Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

12 December 2014

The Bird Tree

EACH GROUND-FLOOR maisonette had a back garden with a brick wall round it and a back door. From the walkways and open stairwells you could see over the walls and speculate if the state of any garden matched what you knew about the people.

One was a mess and the family responsible were believed to be a bit simple. Another belonging to an elderly couple had a tiny lawn with two identical shrubs planted in exact spots on either side. The husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer and told us in a tearful moment that his wife was a cold woman. But most of the gardens didn’t hint at any such secrets.

The one on the corner by the play area had a small tree growing perhaps ten feet high. What you could see above the wall from ground level was a ball-like mass of dense leaves resembling a bay tree. Most times of the year loud chirping came from an unseen mob of sparrows inside. Residents called it the Bird Tree.

The Bird Tree was not popular. The sparrows would make a racket from an early hour during the warmer months and sometimes people threw things at the tree to make them shut up. This only worked for a few minutes, then they’d all be at it again.

I’d been to a talk by the BBC nature recordist Chris Watson where he told those present how, as a youngster, he’d miked up the bird table in his parents’ back garden and from a distance recorded what went on.

Surely something like that could be done with the Bird Tree to put the listener among the sparrows. You could imagine them scuttling and hopping around the twigs like the powder monkeys inside a galleon, firing broadsides of chirps at human and feline enemies.

The Bird Tree was a soundmark, a portmanteau hatched by the Vancouver-based World Soundscape Project in the 1970s. They defined it as:

A term derived from ‘landmark’ used in soundscape studies to refer to a community sound which is unique, or possesses qualities which make it specially regarded or noticed by the people in that community. Soundmarks, therefore, are of cultural and historical significance and merit preservation and protection.

Many soundmarks that people notice in their immediate neighbourhoods probably aren’t of much cultural or historical significance at all: a phone junction box that makes a rattling noise, a squealing metal gate, the barking dog in a scrap yard. That doesn’t mean it’s not a useful term.

Vague plans to run a mic up inside the Bird Tree came to nothing and its owners eventually cut it down. Either they too had become tired of the sparrows or else were fed up with clearing away all the objects thrown at the tree.