Monthly Archives: March 2017

A little medieval poem on birds’ voices

A quick browse through any field guide to birds reveals that the standard ornithological method for conveying bird vocalisations is still transliteration – a careful substitution of complex avian sound patterns into a phonetic sequence that is broadly understandable in another system – a human language. You’ll come across some striking examples, including some that are just ludicrous, or seemingly untranslatable into human spoken utterances. There are the well-known classics: from the Collins Guide, ‘goo-ko’ (cuckoo), and ‘kewickhoooouh’ (tawny owl; better known, of course, as ‘tu-whit, tu-who’). But then what about a willow warbler: ‘sisisi-vüy-vüy-vüy svi-svi-vi tuuy tuuy si-si-sviiy-sü’? Or maybe a greenfinch: ‘jüpp-jüpp-jüpp jürrrrrrrr tuy-tuy-tuy-tuy-tuy juit chipp-chipp-chipp-chipp-chipp dürdürdürdür jürrrrrrrr …’?

These modern examples of ornithologists’ mimicry, though, are in fact no different to much earlier efforts to translate animal and human sounds – they merely continue a long and rich legacy (see here for a fuller discussion of this topic in an earlier post). I have been prompted to think again about the lines of transmission between medieval and modern approaches birds because I am currently working with three manuscripts from important monastic centres of the late Anglo-Saxon age containing a copy each of a little birdsong poem titled ‘De cantibus avium (On the songs of birds), which is, largely, a catalogue of phonetically-rendered, onomatopoeic bird calls. The three versions are all the same, and suggest a lost, earlier source. What seems pretty clear is that this poem, wherever or whenever the original was composed, was designed to teach the typical Latin translations of particular animal and bird sounds. The poem appears in manuscripts that all deal with grammar subjects, and in two cases, it actually appears directly after a standard prose list of nonhuman sounds – what is known as the voces animantium ‘voices of animals’ genre (see here for one of the manuscript examples). The formula, developed from classical models, goes a little like this:

apes ambizant vel bombizant, aquilae clangunt, anseres crinciunt vel trinsiunt,
aves minuriunt vel vernant vel vernicant, accipitres pipant vel plipiant,
anates teritisant …

[bees buzz or buzz, eagles sound, geese hiss or honk, birds chirp or make noise
or twitter, hawks screech or cry, ducks quack …]

Much of the ‘De cantibus’ poem reads almost word for word like these lists, but it also draws attention to the great and enduring fascination of birdsong – its supreme variety and diversity. However hard we might try, it is beyond our capabilities to record, catalogue and know all bird songs:

Quis volucrum species numeret, quis nomina discat?
Mille avium cantus, vocum discrimina mille.
Nec nostrum (fateor) tantas discernere voces.

[Whoever counts the types of birds, who learns their names? A thousand are sung of birds, a thousand differences of voice. Nor do I myself claim to discern such voices.]

Many of these medieval examples might sound ridiculous to us. But they probably did to medieval writers as well: many of the invented onomatopoeic verbs in the sound lists are such nonsense that they basically mean nothing more than ‘cranes make a crane noise’, or ‘blackbirds make a blackbird noise’, as though the writer draws attention to his own complete inadequacy in trying to replicate birdsong. Perhaps this translation tradition highlights a serious point about all translation though: even though these efforts aim to bring us closer to another being or mode of communication, they ultimately reminds us of essential difference – when you try to turn birdsong, or any nonhuman utterance, into human language, the result doesn’t quite manage to do the job. Crucially, though, this difference does not make birdsong irrational goobledygook (a word, in fact, that was coined to mean nonsense precisely because it sounds like turkey gibberish). It is simply that their voices are not our voices.

Advertisements

Writing on Nepal wins competition

If readers will forgive a brief moment of self-admiration, I wanted to post my entries for a travel/nature writing competition that recently won me first prize. ‘Tiger Trace’ was the judges’ favourite, but they’re apparently going to include all three in a forthcoming publication. These pieces began life as posts on this site, so it seemed fitting to share the news here. So, courtesy of Naturetrek, my wife and I will be off for an all-expenses-paid 10 days in Romania this August. Hoping for my first brown bear!

Tiger Trace
We have spent the last two days driving and walking tiger territory here in Chitwan National Park. This morning, whilst others sleep on and before the sun is fully up, I join our guiding ornithologist through misty savanna on the banks of the Narayani. A nine foot marsh muggar crocodile is half submerged with a fleshy limb clamped in its jaws. We push slowly through tall grasses (the tallest in the world are here in the Terai-Duar lowlands) quietly searching for rare cisticolas and grassbirds. A little ahead of us is a local guide and his protective bamboo rod.

In the sand, he kneels to examine. Pug marks. Tiger. He lays a pen beside the indentations to indicate the size of the creature’s print. “Last night,” he says, pointing back along the path. “It came through.” Two evenings before, riding out high and safe on elephants’ backs, we’d come across a crisp and mealy carcass, almost a week old beneath a putrid haze of flies and nearly black from sun. Another lay half covered in high grass nearby, fresher, the stench carrying to some way off.

It’s not difficult to see why predators fascinate us: a creature that can be part-tamed, or captured at least, but which remains well on the distant side of loveable or predictable, of that we think we can come to know. Minacious and fierce, striped and barred, fire in the eye. The largest Royal Bengal Tiger population anywhere in Nepal – 125 of just 2,500 or so in the subcontinent – lives here in Chitwan, an internationally important park in the Inner Terai. But they are no easier to see for that. The most elusive of creatures, fiendishly difficult to locate, they can be right there, camouflaged perfectly in dense undergrowth or the slightest stand of grass, and you’ll never see them. They will see you.

Yesterday we took a day-long, dusty journey through the reserve, driving narrow tracks through subtropical, riverine forests. The leaf litter is ankle-deep here, dry and tiger-orange, beneath big-leaved sal and rhino trees, saj, rosewood, the sailing buttress roots of kopak. Thick strangler vines coil like pythons round trunks, slowly suffocating their hosts. Way up, langurs, old man-grey and quizzical, swing easily from branch to branch. We spot a predator’s prey well enough, deer herds keeping mostly to the shadowy spaces among and between the understory. There are four species here: the small and numerous hog deer; muntjacs; the elegant spotted deer (or chital), akin to the European fallow; and the biggest, a tiger’s favourite, the dusky, skittish sambars.

In late afternoon, the cicadas are lulled, light shifts and the air is pungent with jasmine. We happened upon a small flock of great hornbills – 10 perhaps – planing one after the other through the canopy into the tree tops. They picked and fed delicately on finicky fruit with their preposterous turmeric bills, which look double the size for those huge casques (the bizarre appendage on the upper mandible used for aerial jousting) so that the whole thing looks like some ludicrous high-society hat.

We never expected to see tigers. And we did not. Why should we? To see the tiger would be exhilaration, a marvel, but to not see it somehow seemed as it should be too. It is never our right. This beast deserves our committed protection – we are, after all, largely responsible for its grievous demise – but also deserves its isolation, its right to be and to be unseen. I will make do with enigmatic traces that signal its absent presence; sandy depressions of movement just last night, the remains of attack and kill, uneasy yelps and alarms from deeper into the forest. It is here.

Heights and Kites in Kathmandu
At the hotel I head up for the highest point. Even on the rooftop there is more – it spirals up three levels, each appearing just as you make the last, well beyond most buildings’ top floors. The air is spice and warmth. Up here I am with the kites who turn on the city’s rising heat, and monsoon-washed house crows who fuss raucously from roof to roof. The birds are lodestars to new places; I begin with them.

It’s a habit I’ve adopted in many cities, but here seeking height feels doubly instinctive, mimicking the birds’ advantage. Nepal is the land of heights – from sea level to the highest point on earth in under 200 km, the world’s rooftop; a country with the highest elevation in the world reaching up to Tibet, the globe’s highest region. It’s a yearning for height that brings thousands here in the peak season to attempt ascents, or trek along the great Himalayan wall – Annapurna, Machhapuchhare, Langtang. Nepal has eight of the world’s tallest mountains and over 250 peaks over 20,000 feet. Everest (or Chomolungma as the sherpas call it – Goddess Mother) is the highest and most famous of them all, of course. It reaches beyond the clouds five miles into the sky – near aircraft cruising level at 8,848 metres, 29,029 feet – where there is so little oxygen and the air so cold humans cannot ordinarily survive, though many take on the dangers to reach its summit. And it’s still rising: colossal tectonic movements drive the subcontinent further under Eurasia and the snowy mountains upwards, upwards.

This time, our travels in Nepal will take us no further north than the foothills of the Kathmandu valley, but my preparations have still been fervid viewing and reading on Himalayan adventures, of sherpas, of Hilary and Norgay, Mallory and Irvine, of the disastrous 1996 Everest expedition, and high-flying bar-headed geese whose lungs can cope with rarefied air at Everest height – twice that – on their annual migration to the lowlands of India and the Nepal terai, to where we will travel in a few days. I’ve brought mountain literature, too, on snow leopards, on Tibetan monasteries and wilderness.

From this rooftop in a city 4,600 feet above sea level, I watch for birds – bulbuls and magpie robins, swifts and sparrows. Their bother and busyness make me think of the bustle down there, all that dense, high-rise living; mucky children, cadaverous dogs; of grand civic monuments tumbled in earthquake or unrest; chickens scratching at earth in between cars, and their dead kin garroted and gutted to bleed in the street. A flock of white egrets flaps past. Below our bedroom window, a man cooks in a battered pot on a wood fire at the doorway to a corrugated shed.

Kathmandu, formed at the confluence of two rivers where an ancient lake once existed, is the heart of a country of commingled and harmonious differences. Here are Buddhism and Hinduism, Christianity and Islam; Tibetan peoples from the north and Aryan tribes from the great plains of the Ganges that meld like all elements in nirvana; the many into one, single minds into universal mind, as ‘waves do not derive from water … [but] are water, in fleeting forms that are not the same and yet not different’ (Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard). Here we will seek all that difference and beauty, of people, foods and lands, of birds.

Phulchowki Mountain – a Twitching of Warblers
The air is tight, desperate for rain; it was forecast last night but did not come. This morning we head out of the city, beyond the brown heat of Kathmandu – the colour of dust and fumes and sultry air – south to the green valley foothills. Behind the oily smog, the sun is copper, rhododendron-pink. We are headed right to the peak of Phulchowki mountain, the highest in the region at 2760 metres. On a good day you can see the Himalayan range from here, but mists are low, and they linger all day.

Birdwatching these temperate forest slopes can be hard work – so much song and exotic frenzy, but high up, or flitting fast between dense tree lines. But stand still for long enough, and let all that thronging abundance come to you, and you understand Phulchowki’s reputation for sheer range of birds; one third of Nepal’s species can be seen here, one third of the one tenth of all the world’s species that can be found in this small country.

Barbets and cuckoos echo across the valley all day, but it is the birds right here, in front of us now, that I have come for. Minute by minute the trees and shrubs just feet away fill and fill with twitching passerines – some here to breed; others feeding up before flying north to the high Himalayas, or on to Siberia; some that winter lower down the slopes and now ascend to precise heights in spring – so active and so many it is difficult to make a start and the trees and rhododendron shrubs quiver and mutate. Our guide, Hathan, has expert ears and lists them all on song, the briefest snatches – ashy-headed warbler, chestnut-crowned – here a black-throated tit – Blyth’s leaf warbler here – buff-barred warbler – black-faced over here – here, here, green-backed tit, next to the grey-hooded warbler, just right of the fire-breasted flowerpecker. I am unused to abundance and vibrancy on such scale.

The famous French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s last work engaged with the overwhelming variousness of species, what he called the ‘multiplicity of the living’, all categorised into that most limiting, singular, and superficial of terms – animal. I think I am seeing something of what he implores us to recognise in all this shifting brilliance – not simply bird, not simply warbler, but individual; this being and that being; here curious, elusive, aggressive, now loud and fleeting, flicker, momentary stillness; creature and creature, bird colour and song, alert and quick to living on these leaves the same greens and yellows in one great, assembled movement.

All these birds, the coming and going up and down this mountain and valley, across the country, across continents. The privilege of moments like this I see now can and should inspire wonder at the natural world, re-engage our sense of the everyday, which is suddenly and marvellously ignited when the new and mysterious come upon us. Degrees of familiar and unfamiliar shift, for a time, though novelties – however strange or fine – so easily become ignored ordinaries. This twitching of warblers brings to me an elsewhere, carries a farness to this here, now and near. It speaks of the world’s vastness, but collapses it, too, by connecting me briefly to long-travelled distances and encounters, shared lines of occurrence and being.