A Row of Trees
The Journal of The Sonic Art Research Unit
Evening has come, and the sky turns grey. Autumn creeps in through the dampness, and spreads out on the small public garden under our house. Michael draws my attention to the sounds of chirping and squeaking above our heads. I raise my gaze and am surprised to discover a large group of microbats, circling swiftly around us, charging the air, making it thick with their presence, yet still remaining almost transparent relative to their surroundings. Fluttering through the air, the essence of their movement and accumulated energy is chilling in its tenderness and fragility, existing in parallel with the human activity below them, which they seem not to notice at all, continuing on with certainty, adamantly.
The little alley down the street is now filled with green and yellow tinted leaves. For one brief moment, outside the local and private context, I imagine the alley blending in naturally in a distant land, far from here. A man sits regularly on one of the alley’s benches, staring ahead, his gaze taking him from the ‘here and now’ to a different, inaccessible place. Sometimes, fruit bats swoop through the alley during the day in rapid low flight, causing me to duck quickly, in a kind of involuntary reflex. Sometimes, when returning to a vertical position, I notice one of the bats enjoying the fruit of the chinaberry tree.
My thoughts on this written account began with the desire to observe the birds around me and record their movement in space, while contemplating distant times when the practice of bird-watching was commonplace and used sometimes as a source for divination: predictions, decision-making and as a tool for making sense of the everyday world. I first came across Calchas, son of Thestor, at the opening of Homer’s Iliad, where he was said to be “the clearest by far of all the seers who scan the flight of birds. He knew all things that are, all things that are past and all that are to come”. While reading various literary sources, it dawned on me that alongside ‘the divine seers’, there were also quite a few dismissive voices… “Then Eurymachus, son of Polybus, answered him, and said: Old man, up now, get thee home and prophesy to thy children, lest haply in days to come they suffer ill. In this matter I am better far than thou to prophesy. Many birds there are that fare to and fro under the rays of the sun, and not all are fateful.” And so, I found myself thinking about the two forces that exist in space, in observation and in thought, pulling simultaneously in two opposite directions: The first, which can withstand gravity (the wonder of flight), and the second, which dismisses it with a swift wave of the hand. An interesting expression of this contrast can be found in Aristophanes’s play The Birds, which expresses man’s dual relationship towards the animal world: both wonder – “No soul can have seen where I buried my stuff, unless peradventure a bird” – and the typically ingrateful human behaviour, where Pithetaerus, the protagonist, crowns himself king of the birds, after they repeatedly come to his aid throughout the play.
Esther Raab (1894-1981) was one of the first native Israeli poets and writers. In her last interview, conducted by Helit Yeshurun in the summer of 1980, Raab expresses, in her unique style, the identification she feels toward the winged creatures,
“One word can inspire a poem. It is quite peculiar. For a time, something approaches me. Bird-like, subliminal. For me, ideas come guided by birds. The sparrows taught me how to sing, that’s how I would usually describe it. For I feel as a bird. I take off with them, ascending out of poverty and sorrow.
A Bee-eater. What is a bee-eater? Let me tell you a little about it. I have known birds. I have loved them. Huge pests, they were. We had beehives, and the bee-eaters ate the bees. My elder brother would shoot them, and I would cry. A bee-eater nests in the walls of rivers. It digs a hole in the stiff Hamra soil. It does not nest in trees. Did you know that some birds nest in soil? The bee-eater is one of them. It is exceptional. When it soars, it disappears from view. And it does not sing. It speaks sounds, Tau, Tau, Tau… Sometimes in alto, sometimes – soprano. […] It has two scales. So there. One evening I heard a melancholy whistle. Tau… Tau… Tau… What bird has come to me? What was it? After all, I knew all those that nest.
Then, I realized it was a bee-eater. It did not stop. I knew bee-eaters; I have held their dead in the palm of my hand and I have cried over them. This bird’s back was golden. Its wings were blue. A blue much like the winter sky. A deep blue. And it cried, Tau… Tau… As if it were human. You could hear the sadness within… After all, it’s a bee-eater. So I wrote a poem. It does all of its singing from up in the air. You can hardly see it. It only reveals its tail.”
A eucalyptus leaf clings and curls in the air until finally succumbing to gravity. Its slow downward motion makes my gaze move towards the chinaberry tree beneath which I sit, my body dissolving into the concrete. A great tit is revealed in the tree’s foliage; it comes in and out of sight until only its singing is heard in cycles within the jumble of voices coming from the garden and the nearby streets: the humming of the air conditioners, the burbling of water in the pond, and the rumbling of the passing cars and motorcycles further away. A common kingfisher leaps upwards from the ornamental pond located at the eastern part of the garden and lands on the left side of the tree.
A little further, near the playground: The smell of grilled meat, music is playing in the background.
Everyday wonders are revealed as a surprise, in a momentary and unconscious letting-go of the self, in the departure of the body from the place where it has been, turning towards another place, in creating a space between ‘here’, and ‘there’. A kind of vertical draft drawn in a vacuum from organized time.
“Bodies are always about to leave, on the verge of a movement, a fall, a gap, a dislocation. (Even the simplest departure is just this: the moment when some body is no longer there, right here where it was. The moment it makes room for a lone gulf in the spacing that is it itself. A departing body carries its spacing away, itself gets carried away as spacing, and somehow it sets itself aside, withdraws into itself while leaving its very spacing ‘behind’ – as one says – in its place, with this place remaining its own, at once absolutely intact and absolutely abandoned.) For it is the absence of the body and yet nevertheless the body itself.”
This subtle gentle transformation between a separate body-mind experience, offensively technical and essentially passive, and a presence whose boundaries strive to blur in space, happened one day on my way to the dental clinic. I arrived early and decided to head towards a nearby park to wait for the appointed time. I walked along a cul-de-sac, at the end of which stood a row of parked cars, which served only as a crossing point for people getting in and out of their vehicles. The sun was beating down on me, and the heat that had accumulated in my body radiated a pleasant warmth. I pondered whether to continue walking to the park, which was about twenty meters away, beyond another staircase and a road, and finally decided to stay right where I was. My gaze, which was drawn to the ground, now extended upwards and forwards, astonishment and wonder spread through my body, “the psyche’s extended”, in Freud’s words.
Ten swallows cutting the air in a very limited volume, bouncing playfully from one point to another, stopping for a moment and then diving again, dashing upwards with a swing, in sharp movements which create the space for one’s consciousness to leap towards them, again and again. Why did the swallows choose to perform their ritual in this non-distinct place, and not in the expansive park, rich with vegetation, across the street? The show continues, and I feel the air around me charge and thicken with the rapid flight of the swallows. Now, I have to dislocate my body from this here and now and make my way to the dentist clinic ‘there’.
When exiting the bowels of the earth, the weather is several degrees cooler than in my hometown by the sea. The sky is somewhat grey. In the east, a crow flies, soaring above the rectangular roof of the railway station, with its western circular window. A drilling noise, its source unseen, reverberates in the air at a steady tempo.
Two magnificent doves, whose kind I do not recognize, boast a beautiful crimson ring around their necks. I imagine them as nuns from the nearby Russian church. Are these Eurasian collared doves? I cannot be sure. A large group of common mynas takes off from the ruins of an Arab house, soaring above me. The ruins, now a part of the park, make it almost transparent. The sky turns grey.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Albrecht Dürer’s 1512 painting Wing of a European Roller, is, ultimately, the weight of the bird’s wing, elusively difficult to estimate, placed on a yellowish skin-toned leather parchment. The parchment’s dead skin serves as a memento mori for the bird’s wing, and summons a fragmentary coming-together of parts of dead creatures. The year and Dürer’s pagoda-like signature, written in red in the upper and lower parts of the wing, respectively, present the painter’s gaze on the European Roller’s beautiful wing, as both an independent and aesthetic object, a still-life detail, or perhaps – still-time where we (still) have all the time in the world to look at the wing. The wing is positioned unconventionally for the human observer: its upper part, usually hidden during the bird’s flight, directly faces the observer’s eye. The wing exposes itself to the viewer’s lingering and leisurely gaze, giving viewers the opportunity to take a close look at what is usually not so directly visible. Bird watching is normally done from the opposite perspective: with us humans standing on the ground and looking up at the sky. Here, the world is turned upside-down, and the human gaze gets to see the wing from above. This is undoubtedly an attractive spectacle, which makes us forget the broader context, allowing viewers to marvel at Dürer’s virtuosity and the sheer beauty revealed to them. But such observation carries with it also a terrifying understanding, dawning from above, silent, like an object in rapid free-fall, with no ability to resist gravity.
My gaze slowly opens up to the nature reserve located on the city’s outskirts, its very existence – the result of accelerated industrialization and population growth in the middle of the 20th century. The sky is a light blue. All around me, everything is still, allowing for my nearly complete assimilation into the surroundings. The silence is only momentarily disturbed by a passing scooter or distant echoes. First to reveal itself is a flock of seagulls, grouped almost motionlessly on the water surface. We advance further on the dirt path and discover a large flock of flamingos on the other side of the path. Now the silence is clear. The flamingos are grouped in a large cluster, and several small groups are scattered around, busying themselves. For no apparent reason, we find ourselves diverting our gaze back to the seagulls. What hidden cause has made us do so? We cannot know for sure. But now, vigorous activity is observed, and in a flash restlessness and a sharp, fretful, movement spreads throughout. All at once, several seagulls take off, leaving the group, soaring quickly upwards. After a while, a little to their right, we notice some kind of bird of prey (despite my great love for birds, I have yet to improve my bird-recognizing skills). It glides towards the group, blending within, and splitting the group into subgroups, while causing continued frenzied soaring. The raptor and seagulls continue to soar upwards in circles until they leave our sight, becoming mere tiny spots. Far away on the horizon are buffaloes; motionless to our eyes and planted like dark greyish dots in the swamp’s plain.
The bird populations mingle among themselves, and a bunch of domestic pigeons naturally intertwines with rose-ringed parakeets. One already knows the other, and it seems there is no longer any enmity between the species. They approach a puddle close to the public restrooms and drink from it unhindered.
Alfred Sisley, primarily an impressionist landscape painter, presents before our eyes a by-product of opposing forces in action. The heron, whose wings are spread, is deprived of the ability to fly and succumbs to gravity; its legs are bound at their extremities to allow it to be displayed in an unnatural position, sprawled on its back, presenting us with its impressive wingspan and with the possibility of flight that will no longer be realized. The opposite potential, opposed to gravity, is paradoxically to be found in the rifle, hidden in the dark, back part, of the painting. The rifle, the inanimate weapon responsible for the heron’s fall from the sky, is shown vertically propped up on its brown wooden stock, delineating the causal space of occurrence, the results of which are now presented to us.
Rare audio recordings (made in the 1940s and 1950s) serve as a further chilling illustration of the result shown in Sisley’s painting. The recordings acquaint us with the hunting culture in the American frontier, and with the various methods used by bird hunters to deceive and outsmart their prey (with both the human voice and special wooden whistles developed for this very purpose – duck/bird callers).
Here, too, we can witness the upsurge of the human force plucking birds from the skies, which become emptier and emptier. An example of an opposite tendency can be found in Charles Kellogg (1868-1949), who was perhaps a late incarnation of “the Hoopoe, Tereus, the man who changed into a bird” from Aristophanes’s play, The Birds. As opposed to Tereus, who retired from the human world, Kellogg returned to share with humans his insights as a “bird man” and educate them regarding the importance of conserving nature. As part of the self-mythology he cultivated, he recounted how he could sing like a bird.
“Birds sing not with vocal cords but with a series of half rings in the throat called the syrinx. I was born with the gift of singing like a bird. And the scientists have discovered that the reason for this is in the formation of my throat which is identical with that of a bird. The lark, the thrush, the nightingale, all singing birds have many rings or half rings in the throat and can sing many songs.”
There’s no knowing whether even he believed this story, which he repeated over the years in his performances. Nevertheless, its importance lies in his “becoming a bird” in front of people, mediating the natural world and making it accessible to the American audience. In his first newspaper article from 1902, ‘The wickedness and folly of killing birds,’ Kellogg called for putting an end to the massive shooting of birds which could lead to the depletion, and even extinction, of some bird species. He left us a legacy of a series of recordings, more than a century old, in which we can reencounter his voice, a songbird resonating through the dust of history, preserved within the record’s grooves. Some of his recordings included his vocal imitations of songbirds accompanied by musical instruments, in an attempt to create a harmonious synergy, one befitting the period, between nature and culture. In other recordings, more didactic in nature, Kellogg told stories from the prairie and demonstrated by means of imitation. The last of these recordings includes a multi-channelled conversation, in which Kellogg breaks into a lively dialogue with another recording of himself, allowing him to create a ‘bird choir’ using the technique of overdubbing, many years before this technique became common.
The sky, now an opaque grey, clears. A fruit bat flutters in the park’s pond, collecting some drops of water before moving on. Its rapid flight pins me to the spot. It continues flying from north to south towards the Ficus treetop, settling for a moment on one of the branches and chasing away a tiny bird [Sparrow? Prinia?], whose characteristics darken in front of my eyes, as it crosses the space in the opposite direction. The bat repeats its ritual, immersing itself in the water and soaring upwards, a few more times, each time looking for a different tree to land on. A crow exits the pond and stands on its edge, its wet and messy feathers making its body look inflated, after its morning bath. A blue-breasted kingfisher lands in the western part of the pond. A heron stands still under a tree, looking at a carpet of water lilies and waiting. Another crow, flying in a straight line from the pond, lands to my left, above my head.
Darkness descends, and the day nears its end. A bright white seagull flies south in a series of rhythmic wing-flaps above the train station roof, resembling a wave, towards another wavy roof. Between the two silent and awkward waves, a road is too busy. The wavy imagery chosen by the station designer for the station’s roof, perhaps referring to the river that once flowed here and has since turned into a multi-lane highway, is somewhat crude, mocking the passers-by. I try to cross the road quickly. Cars block the intersection; the traffic collapses into itself. The evening sky is empty, and it seems as if this is the only seagull left in the entire world.
Homer. The Iliad, Book 1. Translated by Robert Fagles. Penguin Classics. 1990.
Homer. The Odyssey, Book 2. Translated by A. T. Murray. Loeb Classical Library. 1919.
Aristophanes. The Birds. Pg 68. Translated by Gilbert Murray. Allen and Unwin. 1950. The Hebrew translation of the play cites Ecclesiastes 10:20 for the second part of this sentence, a more suitable wording for my cause here is: “for a bird of the air shall carry the voice”
Dror Burstein. For the Birds. Pg 151-152. Yedioth Ahronoth. 2019.
Jean-Luc Nancy. Corpus. Pg 33. Translated by Richard A. Rand. Fordham University Press. 2008.
Sigmund Freud, posthumous note from 22 August 1938. “Psyche ist ausgedehnt: Weiss nichts davon.” (“The psyche’s extended: knows nothing about it.”)
In one of the recordings, from 01:50 to the end, we witness a live recording of a hunt, at the end of which shots are heard: ‘Here’s the way Russ and Roy work together in their favourite marsh’.