Featured artist Julie Tugwell
Set aside your thoughts and bring your attention to this page. Sit for a moment and be still with me. I want to share with you a story of the birdsong at dawn and the secrets it tells:
It is barely light outside — the crack of dawn. First light reveals the faint outline of the distant mountains as the emergent sun draws a masterful stroke across their monolithic forms. Everything is still and the lake below is a perfect mirror of the dawn sky. This moment feels freshly squeezed with the potency of a new day, a rebirth of light after a long winter night. I love these moments, poised at the cusp between dreamtime and waking — an enchanted moment where the magical nature of the symbolic world has not yet closed the doorway between our world and the next.
There is a growing anticipation in this empty pre-dawn stillness. I know that any minute now, I will hear the first call of my beloved Cape robin-chat permeating the air, proclaiming the arrival of a new day. I love this bird more than any other because she is the first to awaken. I feel as if she and I are secretly allied in our love for the dawn stillness, both enchanted by the fertile potential that the new day holds.
My home is perched above a lake, which is a bird sanctuary on the edge of a national park, nestled between the ocean, lake, mountains and virgin forest. Outside my window, there is a tree with a bird-feeding station filled with chopped fruits, seeds, sweet red hibiscus tea and cheese. These are my offerings to the small, feathered characters and choristers who decorate this garden with their presence. The small gathering of birds has turned into a veritable morning conference of birds since I first arrived here a few months ago. I love their company and they love my gifts of food.
The Cape robin-chat begins her song prompted by the mounting infusion of dawn light. Of all the birds here, she is the first to sing, rousing the hearts of every other bird to take part in the daily song of creation. She sings so sweetly and clearly: First, a steady low tone that resonates with the still dawn sky and then a variety of notes masterfully woven into a mesmerising tapestry of sounds that mimic the calls of other birds. I lie in bed imagining that she is performing the roll-call of the other birds who should be present in the garden, waking them from their slumber to join her in song. It doesn’t take long before she is joined by a variety of other performers. I don’t know them all by their songs, but I recognize the gentle, surging symphony. Like snowflakes, no two mornings are the same. Each performance is like a different poem expressing gratitude for the new day. I have seen them: The hoopoe, butcher bird, weaver birds, the rain bird, wagtail, boubou, doves, mousebirds, forest canaries, the bokmakierie. But in the darkness of dawn, it is only their voices that I hear and the names don’t matter because the symphony is so sweet.
My morning ritual is simple: I listen to the birdsong chorus with my eyes closed, taking one hundred deep breaths and repeating a silent mantra called the Zhikr. This breathing practice is designed to take the energy of the mind into the heart, dissolving the mind in love, which is the most powerful force in the universe. This simple morning ritual, forged over years of practice, has become like a thread entwined with the dawn’s birdsong. This thread is what I seek out to find my way back, to return to the root of my existence. With each breath, there is a practice of tending to the garden of the soul, making myself present at the place where my soul enters this world, weaving the birdsong of the world into this place, finding that still centre where there is no past or future, no mind remembering or imagining. It feels like the birdsong is resident there, inseparable, woven like a fabric into the space of my heart, like a sunbird’s nest with down feathers, moss and gossamer threads.
From this still centre, I imagine the birds’ breath in the morning air, carrying these notes from the inside of their being out into the cold morning air. Their misty morning breath feeds into the air like ink drops in a glass of water. I look inward at the fertile black screen of my imagination and fall into a visual banquet of birdsong imagery. There I see with the inner eye how the tapestry of birdsong spills out of them into the substance of life, across the globe as the dawn light penetrates the darkness. This image is of a living chorus of birdsong, of ancient song lines that are alchemically potent as they transmute the fertile darkness into new forms. It feels as though the very sound of birdsong awakens the whole world anew each moment. I see how the sun’s light touches the birds and how they erupt, spilling this magical light into song and bird breath, awakening the magic in the air, singing the light of creation into this world of material form.
This is somehow a truly hopeful and life-affirming image of the world awakening anew in every moment of the day as the sun rises. It is a reminder that the song of creation is a continuously unfolding symphony of an ever-evolving choir made up of billions of birds.
Imagine it with me: As the light touches the horizon across the globe, bringing the dawn to each dark square foot of earth, the birds erupt in a wave of song. This song begins with the appearance of the light and travels across the entire earth every day. Like a tidal wave of dawn light, this wave of birdsong circumnavigates the globe perpetually. For millennia, this dawn chorus has never ceased—an endless choir song of celebration and remembrance that seems to have a magical ability to wash the world anew.
These are the mystical song lines that bring the world into existence in every moment, that rebirth the world everyday. The songs are the morning prayers of Mother Earth dutifully performed through the voices of the birds. And perhaps this is why the simple birdsong is a music that pours through us, watering the garden of our hearts, leaving the ground and sky dancing. It speaks of the infinite, the same language of the water, the language of the waves that lap onto the shore, the language of the wind that rustles the leaves, that rises with eagles’ wings making whole sky circles towards the sun.
About the featured artist Julie Tugwell
Julie Tugwell is a full-time artist based in Knysna.
Her work hangs in private collections and galleries throughout South Africa and internationally.
You can follow her on instagram @julietugwellart
Mail: [email protected]
Knysna Industrial, Knysna, Western Cape, South Africa.
“To be an artist is a tireless observing obsession and an overwhelming need to absorb, there is no fixed time table or schedule – it’s a constant urge to learn and express and there is so much to learn.”
Spiritual Ecologist, passionate about African botanicals & the Earth
Steve Hurt’s writing falls within the paradigm of spiritual ecology which approaches ecology from a spiritual perspective. His writing is influenced by shamanism, sufism and a deep love for the earth. Steve currently lives in South Africa and runs a business that trades in African medicinal plants, a trade that is driven by his wish to preserve the rich heritage of African medicinal knowledge for future generations.