Friday, April 7, 2017

Bird Music and Agrarianism

In a July 1858 letter to the New England Farmer, "T.A.S. of Westboro'", one of the robin defenders who so incensed N. Page Jr. of the Essex Agricultural Society, directly connected love of birds and their songs to the ideal farming life:
It is strange that after so much dissemination of a broader, deeper, and more benevolent philosophy in regard to the value of the "sweet warblers of the grove," that there should be any person living under the influences of a genuine New England rural home, who can deliberately advocate the destruction of birds, especially "robin red-breast."
While there were strictly economic reasons to protect the bird, those reasons did not exhaust the robin's value.
[W]hat man is so dead to the spiritual teachings of animated nature, whose soul is so unstrung to the "music of the birds," as to find it in his heart to ruthlessly shoot them down for the paltry reason that they partake of some of the bounties of their Creator…. He who has no heart for the companionship, the joy of life and gladness with the song of birds, should forthwith seek the crowded and dusky haunts of city life.
People who couldn't appreciate bird music should leave the country.

Hagenstein, Gregg, & Donahue, in their 2011 volume, American Georgics, note that agrarianism described the fulfilling farm life in contrast to commercial motivations. Farmers focusing too much on the commercial side, too dependent on particular cash crops (like many fruit growers were), risked perverting the agrarian lifestyle. Agrarianism, unlike Romanticism (whose representatives didn't appear very often in farm papers), was nevertheless thoroughly utilitarian. Birds "cheered" farmers in their labor and provided interest and aesthetic appeal. But in T.A.S.'s account there was something more--a sense of connectedness with "Creation," a unified existence in which birdsong was not just a pretty addition but something essential and defining.

By the early 1860s, the general celebration of birdsong had taken a natural history turn. Farmers might enjoy being able to identify bird species via their distinctive songs. The Country Gentleman's prolific amateur ornithologist, "S.L.B.," for example, recommended a program for learning songs, in which one would first learn to distinguish birds visually and then focus observations on one species at a time until each song was thoroughly absorbed (1860, May 17). "Ornithologist, Bedford, Pa" (June 28) added that it was useful to observe time of day and habitat, as well as special songs sung "on-the-wing."  On May 31, "The Naturalist" cribbed a passage from Wilson Flagg (now writing regularly about birds for The Atlantic) extolling the varied repertoire of the song sparrow (Flagg's transcription of seven song sparrow themes embedded below). A few years later, C.N. Bement, (May 1863) contributed a series of articles to the Gentleman in which he sketched the vocalizations of song sparrows, song [wood] thrush, brown [thrasher] thrush, the [American] robin (don't harm them!), and the bobolink, as well as writing about the mimicry powers of the blue jay and chat.

For those who already knew the birds and their songs (e.g,"Acer", 1860, May 31), birdsong, particularly when English phrases were used as mnemonic devices, was a source of some humor.
Birds, like human beings, seem to have a great propensity for medical prescription. I have heard a Baltimore oriole very distinctly and repeatedly assert, "creosote, creosote, cure cure tooth-ache!"--and another which I now hear from my open window where I am writing, repeatedly assures me, "Liquorice, extract, cure cure cough!" The late Dr. King, who resided in the western part of New York, said that nothing was more common than for robins to perch upon the stalks at the roadside, and shout to him as he passed along on his medical visits, "kill'em! kill'em! cure'em, cure'em! give 'em physic, physic, physic!"
Sometimes the celebrations of bird music verged on the romantic. S.L. White (South Groton), writing in the New England Farmer (1862 June), integrated birdsong into the larger sonic landscape of the rural life.
The red-winged blackbird is one of our earliest, and, in my estimation, one of our best musicians. Although his song when alone is not remarkably musical, yet, when a large flock sing in concert, as they generally do in the early spring, there is a great richness in their lively and gushing melody. Flocks of these birds often sing during a rainy day in March or April, and their sweet chorus mingling with the rushing sound of the waters in the swollen streams, with the pattering of the rain-drops upon the roof, with the whispering of the warm south wind among the swelling buds of the trees and flowers, falls
"Upon the spirit like a dream
Of music on the hour of sleep." [George. D. Prentice "Morning in spring"]
Bird music was not the only nonhuman music available to soothe and interest the farmer's ear. There was also the "music of insects" (Flagg, Hovey's Magazine of Horticulture, September 1855), "frog music" (Country Gentleman, May 17 1860), and even "cat music" (Country Gentleman, June 14 1860).  Note: while the latter was discussed for its humor and cruelty ("cat organs") it did reference an interesting bit of early animal communication speculation by M.S. de Vere from his 1858 book Stray Leaves from the Book of Nature. Here's a relevant passage from that book:
Birds alone, and especially singing birds, have a genuine ear for music. As the eye may see, and yet not be able to distinguish colors, so the ear of most animals hears, but cannot discern the depth and volume of tone. But birds are the true musicians of the animal kingdom. They have, what many men lack, a genuine talent to learn and appreciate musical notes and melodies. You sing, and they will repeat, bar after bar; others listen with eager attention to a hand-organ, and, little by little, learn whole tunes; the ablest of all even imitate the songs and voices of others. (p. 253)
This quality would inspire at least one attempt at direct interaction between a farmer and birds, mediated by music. "Z.", in a letter to the Horticulturist (May 1854) wrote:
Birds love music. As I sat under a tree in front of the house, this morning, I took my flute and commenced playing a lively air. I noticed a couple of robins on a tree a few rods distant, who, as I continued playing, flew to the ground, and hopped along, stopping occasionally to listen, till they got within a few feet of me; and there they stood, turning one side of their heads toward me, and then the other, till I put up my instrument, when they flew away.
Others were content to exchange whistles with their local bobwhites. (Country Gentleman, September 10, 1863). 

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