What the Robin Knows offers keys to the real worldOften, when I might have been doing some chore or other in the garden, I've instead been sitting, watching the doings in my backyard. Other times I've gone into the woods for a short walk along the river and have ended up sitting for hours, watching and listening. The longer and quieter you sit, the more there is to see and hear. But except in a general way, I never realized how much information birds offer to anyone paying the right kind of attention. So I was intrigued when Gavin van Horn at City Creatures put up a charming post about encounters with a robin whose "language" he began to understand after reading John Young's What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).
As an adolescent, Young was mentored by naturalist Tom Brown, Jr. and grew up to become a professional tracker, naturalist and teacher. The book, which is very readable, combines stories from his own education and experiences as a naturalist with discussions about what different calls and behaviors mean, and also offers useful guidelines to anyone who wishes to sharpen their own observational skills. Recorded examples of different kinds of situational calls compiled by his scientific consultant Dan Gardoqui are accessible on an accompanying website.
Birds communicate with each other, comment on the general state of the yard or woods, express territoriality, let the neighborhood know that a cat or other predator is lurking--and specific calls and behaviors express definite messages. They are the lookouts and news bearers in any given neighborhood--and other animals pay as much attention to their broadcasts as other birds. To begin to learn how this web of behavior and communication works, Young suggests that common backyard birds found nearly everywhere should be our guides and shows how anyone can learn to understand what a given situation might be and mean. Anyone, that is, with the patience to make it a habit to sit quietly, in a receptive frame of mind, in a place where birds are likely to be.
Young offers other lessons as well. What the Robin Knows also opens a door to more ancient ways of understanding the natural world and our place within it that are often only encountered in stories and myth.
In some old stories there are personages--they might be hedge wizards, or wise women, they might be village elders or medicine men--who understand the language of the animals. This magical gift sometimes is given to a young hero or heroine to help complete a quest, solve a problem or effect a rescue, often by a tiny, wizened person encountered in the woods. The instructions are to drink the contents of the tiny flask or crack open the silver walnut only at a time of great need; suddenly, understanding what the birds and other animals are saying offers a way out of danger. And while western writers from Aesop to George Orwell use speaking animals as vehicles for commentary on human nature with stories that put people in animal guise, many Native American stories and shamanistic/animist religions approach this speech from the other side, as it were. Animals sometimes speak with the voices of the ecosystem, of the biosphere, of the spirit world, which worlds merge to create a landscape alive in a way that many people in modern society might not recognize.
These stories demonstrate a particular kind of wisdom well worth learning about how humans should behave towards the natural world and other creatures. Young explains how, in traditional societies, persons who can listen and comprehend the workings of the natural world are indeed wise and can help their people thrive in existential ways. The old reality is that our ancestors (and present-day members of indigenous cultures) relied for survival on a deep knowledge of the ways, habits and vocalizations of the other living creatures with whom they shared their world, knowledge that can seem magical to most of us. As Young points out, birds are gatekeepers: if, instead of noisily blundering about in the normal urban human way, a person moves quietly and mindfully, with an attitude of respect, the birds are far less likely to set off the alarms. By learning bird language and how to behave when in natural settings we can begin to recover some of that old, vast, nearly forgotten inheritance which is all of ours by rights. Besides being a delightful way to spend time, you could say it's important for our survival.
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