7 Apr 2017

the tūī sings the place, not about the place


It is now Autumn in Dunedin, the gathering days just after the daylight saving change. The tightening of light, where the magic-hour creeps into an earlier time-slot, and becomes a particular hue of grey-green-gold at a certain time of late afternoon/early evening, one that occludes certain colours and makes the khaki land look even more sombre, like a fading bruise with a yellow edge, or a piece of precious yet neglected metal, crusted with verdigris but still glowing pale gold through it. And then, just before sundown, the darkness seems to sit preemptively, visibly and heavily on certain objects, making them hard to see. The skin of whatever part of the body has been unwisely left at the mercy of the elements prickles against the gathering cold and darkness, with a kind of thrill that reminds the body it's alive, and that winter is coming and it better be ready. 

And the birds seem to know what's coming too. After a week working mainly at home in the near-silence of the hillside neighbourhood, every day has begun with a particular neighbourhood tūī, which is itself the exact colours of this landscape, chortling and sparking outside my window like a malfunctioning robot, before gurgling lower tones, sometimes completely inaudible - the bird is singing visibly, but i can't hear anything - and despite all the historic notation of tūī songs here on the table in front of me, i can't hear any of this experimentalism, in this supposed transcription of this bird's "music", only a historic human - and specific cultural (pakeha) - listening talking to itself, and leaving the bird out of things. it would be better to look at the sounds the bird is making as emergent properties of this place, too, and not abstract them in such ways, or relegate them to the airless space of a field recording on a harddrive, a dead museum of sound. 

I am so grateful that these beings are still among us, that they are some of the few that have survived, the few that can live with us. While our familiarity and sharing of space extends to conviviality to these birds as endemic, their over-depiction in sentimentalised also hides the fact of their complete otherness from us, the ways in which their song also contains a memory of the emergent properties of a landscape that we have actively destroyed, that we have never seen. Maybe the clues are here, in the song, rather than the archive. Today's research into the question : 'do birds hear bird song like we hear bird song?' (short answer:no) + other aspects of bird listening has produced various reflections on divergent evolutionary pathways, the anthropocentrism of various prior models of listening, and the bare fact that humans really don't sense better, they merely sense differently, and perhaps in some ways, not as well: "300 million years ago when mammals split from birds, birds in some ways got the better deal." But all this could basically be summed up by the sentence: i wish i could hear what that tūī hears of its own song, when it sings.

More to come, on that, I hope.

---x---

image: 'Poe Bird' or Tui
James Cook, A Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World: Performed in His Majesty’s ships the Resolution and Adventure, in the years 1772, 1773, 1774, and 1775, 2 vols (London: Printed for W Strahan & T Cadell, 1777)
University of Canterbury Library

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