10. We were balancing the local and the global with renewed acuity, by tracking the rates of infection and hoping for better orientation as the pandemic spread, and what that meant about where where. The bigger picture was insistently disturbing. The increasingly steep divides that exist between rates of infection across the region, a year later, suggest a scary divide uncomfortable to map, whose sharp divides escalate as one pans out, that remind one of steep inequalities of infection rates and public health challenges in the rather sharp inequalities that span from 2700 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 inhabitants in the zip code where I live to almost double to 5701 per 100,000 nearby, and surpass double at 6941.3, taking the freeway down past San Leandro, encapsulating or condensing a gaping divide of our nation, sharper than that between “blue” states and “red” states as inequalities across the nation emerged insistently enough to make one do more than scratch one’s head, as the pulse of the pandemic seemed to pop out in ways fractured along clear divides in the Bay Area, as in the rest of the world.
As we watched the pandemic unfold on those most stripped-down and essential tools of data visualization, the time-series line graph, to try to chart the magnitude of death, case of infection, and indeed of hospitalization over time. Even if the tallies of such numbers seem called into question, and were eerily disembodied from space, or territoriality, we clung to them in an attempt to register our purchase on the pandemic whose numbers were so hard to aggregate in meaningful ways. From early on, we understoo that increases in income inequality and poor confidence in government institutions correlated closely onto the highest rates of death, and recognized the problems of low trust in government that was being shouted from many state capitols and the US Capitol was itself a dangerous driver of mortality. For the advancing of COVID-19 was a disease of globalization not only in how it was transmitted by routes of global transit, across spatial networks, or in indoor air, but advanced by the increased income inequalities that globalization drove. But these lines were rising with a terrifying rate of doubling that my own lines of navigation on the ground may have been an attempt to distance myself or just keep at bay.
There was, in short, more than enough reason to be looking at the ground, and enough sense of dislocation to make us feel unmoored from any bearings on how so much virus had had such devastating effects-even if we were also caught staring at time-series iine graphs to materialize a sense of bearings in our disorientation. I turned to walks from he start of the pandemic, with a new sense of urgency: I re-explored the neighborhood, re-navigating it as if it a map with its own temporality, as much as a place I live: an unexpected encounter with a benchmark in the neighborhood, picutred in the header to this post, laughing at the sense of stability that it provided as I sought orientation on a street emptied of pedestrians or street sounds.
In an eery intermingling of rural and urban, categories that seemed ever more fluid–the skyrocketing number of sightings in the last Great Backyard Bird Count that the Cornell Ornithology Laboratory noted suggests a wonderful long weekend of citizen science this last February–the expansion of birdsong had no doubt lead many to orient themselves to calls and songs by consulting apps like eBird with far greater readiness. After all, my stoop was sounding increasingly like a bird shop, with calls and songs of finch, scrub jays, white-crowned sparrows, crows, chickadees and towhees crowding the street in what seemed a more contented and far livelier conversation, from persistent “sh-sh-sh-toh-wheet!–wheet!–wheet!” to the sustained fourishes and staccato trills that tapered off bu resumed in the evening around dinner. Berkeley lies low on areas of conservation priorities in northern California, but lies near one of the few areas of the country not affected by a broad-based and rather terrifying image of avian decline based on radar maps of migration in the Pacific and continental United States: but it seemed that the chirping of birds in my yard seemed to stake new claims of territoriality to perches in trees seemed downright exultant. The biosocial bees in the back yard hives, the Spring certainly brought an outpouring of what seemed happily content activity. Is it a coincidence that a striking loss of avifauna in the last fifty five years across speices and biomes in the United States have been by no means limited to grasslands but have included some of the most common species–from finches to sparrows to warblers, swallows and starlings–
–creating a striking widespread loss of populations and biodiversity to occur during my own life, to the tune of 3.2 billion birds, in which my neighborhood was one of the few hotspots of a decade of declining avian migration.
Was the chorus of birdsong and cries that I heard as an aural biosocial embrace as I walked down the street, what I imaged as a triumphant riconquista of avian airspace, defiantly calling, cooing, and performing extended trills of eight to nine beats, as if in amazed response to one another by bravura performances not a response to the huge loss of avian biomass that is difficult to contemplate, created by interrupted migratory routes, light pollution, and other anthropogenic disturbances–disturbed from the routes of migration in the contiguous United States that bode the fearsome possibility of avifaunal collapse, particularly steep in flyways from the Pacific northwest, if less than in the grasslands of the center of midwest where agribusiness has compromised birds’ migratory routes?
Birdsong became mooring of biosociality each morning, whatever the reason, dependent on listening for a sense of the vital in the cacophony of birds that start chirping for several hours. A crowded chorus of birds intersects with my walk to the coffee shop. As more birds migrated by mid-March, it seemed increasing experimentation with songs, calls, and trills of growing range arrived each morning, offering something of an alternative biosociality to inhabit, in preparation for a daily calendar when few face-to-face meetings were scheduled or would occur. The persistent calls, often ending in trills, clucks, and cascading compositions ending with squawks accompanied by the occasional alto moans from mourning doves created a new aural register of place, reminding one of the soundspaces that wooded warblers, sparrows, finches, and larks once created across the country.
Each morning from about six to seven thirty, I tried to make a sound map of the street that replaced the usual rumble. I was unclear if more finches were on my street–it seemed so when I turned onto it, however, hearing the sounds that were almost recognizable that began each morning at about 6:00 am, which replaced real concerrns about the decline of sparrows’ languages in the Bay Area, drowned out by ambient noise that seemed to obliterate once distinct calls and “dialects” of sparrow communities. While acoustic ecologists had monitored since around 2005 the abandoing of distinctions among the distinct dialects in once distinct communities and populations due to anthropogenic noises of transportation and low-frequency rumbles, to the background sounds of airplane flight, the background that had obliterated once distinct flourishes from sparrow calls might be imagined to return.
To be sure, the recent loss of historical dialects of sparrow populations in the Bay Area by the dominant dialect of urban white crowned sparrow notwithstanding, finch populations on Prince St. seemed to benefit from pandemic shifts in ambient noise: they seemed to be insistently adding terminal flourishes with innovative abandon, in bravura finales each morning. The morning trills that seemed to have expanded as my neighborhood grew as a site to explore bird language, from trills repeated three and four times that finished with flourishes, to smaller chirps after nine o’clock, useful to clear my mind from anxieties, as if the important birding areas near the Bay Area had intersected with a less busy or noisy urban ambient, leading to more varied range of song and calls, even despite the declining pathways of bird migration in recent years.
After the first weeks of social distancing that stopped just short of a lockdown that broke the lack of face-to-face that seemed to make birdsong place me into a new sense of social situatedness after months of sheltering in place, remind me of how, for lack of a human contact, Darwin’s belief that birdsong–“the sounds uttered by birds”–were indeed the closest analog to human language, that the “same instinctive cries expressive of [birds’] emotions” was not only more believable. As we reachedi a year into the “stay-at-home order” in the Bay Area, to check the spread of the novel coronavirus, exhausted by zoom and realizing others’ exhaustion at the medium, the analogy seemed all too pressing, that finds confirmation in how the expressive patterning of birdsong that young birds learn from imitation, both neurologically and genetically shared over fifty genes linked to speech and vocal learning that are also dubbed “language genes” or FOXP2: if birdsong lacks the mapping of a lexical network onto the network of vocal imitation and processing, the patterns of expressive communication seemed able to remedy the need for sites neurological activation while sheltering in place, a welcome neurological wake up call.
LIfted the overhead rumble of airplane jets with the sudden erasure of global air traffic from Bay Area skies, the sonic swoons, jackal-like titters, and arching song from the trees restored something akin to an alternative cosmic harmony akin to what Jesuit Athanasius Kircher had described in the seventeenth century ˆMusurgia Universalis as a great art of consonance and dissonance, and a new Harmonia Nascentis Mundi that seemed a needed re-enchantment of place. What were heard as optimistically insistent calls of acoustic experimentation seemed to restart what Kircher so influentially described as the music of the spheres along the proportions of divine creation–sanctus, sanctus, sanctus–at a time when the world was readjusting to being jerked out of whack. Did we benefit in particular from the proximity to birding areas on the Sacramento and range of local watersheds?
–that made me wonder about the expansion of designated birding areas around the Bay Area, and the greater diversification of local song, as the white crowned sparrows in my neighborhood–and in much of the region–had suddenly reached into the recesses of their memory to expand their songs, recalling the recordings of birdsong from seventy years ago, five years after researchers worried about the apparently endemic decline of variety and specificity of the languages of white-crowed sparrows long used to court mates or defend nesting grounds, as acoustic ecologists pondered how the ambient anthropogenic sounds had drowned out birdsong, and blurred the once-famous geographic specificity with which white crowned sparrows combined trills, buzzes, and whistles to a pattern that was able to compete with the urban rumble or new nature of the city, reducing once distinct dialects by sacrificing specificity to retune their songs to the noisiness of urban sprawl and blanketing noise of airplanes, learning a more effective song to mate with far fewer of the terminal flourishes detected in birdsong of the past, in what has been described nationally as a reclamation of “favored frequencies” after the sudden reduction of traffic and vehicles, to create a new “song space” by expanding the virtuosity of their vocal performances, in an optimistic illustration of ecological reslience. Were the songs heard in bird habitats changing across the state?
If Berkeley had always been a sight for coastal warblers in upper treetops, as well as white-crowned sparrows, song sparrows, finches, scrub jays, towhee and chickadees, the sounds of birds in treetops were hard not to imagine as voices of an enhanced biosociality, if not music of the spheres. The Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher’s attentive notation of the song of the cuckoo in his 1650 treatise on musical sounds may have influenced Bach to Respighi, to say nothing of Wagner or Messaien, but all rhapsodized birdsong in its company of birds; nature has long attracted, and there was something recognizable in the desire to preserve the sounds of “nature” in artificial means that led some of the first two-minute Edison cylinders were used to record bird song in 1898, for the 16th Congress of the American Ornithologists’ Union in Washington, D.C.,–and first 78 recordings in 1910!
When I was listening to finches in Berkeley, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was indeed different, or a mythic- return of nature’s resilience of the sort that used neoliberal rhetoric to suggest the return of long lost natural conditions on social media, in falsified posts that proliferated to offer some comfort as we social distanced, offering pictures of dolphins were allegedly returning to Venice’s fabled lagoons of Venice, as they reverted to watery habitats, less polluted by Vaporetti and barges, to say nothing of ocean liners, as if migrating back in time: if these fables were enteretained ecological fantasies by optimistic clickbait of “Venetian” dolphins‘ resurgence, or elephants without a care for social distancing in the fields of China’s Yunan province, the immediate cases of roadrunners in Oakland or the coyotes crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, whose traffic levels decreased to a level not seen since seventy years ago, in 1954; as many raised questions about the inevitability of the nature of the reversion ofurban landscapes during_the_COVID-19_shutdown in an alternatively optimistic globalism that cut against the psychic undertow of the pandemic. On a more local level, I did much the same, as a way of grappling at straws.
The false optimism curried as clickbait in those image of exotica offered eye candy deceptively rhapsodic in its staged counterpart to sheltering in place, akin to how I entertained expanded local mating birdsong of finches, towhee, and white-crowned sparrows as a reslience of an unstable social world. While staying indoors, the outside seeming far away the cries of finches were important to continue as most of greenspace I saw was confined to my back yard, as if it provideds the biosociality I had been trying to come to terms with doing without from the spring of 2020, and made me oscillate between a sense of the ephemeral and the .
11. If social distancing left us pondering the effects of the absence of social contact for a year, as increasing conversations bemoaned the lack of human contact and indeed of looking at human bodies, save online, even if birdsong was not a clear grammar, the apparently optimistic calls of song seemed to substitute for the absence of contact, as an expanded range of intonation, tonalities, and calls, punctuated by the primordial calls of ravens, offered pretty credible testimony of vocal repertory of expressive registers, if not linguistic skills. Kircher had studied in Aristotelian fashion the comparative anatomy of the ears of horses, humans, dogs, rodents, pigs, cats, and geese, more than birds, but the ear openings of birds’ auricular feathers allowed a better spatial awareness of the origins of sounds, and a heightened sense of biosociality while we sheltered in place, under the stay-at-home order, the street sounds offered something like a solace that I increasingly valued over zoom or flat-screen TV.
The surrogate of an absent extended social network of the neighborhood was something I started to recognize on the pavement of the ground. Rather than moving with downcast eyes, I was reacquainting myself with place in walks to a shop, to get coffee, or to venture outside, for evidence of a place that I had perhaps missed before, that invested the benchmark placed on the boundary of a local parklet with surprise as a relation of place to the global, or a perspective on the meaning of place–or relation of local and global, taken for granted in pre-pandemic times, looking for bearings amidst increased uncertainty. And the discovery of an improvised marker, reminding me of the grids that wrap around the earth, that had been tracking the progress of global infections, seemed punctured for a moment by the mock benchmark, emulating the over a million geodetic markers in North America–tidal benchmarks noting elevation in reference to a geodetic datum, survey points that act as controls for lat, long, and height, that acted as surveyors’ control points–but conflating the genre with the personal nature of the meaning of place. If the current geodetic datum has antiquated earlier benchmarks, they lie beneath the new networks, traces of past spatialities like the old contractors’ names. Benjamin was no bird-watcher, but the strikes were “object-lessons” affording almost sensory experiences of a changed sense of urban space. And the marker, as much as signal exact terrestrial position, is located at the intersection between two streets, in the pedestrian space of the edge of a park.
Heightened sensitivity to one’s surroundings, perhaps brought by sensory deprivation, was an unforeseen and almost positive by-product of the pandemic, stretching from the play of sunlight on leaves to song lyrics, and extending to budding magnolias or dropping seed pods of sweet gums and their off-red leaves. And at the same time as such spray-painted pavement markers offer ubiquitous reminders of protocols of social distancing In the pandemic, I started to catch myself reading marks on the pavement for far more permanent or material signs of spaces we inhabit. In an age of global and national maps of the COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations due to the virus, human mortality, and lives lost, the retreat to the local seemed manageable, the faux benchmark that was hardly noticeable became something of a a symbolic center of an imagined geography I retreated, a point of orientation for an imaginary community–and spatiality–in the age of social distancing. Walking past the marker, and other benchmarks of surer history, raised questions of how these spatialities mapped onto one another, with a quite compelling sense of surprise: in the constant absence of face-to-face interaction, or the lack of embodied discussion of which we are all reminded daily, the spatiality to which that faux benchmark gestured became a source for private reverie, foreign to Thoreaux or Rousseau, to be sure, against the tracking of the spatial advance tracked of coronavirus infections. The place marker was a monument to the precision of coordinates–if the area you are describing would probably take six decimal places, to offer a sense of real position, even if the suboceanic antipode didn’t seem to demand much precision.