What do we really hear when we hear the wind? If you step from a wood into an open field, the sound changes, although it is the same wind blowing over both. A winter pine tree far from the coast makes the wind perform like an angry sea, while a neighbouring bare birch makes a gust-like sound as soft as the brushings of a jazz drummer. A single blast can turn telephone cables and barbed wire fencing into the strings of a wind-harp.
In fact, what we are hearing is moving air colliding with – and playing – the surface of the Earth. It is the grass that is singing and the trees that are soughing. When the wind blows, each thing creates its own distinctive sounds, from the swells of the sea to the sands of the desert, from the rolling mountains to the vast ice-sheets, from our blocky buildings to the cables that connect them overhead. But we’ve simplified all this – we just call it wind, hoping to encapsulate in one word a great singer and all of its songs. Imagine, though, if we could get an interview with the source, an audience with the wind. Might it be possible to hear the singer solo? And could we somehow listen to what the wind sounds like to itself, in its own ears?
These thoughts have long fascinated me, and now BBC4 has made Into the Wind, a film about me trying to hear and capture some pure wind. I have some history here. I’ve worked as a radio producer for 27 years, and I’ve been a birdwatcher for almost twice that time. The wind is a big player in both activities and, as such, has blown through much of my life with an unusual determination.
Air is the birds’ element and wind transports them around the world. For there to be any birds to watch, there has to be wind beneath their wings. But, as a boy, I hardly knew it. I grew up inland, under soft hills and sheltering trees. I never had a kite. Only when I learned about birds, and got excited by migration, did I begin to look up and watch the sky.
I discovered then how important it was to know which way the wind blew. Avian casualties of its force became an obsession. I liked nothing more than a blow-in or a hurricane vagrant: a tiny warbler from the knitted forests of eastern Siberia, catapulted to a treeless Fair Isle on Europe’s western edge; an ocean-going fulmar forced to crouch in the lee of a wheelie-bin outside a fish-and-chip shop in Bedford, after hitting wild weather in the North Sea.
Keeping out of the wind was the mantra at the BBC. On the first day of my radio instruction, having been told where to hold a microphone when recording a single voice, my fellow trainees and I were given a lesson in wind avoidance. “Stay indoors” was the gist of it. If ordinary breath could pop and snag on unprotected microphones, wind was absolutely diabolical. If you had to record outside, you could try turning down your input levels and bringing the microphone close to the mouth. Otherwise, your best bet was to stand, like a wall, between wind and interviewee.
Recording outside is less of a tall order these days. I am a devotee of the Rycote Windjammer, a fluffy casing that is half shaggy dog and half hairy caterpillar, and perfect for baffling the wind. It allows me to record in almost any conditions in which human conversation might take place. And, despite what my trainers urged, I’ve always preferred outdoor talk. It is where the birds do all of theirs, after all. To me, weathered voices seem more human. Fresh air oxygenates and enlivens most conversation – and wind, so long as it is not booming, is far less distracting to our ears and destructive to our intelligence than the hateful granulated white soup of air-con.
The real wind is asking to be heard. At the end of an interview, I’ve often turned away from the human chatter and said: “I’ll just grab a minute of this wind.” Such gathered atmos or “wildtrack” is immensely useful in editing, giving you something to smooth out the joins as you cut between remarks. But it goes further than this. Turning to record a little minute of the wind lets me experience the place beyond human talk. On good days, in good places, I can sense myself joined to a landscape. It is the wind that carries me there.
As I have grown old, even though I have liked most of the people I’ve talked to, I’ve become more and more keen on listening to the sound of the world after we’ve all shut up. This means going after wildtrack, the song of the Earth, for its own sake – wind, above all, pure wind. And Richard Alwyn, who directed Into the Wind, caught me at it. He asked where I might like to go for a walk and talk about the weather. I showed him my fluffy dog on a stick and said the Wash, that jaw-bite out of East Anglia, opening to the sea.
Although a manmade shore (drained and reclaimed and banked, and now a place of bombing ranges and intense farming), the Wash has surely the wildest miles in England. We went to hunt the wind there, walking the various flats: grass banks then marsh paths, then the great whale’s tongue of mud. Richard filmed with the widest of angles. The distant flocks of knot looked like lit dust scattered over the falling tide, while the bulky brent geese shrank to inky calligraphy against the huge sky.
Closeups were neither available nor what we wanted – save for the wind. For that, we recorded the sound of me in pursuit of my longed-for pure blow. It wasn’t pretty. My nose ran and eyes watered. But we weren’t making a natural history programme. I simply wanted to catch the wind – before we might identify it as such, the wind where it first meets something to sound against. I wanted that to be my microphone and me. So we walked the Wash and I climbed a bank and pointed all of me, kit and bones, north over the mud towards the sea, to encourage a signal, to channel the weather, and secure the best of all outside broadcasts.