Stepping into the rainy woods on a weekday morning with your toddler might not seem like an enticing proposition. As mother to a five-year-old myself, I often recoil from the blurry scene outside my window, and I’m a staunch outdoorsy type. In all but the most ferocious weather though, there are gems of experience to be found among the mud and puddles. Children, at first reluctant to venture out, soon seem to find breathless adventure once feet meet soil, even in nondescript corners of scrubby green space.
What has revealed itself to me over the three years I’ve been running Wild Birds Singing, a woodland singing group in Devon for children and families, is that a little infrastructure offers the encouragement and support that can make all the difference to actually getting out that door. A canopy rain shelter, warm campfire, hot cuppa, chunk of wholesome flapjack and somewhere to sit while the children safely explore, all help to bridge the gap between families and nature.
Out in our woods the children are free range, the singing a soundtrack to their interface with nature. An introduction to music through immersive, pressure-free participation, witnessing adults singing and dancing together playfully, is a gift that counters the dominant cultural narrative surrounding music, in which rivalry reigns and anything less than perfection meets harsh critique. Breaking down the wall between performer and audience in a relaxed, participatory community teaches children that singing is for everyone, a human birthright.
Through my work, I’ve met many adults who have been told they can’t sing, often in tender childhood. Silenced by someone, or wider societal attitudes, all the while stifling a primal yearning to sing. It’s one of my greatest pleasures as a voice leader to unravel that particular travesty!
Humans have always sung to express emotion, maintain communication while working, or in ritual and celebration. Song has evolved in us parallel to language, and acts as glue in our relationships, bonding communities. Singing is increasingly recognised as medicine offering multiple benefits, from language development and improved sleep to lowered blood pressure and healthier posture. I’ve received beautiful responses from members of Wild Birds Singing, naming their weekly visits to the woods among the most valuable support mechanisms in their recovery from postnatal depression or a salve when tensions between parent and child run high.
There’s an everyday magic in singing, which evokes a tangible impact both within us and on our surroundings; the air shimmers, the ground shakes. It may be barely noticeable, but it happens. We’ve heard how tomatoes’ growth improves when you play classical music to them, so imagine how delighted the woods are when we lullaby the trees through their midwinter dreaming! There’s plenty of precedent in British heritage to support this idea. In January I found myself shouting unintelligible old songs at apple trees while strangely bedecked dancers lifted small children into their boughs, so they could decorate them with toast offerings. Participating in the old tradition of wassailing a local orchard is said to wake up the trees and chase away spirits of ill intent. In our old stories, there’s much to be found to encourage us to commune with the land.
The stunning view and diverse trees we’re blessed with in our sweet patch of woodland overlooking the Dart Valley have universal appeal, but how much more abundant if we embrace the non-judgemental perspective on wildness modelled by our children? Unkempt urban pockets are claimed by children so readily. Having bumped into a friend outside the supermarket and, committing the unspeakable parental crime of chatting, I observed our children running gleefully towards scrawny trees among the bushes close by, shrieking with delight over their new den. There’s wild treasure to be cherished in the most unlikely places and the more we hand land back to nature, the more chance it has of recovery.
As with singing, the benefits of spending time in nature are so well documented that healthcare professionals are now prescribing forest bathing for all manner of ills. The story that sparks me alight though, is what if that relationship is reciprocal? Imagine if deepening our connection to wild places and engaging intimately with plants and wild creatures in our environment might generate mutual benefit. When we focus our attention on something, we invest a greater commitment to care for it. What if through rewilding ourselves, our children and our communities, ecosystems and species could equally be recipients of that wellbeing, helping them to thrive? When we savour this wondrous Earth, we recognise our connection with the more-than-human world, glimpsing interbeing, and even if just for a moment, that union is felt by the whole.
As global concern for the survival of our ecosystems becomes evermore acute, the voices of diverse indigenous peoples the world over seem to grow stronger in calling to be heard. My favourite gift from social media is the opportunity to connect with people whose lived experience is as wildly different to mine as the geographical distance between us. Following motivating indigenous environmental activists like Lyla June Johnston of Diné and Tsétsêhéstâhese lineage, Nemonte Nenquimo of the Waorani Nation, and Autumn Peltier, chief water commissioner of the Anishinabek Nation, is an invaluable education.
During the devastating Amazon fires in 2019 and those that raged in Australia through the new year, stories emerged from First Nation peoples of both continents about the ways indigenous fire management methods, practiced effectively for millennia, might hold the key to preventing similar disasters going forward. Living, thriving and surviving sustainably and respectfully within an ecosystem cultivates a unique depth of relationship to place, and allows us profoundly inspiring insight.
With the intention of connecting children to the land and their wildness as my muse, Wild Birds Singing has refreshed my creativity as a songwriter. Writing playful, accessible songs, while offering a little more complexity to rouse the adults through harmony, rhythm and polyphony, has been incredibly freeing and so much fun. Admirably game, the adults take full advantage of the chance for a bit of judgement-free silliness. When they sing with gusto and get on board with the dance moves, then we’ve got a veritable party!
Resting against the solid trunk of a tree, body flexed and heart uplifted by singing, you can feel your whole being uncoil. Basking in shared experience with other people and the more-than-human world, you can soak up the joy of being out in the wild with your child as an integral part of your ecosystem. It’s a feeling we can pass on to our children, a hopeful inheritance.
Listen to the music
The Wild Birds Singing album Spring’s Stirring is an upbeat acoustic journey through the season, evocative of our woodland gatherings. With a dedication to pure vocal harmony and rustic percussion, it represents the soundscape we create out in the woods, with complex overlaid arrangements creating a full and vibrant sound.
There’s subversive delight in writing songs with empowering messages, knowing that, as an earworm for a child, lyrics celebrating their individuality and inquisitiveness or that tell them they are loved unconditionally, will filter into their developing psyche, offering some small resilience in their lives.
Quintessentially British and featuring songs about bees, pixies and foraging, the album has become the accompanying soundtrack to countless road trips and adventures among The Wild Birds Singing community and beyond. When I hear stories about families singing their way through long journeys, the little ones joining in with passion and an endearing misinterpretation of lyrics, or when I receive footage of children dancing with abandon to my music in their kitchen, it makes my spirit sing and soar like a wild bird who knows the intention of her flight.
Holly Ebony is mama to her young daughter, living in South Devon with her family as custodians of a small woodland. As a singer-songwriter and voice leader, she works with children and families, and runs The Feral Chorus adult singing group who serenade Earth. She is training as a facilitator of The Work That Reconnects and is developing workshops that combine deep ecology facilitation practices with voice play.
Spring’s Stirring is available for digital download, streaming and in CD format from hollyebony.com.
First published in Issue 66 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.