Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sing Me Back Home

A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.
-Chinese Proverb

There is a language older by far and deeper than words. It is the language of bodies, of body on body, wind on snow, rain on trees, wave on stone. It is the language of dream, gesture, symbol, memory. We have forgotten this language. We do not even remember that it exists.
-Derrick Jensen

Without music, the prehistoric past is just too quiet to be believed.
-Steven Mithen

On Ellijay, 3/7/10

As life rolls along, all the trappings of human ego (except for my own, of course) hold less and less appeal. I used to think I could figure out people. I used to think there was some reason to figure out people. It was one tool, I reckoned, for overcoming the loneliness that is measured in degrees of separation from other human beings.

But I don’t see it that way anymore. Society no longer possesses the allure it once did. If I have a home, it is with the birds and flowers, the trees and butterflies. An unexpected and fleeting encounter, let's say an eye-to-eye moment with a hawk, is companionship enough for me.

One of the delights of spring is to step outside and listen to the birds singing. Even in town this morning, I could hear their music despite the horrisonant buzz of industrial equipment and the raucous roar of diesel engines. Our human noise was not enough to silence those birds.

Sometimes when I have music playing, a fine classical masterwork, I'll hear the birds singing from the trees around my house. It is no contest. I turn off the stereo and attune my ears to their sweeter song.

I seldom hear mockingbirds sing, so when I do, it stops me in my tracks. I've been treated to some memorable performances, most recently in Southport, in Fayetteville, in Highlands. Thomas Jefferson also had an affinity for the mockingbird, of which he wrote:

Learn all the children to venerate it as a superior being in the form of a bird, or as a being which will haunt them if any harm is done to itself or its eggs.

While serving as President, Jefferson kept a mockingbird in a cage suspended among the roses and geraniums in the window recesses of his study. Jefferson regarded his bird named “Dick”…

…with peculiar fondness, not only for its melodious powers, but for its uncommon intelligence and affectionate disposition, of which qualities he gave surprising instances. It was the constant companion of his solitary and studious hours. Whenever he was alone he opened the cage and let the bird fly about the room. After flitting for a while from one object to another, it would alight on his table and regale him with its sweetest notes, or perch on his shoulder and take its food from his lips. Often when he retired to his chamber it would hop up the stairs after him and while he took his siesta, would sit on his couch and pour forth its melodious strains.

The evolution of human language is not something I know much about, but my guess is that rhythm and melody preceded words. Steven Mither advances this idea in The Singing Neanderthals* while another scholar, Steven Pinker, contends that music, in evolutionary terms, is an afterthought to language, little more than a linguistic flourish.

I have to side with Mither. This morning’s birds announcing the approach of spring convinced me there is an ancient language, "a language older than words" to borrow the phrase from Derrick Jensen. Though it may be forgotten, though it may be stifled by the proud blare of human progress, it endures, and it is my own.

How could I deny it?

In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence.
- Robert Lynd

The universe is composed of subjects to be communed with, not objects to be exploited. Everything has its own voice. Thunder and lightning and stars and planets, flowers, birds, animals, trees--all these have voices, and they constitute a community of existence that is profoundly related.
-Thomas Berry

Life is good only when it is magical and musical, a perfect timing and consent, and when we do not anatomise it.... You must hear the bird's song without attempting to render it into nouns and verbs.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

*A note on The Singing Neanderthals - The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, by Steven Mithen:

The propensity to make music is the most mysterious, wonderful, and neglected feature of humankind: this is where Steven Mithen began, drawing together strands from archaeology, anthropology, psychology, neuroscience--and, of course, musicology--to explain why we are so compelled to make and hear music. But music could not be explained without addressing language, and could not be accounted for without understanding the evolution of the human body and mind. Thus Mithen arrived at the wildly ambitious project that unfolds in this book: an exploration of music as a fundamental aspect of the human condition, encoded into the human genome during the evolutionary history of our species. Music is the language of emotion, common wisdom tells us. In The Singing Neanderthals, Mithen introduces us to the science that might support such popular notions. With equal parts scientific rigor and charm, he marshals current evidence about social organization, tool and weapon technologies, hunting and scavenging strategies, habits and brain capacity of all our hominid ancestors, from australopithecines to Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis and Neanderthals to Homo sapiens--and comes up with a scenario for a shared musical and linguistic heritage. Along the way he weaves a tapestry of cognitive and expressive worlds--alive with vocalized sound, communal mimicry, sexual display, and rhythmic movement--of various species. The result is a fascinating work--and a succinct riposte to those, like Steven Pinker, who have dismissed music as a functionless evolutionary byproduct.

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