The March meeting of the North Northumberland Bird Club was predictably packed with people who came to enjoy the very welcome return of Geoff Sample, a speaker with the ability to quietly, seductively draw his audience into the unusual world that he inhabits; a world with a complex web of associations and research driven by the compelling simplicity of his enthusiasm for the sound of birds.
It is in the nature of Geoff’s work that he spends considerable hours alone in his studio in Wooler working on the sound recordings he has made in Britain and many other parts of the world. And it is in Geoff’s nature to reflect on and research into ancient cultures. So when his talk begins with an anecdote about a blackbird singing on the windowsill of his studio, it is perhaps no surprise that his musings then take flight on a journey of some 42,000 years across human culture.
We were given countless examples of the special place in our beliefs and language that birds have been given throughout human history, all richly illustrated with slides and Geoff’s fabulous sound recordings; from artefacts such as a vulture bone flute found in southern Germany and aged circa 40,000BCE to Greek mythology and Teiresias, the blind seer, who was reputed to understand the language of birds; from the Lascaux cave painting depicting the death of the bird man circa 15,000BCE to examples from Greek, Latin, French and Estonian languages; from folk tales to book illustrations to 20th-century writing about blackbirds and 3,000 years of mythology about nightingales; and from the language we use today and Geoff’s own collaborations with international artists and musicians. Ideas and notions surrounding birds permeate human history and continue to influence our language and culture into the present day.
All the examples illuminated in some way the enduring idea that birds have the ability to inhabit a special world that is tantalisingly unavailable to us and the sense that birds could tell us something, if only we could understand them.