Monday, April 27, 2015

The Whistler

Liam Heneghan

I learned to whistle in primary school during early afternoon quiet-time. Whistling had become a preoccupation of mine since hearing a whistler perform at the school some weeks before. Traveling shows, such as the one in which he appeared, provided a welcome break from the intense drabness of Irish educational life in the early 1970s. On such occasions we would troop into the gymnasium to be mildly regaled by knife throwers, saucer spinners, card tricksters, jugglers, clowns and sundry entertainers. I developed a special fondness for the magician whose skill was so feeble that I blush for him more than forty years later. But the whistler was special; here was an artist of an altogether greater caliber.

The whistler whistled a sweet accompaniment to songs that had no doubt been popular in previous decades. He wore a suit, I recall, and the cuffs of his white shirt flared out like tiny wings as he raised his hands, the main tools of his trade, to his mouth. Delightful to me were his bird calls. When he hooted through cupped hands, unseen pigeons and owls seemed to manifest themselves in that hall. With a flurry of fingers, some stuffed into his mouth, others flitting above his mouthed hand, he chirped, chipped and he trilled. He was commendably specific about the species he was emulating. “A chaffinch”, he’d say and his fingers and breath would produce that bird’s distinctive call, ending in “Tol a lol a lol ginger beer.” “A robin”, he’d call out; “a blackbird”, “a curlew”, and so on. Perhaps it was the strange equipment in that room, its dangling ropes, its dilapidated athletic horses stacked in the corner, and its high ceilings that lent a special heft to the acoustics. The whistler’s birds warbled, and in full throated song flitted about the room that day.

I was, at that point in my young life, a reasonably diligent birder. I had learned the call of many birds, and though I could recognize them, I could not reproduce those lovely sounds. The whistler both strengthened my resolve, but also magnified my inabilities. In the exasperating weeks that followed I coaxed my lips and tongue and fingers to comply but they failed to reproduce anything but farting noises and wet sputtering. But then that day arrived, when supposedly we were immersed in quiet reading, and the skill came to me all at once. My fingers were in my mouth, and my tongue curled beneath them. I could feel my breath readying itself for a song. But I didn’t blow, fortunately. In those days of school corporal punishment, a warbler calling in the classroom would not have been welcomed. I’d been beaten before for lesser mischief. Soundlessly, without immediate opportunity for implementation, I had learned to whistle like a bird. I simply knew by some marvelous intuition that I was could whistle. A few minutes later, I rushed into the school yard and issued that first long confirmatory whistle.

A gap had opened up between knowing and doing, and in that gap I realized, in retrospect at least, that between a call to song and a whistling response, something intervenes. It may, of course, simply be reflection. But it seems likely that to learn to chirp with the birds, one must locate a mechanism, already old, within oneself.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

First Flight Into Chicago: The City's Wilderness

When I first flew into Chicago, almost twenty years ago, I was an adult in my early thirties.  I knew about the city, of course; Chicago’s reputation precedes it. This was the city of broad shoulders, tumultuous politics, mercantile strength, and very brisk winters. Besides, I had read Upton Sinclair's novel, The Jungle (1906)! As an ecologist I knew also of the honorable role Chicago played in the history of my discipline. Many of the foundational theories in ecology, for example vegetation succession, early models of population growth and competition, and the earliest application of ecological ideas to urban settings, are associated with University of Chicago.  And yet I braced myself as I approached the city.  Surely, Chicago was now just another conglomerate post-industrial city, sprawling and gray and barren.

As I approached O’Hare Airport I glanced down to assess the immense, and unexpected, circle of vegetation the surrounds the city. From the air it looks like a halo of green. A landscape of trees interspersed with grasslands and by the gray-slate of the city itself.  This distribution of trees and grassland was, to use a technical term, a savanna, albeit a highly unusual and contrived one. These were the trees of Chicago’s urban forest, planted in parks and parkways and the grasses of immense lawns and playing fields.  But what I have learned over the years since moving into this landscape is that in addition to the domesticated trees and grasslands, this savanna contains within it savannas of a very difference, and arguably wilder and more authentic kind.

Savannas, and prairies, wetlands, woodlands, scrublands, and the myriad vegetated landscapes that constitute a wilderness within this city.  And these habits, impoverished and stricken as they are, choked with invasive species, subtended by degraded soils, impoverished by the lost of some key historical species, impaired by radically altered hydrology nonetheless rank among some of the rarest, and from a conservation perspective, some of the more critically imperiled habitats on Earth.