Songs From the Wood

by Chris Harris

Part 2 and Part 3
appear in this issue.
part 1 of 3

Despite years of studies, nobody had cracked the code. Many individuals and groups, looking at the puzzle from a multitude of different angles, had all failed to solve the riddle. Birdsong it seemed might never give up its secrets.

Thomas Mills was one such researcher. He’d made a hobby of the subject but like the rest he was getting nowhere fast. Unlike the rest though, he was a man obsessed with the subject and one who truly believed in a final solution.

Living alone in the woods of Surrey, his home was his laboratory. Since taking an early retirement, the time he had to devote to his passion had trebled; in fact he did little else now. From dawn to dusk he was forever exhausting new leads.

He’d read all the books ever written on the subject. His library, which was the second bedroom of his house, was entirely devoted to the task of cataloguing this literature. To him it was a shrine to the beauty, mystery and enchantment of the birdsong of the wood.

Nearly all the authors of all the books were wrong. Just a handful had gained Tom’s respect, the publications of the rest he read for amusement value alone. His favoured works, that is the books of the few, he kept on a separate shelf and referred to them constantly.

The key issue was that of birdsong being a collective language. His theory, as yet unproved, supported the idea that each bird sang a separate letter in a word. A group of birds would then create a sentence to which they were all contributing.

There were several major obstacles to overcome. Identifying the individual letters that each bird sang was complicated by each species singing that same letter differently. As letters were identified the problems of alphabet and language developed with the latter being shrouded in the mists of both level and topic.

Most researchers fell into the same trap. They assumed birds to be singing about sources of food or serenading potential lovers. Tape recordings would be made and played back through speakers in trees with the responses observed. Then, by a process of self deception and falsified statistics, the findings, or “Mumbo Jumbo” as Tom called them, were published

Any serious researcher, if not instinctively, would soon learn to appreciate the complexities of birdsong. The time of day, the number of birds involved and the distances between them all seemed relevant. Perhaps even the strange and silent choreography of flight itself, contributed to the orchestral deliberations of the wood.

Advances had been made. Although of unknown length, the alphabet was now known to be comprised of at least forty letters. Tom, himself being the discoverer of three, was now focusing more on words than finding new letters. Here too progress had been made with hundreds of groups of letters or words now being accepted by the scientific community.

The problem was that the words didn’t say anything. There was no correlationto sounds being sung and physical events or responses thereafter. If this was a foreign but human language, the puzzle would have been solved by now with so many pieces on the table. It was so frustrating with every avenue, no matter how ingenious or off the wall, resulting in a dead end.

The search to discover new words was very laborious. The real fun of course was to learn what the words said. With no progress on the actual meanings of words, the slow task of learning new words did at least supply a trickle of satisfaction, allowing the researcher to remain buoyant.

Although painstaking, the cataloging of new words was vital. The very fact that letters and now words were being identified, was a huge advance on the science of just a few years ago. The findings that birdsong operated like the labours of a single ant towards the achievements of the whole community, were a phenomenal breakthrough.

Tom had the entire woods wired up. His house was the central point for collecting data, and sensors high in the trees for hundreds of metres around, sent their audio signals back for analysis.

He often compared his operationto that of a spider’s web. Indeed he truly was a spider who pounced on every audio signal, sealing its fate and saving it for later.

Until recently all the information collected had been stored on tapes. Now the task fell to an infinitely more powerful tool. Tom had purchased and installed a computer that now not only recorded birdsong, but analyzed it also.

This saved Tom hours of tape searching, but of course the machine would still only search for patterns as instructed by the operator. The time saved in manual tape searching however, did enable him to spend longer on devising more and more diverse programs to try and make sense of the meaningless words.

He tried all sorts of ways to analyse the data. The letters did form words and the words were in common use all the time around him. He could even hear some of them as they were sung in real time in the woods, others still he could only identify on slow playback. None of them however said a thing that any human could understand.

Lately Tom had been trying to find mathematical symmetry in the sounds. Did words occur in sequences or maybe in sequences inversely proportional to the square root of something else? And if found, would this pattern still be beyond comprehension; could it ever be deciphered?

If the language existed, as it clearly did, then it must and eventually will be understood. Every aborted search, although fruitless, left less work to be done. The computer stored the results and alerted Tom to any repetition of thoughts; progress of sorts was being made.

Tom found the blackbirds particularly enigmatic. Their lack of fear and curiosity towards his endeavours gave them a unique charm. He often sang back to them and knew they listened, but what they were thinking he could only wonder at.

Through the woods ran a stream. It was a place where many birds congregated, and although nests were more densely populated here, the birdsong remained at an average amount for the wood as a whole.

Hotspots did exist. Here the number of songs intensified showing some elements of geographical significance. Such groupings though, shifting over time as they did, made a full assessment very complicated.

The magical moments of dawn and dusk often feels like heaven or hell. Beginning slowly, the songs of the dawn chorus mirror that of dusk almost like a reverse tape. At first it feels like a lesson in the ways of the wood, but then as the symphony erupts it leaves the observer feeling teased and then positively under siege.

The barrage of information continues throughout the day. It comes in waves like a roaring ocean that is rarely becalmed. Just as a computer might download the day’s work overnight, so the wood imparts its soul during the day.

There had been the lunar cycle breakthrough of course. This most recent discovery had Tom’s heart racing. It was observed that on each first day of the lunar cycle, birds sang the same song. It had remained unseen because different species with different dialects took turns in starting the proceedings.

To say that exactly the same song is heard is perhaps a little misleading. At around 2:30pm and again at 4:50pm, there are variations that defy all comparisonto previous months. All the words spoken outside of these periods however, are exactly the same in content as every first day of the cycle.

Other equally mystifying observations have been logged. Whichever bird begins the dawn chorus, the second bird is always along the line of sight to the rising sun. Sometimes the second bird is closer to the sun on a line drawn between the two, and other times it is farther away.

If the second bird is further away from the sun, his song becomes the centre point for the rest of the chorus. If however the first bird to sing is farthest away from the sun, then it is his position that remains at centre stage.

Next and always next to join in, are groups at north, north-west and south, south-east. Following these groups, other solitary individuals close to the epicentre generally begin, and are normally positioned to the west. Thereafter the complexities in the evolution of the chorus appear random.

The solar alignment never varies. Even with heavily overcast skies, the line between the first two birds to sing, always points to the rising sun. Although moving, this very exact position is faithfully identified throughout its seasonal cycle.

Geographic orientation is not fixed. Observations from a number of places at various latitudes maintain a 180 degree separation for the second phase of the chorus. This separation however is always unique to the global coordinates of a particular place but never shows a connectionto the sunrise line.

So many problems to solve. So much more than a single researcher could do no matter how much time or computing power he may possess. Tom knew the size and shape of his subject. He also knew that to try and focus on all sides, as interesting as they may be, was impossible.

Tom’s first love was that of understanding birdsong. More specifically within this area, he had reduced his word searching program to concentrate more on the language code.

For recreation, he allowed himself space in his diary to enjoy speculation on birdsong alignments. But his primary goal would remain that of learning the language. All associated puzzles could still however be enjoyed but were kept strictly under the “Fun” umbrella.

Back in the spring Tom had tried something that had backfired on him. Armed with the recently discovered symmetry of the dawn chorus, it occurred to him that he himself might start the monthly cycle. Using a recording from a previous month, he did just that.

For three whole days not a single bird sang. They were still in the wood — he could see them — but they wouldn’t sing and they wouldn’t fly. He felt as though he were guilty of deceit among friends and as if he had betrayed their unspoken trust.

The fourth day came and at last they sang; it was beautiful. The song they sang was not the first day’s song though, but otherwise all appeared normal. Although others had played the sounds of birds back to them, never had whole words and phrases been used as in Tom’s experiment. The effect had been catastrophic.

What if permanent damage had been caused. What if his interventions had left a permanent scar in the flesh of the body of the wood. For twenty five days and nights he waited anxiously the arrival of May and the new cycle.

As the month unfurled, he became more tense. In the last hours before the new cycle however, having exhausted his fears, an uneasy calm of resignation descended over him. He could now only wait and hope that his dabbling in nature had faded.

Suddenly at 4:12 am the first bird sang. In response a second note rang out at a point towards the rising sun. Then, joining in from the north and south, came phase three of the most perfect beginning to the month of May that Tom could ever recall.

How relieved he felt. Never again would he interfere with something outside of his understanding. It was inconceivable now, with hindsight, to imagine how stupid the experiment had been. Tom felt like an atomic scientist who might join two critical masses of uranium held in either hand, simply to see what happens.

What had he been thinking of? Nobody should join, let alone start a conversation whilst ignorant of the language, subjects and participants; it was an outrageous oversight.

Curiously the events heightened Tom’s resolve. After a cooling off period, he found his search for the code driven by renewed vigour. The trauma seemed to have unlocked doors into completely new areas for investigation; he felt inspired.

He began to review his progress thus far. First of all it was known that each bird sang a single letter of a word. Other birds would collectively form a word and others still would eventually create a sentence. But the words were meaningless.

It was helpful to look at the problem in reverse. Rather than say the words didn’t mean anything, it was better to say that they didn’t describe specific things. To have a word without a meaning is a paradox and so Tom concluded that the words meanings were one step removed from direct meaning.

The birds must be speaking a compound language. This language would not describe things directly but would lay the foundations of understanding and slowly build up a picture. Only at the end of the sentence could one possibly understand its meaning by viewing the completed picture. Component parts would be completely nonsensical.

Tom began to construct his own compound languages. By doing so he hoped to get a feel for the way they worked. Perhaps they would tend to form into groups that he could label and then further studies might reveal sub-groups.

Could such clusters be cross-pollinated? Was it possible to take elements of one language and merge it with another to form an entirely new group? Such hybrids might have further sub-groups that could also be isolated into identifiable types.

The first pseudo-language Tom created was labeled “Pictures.” As the name suggests, communication using this method utilized the painting of a geographical image, where the location of the speaker was more important than what was actually being said.

Honeybees are an example of picture speakers. The flight pattern of bees returning to the hive has, in its choreography, an encoded map of the best places to find nectar. The dance they perform uses the position of the sun as a reference point, not unlike the dawn chorus.

Pictures languages could be audio or visual. They impart their information by drawing a scaled map to represent something. The image drawn can reveal actual information as seen at the beehive, or can be linked to sounds.

Visual languages linked to sounds are more complicated. The position of an individual alters the meaning of the words he says. If that position can reside in three dimensions, as is the case for birds, then translantation becomes infinitely more difficult.

The time of day can also be a factor. Audi-visual languages in two, three and now four dimensions, are all possible. A note or notes from a bird in the evening, could mean several different things depending on where and when it or they were sung.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2007 by Chris Harris

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