The bird pictured at right (credit Roland Jordahl) is a Swainson’s Thrush, a regular summer visitor here on Bowen Island. Like most birds, it has both “songs” and “calls”. The songs tend to be more melodious and variable — each bird’s is slightly different. The calls are simpler, standard and more abrupt. Here is the song, followed by the call, of the Swainson’s Thrush.
I imagine that songs and calls convey entirely different types of messages. Songs, I think, are a bird’s way of expressing herself — what she feels and who she is. Calls, I would think, are urgent messages to the flock or potential flockmates, such as “come” or “danger”.
Some smarter birds, like the corvids and parrots, are excellent mimics. They have such a vast repertoire of others’ songs and calls (those of other birds, people, animals and even inanimate sounds) that we rarely hear their own song. Yet according to ornithologist Bernd Heinrich, ravens, when alone, will sing themselves to sleep. Only in private moments, perhaps, do they sing their own true song.
There is a theory espoused by some scientists that wild creatures spend the bulk of their lives in “Now Time”, a kind of recursive time-out-of-time that stretches out seemingly forever — what we feel sometimes when we say that “time has stopped”. In these moments out of time, the theory says, these creatures are utterly present, totally a part of the oneness of all-life-on-Earth.
In moments of stress, they quickly snap out of Now Time into Clock Time, when instincts of fight-or-flight kick in, adrenaline pumps, the mind and heart race to keep up with the sudden break-neck pace of time, and all their energies are focused on identifying and responding appropriately to the source of stress.
I imagine that birds’ calls are mostly alerts to shift out of Now Time into Clock Time. Then, once the cause of the stress is gone, the creature quickly re-enters Now Time, with soft clucks of comfort that signal “all clear”, when the creature is free to sing her song once again.
I wonder if the “smarter” creatures on our planet have fewer songs and more calls by virtue of their (our) greater awareness of all the potential dangers and their (our) greater population density (a result of evolutionary success and adaptive skill) — to the point we end up so chronically stressed we never have the opportunity to shift into Now Time. Perhaps we lose the capacity to do so entirely, from lack of opportunity and practice.
This would seem to be the message of many New Age pundits — that we need to find ways and practices to rediscover this presence, slow our lives down to relearn the capacity to enter into Now Time, the seemingly eternal present.
Artists, I think, have this sense, this capacity, more than most others. They seem able to immerse themselves, to open themselves to what is present, to set aside temporarily the pervasive stresses of our civilization and really see, feel, and re-present, what really is. I wonder whether our human languages, designed as they are for the conveyance of commands, instruction and information, are really just elaborate sets of calls, and whether it is in poetry, story, art and music that our human songs find their voice.
As I focus my new life more on creative activities — writing music, stories and poetry — perhaps I am seeking ways to create, or discover, my own song. What nuances and messages would be captured in this song, what expressions of nobody-but-myself? My guess is that it would have notes of joy and others of melancholy, sounds that convey a passion to learn and to play and to imagine what is possible, to reflect and express and explore, and to love. Could a song be subtle enough to convey all this, and even accentuate those passions that I believe I am more (or less) gifted at, and which are “on purpose” for me rather than just for fun?
Perhaps this is what all our conversations, the endless cacophony of words we speak and write and think, are all directed at — expressing, both for our own evolving sense of self and for the discovery of others, who we really are.
What, do you imagine, is your true song?
Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot, The Natural Entrepreneur’s Guide to Responsible, Sustainable, Joyful Work