2 October 2014

Fence music

The North Sea is relatively broad where bounded by Scotland and Norway, but tapers further south. Last December a northerly gale coincided with the highest tides for over sixty years, funnelling water into the narrowing gap between England, southern Denmark, Germany and Holland. The result was a tidal surge.

North Norfolk took a pounding. At Salthouse the shingle-bank was breached; at neighbouring Cley the beach was almost completely reshaped, exposing long-forgotten debris and burying grassland under thousands of tons of shingle.

These new shingle “tongues” are some slight recompense for the degradation of the adjoining marshes, a nature reserve. Because Britain is so crowded and its coastline is so disturbed, shingle-nesting birds such as the little tern and ringed plover are having a grim time. Extensive sections of the tongues have therefore been fenced off for them. The fences comprise stout wooden posts between which galvanized wires are stretched, and to which the wires are stapled.

As I walked along the beach the other day I became aware of a low humming which at first I mistook for the sound of distant machinery. It was coming from the fence.

The fence has been erected by experts. The legs of most of the staples are arranged diagonally and not quite driven in to their deepest extent, so allowing the wires to expand and contract along their whole length. At this particular spot a wire was touching a staple and its fence-post in such a way that the wind had set up a resonance. When I reached out and touched the wire, the humming stopped; when I removed my finger, it failed to start again. Some earlier quirk had set the humming up, but the conditions now prevailing were not conducive to resumption.

Further along I encountered more humming, broadly similar, though each specimen was distinct. Some vibrations allowed themselves to be cancelled, while others smoothly or hesitantly resumed. They were inward and introspective, quite different in character from the moaning one hears in telephone wires.

A line of telephone poles runs out from the village to the beach. Their wires are particularly plaintive. Indeed the whole landscape here is wind-noisy. At the visitor centre for the reserve there is a medium-sized turbine whose blades whir furiously in a stiff breeze; the massed reedbeds rustle and sway; by the entrance to each bird-hide is a notice reminding one not to let the door slam; the wind augments the power of the breakers on the shore; and so on.

But it was the little voices of the fence that caught my fancy. They are a manifestation of the universal sound, the Om, produced by the action of energy and matter upon itself: in this case, air impinging on and being deflected by tensioned steel.

Had it not been for the tidal surge, those wires would have been somewhere else, possibly still in a coil, or even unmade. Had it not been for the precise strength and direction of the breeze, I would have walked by, oblivious of the detailed relationships between staples, wires and posts, which themselves had been created through best practice by the contractor. Their exact spatial position had been determined jointly by the sea and the charity that manages the reserve.

The fence, this accidental harp, is a child of the sun, which also composes its music, for the sun directly and indirectly causes the pressure differentials in the atmosphere that give rise to wind. The sun is the source of everything – on Earth. Yet it is only a peripheral speck in a peripheral little galaxy.

Some years ago I came across the work of Alan Lamb, who composes musique concrète derived from the wind in Australian wires. His compositions give a glimpse of the otherness of the cosmos and the preponderance of happening that lies outside our immediate experience, like the calving of icebergs or the grinding of tectonic plates, the birth and death of stars: and even a tidal surge. It all appears indifferent to its creatures and their interests, yet we are an integral part of it. On reflection I don’t think I’d want it any other way.


CS McClellan/Catana said...

Most of our modern world is so noisy we can't hear things like this. Thank you for a lovely post. Like a lot of your work, it reminds me of Loren Eisely's writing about nature.

Richard Herley said...

Thanks for your kind words -- I'm very glad you liked the post.