘

Ever since earlier work appearing in her Selected Poems, The Dream of the Unified Field in 1996, keeping track of accelerating levels of emissions and a shrinking window to act, Jorie Graham’s antennae have been tuned to ways of ‘coming to terms’ with man-made Climate Change, Mass Extinction and the existential crisis they have brought in their wake.  In her latest collection, Runaway, while she was ‘accidentally | listening’:

…The earth
said remember

me.  I am the
earth it said.  Re-
member me.

(‘Poem’, ll. 7-8, 39-43)

Like myself and many poets across the globe, Graham is choosing to face the facts and the feelings of how it is to live at this time of deep ecological awareness under extreme pressure.  We are compelled to try to understand the cognitive dissonance shown by a species failing to take the necessary action to save itself, its fellow species and our shared environment when we have all the resources we need to make such remedial action possible.  It is not only poets who are shaking their heads in disbelief.  There is untold grief and confusion among the majority of the world’s citizens.  The difference is that poets seek to find the words for this most hyper of objects (Morton), to articulate the unspeakable, to make sense of it for themselves and for others.  When the medicine is there, why do we persist in refusing to take it?

If we do nothing else, we can tell the truth about what we see happening – which, whatever newspapers fail to report or governments neglect to address, is worthy of everybody’s attention.  We can bear witness to the decline in bird populations, the melting glaciers, the villages lost to floods and hurricanes and the forests on fire.  We can try to find the words for how it feels in our suffering human bodies to see these losses and disasters, and know that if they are happening for a single person, they are happening for us all.  Roger Robinson has called poetry a machine for empathy.  A poem can connect us in ways that go beyond the words it summons in the air or on the page.  In the midst of chaos, it invokes a glimmer of light to walk towards, often in someone else’s shoes.

Truth-telling and transparency are necessary to redress the balance of what goes unreported, what stays invisible and unspoken.  If there is spirit and detail, we have become so bewildered by detail we have forgotten the spirit that keeps our raw humanity alive.  A poem can be a small but powerful act of restitution and protest.  It can change the atoms around its saying in ways beyond our rational understanding; a reliance on reason that has brought us to our current state of alienation, imbalance and disease, pollution, delusion and injustice.  Our list of ailments is long.  Woody Guthrie said that it is the folksinger’s job to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.  That is also poetry’s task.

In the right hands, a poem is an arrow to the heart.  It lodges in the place where people feel, the ground they act from.  Thinking alone solves very few problems and risks a fatal untethering from tender reality.  We must remember we have bodies, strong and fragile, recall our natural compassion.  Turning towards a more sustainable future begins there.  The right poem at the right time could (and does) make all the difference – to an individual, a community or a culture.  By virtue of its economy, a poem is concentrated, intense; a shorter form more suited these days to people’s diminished attention spans.  Look at the signs people hold aloft at Climate Change rallies – so much imagination and insight, wit and heartfelt intention painted on modest cardboard rectangles – aren’t these also wild poetries, growing out of the cracks?

As the cowherd Caedmon discovered, poetry is transfiguring, it makes the sacred possible.  After turning into a poet, he went on to become ordained as a monk.  Once we are able to see the whole (holy) picture, it is impossible to commit a deliberate act of violence against the planet or any other creature: 

Accept what comes from silence.   
Make the best you can of it.   
Of the little words that come   
out of the silence, like prayers   
prayed back to the one who prays,   
make a poem that does not disturb   
the silence from which it came.

(Berry, ll. 23-9)

A poem makes us literally stop as we read and take it in.  In where?  Heart, lungs or gut?  So how is it digested?  How does it release its sustaining nourishment?  We grab it on the go at our peril – as well as soul food, poetry is slow food.  This stilled but dynamic process changes our relationship with time so we are able to dwell in the ongoing moment.  We open into an awareness of deep time and our place in the vast unfolding of life for its own sake, rather than a project governed by profit and domination, where we are expected to function like the machines on which we’ve come to depend. 

Poetry is home-made, non-utilitarian, intimate.  Belonging to everyone and to no one, it passes from mouth to ear to eye to mouth like ‘a virus from outer space’.3  Relying at its most minimal only on pencil and paper (a good memory or a bar of soap if the poet is imprisoned), it defies unwieldy systems of industrial growth, the so-called free market and the laws of copyright.  It appears to cost nothing, although:

Quick now, here, now, always –
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)

(Eliot, V.39-41)

Yes, none of this is easy – going upstream, against the current, walking a path of paradox, articulating the unspeakable.  As well as harnessing the energies of beginnings, we need to be brave about endings.  Yang Lian says:

‘I must write every poem as the very last piece…Every step is the “last poem”: it pursues me like a precipice, so there is nowhere to turn back to, and I can only go forward.  Every word I write is starting from the impossible.’

Poets know the difference between elegy and ode and how they’ve become entangled.  It is a human need to honour our pain for the world, express our grief for what we’ve already lost and the great swathes of biodiversity and ecosystems we’re at risk of losing.  But we also need to sing the wonder and mystery of this life on this earth so that we know what it is we must stand up and protect:

Stay away from anything   
that obscures the place it is in.   
There are no unsacred places;   
there are only sacred places   
and desecrated places.

(Berry, ll. 18-22).   

A poem – whether writing or reading it – helps us step into our own agency, our natural authority as citizens to do whatever needs to be done to reverse the current dangerous momentum towards unchecked carbon emissions, species loss and rampant system imbalance.  People languish in the thrall of paralysis and procrastination, enemies to active hope and positive, radical change.  But once we feel ourselves enlivened, deeply connected through our own senses to the web of life, the human imagination does what it does organically, opening up new perspectives and solutions, fresh and helpful ways with language and concepts.  These accumulate and spread, changing cultures, myths and the systems of which we are part.  This is already happening but we need to gain momentum, reach a critical mass, when turning towards a better future rather than a toxic moribund one is no longer in doubt.

It’s more important than it’s ever been to encompass community, collectivity and the oral tradition.  Oriental and Judeo-Christian traditions offer variations on the same teaching:

Wisdom tells me I am nothing.
Love tells me I am everything.                                   
Between the two my life flows.4

And there, poetry belongs to everybody.  This is not the time for old hierarchies or the poet as hero, however unsung.  Most people who aren’t poets are more interested in the poem, not the poet.  Stevie Smith said ‘The poet is not an important fellow.  There will always be another poet’ (qtd. in ‘Stevie Smith’).  Hallelujah to that.  Humility is required as we broach the challenges of the Climate Crisis.  Humility, from the same root as humus, the earth we’re made of, the earth we depend upon for our humanity.  The way a single poem works within the culture is a paradigm for the role of the individual within a society on the brink of collapse – vital, but marginal without the weight of numbers.  Patti Smith, another of this essay’s dreamers, acknowledges her debt to Shelley and Blake, and shares the inheritance:

…the people have the power
To redeem the work of fools
Upon the meek the graces shower
It’s decreed the people rule
The people have the power.

And so we circle back to the singing body and ‘the thing with feathers’ we might bring to our experience of Climate Change.  As environmentalist Joanna Macy points out:

‘The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world – we’ve actually been on the way quite a while.  It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other.’ (Macy and Brown 34)

With the robin, thrush, blackbird, wagtail, great tit, chiff-chaff, goldcrest, blackcap, treecreeper and wren, alone and together, we wake up to another day, with a renewed intention to do what we can, write and read, as if our lives depend on it.  Which they do.  Every day, beginning again with finding the words and what those words make possible:

You have never possessed anything
as deeply as this.
This is all you have owned
from the first outcry
through forever;
you can never be dispossessed.

(Walcott, ll. 14-19)


1 Quoted in Macy and Brown, p. 26.

2 You can read more about the impact of Climate Change on bird life here:

3 Laurie Anderson attributes the title of her song ‘Language is A Virus (from Outer Space)’ to William S. Burroughs.

4 This teaching from Sri Nisagardattar Maharaj is cited by Jack Kornfield.

Works Cited

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. Translated by L. Gidley. James Parker, 1870.

Berry, Wendell. ‘How to Be a Poet’, in New Collected Poems. Counter Point, 2021.

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

Eliot. T.S. ‘Little Gidding’, in Four Quartets. Faber, 1943.                   

France, Linda, and Sweeney, Kate. ‘Murmuration’. YouTube, uploaded by New Writing North, 11 Nov 2020.

Graham, Jorie. The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems. Carcanet, 1996.

Graham, Jorie. ‘Poem’, in Runaway. Carcanet, 2008.

Graham, Jorie. ‘Imagining the Unimaginable’. Interview by Deidre Wengen., 21 Feb 2014. Accessed 15.05.2021.

Keats, John. ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, in The Complete Poems. Ed. by John Barnard. Penguin, 1988.

Kornfield, Jack. ‘Love Says We Are Everything’. Jack Kornfield. Accessed 20.05.2021.

Lian, Yang. ‘Where did “Anniversary Snow” fall?’. Poetry in Translation, 26 Mar 2021. Accessed 15.05.2021.

Macy, Joanna, and Brown, Molly. Coming Back to Life. New Society Publishers, 2019.

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of Minneapolis Press, 2013.

Robinson, Roger. ‘Poets can translate trauma’. Interview by Anita Sethi. Guardian, 13 Jun 2020. Accessed 14.05.2021.

Smith, Patti. ‘People Have the Power’. Dream Life. Arista, 1988.

‘Stevie Smith’. The Poetry Archive. Accessed 14.05.2021.

Walcott, Derek. ‘Earth’. Selected Poems. Faber, 2009.

Linda France
has published eight poetry collections, including The Gentleness of the Very Tall (Bloodaxe 1994 – a Poetry Book Society Recommendation; longlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize) and Reading the Flowers (Arc 2016 – longlisted for the Laurel Prize; ‘Bernard and Cerinthe’ won the 2013 National Poetry Competition). Her work received a 2020 Society of Authors’ Cholmondley Award.  A new collection of poems, created from her PhD research into the ecology of women and landscape, will be published next year as The Knucklebone Floor.  She is currently Climate Writer with New Writing North and Newcastle University.

You can find out more about contributing to the collective Dawn Chorus project here: