It may be just coincidence but there have been two short articles in the past few days in the British press about wigeon, one by Mark Cocker in the Guardian’s Country Diary and one by Simon Barnes in the Times. Both mention the ducks sharp whistling call and how this evokes a sense of wildness and space. Cocker writes,
The whole cycle of action resolved into just two basic sounds - the high, clear whistling that we can easily imitate but never capture in speech. The bird’s old local names - whim, whewer, whew and smee - convey our attempts but little of the falling notes’ alchemical powers. In concert wigeon calls are somehow the sounds of the cold and the ice blue and the huge empty spaces.
Barnes goes a step further with,
Contact with the wild world gives a positive charge to your life. The whistling of wigeon in a place of desolation is an empowerment, nothing less.
Something about the shrill, piercing sound of the wigeon clearly brings us this sense of space and grandeur that both authors describe, a feeling that it’s harder to gain from the ‘vulgar quacking’ of a mallard or its domestic descendants. It’s this thrill of the rushing, whistling mass of a great flock of wigeon that Barnes is thinking of when he advocates the virtues of ‘contact with the wild world’. But what, I wonder, counts as ‘contact’ in this sense? Does it have to be a grand spectacle or can it be something smaller, more mundane - the herring gull crying from the rooftops, the blackbird singing out its mellifluous notes from the garden? Perhaps Barnes would agree that these are wild too, but I think the emphasis should be less about what we have contact with and more towards what we look and listen for. As the historian William Cronon (1996) has written, there are many problems inherent in creating a grand spectacle of wilderness as a contrast to our all too human and technology-bound lives. The desolate wilderness as the anti-human world of pure nature sets us at once outside of that which we seek. We can have contact with this world but we can never be a part of it. The antidote to this, Cronon argues, if we are still to gain from the positive effects of engaging with non-humans, is to perceive the wildness, rather than wilderness, in our everyday lives. An experience of wildness is one of perception rather than one created for us to make contact with.
I’m more taken with Cocker’s attention to the difficulties of perception, of distinguishing all that is going on. Here, attuning to the experience is as much about appreciating what we can’t sense as what we can, like the flock of golden plovers in the distance where we can see a sound being made without hearing it. The movements of light that we see give onto an anticipation of the movement of air that produces sound and through our experience of being in the world, through our skill at perceiving and our imagination, we can hear and see what we sometimes cannot sense.
My local flock of wigeon is rather small. They spend the winter - perhaps 50 or 100 strong - on a small loch right next to the A956. The traffic coming in and out of Aberdeen thunders past and the whistling and flurries of wings are less emphatic than those great masses in East Anglia that Cocker and Barnes describe. But the whistling still cuts through the rumbling engines, a wildness that can be experienced by anyone attuned to it.
Cronon, W. 1996. The trouble with wilderness; or, getting back to the wrong nature. In Uncommon Ground (ed) W. Cronon. London: W.W. Norton.