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Ask the birds, mon ami

It is fortunate that sometimes the different passions in one's life coincide. My passion for France, French languages and history, and for bird-song, have been a continous interwoven thread, leading me to wander around France in the footsteps of history, taping bird songs and the rich sound of regional French.

It began for me as a student in Touraine, recording woodpeckers, black caps and willow warblers in the gardens of Chenonceaux, Azay-le-Rideau, Chambord and Amboise. I have often stumbled on wonders by the mere opening of a door, and this happened in the 14th century church of La collegiale St. Potentien in Chatel-Censoir. Pushing open the door I entered a feathered fairyland, for the ancient church had been taken over by birds. The parents had nested in the organ loft and their fledglings, small reddish-brown birds, fluttered everywhere , along the pews, perching on our hands and on the tape recorder with shrill twitterings.

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"What kind of birds?" the old verger asked in quavering bourguignonm that crackled on the tape. "Ask the Ducs de Nevers, they'll know. The birds have always been here." He swiped at them impatiently and I imagined the Seigneurs of Chatel-censoir cuffing them off the pews of St. Potentien as they knelt to pray.

In Vezelay I taped the cry of swallows diving across the facade of the Basilica of the Madeleine, across the wonderful face of Jesus. The crusaders came marching here all those centuries ago, the voice of Peter the Hermit mingled then as now with bells tolling and the swallows shrilling.

Among the gardens of Burgundy, one of the loveliest is the water garden of Courances near Milly-la-Foret. Beside the moat and the shining stretches of leaf-covered water I was in time to catch the last cuckoo. During summers in Brittany I heard and recorded Breton voices mingling with the cry of skuas and terns.

Another year I spent the summer in a friend's chalet in le Dauphine, in a valley as emote as Erewhon -- la Bourgeat. The birds there were so tame that they perched on us as if we were so many twigs. Joseph the postman came wandering up to the chalet daily, waving the umbrella he carried in all weathers , cocking it like a gun at a hawk that fluttered overhead. "Boum! L'eperrvier!"m he shouted, peppering uswith r'm s like hailstones.

He told us of winters in the valley, of being snowed up for months on end, of that same hawk's grandfather -- or arrierre- grrand'-perrem sweeping down from its mountain aerie and snatching up all living things. He acted everything he said as if hoping my recorder was visual too, flailing his arms and umbrella like a windmill's sails, shouting Boumm at the hawk and scattering our tame birds in a feathery chirping flurry. On tape there is his pungent Dauphinois,m and Boumsm and the trilling of innumerable birds.

In the region of the Cevenness I taped my most beautiful massed singing of hidden birds, in the valley of Thorencon, near the chateau of Thorrenc. Out of every bush and tree, in single flutings, then in full-throated orchestration, came the chorus of an August afternoon. This is the region of Sevenson's "Travels With a Donkey" and, mysteriously, onto my tape came the sound of hooves as if a 20th century Modestine was trotting past those unseen birds.

Visiting the chateaux of the Loire and walking around Rambouillet, Marly and Versailles I almost glimpse d'Artagnan, sheathing his sword while he listens to the thrushes of Vaux-le-Vicomte, Marie Stuart pausing in the garden of Chenonceaux to hear the woodlark, in Chambord only a few steps and I will come on Francois I tracing on a windowpane with his diamond ring as he listened to the siskins I was recording close behind him.

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Perhaps on my tapes I have sometimes captured a fleeting instant of the past along with the present, recording the self-same song that fell on the sad hearts of exiled saints, poets, painters and abdicating emperors. You never know what you may hear within the context of the bird song.


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