Winter comes with a sense of melancholia. As the days get shorter, the year also draws to a close. There is a sense of finality to things – you think about your goals, what you missed and achieved, and what you laughed and cried over. You pull out extra clothing, a once-a-year-pile that comes with its own tugs at the heart – a really old denim jacket, that hand-knitted but ugly sweater, the woolen cap you wore to a picnic, a pair of socks that came with a fight.
I am not a winter person. Though Indian summers are romanticized as amiable, they are tough to go through. Still, I prefer summer to the grey winter skies. In a hot country like ours, winter can be a cruel surprise in a way we don’t talk about often. Yet, there is one thing about winter which stands out, a light shining through a dark expanse of foggy water.
The amazing soundscape.
ACs, coolers and fans are off. People tend to go to bed earlier. This is the time you can hear the metaphoric pin drop – and the real sounds of the natural world.
This winter, I was walking through a biodiversity park in Delhi. While the city buildings surrounded us, there were no urban sounds. As I threaded through the park, a clattering sound reached me. It was a crisp note – the rattle of a plate-sized object falling to the ground, deciding to settle there. Seasoned forest walkers will know this drum-beat before they can see the source – it’s a teak leaf finding its way to the forest floor. Teak trees have large, rough, note-book sized leaves, and they make their presence felt in the jungle at the end of their life. Some more distance away, a high, susurrating sound emerged – like a sigh through time and distance, like many feelings of many people.
This is the sound of the wind through dry bamboo leaves. The slender, knife-shaped leaves cut through the air, producing an expressive, eerie melody. In the mountains, an even more haunting sound makes itself heard. That is the wind through pine and conifer needles – a high wailing – almost like a machine in the sky getting ready for a long day’s work.
In quiet, frigid winter mornings, you can hear birdsong more clearly than on other days. The yellow-footed green pigeon, a tree-loving bird that is also seen in cities, makes a honeyed, whistling sound. Its call is like a laugh, like a sweet chuckle on a joke cracked after a languid summer lunch. The call matches the serene beauty of the bird – it has a leaf-green and pale-yellow body, bright yellow feet, purple eyes and lilac shoulder patches. The Oriental-magpie robin, coloured black and white, has a call that is a combination of whistles, trills and calls – a real aria performance that is unforgettable.
Then there are birds that have calls that are unique and decidedly unmusical. One hears the ubiquitous Blue-rock pigeon a great deal more on quiet winter days.
They make a clucking sound, sounding like chickens. They shriek and screech at various points of their conversation. Males fight loudly with each other, hitting their wings with loud, alarming thwacks that sound like heads are being cut off.
Yet, all wild animals that call do so with an intent to communicate. A call to a mate. A threat to a rival. A song made on the spot, perhaps for the sake of singing. A primeval cry to warn prey that the predator is here. Calls by smaller birds to each other as a community sounding board.
As I watched a Rufous-treepie this December, I made a note of all its calls. The treepie is related to crows and makes many kinds of calls. Some are metallic and high, like saws running. Others sound like gravel being tossed around.
The treepie I was watching was calling to another. As it called, its tail jerked and its neck strained outwards, making the leaves of the tree shake. Just then, a plane passed overhead. It was a giant, a loud behemoth that drowned out every other sound, especially that of a smaller bird.
The treepie kept calling, but I couldn’t hear it anymore. The bird tried harder, its confusion evident. In a nutshell, I was witnessing the impacts of the noise pollution we impose on the world – submerging every other sound into insignificance.
In winter, we have a chance to stop some of the noise and listen to the real world we live in. This is also a chance to listen to the notes of one’s own inner voice.
As the days get colder, may our hearts make good music in the new year.
Read more from Neha here: