46. Twitter (08/2011)
Eavesdropping nearly always raises a smile and feelings of frustration from gleaning incomplete information. While overhearing a flock of perched pied starlings chatting all afternoon in the old ash tree I found myself engrossed in their lively conversation that ebbed and flowed mellifluously. Sometimes a single voice stated an opinion, and then another would answer back and perhaps get several responses. At times the party got very excited and started talking all at once until a sharp interjection delivered with an air of authority shut up the whole bunch momentarily. From time to time a few birds would fly off and others arrived. And so it went on for ages: crescendo, decrescendo, forte, pianissimo, solo, ensemble, challenges, retorts, musings, gossip, nit-picking, laughter and tears.
Roberts’ song elucidation for the species ‘skwee-skwee-skwee, skwik, skweer-skweer, skik-skik’, chirrup-chirrup etc. seemed hopelessly inadequate. Ag shame, we poor humans oversimplify our perception of animal communication to the point of embarrassment. The complex array of sounds emanating from these birds, their language, clearly understood amongst them is lost on most of us.
Trying to decipher unfamiliar banter reminds me of a trip to Thailand where I became fascinated with the Thai language. At first the sound of Thai was gobbledygook to me. Later I understood the expressionistic nature of their communication, and that one word could have a dozen meanings depending on the tone used. I gradually became accustomed to the patterns and began to interpret some meaning. It is similar with birdsong and other delicate animal languages. Piet-my-vrou or hadeda may at first sound like they are repeating the same call and yet each rendition varies in barely perceptible ways to us. These subtle variations are the key to overcoming the complexities of talking with other animal species on earth.
Animals don’t just make sounds for the sake of it. Clear communication is always the reason. If most of us couldn’t be bothered to learn another human language, how can we begin to comprehend what the animals are trying to say? When the majority of people don’t know how to listen to others speak in their own tongue how can animals’ voices be heard, let alone understood? It’s not always the words that matter, but the sound of loneliness, joy, enthusiasm, hunger, pain, sadness, or love emanating that remains the same whether you’re a mouse squeaking or Judi Dench reciting Shakespeare.
The legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthūm, also known as the ‘Planet of the East’ became famous for her extended songs that would continue at length, sometimes for hours, often repeating a line up to fifty times, but never in the same way twice. With each reiteration she was able to emphasize different aspects of the poetic line and impart new meaning by altering her voice tone, volume, colour, pitch, or duration of the notes. Much like an olive thrush I singled out in the dawn chorus the other day who made an enchanting, continuously varied evocation of the emerging light.
Beethoven was criticized for including the almost literal sound of a cuckoo in his sixth symphony. But these obvious notes could also just be the key for insights into the myriad harmonies and meanings portrayed in the composition that appeal to the enlightened many, where obscure tunes are appreciated by too few. So when Polly the parrot mimics “Hello!” pathetic as her concession to the lack of human imagination may be, there is poignancy in her timing that may just tweak the consciousness of the guffawing pranksters who believe that animals don’t speak.
And when it seems like there is no audible sound, we still can’t claim that animals are mute because we have forgotten how to fathom those unexclaimed melodies. But we are reminded of their existence by not being able to hear the better part of bat, dolphin, or elephant communication.
Something just occurred to me.