Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The sound of silence: The Cuckoo is vanishing

[...] The one certainty is that, led by the cuckoo, the spring-bringers are rapidly being lost from our lives. I gradually began to focus less on the causes of it and more on the meaning – trying to work out why this particular wildlife loss seemed more disturbing than the others.

These birds mattered to us, I knew from the outset, because they signalled the most marvellous of all the season changes, and to hear the cuckoo, say, for the first time in a given spring was a moment of true exhilaration. Yet underlying the exhilaration there was something more, something deeper than mere delight; and eventually I realised that it was not simply the fact of the birds' arrival, and its marking of the seasonal shift, tremendous though that was – it was the recurring nature of this event.

For, in coming back year after year after year, against all the odds they face, the spring migrants are testaments to the earth's great cycle. They remind us that although death is certain, renewal is eternal; that although all life ends, new life comes as well. Perhaps what they mean to us, really, is hope – every one of the whole 16 million a feathered piece of hope, fresh from Africa.

But if the birds don't come back, then something is going awry at the heart of things. Something is going wrong with the earth's great cycle, something is going wrong with the spring itself – something is going wrong with the very working of the world.

Spinning around at a thousand miles an hour, on its axis tilted at 23 degrees to the plane of its orbit around the Sun, the earth in its motions has always seemed dependable to the last degree. In human history it has always worked entirely reliably, giving us day and then night, spring and then summer, autumn and then winter, with a regularity so unshakeable that these are the only real certainties, apart from death itself, in our uncertain lives.

That any of this should alter, other than on the Day of Judgement, has never been part of our intellectual currency. But here we have one of the world's profoundest motions, a living announcement of spring, coming to an end.

We have grown used to wildlife losses, but it will be far more than the loss of a species to say goodbye to the cuckoo, and to bid farewell to its fellow summer visitors, as we are now on course to do sooner rather than later. It will be something so momentous in its implications that perhaps it is better not to think it through. Read more
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