Birdscapes: Birds in our Imagination and Experience
Princeton University Press, NJ, 2009
Suffolk-based birdwatcher Jeremy Mynott personifies the perfect British hobbyist: disinterested, obsessive and generous. After decades as Cambridge University Press’ chief executive and radio producer on ABC, Mynott decided to explore the reasons of our fascination for birds, with examples from psychology, folklore, history and literature (Mynott is a specialist of poet John Clare). In so doing, the author assesses the role of imagination and subjectivity in our fondness for birds and definitely goes beyond hunting and identification matters that so much obsess other birders. If the analysis sometimes seem to lack real depth, the multifarious angles make the approach stimulating.
Despite Mynott’s preliminary statement on language’s inadequacy to describe birds (p26), acknowledging the unspeakable and unnameable in bird watching, the author will write at length about classification, naming, favorite spots, etc. Accordingly, one recurring topic is lists. Mynott suggests making a lot of them, of any kind, including hugely subjective preferred lists such as preferred species or preferred songs, bird classes (p90), sound cartoons or sonagrams (p169), hunting diaries, birder slang vocabulary, conservation lists, etc. While these lists mirror everyone’s subjectivity about birds, they are also a tool allowing to notice the differences, the details going beyond the jizz, or general impression of shape and size.
Jeremy Mynott recontextualizes birding activities in the broader sense of landscape studying, in which it is as important to “read the landscape” (p196) as to spot a bird. In fact, Mynott suggests examining the environment before even focusing on the bird itself as the appropriate strategy to study birds in the field. Only if “the birds become part of the extended sense of the place” (p205) can the birder accurately identify a specimen. This strategy implies using all human senses to scan the territory at hand, but hearing remains key.
On every walk you take in a familiar landscape, you’re moving through a dense web of sound and signals and therefore through a whole terrain of meaning that can be sensed and explored.
This is how one can understand the Birdscape concept, in reference, one assumes, to Murray Schaffer’s own Soundscape. According to Mynott, it is not enough to know many bird songs, you have to be familiar with the environment.
The book contains a chapter on sound in which Mynott mentions the usual examples of music including bird song transcriptions. But the wonderful story of Beatrice Harrison and the Nightingale Music Festival really stands out. Starting 1924, British cellist Harrison used to play in her garden to the accompaniment of birds – though there’s a delicious ambiguity in deciding if she played for the birds or with the birds. Anyway, the BBC recorded several evening serenades and the broadcasts were national events. Listen for yourself here.