Live in the hear and now before the birdsong dies
A nature lover's loss of hearing teaches him not to take things for granted, and not to say there’s always the next time
It was spring in the Scottish Highlands and I was following the shore of a large freshwater loch. The bluebell season was well under way, so that the woods were a haze of blue, and the birds were in full throat.
Down by the water’s edge, the common sandpipers had arrived from Africa and had divided up the shoreline into territories. They were teetering, bobbing up and down continually, as so many waterbirds seem prone to do.
As I approached too close, they flushed, flying off over the water on hooded wings, and called their insistent alarm call. And I was shocked to discover that I could not hear them at all; nothing, not a peep.
The sound of the sandpipers had always been to me the sound of summer in the uplands, but no more. How could I have lost such a shrill, penetrating call?
My hearing has always been severely compromised, since a series of chronic ear infections as a young child left me deaf in one ear and hearing-impaired in the other. Bereft of stereo, I have never been able to tell the direction that a sound is coming from.
I can generally manage a one-to-one conversation just fine, but a group conversation is often beyond my abilities. I can recognise a bird singing, but a dawn chorus becomes a mass of indivisible sound, all blending and blurring to the point of confusion.
I have spent my life either consciously or unconsciously fitting around these limitations; avoiding group activities, positioning myself carefully, always choosing face-to-face meetings over phone calls.
It is perhaps why from a very young age one of my principal pleasures was being out on my own in the countryside, watching the birds and the animals; there are many pleasures to be had in company, but for me it always felt that I was having to work so hard just to keep up. Being alone felt like a burden being lifted.
I am used to living in a world where sounds are muffled and words are guessed at, but this was something new. Rather than sounds fading away, they were disappearing wholesale. One day a bird’s song might be there, the next it might be vanished forever.
This kind of age-related hearing loss, where you begin to lose the higher frequencies, is not uncommon; indeed, it is hardly a surprise. The decline in our senses as we grow older is as inevitable a part of the weathering of time as the ache in our joints.
But to me, starting from such a very low base, and being a nature writer by profession, it felt like adding insult to an actual injury. It felt as though it had crept up on me unawares, and my world was being dismantled, one piece at a time.
Over the course of a year I paid five visits to the Rough Bounds of Lochaber, a region of the Highlands known for its remoteness and inaccessibility, a series of peninsulas that face out to the Atlantic and are divided by deep lochs.
Some parts of the area have no road access; cut off by mountains, the only way to reach them is by boat or by a long overland hike. There are few settlements, and there are temperate rainforests of stunted oaks and relic fragments of the great Caledonian pine forest.
On each visit I would indulge myself in a week of solitary walking, immersing myself in the natural world. And on each walk I would see new things, and lose new things, too. It could not help but turn my mind to just how precarious the world is.
The dramatic landscapes through which I walked were as seemingly wild and untouched as anything that the UK has to offer, and yet really they are more the product of a kind of natural, provisional rewilding. Those fragments of pine wood cover just 1% of their former extent.
Everywhere were traces of former human habitation; the footprints of tiny crofts lost in the clearances, and still older relics too – Neolithic stones that dated back thousands of years.
The wildlife I watched daily – the otters and deer and whales – was spectacular, and yet the pole predators – the wolves and bears and lynxes – have long since been extirpated. Even the sea eagles that floated above me were only there because of reintroduction, after a century of absence.
My lifelong appreciation of nature has never been that of a collector. I have never been one to keep tick lists, but had I been I could now have found myself listing crosses rather than ticks, as my birds began to disappear one at a time.
Never again would I hear a wren singing on a frosty winter’s morning, and all the birds singing in a birch wood at dawn would drop out, one by one, until I came to my own personal silent spring. My year of solitary walks in the Northwest Highlands was being marked by silences as much as by sightings, by disappearances as much as discoveries.
It is a part of human nature to make the best of what we have, to make a virtue of our limitations. I have always told myself that the awkwardness of my hearing impairment comes with hidden benefits; that it has made me an acute observer, that it has enabled me to develop a quality of attentiveness that others may neglect. It does sometimes seem that I see things that others overlook, and that this is my compensation.
The saying is that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, and it does sometimes feel that with the natural world we are only able to recognise that it is in jeopardy when it is already too late to save it, when we have already passed the point of no return.
As I walked the mountains and shores and stumbled upon one birdsong after another that I could no longer hear, it began to feel as though the natural world was being disassembled around me. It was like a personal demonstration of a loss that affects us all.
It taught me not to take things for granted, and not to say there’s always the next time, for there might not be a next time. It taught me, I hope, to fully appreciate what we have that remains to us.
A robin is singing in the winter woods, and for today I can still hear its call, or at least some of it, its deeper notes. Tomorrow it may be gone. And so I stop and listen, and listen, and soak it in, relishing every last moment. It is a thing of beauty.
– © The Daily Telegraph