by Brooks Riley
First, the jungle out there:
Sound familiar? Hint: It’s not the clatter of journalists in a feeding frenzy over the latest insanity to emerge from the White House. Just an ur-Twitter storm here in Mitteleuropa at 4 in the morning, recorded from my balcony.
Ever since November 9, 2016 I’ve been looking for distractions. On that fateful day after, wading through the tsunami of reactions to the US election results, I found what I was looking for: Alex Ross’s absorbing New Yorker article on Death Valley (no irony intended), a bone-dry place to get lost in and never come back. This was my oasis manqué–a desert so quiet, so neutral, so pure, so inviting, so nearly absent of humanity with its messy societal occlusions and noisy fallacies, so mesmerizing in its own right, with a breathtaking geological exegesis that shut out all the flak flying through the airwaves.
I’m not the only one looking for distractions. In an essay on this site last week, Elise Hempel described munching on a coriander leaf, while ‘thinking of everything not Trump’.
I wanted more than that: a parallel universe that could be explored without any reference points to a reality I know all too well. Something immersive, challenging, ongoing, but above all distracting. And presto, the genie of nature answered my wish. On the morning of March 15, I was awakened by birdsong outside my bedroom window–not just any old chirp-chirp, but the loud crystal-clear melody of a turdus merula or European blackbird. The concert season officially began that day, and will last until mid-July. Curtains up on a parallel civilization right outside my door.
The European blackbird (of the four-and-twenty variety) has a PR problem. It’s officially called the turdus merula, (no, not Latin for turd), a.k.a. the common blackbird. The problem with ‘blackbird‘ is that for much of the world, the name is generic, conjuring up visions of crows, starlings, jackdaws or other birds of the color black. The turdus merula, however, is no generic bird, and though common, it is uncommonly gifted. Matte black, plump, with a bright yellow beak, it is unknown in the Americas, and not related to crows or ravens or starlings. Brits call it blackbird, Germans call it Amsel. In Scotland and in France it’s known as merle, a pleasing syllable evoking an old Hollywood goddess (Oberon) or a cool country warbler (Haggard). The merle belongs to the true thrush genus of the thrush family, known for musical talent in many of its variations.
The merle is so ubiquitous in Europe that it’s nearly impossible not to hear one anywhere between March and July. The national bird of Sweden, (with 2 million brooding pairs), they cover the continent (62 million brooding pairs), and have even been introduced to Australia. Good choice. Starlings were introduced to America in the 1860’s by someone who should have known better. Had he released a few merles into Central Park that day, America would be better off for it.
What makes the merle so special is its song. No one recording can ever do it justice because every male of the species composes his own music—not just one tune or leitmotif, but a medley of whistled clarion melodies, each no longer than one or two measures followed by a silence of two or three seconds as they wait for an answer. In the morning when the one closest to my window starts singing, I can hear another merle in the distance, mimicking the song I’ve just heard. They not only tweet (they’re birds, after all, that’s their job, unlike others who tweet who shall remain nameless), but also share their tweets and retweet them down the line. They learn each other’s songs, contributing to a vast catalog that plays out over kilometers of tree-lined streets and bushy gardens.
I began to record them with my cell phone and to write down each new tune as I heard it, becoming the Alan Lomax of this pocket of Upper Bavaria. So far, I’ve transcribed over 30 separate songs, some of which could provide the opening bars to a sonata by Haydn or Mozart, Salieri or even Vivaldi. Messiaen loved merles. So did Richard Strauss. So did the Beatles (even though merles don’t sing in the dead of night).
In the tree-lined neighborhood where I live there are hundreds of merles. They sing all day long, from 4 a.m. to nearly 10 at night, with a few breaks in between. They are the first birds to wake up and the last to go to sleep. (When do they eat? When do they feed their young, three broods in three months? I suspect the female does all the work.)
I call them ‘the kids’. ‘The kids have gone to bed,‘ I say around 10 pm when an eerie silence falls over the town. ‘The kids are cookin‘!’ I say when they all sing at once. The merle who stands on the corner of the flat roof of a five-story apartment building across street, day in, day out, lording it over the others with his combination of melody and percussive sha-boom, sha-booms, doo-wa, doo-was and cha-CHA-chas, is a special friend. ‘Chief kid’, to me, or ‘Little Trump’ to my German friend (I roll my eyes). When he didn’t show up one day, I began to worry he’d been felled by a cat. But no. After a mysterious two-day absence, he was back at his post on top of his world.
I’m not an ornithologist. I’m not even a bird-watcher. Living in what seems like a vast aviary is like living in a foreign country without knowing the language or the mores. I didn’t set out to study them, I simply wanted to understand them. This is what I’ve learned in the last three months (between acrid doses of Trump lore):
• They teach their young between 4 and 6 a.m. Each leitmotif is answered not only by a distant relative, but also by a nearby pathetic wee voice attempting to mimic it, sounding more like a cross between Tweety Bird and a rubber ducky, performed by some offspring in training for next year.
•They shut up between 6 and 10 a.m. giving other birds (sparrows, magpies, chickadees, turtle doves) a chance to get a prosaic word in edgewise. I assume this is when merles forage, eat breakfast and feed their young.
•From 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. they sing and sing, but also catcall, whoop, whistle, chuckle, and squeak in a breathtaking range of sounds between early music instruments and a Moog synthesizer. To write this article I had to close myself off, shutting the window just to concentrate. Sometimes I am so overwhelmed by the variety of sounds they make that I have to play Schubert Lieder on the stereo to remind myself that I’m human after all. Listening to their ever-expanding repertoire is almost physically painful when I realize that I will never understand it, never be able to record or transcribe all their new achingly beautiful compositions.
•In spite of their numbers, merles don’t swarm. They are a society of lyrical individualists living side-by-side, who communicate with each other by sharing what’s on their minds, without ever succumbing to a mob mentality. It’s difficult not to anthropomorphize with terms like ‘happy’, or ‘utopian’, especially when the occasional whistled ‘Whoa!’ comes across as an ode to joy. No pecking order sullies their avian democracy or peaceful coexistence.
•Just like us, they not only sing, they also converse in the spoken word. What they’re saying is off-limits. It could be anything from ‘The worms are better at the Schmidt house.’ to ‘I’ll give you the moon if you answer my call.’ It could even be, ‘If you steal my song one more time, I’ll break your beak!’ I’ll never know.
What I do know is that sometime in July they will fall silent. After that I’ll have to find some other distraction (although this one found me). They’ll still be around after that, hopping around someone’s front garden, or digging for worms, or chasing each other from bush to bush. I’ll walk past and greet one as I usually do, ‘Hi, kid,’ and dream of next Spring.
The merles, Trump and I all have one thing in common: None of us has more than 24 hours in a day. The merles use theirs to fulfill their biological destiny, Trump uses his to spread mayhem, and with the help of the merles, I am using mine to replace horror with wonder.