The Reluctant Ornithologist, Part 1

1. “Where Two or More Are Gathered In My Name, There Will I Be Also.”

I had been buying a lot of birds. Not just one- but three. Their verbal flourishes dominated my every preoccupation. My heart became a sonogram of bird calls. Every thought I had hovered around birds. Che-wee-wee-ooo (which is the song that one of my bird sang), chip-chip-chip-chip (which is the sound of another) and tissy-che-wee-ooo (the sound of the third) all rang through my ears day and night. It was as if my head had been converted into and aviary. From where this sudden fascination with birds initially came from, I am with only one idea. It must of happened while I was in a hysterical state of anxiety, trying to calm myself on my back porch. For whatever reason, my ears clasped onto a seraphic song that sounded like this:

Chee chew chee chew chee
Chew-cheer cheer cheer
Chew chew chew chee
-up cheer up cheer up
tweet tweet tweet tweet jug jug jug.

I looked around to find the sound and noticed what looked like a nightingale singing in an apple tree. When I got up to have a closer look the bird was gone- and so was my anxiety. The bird’s song was the most salient sound I had ever heard before. After that memorable day I began to listen to bird songs. When I went on walks or sat outside I opened the aviary gates with my ears. The more I listened the more each note seemed sweeter than before. It was as if I was drinking the sound. My heart began to settle into a gentle hum rather than its previous frightening variations of tones and rhythms. I knew that the English romantics were blown away by the beauty of bird strophes and meters, which threw them into despair, awe and raw inspiration. However, something not terribly different was happening to me. The more I tuned into the songs of birds the more I could relate to that most American of bards, Walt Whitman, who was always singing about the joy of being alive.

Such joy is aberrant and unusual to me. I have often thought that I was condemned to a life in the mental bush. My mood swings have always been irregular and my feeling of hopelessness and despair less than melodious. My songs were never that of a mockingbird who is able to mimic many tongues at once, but rather that of madman unable to reconcile what he himself needs in order to live in peace. After taking the time to concentrate upon bird song- I began to feel like the meaning that I have always been seeking lies in the rhythms of the real world. And then one day, completely unexpected- I happened upon a poem:

Could they be birds that sung so well?
I thought, and maybe more than I,
That music’s self had left the sky
To cheer me with its magic strain,
And then I hummed the words again
Til fancy pictured standing by
My hearts companion flies in the sky.

I took this as a sign, an omen- not to be ignored. After work that day I heeded the call and spent three hundred dollars on my first bird.

Despite the fact that Keats and Coleridge wrote so much about the melancholy bird, I myself wanted to buy a nightingale. Keats referred to this bird’s song as “a love chant that disburthen his full soul of all its music,” and I wanted to own this sound in my house. However, the two bird stores that I went to did not carry the nightingale, whose melodies are said to burst with love, so I settled upon the next best thing- a thrasher. The man who sold it to me said “her sounds will make you laugh,” which I did when I heard the bird sing ShuckitShuckitSowit-PloughitPloughitHoeit! I knew she was the bird for me when the clerk said, “If you search for a single parameter to define this bird’s song, you will be barking up the wrong tree. This bird is an absurdist.” When I brought the little red thrasher home my wife was overtly surprised by my purchase. I had not told her about my bird revelations and not until I brought the bird home did we talk about it.

As the days passed my wife and I wanted another bird in the house. We both loved the natural sound of the bird songs that deeply involved our minds in the world of birds and drew us into a unique music that made us more aware of the immediacy of the natural world. The bird songs cancelled out the synthetic urban sounds of cars, stereo’s, aircraft and sirens that surrounded our abode. One Sunday I took my wife to a small pet store where we picked out our second bird- whose songs, my wife said, reminded her of Bach. The sparrow was not cheap but when the bird seller told us that the bird had 24 different song motifs- we decided to take it. We bought separate food for the sparrow and as we were walking out to the car, the bird which was in a box sung a song that reminded me of Verdi’s Rigoletto: Wertz, wertz, wertz, weet-weet-weet-weet-weet-spee-ge-wee-ge-dee. I was both amazed and inspired and while driving back to what would soon become our insane aviary/house- my wife looked at me and said “I love this bird.”

Having two birds in the house created a new vernacular between my wife and I. We were using more words like “beauty,” “joy,” and “love” rather than our previous lexicon of “bug,” “mean,” “frustrated,” and “jerk.” A new sense of well being came over our home and I was experiencing a remission from the anxiety that had been tormenting me for so long. We woke up in the morning to chip chip chee yer zig zig zig zig; chee chee chiddle hair terpee terpee terpee and tee tee tee eeeyer huffum huffum huffum. We named the sparrow Miro and the thrasher Dali. My ears filled with moments of excitement and exaltation as I listened to my bird’s songs. I finally understood what Aldous Huxley meant when he said, “bird song is simply an outlet, the most pleasurable one.” I began to whistle more and brood less. In the walkway of our small home my wife and I hung a sign that said “The birds sing blissfully until the joy is so great as to be unbearable: this joy cannot be heard from afar, but if you come near it, you will succumb.”

Then I impulsively bought the third bird- the one my wife and I would come to call Mozart The Terrible. It was a small green parakeet that sung astonishingly beautiful music. Her songs sounded like four instruments that weave in and out through unusual harmonies, rhythms derived from ancient India and Greek music, and impressionistic chords that rise up towards a sonic heaven. I stood there in awe as the bird seller told me that this parakeet was a truly innovative composer, a paragon of avian song. “The great thing about the songs of birds is that they are opposite of time. Only the sound of birds lasts longer than the greatest of composers,” she said to me as she packaged up my bird. I remembered what my grandfather told me about how in his darkest hours of gloom, when he suddenly became aware of his own futility- he would listen to Mozart. The sounds that came from the parakeet who waited in the box for me to pay the sixty dollars, sounded like an electronic alchemist, a hallucination of purity. I could hear a violin, a cello and a bass all in the birds single meticulous call. As I left the pet store, with my bird in a bag, I asked the pet seller again if she was sure it would okay to keep the parakeet in the same cage as the thrasher and the sparrow. “It will be like a beautiful musical composed by God,” she said as she held the door open for me with a smile I will never forget. Little did I know then that the supposed beautiful musical gathering of Mozart with the two other birds would become a blade to my inner ear, my marriage and what was left of my sanity.

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