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Why Robins Sing at Night
Lately, I hear robins singing at night outside our windows. Not at dusk and dawn, as you would expect. But in the wee small hours – 2am, 3am.
Robins are not nocturnal birds.
I googled and it seems this is a widespread phenomenon in cities and towns. One set of researchers in Sheffield determined that the cause is noise pollution during the day, which prevents robins from carrying on crucial communication until nightfall. Another researcher based in Glasgow argues that the cause is light pollution at night, exacerbated by blue light from LEDs that robins can perceive as daylight.
What seems beyond doubt is that the nighttime robin’s song is a response to what writer Ed Yong refers to as sensory pollution, the human-generated hum and glare and stink that intrudes on the animal and insect world.
It intrudes on some humans, too.
“John,” said Morton Feldman to John Cage on WBAI in 1966, “wouldn’t you say that what we’re dependent on, we call reality, and what we don’t like, we consider an intrusion in our life? Consequently, I feel that what’s happening is that we’re continually being intruded upon.”
“But that would make us very unhappy,” said Cage.
MF: Or we surrender to it, and call it culture.
JC: Call it culture?
MF: Or whatever.
JC: Give me an example, what would be an intrusion on your life, for instance, that you would call culture?
MF: Well, this weekend I was on the beach.
MF: And on the beach these days are transistor radios…
MF: …blaring out rock 'n' roll.
MF: All over.
JC: Yes. And you didn't enjoy it?
MF: Not particularly. I adjusted to it.
MF: By saying that… Well, I thought of the sun and the sea as a lesser evil. (Both laugh)
This weekend, Naomi and I went to Walden Pond. We go to Walden often, although rarely on holidays when it’s guaranteed to be crowded. Sure enough, it was - and there was recorded music blaring out from all around the shore, where small groups had gathered to enjoy the day by the water. Feldman’s intrusion of culture?
Cage had an important response to Feldman, however:
JC: Well, this brings up the remark of Satie’s, that what we need is a music which will not interrupt the noises of the environment… Say you think of your thoughts as the reality… and the environment as an intrusion. Then that Satie remark just takes that coin and turns it over and says the reality is the environment. What you want to do in it is an intrusion. And, finally, the work of an artist, for instance, is it not an incisive intrusion? Because, for heaven’s sake, it didn’t exist until the artist does it.
MF: Yes, I never heard anybody really “boo” a transistor radio.
JC: I think, well, you have just now, in a sense. And I have done it formerly.
It’s tempting to boo radios at Walden Pond. I mean, if not at Walden, where?
But Cage had a deep relationship to Thoreau’s work. He catalogued the ways Thoreau listened to and described sounds. And a version of the transistor radio was among them:
“As I sit at my window this summer afternoon, hawks are circling about my clearing; the tantivy of wild pigeons, flying by two and threes athwart my view, or perching restless on the white pine boughs behind my house, gives a voice to the air; a fish hawk dimples the glassy surface of the pond and brings up a fish; a mink steals out of the marsh before my door and seizes a frog by the shore; the sedge is bending under the weight of the reed–birds flitting hither and thither; and for the last half–hour I have heard the rattle of railroad cars, now dying away and then reviving like the beat of a partridge, conveying travellers from Boston to the country.” (from Walden, Chapter Four, “Sounds”)
Those railroad tracks are still there, hard by the pond – even the quietest afternoon spent at Walden is periodically “intruded upon” by the train. Just as in Thoreau’s time.
It’s easy to imagine that Thoreau disliked the train as much as Feldman disliked rock and roll, the sun and the sea. But if the environment is the reality, and what we want to do in it is the intrusion…?
Well, then you might get the attitude Thoreau actually takes toward the railroad. He describes it as part of the environment at Walden. But he isn’t shy of critiquing it, either – his is an incisive intrusion on reality, as Cage puts it.
“I watch the passage of the morning cars with the same feeling that I do the rising of the sun, which is hardly more regular. Their train of clouds stretching far behind and rising higher and higher, going to heaven while the cars are going to Boston, conceals the sun for a minute and casts my distant field into the shade, a celestial train beside which the petty train of cars which hugs the earth is but the barb of the spear. The stabler of the iron horse was up early this winter morning by the light of the stars amid the mountains, to fodder and harness his steed. Fire, too, was awakened thus early to put the vital heat in him and get him off. If the enterprise were as innocent as it is early!”
That last bit is the kicker. And it’s where I feel I can begin my own critique of the music I heard this weekend, without denying that it was part of the reality at Walden on July 4th, 2022. If it were as innocent as it was prevalent! Maybe not innocent - these were parties - just quiet or brief enough that it might, as Satie envisioned, join rather than interrupt the noises of the environment. Can the robins still hear one another, so they don’t have to stay up all night? There needs to be a check on the sounds we generate.
Listening to: Rain
Cooking: Zucchini - there’s none to harvest and then suddenly there’s so much you have to include it in every meal
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