Josh performing ‘Gone Cuckoo’. Photograph © Felin Uchaf the trapped, satellite-tagged cuckoo, as if he were releasing his own spirit, which in a way he was, for he never lived to see it return. When the bird arrived back on the moor the following April, I imagined it singing over the very place Mick had released it.
I remember thinking that it would not get far on its journey, as it stumbled in the sky after leaving his hands, a long aerial protruding between its wings. On 24 June, however, I logged in to my laptop and saw a green line traced between Fylingdales and a forest in the South of France, where the bird lingered for a while, fuelling up on caterpillars. He now had a name, Vigilamus, given by Mick. Vigilamus continued over the Mediterranean to Libya, and then across the Sahara Desert, flying for three days and nights at an altitude of 5km, until he reached Southern Chad. Here he recuperated for a couple of months before flying on to the Congo Basin, arriving at his destination in mid-October. At each stage of Vigilamus’s journey I found myself vicariously experiencing the extraordinary sights he saw and facing the hazards that I imagined he faced: the drought in the South of France, the mass trapping of migrant birds on the Mediterranean islands, more netting on the coast of North Africa, the rigours of a 2,000-mile journey over an expanding Sahara, deforestation and the search for suitable habitats in Central Africa. And then finally returning to the farmed deserts of Britain and Northern Europe, where insect populations have crashed. That is leaving aside the hawks and eagles looking for a morsel of cuckoo flesh.
So here was a story that could be told. A story that I decided to tell as ‘I’ cuckoo, to bring us humans, as a close as we are able, to the experience of being bird. A story, also, that in its very essence is full of rhythm and passion, a story that invited music to travel with the words. And this is where my son, Joshua, came in, creating a musical journey both to accompany the words and to evoke the journey in its own right. The music gave a sense of the cultures and environments the cuckoo visited that complemented the oral storytelling. It was now a story, not just told, but sung, chanted and ringing with thumb piano, guitar and percussion.
But a cuckoo is much more than its migration. It provokes both outrage and awe, it is loved and judged, and it has given rise to words like cuckold, cucking stool and ‘going cuckoo’. So, as a counterpoint to the physical journey, we wove in the metaphorical: the myths, the folktales, the folksongs, the lore. Narratives that echo the places and cultures from which they arise and explore what it is to be human in relation to a bird and what it is to be bird in relation to a human. Tales and songs that evoke our essential beings and connection with one another. For as much as we may see a cuckoo bird as ‘other’, it is also a part of us – a living creature evolved from the same stardust and a vital expression of what it means to be alive on this planet. Through these tales our futures are interlinked and interdependent.
The other part of the journey is the personal story. The story of my participating in the capture of the cuckoo and my moral dilemma over harnessing a wild creature so that we can vicariously live its journey. But possibly the biggest dilemma in making a story such as this is how to tell a tale that has an underlying theme of loss by human action. And how to do this without avoiding the issue for fear of being preachy or leading people to head for the door with yet another tale of doom.
A cuckoo is much more than its migration
A billion birds migrate from south of the Sahara to Europe and back each year. There are warblers, flycatchers, pipits, chats, nightingales, nightjars, waders, ducks, hawks, swallows, martins, swifts, and many more. Each one a puff of feathers high in the sky undertaking a journey it has to make. They bring us the spring, colour, songs and life. They are like the Earth’s breathing, keeping it alive, keeping us alive. If through telling the story in words and music we can enable people to feel a little more a part of this wonder, then this is all we can hope.
Malcolm Green teaches storytelling at Newcastle University. He is a founder member of A Bit Crack Storytellers and a member of the European Storytelling and Peace Council. www.malcolm-green.co.uk A version of this article has appeared in Biodiversity Journal. You can see Gone Cuckoo performed at our Summer Camp. www.resurgence.org/summercamp
Resurgence & Ecologist