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As many as one million birds died in the American West over the last several weeks as wildfires ignited the west coast and a cold snap ratcheted down temperatures inland. The fires and erratic weather--both influenced by climate change--are believed to have affected the normal migration of owls, warblers, hummingbirds, loons, flycatchers, and woodpeckers.

David Rothenberg

I remember having once walked all night with a caravan and then slept on the edge of the desert. A strange man who had accompanied us on that journey raised a shout, ran towards the sands and was unable to sleep.

When it was daylight, I asked him what he had seen. This is how he replied:

'I saw bulbuls commencing to lament on the trees,

the grouse on the mountains,

the frogs in the water and the beasts in the desert

so I bethought myself that it would not be becoming

for me to sleep in carelessness while they all were praising God.'

Yesterday at dawn a bird lamented,

Depriving me of sense, patience, strength and consciousness.

One of my closest friends who

had perhaps heard my distressed voice said:

'I could not believe that thou

Wouldst be so dazed by a bird's cry.'

I replied:

'It is not becoming to humanity

That I should be silent when birds chant praises.'

گفتم این شرط آدمیت نیست

مرغ تسبیح گوی و ما خاموش

goftam in shart e adamiat nist,

morgh tasbih gooy o man khamoosh

—Saadi, Gulestan, chapter 2, “On the Morals of Dervishes,” story #26

broken image

Last year, I met the Iranian musician Kayhan Kalhor in Finland and I was talking to him about these lines. He frowned and said, “nowhere in the hundreds of poems of Saadi does he say anything like that. I know, I have memorized all of them,” and I was a bit worried but remembered, “wait, I have the original on my phone, hold on, and I scrolled down to find it and held the screen up to him, shaking, and he smiled, “ah yes, you are right.”

“Is it a bad translation?” I asked.

“No, it is a fine translation,” he said.

That was nine months ago, when the world was a different place. Someone like me could travel freely, meet musicians from all over the world, explore human and animal cultures. Mine are not the wildernesses of explorers who crossed the world a century ago, because most of these no longer exist. Mine are the patches that remain. Many are beautiful.

I play music with birds, and with musicians from different parts of the world. This was before Covid.

Everyone feels confined. There is a pressure from that. It lies alongside another one: I am racing time. Humans have driven animals to their deaths at an astonishing rate: humans have wiped out half of the world's wildlife in the last 50 years.

This is just the latest iteration of the bad news. The jury has been back on extinction for thirty years. “The findings are clear,” stated a recent report from the World Wildlife Fund: “Our relationship with nature is broken.”

And our damaged relationship with nature is breaking us. As we obsess over the latest political outrage—we are right to do so, of course—we tend to forget that the worst symptom of our troubled country, the inability to cope with the coronavirus, is, well, a symptom. The real disease is orders of magnitude greater.

We will face more pandemics. Most will be zoonotic; that is, transmitted from animals to humans.

Forget all that nonsense about viruses in Chinese labs. Human incursion into the territories of nature is the reason for Covid. It’s simple. We destroy the animals’ intact habitats; we move into their living room. There are more chances for viruses to make the leap from one species to another. Chimpanzees gave us Ebola, mosquitoes brought West Nile. As for COVID-19, it is said that anyone who doubts that a single person’s actions can make a difference in this world has never eaten an undercooked bat.

The great biologist E.O. Wilson is calling for half of the planet to be protected, so natural processes can play out relatively undisturbed, and he is not wrong. Such a grand plan would be our salvation. It is probably our only hope.

Extinction isn’t reserved for the natural world. Culture is evanescing, even as globalization allows us to discover more of it. That is a race, too. Languages. Music. Tenderness of a certain kind that we rarely see in the industrial and post-industrial world. Cruelty, too, sometimes.  

As many as half the world’s 7,000 languages are predicted to disappear by the end of the century. Globalization, technology, the accompanying political unrest, all of these push us into an unhealthy monoculture.

This is why I play music with birds. This is why I play with people from around the world.


We play against the dying.

A few years ago, for example, I was able to play with the great Syrian oud master Wassim Mukdad, who escaped torture by the Assad regime to make his home in Berlin:

This year I was scheduled to spend a month traveling across Europe, playing live with musicians from all over the world, together with real birds in the parks and forests of Berlin and Helsinki. I’ve done this for many years, but now, no American can go anywhere. We have failed the world, we can’t tame this virus, we’re all stuck at home.

So I think about how to tell people about it. We should all be shaken, and stirred. Shaken by loss. Stirred by how little we know, how fragile our dominance of this planet. The challenges that await us with the warming of the world are almost unimaginable. And everything is connected: climate change and extinction have synergistic effects. In other words, they compound each other. The estimates are all too low.

Some of us will survive. Perhaps most of us. But what will that world be like?

broken image

Brian Cullman cartoon

And yet, who wants to doomscroll their way into anxiety and despair? Of course we must be honest, we must learn precisely what we know and what we don’t know. And so, just as so many are doing, we turn the screens on, and use them in ways we never imagined.

At first, everyone’s response was to have no desire to do anything as innocent as music. What possible help can a few beautiful sounds be to people suffering so much right around us, and far away? One little virus, an obvious and ancient enemy, with all the great medical advances that have kept us alive and enduring, we were not prepared for this. Listen to the sirens in the distance and cheer on those at the frontlines, while being afraid to leave the house.

But, after a while, like John Lee Hooker’s mommy and daddy told him, the music is in us, and it’s got to come out.

I performed a live concert with the beautiful singing of Lembe Lokk, in Nemours, France, myself in the Hudson Valley, and one nightingale in the Treptower Park in Berlin. This was early in the pandemic and no one should have been out in the wilds of Berlin, but our recordist had, in fine Werner Herzog style, an official document giving him permission to record. (No, he didn’t have to forge it.) While the year before the police had told us to quit making a racket at one in the morning, this time they stopped to listen with approval:

It wasn’t the same as being there; instead of an immediate actual wonder, it was a technological wonder, reaching from lockdown to migration, from the known to the unknown. It was a global collaboration of the kind I never thought I’d ever have to do. I took for granted the fact that I would always be able to travel such a great distance to make music that I couldn’t prepare for, unexpected music, often the best kind.

Later, I learned that a concert like this had happened almost a century ago. The world’s first outdoor radio broadcast, in the 1920s, was a concert between a cellist, Beatrice Harrison, and a nightingale in her Suffolk garden. Millions of people heard this BBC program, people all over the world, and it was repeated every year until World War II, when they had to shut it off because the sound of British bombers heading to Germany came over the airwaves, and the didn’t want the Nazis to be warned.

This is what I learned: The Germans lost the war but Germany has thousands more nightingales than England, and the birds are fearless. Once one starts to sing after midnight nothing a human plays will silence him.

Our next concert pushed the envelope. We waved flashlights, and cameras, one Maori musician in New Zealand and me still stuck in my studio at home. We mixed this version out of the live encounter here:

In Helsinki the birds come one month later, and that far North the nights never get dark. The nightingales don’t like this, they flit around, not keeping to a single perch, perturbed but still incessant. It’s a slightly different sound, more percussive, more electronic-sounding, like a sampled, electronic version of an actual bird. Here I played with composer and violinist Sanna Salmenkallio:

The same technology that can contain the multitudes of Persian poetry brings us together. Overnight, it seems, my fellow musicians have gone from crying of the cold evils of disembodied screen-time communication to praising it as our savior while we are unable to move.


We are not the only ones, everyone is doing this. Musicians need to play, and we are not allowed to go anywhere. Live concerts are supposed to be the last thing that will return to normality, after schools, offices, meetings, restaurants. Art, until the end, remains dangerous.

The longer you do this, the more you feel you exist neither here nor there, not in the room, not in America, not in Europe, not a person, not a bird, still chanting praises but not sure how to best pray.

We are failing our country, our country’s failing us. We can’t stop the march of disease and enough, that metallic tang in our mouths that will come to all of us when the virus grabs us, as it eventually will. The birds can still fly, no one stops them. Here in decaying America we still have our wondrous technologies, these musical instruments and connection computers that teleport us to musics far and away.

The same technology that can contain the multitudes of Persian poetry brings us together. Overnight, it seems, my fellow musicians have gone from crying of the cold evils of disembodied screen-time communication to praising it as our savior while we are unable to move.

We are not the only ones, everyone is doing this. Musicians need to play, and we are not allowed to go anywhere. Live concerts are supposed to be the last thing that will return to normality, after schools, offices, meetings, restaurants. Art, until the end, remains dangerous.

The birds are just the beginning. Last week I played a remote duet with a flutist who played in outer space, back when she was an astronaut. Now she, too, is hiding in the hills.

When will they let us out, when will the world let us go? I hope by then I’ll still have the energy to decide when to start the journey, and when to end.

My friends from Iran say: when in doubt pick up the words of Saadi or Hafez, open the book at random, then you will know. I now try that and here’s what I get:

A parrot, having been imprisoned in a cage with a crow,

was vexed by the sight and said:

'What a loathsome aspect is this! What an odious figure!

What cursed object with rude habits!

O crow of separation, would that the distance

of the East from the West were between us.'

More strange still, the crow was similarly distressed

by the proximity of the parrot and, having become disgusted,

was shouting 'La houl', and lamenting the vicissitudes of time.

He rubbed the claws of sorrow against each other and said:

'What ill-luck is this? What base destiny and chameleonic times....

Each species could not stand the other.

So instead of trying to talk, they made music

of this they sang

'If thou art tired of us, sit not sour

For thou art thyself bitter in our midst.'

An assembly joined together like roses and tulips!

Thou art withered wood, growing in its midst,

Like a contrary wind and unpleasant frost,

Like snow inert, like ice bound fast.’

—Saadi, Gulestan, chapter 4, “On the Advantages of Silence,” story #13

David Rothenberg is a clarinetist, philosopher and author. His most recent CD, In the Wake of Memories, a collaboration with Wassim Mukdad and Volker Lankow, came out this week.

Wassim Mukdad is a musicology student at Humboldt University in Berlin. After the fourth time he was tortured, Mukdad realized he had to leave Syria. "I could see things getting much worse. Luckily, they never found out I was a musician." Mukdad is now recognized as one of the most creative and promising oud players in Europe.

Volker Lankow works for Medecins sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders. An accomplished percussionist, Lankow performs on frame drums, tabla among many other instruments.

After meeting at Rothenberg's "Nightingales in Berlin" project, the three musicians recorded this album that crosses cultural barriers and tribal sides.

Read more about the recent surge of bird deaths in Audubon.