Seeds of Thought (#21)–All of the above–& then some
The old advice “think globally, act locally” is incomplete without noting that neither thinking and acting, nor global and local, are necessarily separate from each other at all. Given the speed of modern communication, transport and transaction, such distinctions almost disappear—but this shrinkage is only the surface of a deeper story.
Terms like local, regional, and global represent concepts that are not just relative and subject to overlapping degrees, but reflect an underlying reality in which near and far are fundamentally entangled, mutually interpenetrating. Local expresses global, and vice versa. You don’t have one without the other. Where is there air, water or sun that is only local, for example? Or wildlife, the human mind and culture? Each exists within and beyond definable boundaries, part of larger systems emerging from exchange.
You might say local is wherever we are, yet life itself is always in transit, even the most well rooted moving through time. We may zig and zag, individually and in groups, yet shared planetary motions are always with us, shaping our days and seasons. Here itself is in motion. Conversely, even our own bodies have components from everywhere, as each cell, breath and swallow contains elements affected by wherever they’ve been, as by the molecules they’ve become part of.
In the relation of parts and whole, parts derive substance, sustenance and significant characteristics from the shared whole, and vice versa. No parts thrive long without a healthy whole in which to be and become, drawing nourishment and renewal. No whole thrives long without a sufficiency of healthy parts working together at all scales—itself also part of a greater whole. Social, cultural and physical health thus depend on ecological health, and vice versa, with infinitely looped connections.
Land health can be described in many ways—e.g., practically, in terms of firewood, food, education, and other values produced, not all quantifiable; objectively, using information on vegetation and wildlife, including changes in numbers, varieties, and other characteristics of resilience, the system’s apparent capacity to sustain, re-balance and renew itself; and subjectively, using aesthetic, psychological and spiritual terms like beauty, wonder and awe.
At the intersection of natural and social fabrics, refuges help support healthy connections between near and far, as well as between human and wildlife communities. In this, they help shape, as well as reflect, deeper community values, working in a network of many related efforts at all levels of human organization—individual home and biome to thoughtful earth as a whole, with many overlaps in between, wherever our activities interact with natural systems.
Given the shared awareness at the core, it may seem self-evident which expressions have most importance: window-box gardens or wilderness protection; bird-friendly yards or wildlife-rich forests; productive farms and ranches or healthy rivers and wetlands; watershed alliances or conservation agencies; community services or public parks; school habitats or field-trips; local acts or national policies; cooperative planetary efforts addressing global issues over decades, or fleeting moments fluid on the wing when life speaks from the heart for itself.
this is my world, too—/ the red-winged blackbird declares/ again & again
[Found at a Concert for the Birds silent auction some years ago, the full-throated photo above is unsigned, but seems to be by Amanda Ruffin.]
Seeds of Thought (#20)–Dec. 2015 [came out March 2016]:
Flocks passing south with the sun turn thoughts to being in more than one place and time. As with loss of youth or cherished companions, part of the departed remains, while parts of the remaining feel elsewhere. In contrast to the entanglement described in physics, our connection may be psychological, yet the two realms aren’t as separate as some assume, and the state of either affects the other.
The idea of separateness often unravels under close scrutiny. Even the self, that most distinct of ephemeral creatures, exists only by virtue of being in constant exchange with many worlds—air, water, food, land, language, society, economy, and sun for openers. Our lives are woven from countless, often hidden, relationships at every scale, from biome and creatures on the wing to planetary currents and astronomical fields.
To be fair, a sense of separateness is functional in everyday life, and many practical advantages come from applying it. The fact that the brick wall is mostly empty space on the atomic level doesn’t change the fact that we don’t want to run into it at the scale of our normal experience, only when visiting Alice in Wonderland.
As the science most devoted to pure objectivity (i.e., separation of observer and world to the exclusion of psychological factors), physics was late to Alice’s party, but has ended up there anyway with relativity, uncertainty principle, entanglement, and non–locality. Some experts learn more & more about less & less by cutting things into smaller & smaller parts until nothing’s left (though of that nothing, knowing little). When the physicist looks close, local disappears into field, while particles become waves.
The study of life has taken its own journey from entity to field, part to relationship. A half century before Einstein, Darwin could have called his great work a “theory of relativity.” From detailed study of complex variations, he began to realize how bio-dynamically entangled living forms were with each other and with ecosystems through time—with branching, non-linear feedback loops.
A developing embryo, recapitulating the evolution of its life-form, may remind us how embedded the past remains in the present going forward, yet the legacies of life- and land-forms, language, culture and society are all around (and within) us, whether carried in DNA or other kinds of memory. The fabric of our organic relationships—i.e., the web of life—involves and transcends particular locations in space-time.
Life is always in motion, singly and in flocks, bringing the far near and vice versa. Part goes wherever mind and heart range; parts of everywhere appear here—from atoms created long ago in distant stars to the life-giving rays of the winter sun eight minutes away; the sustaining molecules in our next breath to that miraculous flock gliding in on ancient wings; the feelings of those near to thoughts from across the globe and/or long ago.
Even the seed, one of the most localized things we know, encapsulated in a shell-defined space (as if outside of time and apart from change), becomes the very vehicle of trans-locality—whether traveling through space in a bird’s gut; across time, bringing its life-form to spring; or across forms, turning into the bird-in-migration!
[Thanks to the web, a Seed of Thought now also transcends its original place. For more on the trans-local relationships of place, time, seed, mind, migration and form, click over to the Eco Zone page at www.bodlibrary.com. —Richard Bodner]
Since that’s where we are already, click files about to go up below shortly!
(B)– Degrees of non-separation: worm-holes, blind man’s hat, kneads & loops of matter & mind, creatures of the in-between… Degrees of non-separation
(C)–Seeds of Paradox: more on the wonders of seeds in transition, evolution, time, memory, form & change… The-Paradox-Seed-pdf
From the September 2015 issue—
Seeds of Thought (#19): Thinking like a planet
All creatures, from single-cell organisms to birds and beyond, use languages distinctive to their kinds and groups. Human language may be considered our tool of tools, shaping world and brain, making culture and technology possible. We use it to connect with others, process information, make sense of the world, work together, talk ourselves through any task, discover and clarify what we’re thinking.
Verbal language can be progressively fine-tuned to narrow the distance between reality and representation, our best remedy when focus is blurred by mis-representation, whether deliberate or from ignorance. Since the gap between content and packaging makes it possible to call chemical off-gassing devices “air fresheners,” we modify how we interpret such information according to our sense of the transmitter’s motives and level of understanding.
Buckminster Fuller struggled to align his language and understanding. Training himself to observe, report, and relate to things as they were, he even replaced “sunrises” and “sunsets” with earth-turning equivalents. This was during a period when government institutions were doing the opposite, i.e., generating “credibility gaps.” Since language is a primary medium of connection, disconnecting it from what’s really going on can have dangerous consequences, not the least of which can be loss of trust in both language and its users.
If there’s an obligation in commerce to represent products accurately, it’s all the stronger in science, where honest reporting provides the basis by which understanding advances, continually tweaking representations to better reflect the reality described. The better we understand, the better we frame; the better we frame, the better we understand. Aligning language and reality to each other sharpens focus the way some cameras bring two images together for precise registration.
Applying this principle to the emergent ecological issues of our day, I’m struck by how little meaning “climate change” conveys on its own. When is climate not changing? “Global warming” at least has a little content– though with dangerously misleading associations, being so tepid and even welcome when thermometers plunge. “Warmth” hardly does the dynamic justice. Put one hand in boiling water and freeze the other in ice; the average temperature isn’t as alarming as the reality feels.
I suggest “climate charging” instead, for a more precise picture of what happens when accumulating “greenhouse gas” molecules trap ever more solar radiation. This heat-energy charge translates into melting icecaps, rising seas, increased intensity of storms and range of extreme weather events, along with unknown ecological disruptions and an unclear potential for thermal runaway–or even an extreme reversal into a new ice age. Our fossil-fuel emissions take us into the uncharted territory of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels unprecedented in the lifetime of our species.
Some effects may be welcome at times, as when rich summer rains charge a local ecosystem with green growth and birdsong, but the complexity of global feedback mechanisms requires us to gain control of otherwise runaway technologies while we can, a dangerously charged situation. Aldo Leopold once said the first rule of intelligent tinkering was “to save the pieces,” i.e., safe-guard critical systems from our own impact. Now that includes managing emissions at the planetary scale.
With so much at stake, saying just charge it, passing the charges on, isn’t a responsible option. In Aldo’s time, one might preserve or restore a forest, river or prairie patch by learning to think like a mountain, watershed, and land community. Now the challenge is learning to think like a planet.
A. More on #19: Climate CHARGING–Changing Terms
The term “Global Warming” supposedly gave way to “Climate Change” in part because it was too hard to explain how “warming” could also lead to colder colds. “Warming,” by itself, is at best incomplete, however, and at worst seriously misleading. Unfortunately, “change” by itself is relatively meaningless—climate is always changing. The term communicates nothing about the nature of the change, its character, or its agencies.
Another term suggested more recently has been “Climate Disruption.” Google it and many articles come up, including one from March 2015 in Forbes on the history of (and reasons for) its use. Certainly it’s the disruptive effects that concern us. It also implies that humans are doing the disrupting, which a main basis for human response.
Ironically, one of the first terms used by scientists to describe the process and its potential implications was climate modification, also focused on the role humans played. Otherwise, modification is just a five-syllable substitute for change. Neither provides any information about the nature of the changes—except that modification implies by us.
For reasons offered in Thinking like a planet, above, I believe Climate Charging gives a clearer, sharper and more informative picture. Amazingly, a quick search of “climate charging” produced no relevant links whatsoever! A deeper search might produce at least some results, as the term does occasionally slip into discussions, though not yet as a common name for the phenomenon discussed.
Still, it goes right to the heart of what our activities are doing, rooted in fundamentals of the physical processes, the details of which are explained in various reliable websites, e.g., how electro-magnetic radiation from the sun gets turned into longer-wave heat-energy that greenhouse gas molecules absorb as extra vibration. Whether energy is conceptualized as heat or molecular motion, its charge transfers throughout the system.
A charged system helps explain a wide range of effects, including the appearance of seemingly contradictory extremes, like severe cold waves and record snows in years when “average temperatures” are hitting new highs. Events that seem to contradict ‘global warming’ become more understandable, part of a coherent picture that includes the intensity of storms, rising seas, and many effects as yet poorly understood. Many disruptions may be predicted, nevertheless.
Some effects may even be quite welcome from the human perspective—in some places at some times, or even on balance. It may be that the human presence makes the charging of planetary energies inevitable at a corresponding scale, but if so, this only reinforces our responsibility—i.e., the necessity—for us to regulate our outputs in the same way we do our other waste products. Until we know how to manage the planet’s thermostat responsibly, we better not be charging it to unprecedented levels in one direction without the ability to reverse course if & when we’ve gone too far….
B. More on #19: Language–our tool of tools
Part 1: Language–ultimate tool
[More on “climate charging,” “scale shifting,” & the relationship between language, awareness and reality may be added shortly.]
Seeds of Thought #18, June 2015, below, weaves a personal tribute from a few simple observations & a central idea with deep roots. There’s a follow-up on Basho’s last poems (“Ripples”), following, with another in progress (“Buddies from the Beginning,” more on Jan, the early years of FLVNWR, & the expanding universe as a neural network with its center everywhere). This picture of Jan “in her natural habitat” is from a few years ago, when the Albuquerque F&WS office sent its display trailer for the group to use at the county fair.
Asked if he had a last verse to leave behind at his journey’s end, Basho said that for some time he’d written each as his last. I’ve tried to follow that example in “Seeds,” addressing the ecological idea or issue then most pressing. News of Jan Arrott’s migration plans give rise to these thoughts now.
Not long back, I couldn’t have imagined a refuge friends group without her active presence as center of gravity, connecting wild and cultured worlds from her log nest at the refuge edge. Over the last dozen years, the group has become a resilient network, however, with members of different ages, skills and backgrounds drawn together by shared interests–including those that led to the establishment of the refuge fifty years ago. Both volunteer organization and refuge network have always been at heart community expressions.
The network idea seems very current in this era of social networking and world-wide-web, yet it was already central to ecological perspectives long before, as students of nature became aware of complex living communities with countless, often hidden threads knitting the web of life together. Not that ecologists were the first to adopt the metaphor.
When the scribe copying Basho’s Backcountry Trails in 1694 claimed its maker was “like that divine weaver whose every knot in the net of creation is a shining dew-drop jewel reflecting all,” he was alluding to what 3,000 year-old Sanskrit texts already called Indra’s web, a magical net in which each node contains an aspect of every other. Many cultures represent this connectedness interpenetrating all in similar ways—with hoops, loops, nets, weavings and webs.
Networking itself is far more ancient than any idea of it—seemingly a core organizing principle of all advanced multi-celled organisms, families and social groups, yet practiced even by single-cell organisms. In “quorum sensing,” for example, members of certain bioluminescent species only light up when gathered in a large enough group. Recent discoveries show networking in other single cell critters also, practiced in somewhat different ways between cells just split off from each other, more distant cousins, and members of other species.
I say “single-cell” above, but the distinction between individual and community can be a matter of the scale on which one looks, i.e., in the eye of the beholder. Organisms don’t live in a vacuum, but as part of communities with multiple relationships, languages and systems of exchange. As Aldo Leopold pointed out, what happens in one part of such an ecosystem affects all parts, according to connections often hidden in the rich complexity of the “land organism.”
Whether units of a network are cells within an organism, ants in a colony, birds in a flock, or humans with a common purpose, many of the same dynamics apply. The individual unit is never fully “bound” within itself, but functions as part of larger wholes also. Whether called the land, web of life, nature, living earth, flock, or community, these larger entities affect all their members, while each member affects the whole.
It’s been said that the universe surrounds us like a great circle with no boundary, whose center is everywhere. That can be said about networks also—whether of refuges or of friends. One such center will travel wherever Jan moves, then, returning with her, too, making any special occasion that much more so. Meanwhile, the birds in Santa Fe are in for a treat.
Follow-ups to #18:
“Ripples”: on Basho’s last poems–click below.
“Buds from the beginning“: on good will & the difference one person can make–ask;
“The universe as a neural network with centers everywhere“: a runaway?
Buds: Recollections on early FLVNWR history, plus reflections on Aldo, the nature of good will, caring & how synergy develops in networked systems–on request.
The universe as a neural network with centers everywhere: In progress, but probably a runaway beyond the scope here, though maybe up eventually on the Going Deeper page (or sent as attachment on request.
Seeds of Thought #17, below, came out March 2015. The pink heads rising out of the snow (in the photo by Gita) are from a barrel cactus. Seeds #16 & #15 are further down the scroll, each with follow-ups not previously published. [Seeds prior to #15 (fall 2014) can be found on Recent Seeds & Seeds Archive pages.]
Seeds of Thought (#17): Spring all over again…
Groundhog Day pops up roughly half-way between winter solstice and spring equinox, so calendars that regard solstices and equinoxes as seasonal mid-points locate the start of early spring and the new year near it, making it a time for beginning over with whatever added perspective prior experience may have provided. Like Bill Murray in the film “Groundhog Day,” we have a chance to pick up on repeated cues, hone intuitions, fine tune actions to outcomes….
In that sense, each day the sun rises can be groundhog day– yesterday all over, yet open to fresh vision. Seasons repeat this process at another order of magnitude without ever being quite the same year by year or day by day, let alone over a lifetime. Each season surprises, but spring most of all (at the moment), as the power of life reasserts itself out of recently frozen ground. For new vegetation stirring in hidden root and seed, deeply encoded memories take nothing away from the fresh experience, as softened soil fluffed by frost records countless fresh prints, goose feet, paws, beetle tracks and more. For myself, with more than seventy springs under my belt, I’m still surprised to be here at all, especially after a stretch of fierce winter storms and heart-chilling cold, thankful for wood-stored heat.
No matter how many re-generations seeds and shoots spring from, their only real knowledge may be how to sprout and grow, following directions coded over eons. Wisdom, if any, must come from what’s embedded by the larger whole over time, “remembered” in terms of how the self responds to what it finds, transforming molecules of air, water, and soil into its form(s). Seen in time-lapse photography, this transformation picks up speed when life stretches, breathes, feeds on and exchanges with the world that gives rise to and inhabits it. Though we try our best to anticipate what coming seasons have in store, our horizons, too, are limited.
A century ago, in an age of rapid encyclopedia expansion, some supposedly learned people believed humans knew, or were on the verge of knowing, just about everything important. The ageless Socrates, on the other hand, attributed his vaunted wisdom to an acute awareness of how little he actually knew. He taught the wisdom of inquiry, then, a way based on questioning, not presumption, as basic to the sciences as to philosophy. Like the child who follows each answer with another question, the student of nature finds new wonders to ponder with each discovery.
Never mind for now exotic things like quantum weirdness. There’s plenty to notice in what’s close at hand wherever life is–bursting its shells, rearing its oogly heads, responding to changing conditions, changing forms with the seasons and stages of development. A taste of the wild in the life of the planet revives wonder breath by breath, as even the most familiar paths cast up fresh observations, birds, flights of thought, and signs of the time (moment, day, season, life).
A cure for taking things too much for granted can be as simple as paying fresh attention; for a blind-spot, changing the angle of view; for incomplete understanding, another round of contemplation, step by step. For human folly (and the despairs thereof), at least there’s the tonic of spring– whose countless harbingers around here include robin, finch and meadowlark, mountain bluebird, beaver, bear and bud, whether critters in migration or year round residents.
Just don’t try to read the future in groundhog day shadows, as our local weather is rarely a question of either early spring or six more weeks of winter. Usually, it’s both, e.g., more than 70° yesterday (February 7), with snowstorms likely in months to come–with just enough déjà vu to shed light on the general direction.
After-thought #A: For more on time & calendars, click here:
~~~ Time & Basho’s calendar (2 pp.).
Part of an chapter on the joys of translating the 17th Century traveling poet Matsuo Basho, “Time & Basho’s calendar” aims to put the reader back in synch with the seasonal and planetary cycles.
It suggests how the more arbitrary calendar more widely used today, disconnected from natural time cycles, makes renewal of fundamental relations with nature all the more important.
At least so I thought I heard Ranger Beaver expound, explaining why one should never rely on a single groundhog shadow for weather predictions, especially as mis-translated & mis-interpreted by the conventional media hype from Phil’s “handlers.” The film “Groundhog Day” (written by Danny Rubin, from Santa Fe at one time) is much more profound than the media event being covered. As Murray’s reporter-character develops awareness of self & others through repeated “re-awakenings,” each old-new day becomes an opportunity to fine-tune attention, actions, and relationships.
After-thought #B: The Ecology of Pondering (in progress)
Aldo Leopold was a great ponderer—easily intrigued, not so easily satisfied with superficial answers. His persistence in following things to deeper levels, more complete conclusions & more comprehensive understanding made him not just a great ecologist and teacher of wildlife science, but one of the great whole-system thinkers of all time.
I was thinking specifically of him—along with Estella & each of their 5 offspring—in “Spring all over again” when mentioning the wise child following each answer with more questions. I recalled a time about a century ago when Aldo was working on grazing issues out of the Forest Service’s district office in Albuquerque. Some ranchers with an unusually high incidence of cow miscarriages asked for help.
Leopold soon determined that the immediate problem was apparently caused by these cows eating too many green pine-tips–dropped to the ground by a population explosion of squirrels. Many experts would have gotten just this far (miscarriages to pine tips to squirrels), concluding that too many squirrels were the “cause,” so reducing the squirrel population was the solution—thus, traps, poisons & shooting, for example.
Leopold, with his sense of more complete, eco-logical systems, realized that intelligent response meant first knowing why the squirrel population had gotten out of balance. With a little digging, he found that these same ranchers with the troubled cows had been shooting the hawks! The best solution—cheapest & most effective longer term, with fewest negative side effects—was as simple as stop shooting the hawks.
It was cultural, not technological, in other words. In fact, the technological proposals (traps, poisons, fire-power) were all bound to compound imbalances over the longer term, not cure them. Did you get that? The foundation of the system the ranchers were drawing on was organic & ecological, not technological. Technology may play a supportive role, but the health of the organic system is what counts most.
For an actual remedy or longer term cure, one needs to get not just to the first possible symptomatic intervention (e.g., squirrel numbers), but to the actual source of the imbalance itself, particularly where human actions are involved, as here, the ultimate cause that needs the changing, if for no other reason than self-interest.
Over some decades he came to realize a similar economics prevailed in the case of other predators for which some with shorter-term perspective maintained an active trigger itch. It turned out the value these brought to the health of the productive systems as a whole far, far out-weighed the small cost from domestic predation, yet the values of informed management were all-too-often “blindly sacrificed” by those who saw only the most superficial aspects of short-term economics, itself often out of balance in similar ways.
A funny thing about good will, meanwhile—wherever it seems to be directed, it tends to benefit all. In the example here, it can start out as good will for cows, ranchers, trees, squirrels, hawks, wildlife in general, or even oneself, yet end up of benefit to the whole system that nourishes them all, not one part of the system at the expense of the others.
Here’s the column from the December 2014 issue, with two follow-ups.
Seeds of Thought (#16): Interplay
In an on-line game design course from MIT, a class member recently indicated an interest in “helping people connect with nature.” A working group was formed to experiment with possibilities. Of the two sometimes overlapping kinds of nature-focused games–those designed to develop informed attention in natural settings and those representing ecological themes, but playable more or less anywhere—we’re mostly focused on the latter.
Asking myself what helps people connect with nature, I suddenly realized that’s exactly what Friends, refuge staff and, indeed, refuges themselves do every day. Never mind for the moment what it means for people to think themselves disconnected. What do refuges do to “renew connections never entirely lost,” as Aldo Leopold put it?
In his 1933 text, Game Management, Leopold pointed out that a refuge was “an integral part of a larger area,” for which it performed various functions, starting with supporting the vitality, variety and sustainability of its wildlife resources. He understood early on that the “larger area” included the human community. For a refuge to nourish wildlife sustainably, it must also nourish the larger community’s awareness of the values served.
Of course it’s the experience of nature itself that has the most immediate impact–land, sky, inspiring vistas, birds coming and going, mix of vegetation, wild energies in the air and ground, and endlessly surprising wildlife, all seemingly happening by itself. Look closer though, and it’s not always so obvious where human worlds end and natural worlds begin. Clouds, storms, mountains and migrations may look like pure nature, along with that eagle on its snag. But humans have been busy here, too, planting crops, designing paths and ponds, even perhaps placing that snag, all with visitor experience in mind, so humans and birds alike may feel invited, nourished, at home, with a stake in that place.
I’m moved every time by the care taken to make our refuge so welcoming, informative and enjoyable for everyone, reflected in the warm greeting, variety of exhibits, hands-on play areas, observation posts and surrounding trails. Throw in an occasional children’s chorus, jazz band, native flute, rehabilitated raptor, archery lesson, informative talk with slideshow, butterfly release–and boundaries disappear between art and nature, land and culture, learning and living. The shared good will that nourishes geese and cranes outside nourishes the person and community inside as well.
Like ecology, game-making tends to be both individually creative and collaborative, involving a variety of arts. Ideally, the resulting play tunes into, reflects and evokes feeling for key aspects of the worlds represented, whether played alone or in a group. I’m putting online some thoughts about more specific game possibilities and an invitation to collaborate, plus an overview of the territory and a “Thinking Like a Mountain” experiment you can try with 15 pebbles.
Eventually, we may add games from groups like the Leopold Education Project, though our focus remains on new designs that extend the play beyond natural settings. What might an “Enchanted Flyway,” “Refuge Network,” “Nature-Connect” or even “Game Management” game end up being like? To help design, or explore game topics further, check out our new website at www.bodlibrary.net.
For more thoughts on play in nature, the functions served, and the human-nature relationship, check out the follow-up discussions below. Otherwise, for renewing your sense of connection with nature, check out a universe or refuge near you! You’ll be thankful, too, for friends who appreciate both sides of our living community—human and wild– enough to serve their mutual well-being with such good will. [11/7/14]
Follow up 1 (Interplay 2): Nature Connecting Games
For our purposes, there are two kinds of Nature Connection games (with overlap). One kind uses game-play to enhance observation, exploration and discovery in nature. The other kind represents ecological themes, concepts and/or dynamics for play outside of the natural setting. Like photographs, poems, articles, paintings, and even place-inspired music, games can draw both content and inspiration from an original source, then extend the connection beyond the single setting….
[To follow the rest of this discussion, with an overview of nature-connecting games and thoughts on particular experiments and possibilities, click here.]
Follow-up 2 (Interplay 3)–A Shared Journey
(the play between one & many)– Click Pdf. below to open.
[The following ran in the September issue 2014, in time for the annual Concert for the Birds.]
Seeds of Thought (#15): What the birds have to say…
Bird languages may be more varied even than ours. Whether announcing a territory, finding a food source, issuing an invitation, keeping in touch with others, sounding an alarm, improvising arias for the joy of it or just reporting on the state of the world from that branch-tip, voices are as recognizable to their flock-mates as human voices are to us. Composed of individuals with sometimes conflicting interests (as may be expressed in expletives of screech and squabble), a flock can also function as a single-minded entity with many neurons, eyes, ears, mouths and throats, connected partly by threads of sound.
Attentive listeners, birds vocalize across an amazing range—from heart-stopping meadowlark and operatic hermit thrush to the sheer brain power and mind-boggling imitations of magpie, mynah and macaw; from soft owl hoot to piercing hawk, reverberating kookaburra to echo-skipping loon; from cheerful chickadee, liquid warbler and amiably clear-toned grosbeak to the geese’s gift-of-gab and the deep-throated conversations of cranes—to cite a small sample, each in turn changing with context and circumstances.
Bird language is not just oral, but also gestural and mimetic, conveyed by movement, as well as by sight and airflow-feel in flocks. Cues and inflections are directly expressive (as well as impressive) without distinctions between feeling, meaning, message, medium, or massage. Sight and sound circuits work seamlessly for us, too, even without actual sounds, as when “hearing” thoughts inwardly while reading. Both birds and humans share a wide variety of communications using whatever voices and sense(s) we have at hand.
With more distance folded up between intent and content, end and means, humans have more room for tactical deception, but birds have some ability to misdirect also, as when drawing attention away from a nest or sounding as if somewhere else to those without the right shift key. (A domestic macaw I knew could call and scold the dog, bark back, and punctuate its performance with choice commentary, more of an artistic rendition of its sound-world than a deception—except to the dog.) Birds aren’t above misleading, teasing and playing tricks, but these aren’t the norm, which usually involves vocalizing what’s felt and feeling just what’s said.
That doesn’t necessarily mean sweetness and light. Birds can let us know in no uncertain terms what they think of poor manners, some even as nestlings. In the wild, we adjust our distance and speed according to the range particular birds consider respectful for that situation, since the avian flight response is so easily triggered by sudden movements from large, animated forms like ours–perhaps part of how ‘flight’ got off the ground, taking to the air, in the first place. If they hadn’t had water and mud, frogs might have developed wings, too. The leap is so direct, sudden and compressed–not waiting around for translation.
Despite the human capacity to speak tactically (and consequent reputation for having forked tongues), our language use is more often honest and direct, connecting individuals in a web of shared vibrations. Like the birds, we use it to exchange information and perspective, find and serve a common purpose, make music, and have fun. Being such a noisy species, however, exposure to the natural soundscape becomes especially valuable to us, re-tuning our instruments to what land and earth have to say–not just the birds, but the whole “children’s chorus” of creation, though with special respect and admiration for the avian jazz all-stars!
Our own arts benefit in the exchange, including decision-making and management, where listening to each voice informs the guidance for all. Musicians learn this principle in practice by playing together, at once listening and expressing, making and responding, giving and receiving. Friends find similar inspiration, reconnection and renewal enjoying land, birds, music and each other, gathering good will for each and all.
[For more thoughts on “Music, noise & meaning,” “Living in a flock,” & “What birds have to say,” check below.]
Fight & flight: Though many little darters rely mostly on speed, alertness, and agility, favoring flight over fight for survival, birds as a whole are far from fight-less, whether with each other or with other species. Though rarely, even sociable parakeets can occasionally get into it with the ferocity of fighting cocks, quite loudly. Nestlings, if disturbed, sometimes go still & silent, but they can also hiss, cackle & rattle.
Larger birds can really do some damage, &/or hold their own, like crane with tiger in some martial arts. Nevertheless, with a few notable exceptions (at least one flightless), unprovoked bird attacks on humans are rare. Most birds are too bright to make trouble over nothing, the same for most people–particularly bird watchers, who tend to be good listeners.
Inter-species communication: A flock that recognizes who’s been feeding it, or a personable crow, may speak quite directly to us, eliciting an intended response. Corvids are just some of those who have shown they recognize individual humans. Parrots are notorious, of course, for learning to speak the languages of those nearby, including humans, although with varying degrees of comprehension. [There’ll be more on this topic in “Living in a flock,” when it gets up below.]
Language web: Birds and humans aren’t the only creatures with something to say to each other. Vocal communication seems to be a broadly shared aspect of being alive, from crickets & frogs to porpoises & whales, coyotes & elephants. Never mind for now languages we hear only with sensitive instruments, given off by bats or plants, or written in scent-trails. Our inability to hear or read in a range doesn’t mean nothing’s going on there. Nor does it mean we don’t pick up some information even so.
The same may be said for languages we don’t understand. In The American Rhythm, Santa Fe poet Mary Austin claimed she could often tell where recorded native songs in languages she didn’t recognize had come from, from how they reflected the rhythms of their land & its prevailing conditions. It’s easier to pick up the emotional state of creature-generated sound perceived directly, what’s expressed & what’s received, than other kinds of information. Words aren’t required, and effects can be quite contrary to verbal content, as in the cradle-crashing lyrics of the comforting lullaby, “Rock-a-bye Baby.”
Despite widespread misconceptions to the contrary, neither languages nor communication in general require intent. Language is ultimately another term for medium or vehicle of (information) exchange. On a lower scale, we hardly know much about the languages by which our own cells & organic systems communicate with each other, let alone how they converse with the rest of the world.
It’s now known that bacterial communicate with each other & with their environment as a whole, with a sense of things like population density, adjusting their own activities accordingly. Not just in a petri dish either, as “their people talk with our people” on levels mostly beyond our awareness. It doesn’t just take a village to keep us going, in other words, but a diverse & mixed ecology of sub-organisms.
To be alive requires exchange with surroundings, as well as with others, on countless levels, many unconscious, others subliminal. To be aware, on the other hand, requires a fine tuning where receiver & received meet.
Speaking of meeting, the 2014 Concert for the Birds is scheduled for Sept. 28, noon to 4, outdoors at the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge Visitor’s Center, featuring a children’s chorus, a jazz quartet & the usual suspects. One can easily see how las vegas got its name, not just where the mountain meet the plains (& sometimes vice versa), but where the human & wild converse.
Here are a few more snapshots from earlier concerts, starting with one of George ‘Deer Tracks’ Tyler playing two nose-flutes at once at the very first of these now annual gatherings.