Sunday, July 20, 2014

When Nature Calls: Outhouse Ornithology Observations

“ occurred that the birds, whose twitters and repeated songs sounded so pretty and affirming of nature and the coming day, might actually, in a code known only to other birds," be the birds each saying 'Get away' or 'This branch is mine!' or 'This tree is mine! I'll kill you! Kill, kill!' Or any manner of dark, brutal, or self-protective stuff--they might be listening to war cries. The thought came from nowhere and made his spirits dip from some reason.”- David Foster Wallace, The Pale King
   One of the more special moments one gets to experience when living without running water are the many, many instances throughout the course of an average day spent sitting outside listening to the woods fill with summer song. It’s a matter of simply being outside enough – results may vary depending on one’s dietary habits - and observant enough to identify the multitude of species that inhabit the dense forest surrounding our cabin. Aside from the omnipresent, incessant whine of mosquitoes there are discernable movements (no pun intended) in accordance with the time of day, each passage with its own associated species.

Later evening: Usually treated to the liquid burble of a Hermit thrush, and if I’m lucky, either the resident Boreal owl or Sharpshinned hawk will be out hunting. The wheedle-deedling of our crop of Chickadees begins to subside.
Early in the AM: the daily pandemonium of Ravens, interspersed with the sweet warbling of White winged Crossbills high atop the spruce; plus our pair of Gray Jays start the day’s debate inbetween the Sandhilll crane commuting conversations as they wing their way from the pondside roost en route to grazing at Creamer’s Field. All-too soon the territorial pissings will break out amongst the neighborhood Red squirrel clans. At times this cacophony in our neck of the woods sounds almost too noisy, there are so many busy denizens at work or play.
"In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence." - Robert Lynd
   But that’s until the background din of civilization begins to permeate the air as the waking city comes to life, and the distant hum of traffic plateaus into to a dull, homogenous din. Fortunately it’s far enough away so as to not blanket us with the omnipresent white noise of, say, anyplace closer to the edge of urbanized space, so we remain at “ear’s-length” distance. Too often in close proximity with others of our own species we forget the first true loss of habitat: aural intrusion, when the integrity of individual airspace itself becomes a casualty of a socially shared environment. More often than not we have no choice but to have to listen to an unending roar from a river of noise that surrounds us, envelops us in constant din from engines, air traffic, advertising, speech and so forth. Soon we lose this rarified sense of awareness, sometimes resorting to marking our spatial territory by establishing zones of personally chosen noise, as in a car radio. Or more increasingly adopt a habit of retreat by plugging in headphones and earbuds, further insulating ourselves from the flood of sound + fury. This aesthetic anesthesia and disconnect with our surroundings, and the natural world, is never more apparent than noticing the loss of birdsong, from, say, downtown or amidst any forest of buildings and streams of concrete. It is just as poignant, even sad, to actually hear the call of an animal so out of place, as it tries to be heard above the noise we have created and can no longer really hear ourselves. Assuming anyone is listening.

   As with the roster of birds heard from the outhouse, from a distance, one can just as easily attribute occupations, intent, and perhaps even project personality on the respective automotive calls: emergency vehicles and other alarming outbursts; rednecks who couldn’t care any less how annoying and rude they are; the guttural construction of new “nests” which in themselves represent in turn even more loss of habitat. Mostly it’s the monotonous, inexorable daily flow of our own kind, vast flocking herds of individuals each ensconced within their own bubble of sound, and collectively creating a place without the connection of a call.
“Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.” - Leonard Cohen


  1. Good one. I keep ear plugs handy most of the time so I can create near-silence when the sounds forced on me get too annoying and depressing.

  2. Thanks. There's a reason most spiritual leaders throughout history marked their enlightenment with an initial withdrawal from society to the wilderness.