Tag Archives: Hollis Taylor

‘Dog Bless’

I’m packing my bags again, this time for the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan where I will participate in the International Society of Ethnobiology Conference. Ever since I’ve known that Bhutan existed, I’ve longed to go there, and at last there is this wonderful conference, plus field trips. In using the word ‘wonderful’, I want to note that this is the first conference I have ever attended that has had a special section titled ‘sung sessions’, dedicated to ‘myth and ritual’. I can’t wait to be part of it, and of course I’ll provide a report.

Before I leave the country, though, I need to say a proper and loving farewell to Dinky the Singing Dingo. Dinky died a couple of weeks ago at age fourteen. He was described by many who loved him as a great ambassador for dingoes, as well as for tourism.

Dinky and Jim, Adrian Tritschler (CC)
Dinky and Jim, Adrian Tritschler (CC)

For much of his life, Dinky held forth at Stuarts Well Roadhouse south of Alice Springs.  The owner of the roadhouse, Jim Cotterill, told me that Dinky’s family was living in an area where 1080 was laid, and the nursing mother died. Some stockmen found the litter of six pups in a hollow under a sandhill. They put a trap outside, and it took about three days for the little pups to give up waiting for their mother and to come out. I do not understand why the stockmen took the pups back to the head station, since the purpose of 1080 was to kill them, but in any case, the owner knew that the Cotterills had a few animals at the pub. He rang and asked if they’d like a dingo. Jim said the pup was about six or eight weeks old when he got him. His pup-mates were all killed.

Jim’s daughters played the piano, and when they practiced, Dinky started singing along with them. Later in the pub Dinky hopped up on the piano and walked back and forth singing. According to Cotterill:

“Every time someone starts playing the piano, Dinky creates a din. He starts howling, or singing as we call it. With a chair alongside the piano, he will walk up onto the keys – we call that his playing. He stands there and sings.”

Dinky’s singing was absolutely awesome, especially as he was willing to allow people to get very close. I taped him so that I could hear him whenever I wanted to. Later, though, I couldn’t bear to listen. Not after I came to realise that I knew the song; I had listened to it and sung it many times. From the Babylonian victory right up until today, the song cries out the anguish of exile and diaspora, of those who can never go home again. Part of the beauty of such songs is their improbability: that beauty should burst forth in the midst of disaster and despair seems miraculous. And the beauty also expresses the challenge and heartbreak that emerge in consequence of the cruelty of those who seek the annihilation of others.

Dinky, Xavier Warluzel (CC)
Dinky, Xavier Warluzel (CC)

What does one do? I taped Dinky, looking into his deep mouth and listening to his sonorous voice as he called out for harmony. Later, I felt ashamed, and later still I felt desolate. I was awed to be in his presence, and I wanted to take a fragment home with me. I thought of him and wrote about him, and I thought and wrote about all the silencing that goes on as more and more animals are killed. I searched for a story that would do justice to Dinky and to all of his kin and kind.

Dinky had many comrades, both permanent and transient. Others who visited actually engaged in making song with him. That was what he was calling for, and the encounters that met him on his own musical ground are precious. My friend Hollis Taylor visited Dinky, and she sat at the piano and played with him. She understands music far better than I do, and she found that Dinky sang in perfect pitch. She understood, I think, that what he longed for was the family that makes song together. Hollis recorded the music she and Dinky made, reproducing this stunningly beautiful moment of encounter and recognition across species (listen here).

These moments of beauty, when members of two species join their songs together, are terribly rare. At this time many more dingoes and other animals are victims of 1080 poison. They are dying terrible deaths in outback Queensland, and all across Australia. The poison itself is the product of an industrial killing complex that brings great shame upon our society and our species, while bringing disaster upon our fellow singers.

As I wrote in an earlier essay, my email buddy Ray Pierotti is investigating the love-hate relationships humans have with the genus Canis. He writes that while humans and canids are capable together of becoming allies, some human groups turn against them. He concludes: ‘My feeling is that, in general, the Canids are shocked by this reversal….’

Probably Dinky was in shock in his early months. Music gave him a place in the world.

After the death, Jim and his family took Dinky back to Stuarts Well and buried him in the country he came from, where he had grown up and lived most of his life. Something of Dinky lingers in that desert country, and my fervent hope is that there are still functioning dingo families out there. May their harmonies sing him home so that he may rejoin the family he lost so long ago.

Dog bless this troubled land.

Dog bless the dingoes who are grieving, and all those who are lost and disoriented. Dog bless the young ones who hardly know how to find their way in a world made perilous through human persecution. Dog bless the possibility of a future in which humans set aside their fear and anger, and find companionship with the creatures of earth.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Dingo in Queensland,by John Murray
Dingo in Queensland, by John Murray

Resources:

Hollis Taylor’s session with Dinky is the last track on her CD ‘Infidel’.

My concerns about cruelty to dingoes are explored in my book Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction. as well as in other essays on this site.

For more about Dinky, see http://www.ntnews.com.au/news/only-in-the-territory/rip-dinky-singing-dingo-and-great-ambassador-for-tourism-dies/story-fnk2tg5d-1226915630149

For more about 1080,  the radio program made by Emma Townshend is wonderful (listen here).

 

 

Songsters

Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor
Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring continues to haunt us with remembrance of all the Earth is losing. It calls us repeatedly to realise how beautiful are the lives of others, and how precious. With remembrance comes sadness: how lonely and grief-stricken are the silences. And as Paul Shepard reminds us, Silent Spring is also a warning against ‘the deafened self, against emptiness’. Two kinds of violence, then: the silencing of others, and the shutting down of one’s own capacity to hear.

Recently I listened to a radio documentary made with and about my friend Hollis Taylor. Hollis is a musician and composer, as well as a deeply serious student of birdsong. For nine years now, she has been recording and analysing the music of the pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) in various regions of Australia. Central Australia is one of her research areas, and from time to time her friend Jane Ulman, sound artist and radio director, accompanies her. The radio show ‘Bird Interrupted’ takes listeners on a trip through the MacDonnell Ranges with two remarkable artists, listening not only to birdsong but also to a delightful array of human characters (listen here).

Hollis Taylor, Photo: Jane Ulman
Hollis Taylor,
Photo: Jon Rose

Hollis explains that the key features that mark birdsong as music are: the fact that it is learned (not innate), and that it is improvisational. Not only do birds learn to sing by being taught by other birds, but individuals develop their own musical repertoires. Some of them are wonderfully creative – a joy not only to other birds, but to humans as well.

Her research asks the probing question: ‘Is birdsong music?’ Most of us probably think we know the answer to this question, and we may well wonder why it even needs to be asked. The question is provocative because music is one of the markers selected to show that humans are different and special creatures. According to those who seek to sustain an impassable boundary between us (humans) and all the others (our Earth kin), our capacity for music (along with language and other capabilities) makes humans exceptional.

Pied butcherbird research tells a different story. At certain times of year, these birds perform solos for up to six hours a night. It is helpful to have a good ear in order to appreciate the musical complexities of pied butcherbird song. Hollis’s description (with sound bites) of the main motif in the Alice Springs region is further brought to life by her presentation of some of the regional and individual variations on the main theme. I was enthralled to be introduced to music that, left to my own devices, I would have heard as beautiful but been unable to understand in its complexity.

Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor
Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor

‘Bird Interrupted’ is a great reminder that one of the outstanding characteristics of planet Earth is that living beings communicate. One of the great desires of many life forms is the desire to put sound out into the world – to announce, to call, to communicate, to seduce, and much more.

Our planet is not only blue, watery, and filled with cycles of nutrients, it is symphonic.

At the recent conference ‘Encountering the Anthropocene’, Richard Nelson spoke about our musical Earth. Richard is an Alaskan anthropologist whose life is dedicated to participatory learning with Indigenous people and to documenting the sounds of life and shaping them into radio programs. Richard takes an expansive view of ‘the singing planet’, including wind, water, ice and animals, amongst others, as ‘voices’. They and we are all part of the ‘single language of living things’, he tells us. The video of his engaging speech is now posted online (view here).

Richard also brought up another form of violence: human din. Our species is getting noisier, as well as more numerous, and noise is a hallmark of the Anthropocene. We are acoustically crowding out others and even worse, we are assaulting them. Whales and other marine mammals, for example, are among many Earth creatures whose lives are threatened by lethal sound. Navy sonar and other underwater high-decibel noise has such terrible impacts on whales and others that one orca researcher calls it an ‘accoustic holocaust’.

Many of the animals who are under acoustical assault are themselves songsters. According to Hollis, ‘about half of the world’s approximately 10,000 bird species are songbirds, so distinguished because they learn their song. Intriguingly, vocal learning is rare; our closest primate relatives, for example, are not vocal learners. Even the elaborate song bouts of gibbons are innate. Aside from songbirds, to date this capacity appears limited to hummingbirds and parrots (and possibly a few other avian groups), as well as marine mammals, elephants, and bats.’

Humpback Whale  by Andrew Schaefer
Humpback Whale by Andrew Schaefer (CC)

While pied butcherbirds are singing their themes and variations in Central Australia, humpback whales are singing their way through the oceans. A recent study of whale song, undertaken by Ellen Garland, a University of Queensland PhD student, identified eleven different humpback whale song types. They ‘typically started in the eastern Australian population and spread in a step-wise fashion across the region to French Polynesia’. In a fascinating interview (view here), Ellen explains that the cultural innovation taking place here is extremely unusual in non-human culture. Only males sing, and it seems they want to stand out from the crowd. A new song is a stand-out performance. It is adopted as a novelty, but soon becomes what everyone is doing, and so males develop new songs. Every two years or so, a new song comes into being.

The desire to express one’s presence vocally is, for many creatures, integral to their living self.

I learned this the sad way when I picked up a severely injured sulphur-crested cockatoo and put it in the car to take to the vet. On the way, the bird died. Before he died, however, he let loose his last raucous call, as if unwilling to leave silently. I knew it was the end when I heard him, and I felt kinship as well as sorrow in the presence of his desire to make a final acoustical mark showing that he had lived and been part of the world.

In life as well as in death, we are songsters, many of us. A couple of years ago I travelled with my friend Jim Hatley, philosopher, artist and poet, to Central Australia. We visited gorges along the MacDonnell Ranges, including one of my favourites – Trephina Gorge. After hiking along the top country, we went down into the dry river bed. We walked on pale sand amidst tall river gums whose single great tap root shoots down into the underground water; and like a quiet miracle in this dry country, we saw small birds whose presence signals water. Around a bend we came upon a permanent waterhole no more than a few meters across in any direction.

'Zebra finch 4', by Jim Bendon
‘Zebra finch 4’, by Jim Bendon (CC)

The country was pulsing with life, both visible and hidden. Jim paused under the shade of a river gum to sing. His voice moved up and down the gorge, honouring this place and giving something in return. As he poured forth his praise, the finches gathered. Small, elegant songbirds of desert and waterhole, they settled in the tree above him as he sang.

We are songsters to the core of our being, but we are not therefore alone or exceptional.

Amongst the great and varied kindred of Earth life, blessed are the singers of new songs ~ they bring creativity, along with all this great wild beauty, to the symphony of life.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 

Resources

Silent Spring was first published in 1962, and is still in print. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27333.Silent_Spring

The quote from Paul Shepard comes from his book The Others: How Animals Made Us Human. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1640911.The_Others

Hollis is the co-author of a fascinating article about lyre birds that is available online: http://environmentalhumanities.org/arch/vol3/3.3.pdf

Richard Nelson’s most beloved book is Make Prayers to the Raven. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/134644.Make_Prayers_to_the_Raven

Some of Jim Hatley’s inspired work can be encountered at his website: http://geoaesthetics.blogspot.com.au/