Last year, the Guardian columnist and environmental writer George Monbiot tweeted that he’d been struck by the discovery of Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus – a ‘Concerto for Birds and Orchestra’, which uses recordings of birds living near the arctic circle in the composer’s native Finland.
Just heard part of Cantus Arcticus by Einojuhani Rautavaara. Mindblowing. That's my next Christmas present sorted.
— George Monbiot (@GeorgeMonbiot) April 8, 2014
Having read Monbiot’s book Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life, it’s not hard to see why Cantus Arcticus appealed. He writes with an infectious enthusiasm for nature, combining deep knowledge with a child-like sense of wonder. Feral is a passionate polemic for the concept of ‘rewilding’: allowing spaces both on land and sea for natural ecosystems to grow unhindered, with the reintroduction of native species previously wiped out.
The magic of Cantus Arcticus is its vivid sense of this kind of ecosystem; the unfamiliarity of a place that has not been cut up and cultivated to service human needs. Chaotically flying woodwind lines accompany the calling of vast flocks of birds, and the music blossoms into a broad sweeping melody, suggesting the grandeur of wide Arctic spaces. I am not normally a great lover of taped samples in classical music, but there is a kind of alchemy in the way the recordings of birds interact with Rautavaara’s orchestral writing that makes it powerfully compelling.
There is, of course, a long tradition of music written about man’s awe in the face of natural wonders, from Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture to Strauss Alpine Symphony. The Alps also played a role in the poetic tradition of the Sublime, where nature’s magnitude inspired a sense of fear and horror. This fear was perhaps an acknowledgement of our ultimate irrelevance to the vast age of the earth, and the limits of our power to fully understand and control it.
But it is not just the colossal that can terrify; in nature the small-scale can equally baffle and disturb. Last autumn I was walking on Greenham Common in Berkshire when I was astonished to come across a gorse bush almost entirely cocooned in what looked like an enormous spider web, and covered in what appeared to be a dense cluster of tiny red eggs. I later learned they were in fact a colony of gorse spider mites. Each only half a millimetre long, they had performed an impossible feat of collective construction, with a result that was fascinating but creepily unreal.
Nature in its unmanaged state seems to be a double-edged sword: it can enchant us with its richness, but this very complexity, when married to phenomenal powers of growth, scares us too. The idea of the overgrown as dangerously alluring was explored in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a passage from which inspired an orchestral tone poem by Scottish composer John McEwen (1868-1948).
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in…
Shakespeare’s setting may be fantastical, but the underlying fears are very real. The ‘snake in the grass’ is of course a proverbial symbol of hidden danger, but it is where he invokes ‘weed’ that we see the human distaste of what is not useful to us having an agenda of its own: part of a lexicon of hostility that also includes ‘pest’ and ‘vermin’. When nature’s fecundity does not conform to our needs, we show a strong disliking for it.
McEwen’s Where the Wild Thyme Blows opens with a softly ambiguous rising string figure and plaintive calls on bassoon, the harmony eerily static, yet dissonant enough to create a feeling of creeping unfamiliarity. The use of atmospheric orchestration and relatively restrained expression throughout suggests a landscape that fascinates from afar, but is best not explored in depth.
Undoubtedly, there are sometimes good reasons to fear the wild. The dark primordial woods that once blanketed the UK found their way into our oldest folk stories and fairy tales as places of danger, and these would have contained some of the most intimidating animals that our ancestors encountered – before they hunted them to extinction. A few months ago I wrote about Arnold Bax, a composer fascinated by human and natural wildness: both of the pagan past, and the tempestuous Atlantic coastlines he loved to frequent. His third symphony, perhaps his most inspired creation, seems to evoke a world of primeval savagery and glistening, unspoilt landscapes. Bax was a late-Romantic with a gift for sweeping melody, but in the symphony’s opening he almost abandons conventional tonality altogether, taking an atonal motif in the bassoon and building it over layers in the woodwinds one by one. In doing so he sets a scene of something irrational, overgrown, and unwelcoming: a dense forest of strange voices.
Breaking down the structure of tonality is undoubtedly an effective means of expressing a lack of human control. A good example of taking this principle to its logical conclusion is Gondwana by the French composer Tristan Murail (b. 1947). Gondwana was a super-continent that existed 200 million years ago, a time of dinosaurs and other unfamiliar beasts. In Tom Service’s Guardian blog he describes Murail’s ‘spectralist’ approach to composition, rooted in the physicality of sound itself and the colours of its overtones. Though modern in its means, this dazzlingly strange music helps us make an imaginative leap into a world that existed long before the first human heartbeat.
Sadly, you don’t have to travel back as far as Gondwana to find amazing lost ecosystems. Feral describes how those English hills in my header image would once been home to wolves, lynx, bears, elk, and beavers – even bison, hippos and elephants. And we should all be alarmed, because we are still living in a time of huge species loss and habitat destruction, something seen acutely in Rautavaara’s Arctic, which scientists recently warned is entering into a new phase of its existence. The question of how human prosperity can be achieved without catastrophic climate change and ever-increasing depletion of ecosystems is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and in this context, engaging ourselves with the natural world is a huge moral imperative for all of us. I believe the arts can, and should, have a big role to play in this.
But Feral also has an inspiring message. Monbiot’s knowledge, curiosity and sense of adventure in wild places (he kayaks alone several miles into Cardigan Bay to watch dolphins) demonstrates the possibility of a different way of living, one more in tune with our hunter-gatherer past in its awareness of what surrounds us, and its physical interaction with the land and sea.
I haven’t bought a kayak just yet, but since reading Feral I’ve started something I’ve meant to do for a long time: learn about foraging. And I’ve quickly found that once you start the practice of observation, your experience of nature becomes much more meaningful. We may not have wild bears and bison in the UK any more, but we still have amazing riches right on our doorsteps, from the spooky architecture of spider mites to this unexpectedly beautiful ‘Amethyst Deceiver’ mushroom I found last year.
I originally set up Corymbus as a place for discovering unjustly neglected music, but there is a strong parallel to discovering nature too. In both cases the question is: how often do we look closely at what we don’t already know? Because with enough time and curiosity, we can all enjoy the benefits of beginning to rewild ourselves.
And finally, some good news. With beavers recently reintroduced in Devon, and applications made to reintroduce the lynx in the UK too, our world could soon be getting that little bit more fascinating and colourful right where we are.
Simon Brackenborough is the founder and editor of Corymbus. He is a music graduate who divides his time between Hampshire and London, and tweets at @sbrackenborough.