When I first set out to learn bird language many years ago, I made the mistake of listening to bird call recordings around the same time that I decided to learn Chinese. And so I drove to work every day listening first to Mandarin and then to Peterson’s Birding by Ear, and ended up mixing the tones of the different languages, that while clear enough to the birds and the Chinese, left me confused and discouraged.
I have pretty much given up my fantasy of learning Chinese, and lately, I have stopped trying to understand and name the bird calls I hear. Separate from learning and telling what I know, I am free to simply listen. I haven’t squelched my curiosity, but I find that I have too often cheated my pleasure by allowing the left side of my brain to dictate what I do.
When I practiced meditation decades ago, the guide would frequently put on a tape of Chinese, a sort of rambling narrative that neither I nor the other students understood. The guide dimmed the lights and told us to listen and not understand. These days, I can practice something similar in the morning twilight with birds. So many times, I do not know where or what they are or what they are saying. And so my language studies come full circle, confusion and frustration gone.
This is Bill Felker with Poor Will’s Almanack. I’ll be back again next week with notes for the second week of Late Spring and the first week of the Golden Buttercup Moon. In the meantime, just listen to the morning birds. Don’t try to understand.