Sally Ann Mcintyre
The weight of a feather in 1907
When he arrived, his only fantasy seems to have been that of the list. So much so that the custodians of the land were forced into re-burying their own dead so he would not rewrite the meshwork of place and its living relations into a still and ordered silence.
The list went with him, a map that informed his every movement. He brought it with him over the yearning sea, part of the baggage he bundled up on land with his well-oiled guns and his rations, even as he slogged off into the thick green dawn of cacophonous, bird-ringing air.
To re-write the world through a kind of re-placing also invited a re-definition of his own role: that of adventurer, taxidermist, and collector. His battle with the land displaced a battle with the hierarchies, the music of the old empire.
It was a form of sensory cancellation, the kind of deafness which attends statues, the book of his ingressive narrative. In the indecipherable and soundless book of nature, too, his only encounters seem to have been with objects.
His tireless task there, as he perceived it, was to keep moving in the service of this stasis, to lay the grid of the list out over the land, to add his signature, to construct the museum catalogue.
The collector encountered the Southern form of the bird for the first time in 1877, in the remote reaches of what would become known as Porter’s Pass. He heard it before he saw it, an unfamiliar sound calling out from an unlocatable position in the density of bush.
It seemed to throw its voice there, to be present in two places at once. Writing in his field notebook a curt assessment, his was one of the first, yet least eloquent, descriptions of its song:
He moved on. Through these densities, into the reductive clarity of sight.
And this is where the recording stops.
Although the collector quickly learned both languages spoken locally, and could use them in print and, more haltingly, in his everyday transactions, the writings we have from him are largely translations from the German.
He did not extend these attentions to learning the bird’s language. In his many field notebooks and the later, longer texts, we hear and see only glimpses of the bird’s behaviour; although there are of course many references to its morphology as specimen. There in the book, his own placeless place, he is the giver of the name, its descriptive logics of separation.
It would fall to others to record the bird in life. There are only a few extant descriptions. These more sonically observant and attuned first-hand accounts arise in the same period from other explorers. They write, enraptured or lonely, on their long sojourns within these wilder Southern landscapes, of the bird’s haunting song:
…[F]ew people are aware that the Crow is a song bird, as it is only in the depths of the forrest they can be heard to perfection. Their notes are very few, but the sweetest and most mellow toned I ever heard a bird produce.
When singing, they cast their eyes upwards like a street musician expecting coppers from a fourth story window, and pour forth three or four notes, softer and sweeter than an Aeolian harp or a well toned clarionet.
Indescribably mournful. The wail of the wind through a leafless forest is cheerful compared to it. Perhaps the whistling of the wind through the neck of an empty whisky bottle is the nearest approach to it, and is sadly suggestive of departed spirits.
When reading these recordings, we might note two things: firstly, that the words they used were also approximations, the name of the bird mis-translated into European equivalences. Second, that they knew the bird as many things: a sonic mirror, a relatively common forest bird, a drinking companion, but not yet through its silence. They were not yet calling it the grey ghost.
When the bird began to listen, it was from the fact of a disturbance, that of his intrusion into the set of known relations. It met him at an auditory threshold, at the juncture of plant-thicket and echo, so tightly woven into a sonic knowing it could walk along it effortlessly, without any need for flight.
At the very beginning of encounter, it approached him without fear. It bounded through the breathing forest as though tumbling, to ask the question, along the pathways of interlocking branches within its known territories.
“Who are you?” it said, calling in its own language.
Peering down at him from its home in the dense canopy from a position of inquisitiveness, tangled so thick into the fabric of its world. Walking alongside him as a co-presence through the breathing forest, signalling in greeting and warning, disappearing at intervals to become echo and refrain.
A call and re-call, ever forming. Figuring reverberance as shapes within the whole overarching density of green.
“Who are you?” the bird said.
Through the almost-impassable bush, the collector hacked his way; he carried his culture with him in the form of words sharpened like long curved knives with which to carve silence into the breathing land. In his field notebooks these carvings were laid out in careful rows of observations, dates and names. He named the birds, the valleys and the fjords. At night by the campfire he occasionally curled them into the forms of poetry, and fetched a mouth organ from his pocket to whistle sentimental refrains from the old country.
What the bird thought of this music is not recorded.
The collector understands his first encounters with the bird not as interlocutor, but as observer, within a complex scenario of trust and subterfuge, recognising the bird’s curiosity, even as he positions himself as pursuer:
“As long as they are not disturbed they are very tame and peer inquisitively at the intruder in this lonely wilderness,” he writes, speaking later through the mouths of his own translators, in 1892.
And then, “When they are chased and molested they shun the persecution by quickly hopping away, using their wings at every jump.”
The collector gathers as many specimens of the bird as he can carry. In an apparent disregard for its specialisation and its attendant rarity, he moves numerically beyond the type specimen, beyond the limit of the orders placed, those wanted by both local and global museums, toward the edge of a more complete cataloguing.
He takes whatever he can find, individuals, pairs, then whole nests complete with eggs or just-hatched clusters of tiny blind and vulnerable chicks. From this distance, it is difficult to grasp his motivation for these questionable acts, which far exceed that needed for scientific verification and study.
Whether this frenzied taxonomy is predominantly prestige-based or financial, it is impossible now to know. Perhaps it is just that the list has possessed him. That he has been drawn into its fiction of a graspable limit. Excited, ultimately, by the idea that the whole life of the species is in his hands.
Perhaps it is simply that he wanted all the birds for himself, the barbed scythes of a categorial imperative twisted into a pathological drive for the complete collection, a Borgesian mania of accumulation, where, mistaking the map for the territory, he could not return until he had collected the whole species.
Perhaps ultimately this motivation toward total accumulation might itself be seen as a drive toward authorship, the collector re-casting himself not only as the discoverer, the giver of the beginning limit of the name, but also the writer of its end, its limit in extinction.
When the dark speaks he cannot hear it. It is a darkness also hidden from himself; the song attending the successive acts of violence is camouflaged within the terseness of the notebooks; we do not read it there, within each logged body, set down as a discrete indexical ciphering.
They appear there as a checklist, a telling of bare life stripped to its empirical appearances, a carefully scripted set of names, dates and locations.
The moment when the list gives way is when he sees them. When they emerge again, and for a brief instant he grasps the bird’s living and dying, its co-presence tied up within his own. It is no coincidence that this is also the point at which his listening returns.
He writes at Milford sound of an encounter, as violent as all the others. A bird is shot from the invisibility and safety of a hide, from the self-scripted sovereignty of an unobserved position. But before he can emerge to grab and quickly gut its body, the encounter transforms through his witnessing of something new:
”When it fell to the ground, the other, he writes, “hopped down to the fallen bird and instead of fleeing; it repeated several times its call note and jumped highly excitedly around its dead comrade.”
Through listening, an individual death is suddenly thrown into focus. Through relation, through a companion’s distress, it is something he understands: “I had to go away, as I could not stand to look on; it pained me deeply that I had shot the poor bird,” he writes.
For the collector, the return of the ear is a painful thawing, sudden and involuntary. We read in his journals that he cannot shoot the mourning bird, a development he initially understands as a strangely inexplicable failing, a moment of self-doubt, an inability to move beyond sentiment, to do the job.
Instead, he waits until the bird has finally left its dead companion. He then furtively leaves his hide, scoops up the now-cold body, strokes the slate-grey feathers of the breast. He places it, solitary, with the others, the orderly sets of pairs nestled together, their legs bound with a hemp and paper sheaf of careful dates and locations.
What ghosts him within the experience, and beyond it, is the call note, repeated several times. As he hears a question ringing down the centuries without answer, it is a gateway through which his listening opens out, toward recognition of another’s sentience, the voice which is the articulation of its grief, and with it his own responsibility for its being and nonbeing.
It tells him that he is both seen and heard. That he is also the song of a man in the mouth of a bird. That his own experience has also been authored, is being written by the bird in its own blood.
From this point onwards he will find that his specimens are also ghosts, irreducible to the bare, objective functioning he gives them. They follow him as he utters solitude in a world teeming with hidden beings.
They tell him that while he appears to exist outside history, there is no way out of time. As much as the act of collecting is for him a form of writing himself out of entanglement, of simplifying the narrative. As much as he writes his own loneliness and exceptionality within this world of connections.
He begins to repeat the call note to himself, walking through the forest, as a whistled self-haunting. The refrain continues to haunt him even on his return to the old country, all the way to his own early death, where, half-mad, poisoned by the taxidermy chemicals he uses to create his many specimens, he whistles it over and over, on his death bed. The extinct song from half a world, half a life away.
The bird, now extinct, also learns from this experience. For it, in the future forest, all is echo. It too learns how to use the knives of silence he has brought into its world, as a set of techniques. It learns how to live as a ghost, a half-perceived whisper in the tomb of the archive. This lesson is for the future when the forest, too, will be a museum.
Under the vast raftered ceiling of the wooden room, the birds are overwhelming, a measureless repository of waiting memories. A shaft of sun from the one nearby window spills daylight across the table upon which lie the specimens usually kept far away from its radiance, in drawers and cupboards. Those now laid out by the curator of birds in front of me, despite their seeming magnitude, comprise one small fragment of the total collection itself. Something I am used to seeing in black and white, in the historical partitioning of painterly representation, swims into the light of day, as painful as a thawing of something long-frozen, long-numb. They emerge from their carefully guarded cupboards and drawers, Into the light. A stunned quantity of frozen beings, their vivid un-faded feathers caught in the shafts of golden radiance, as in a coloured photograph dropped out of time and inserted back into the narrative at the wrong point. A representation made long before that technology existed. Memories belonging to no-one now living.
The collector shipped them off to Europe in 1889, coinciding this with the publication of the bird books. But these are not his masterpieces, these once-living beings. They resist his – and any human – authorship, even as they are subject to its reductions and transformations. In 1889, they became fugitive texts, retellings of lost forests, slipping through our imaginations before we had time to solidify them there. In their vault in Vienna, they are far from these lands, and we who inhabit those losses do not remember them. They are not our emblems, nor our fictions. They are our ghosts. Some part of me thinks: it is better this way.
I enter into the archive of the visual and material traces of the bird as entering into a mausoleum. These representations were stabilised by arsenic over a century ago, set into its thin powdery stone. They do not look like the illustrations I have come to know, within the iconic bird books, those images which, despite not having been drawn from life but from museum specimens, have almost substituted themselves for the birds lost to living memory, although their extinction dates are relatively recent: 1907, 1914.
Sir Walter L. Buller, the author of the books, was notoriously hard on the underpaid colourists who filled in the birds’ substance within the illustrator’s initial sketches, wanting the colours exactly right, as though from life.
Even though the colourists, like the illustrator himself, had never seen the birds in life.
In a museum in its home country, I have seen a curator of birds touch an extinct owl, stroke its feathers with a sad kindness. In another I was given a set of blue plastic gloves with which to handle a sacred wattlebird lost to time, but in his collection in the Natural History Museum in Vienna I was simply left alone with the birds, as though respectfully, a private audience with the massed dead.
As with many ornithological collections from the 19th Century, the trace elements of the arsenic used in the preserving process had arrested the progress of decay and through affecting a stasis in insect attack, stabilised the form of the creature. This halting of the breakdown of organic matter also meant a transformation into a different material order, as the forests of Chernobyl were said to have shifted ontology from vegetable to mineral. There, the normal cyclic transformation of vegetation through decay was arrested in its transformation, conforming instead to a stonelike stasis. The forests stopped mulching, leaving leaves to pile up endlessly. This toxic suspension of time in turn caused potential problems among the living, who are not of its dimension, an infiltration of a different order of time, up through the food chain.
Encountering the Southern form of the bird In the archive i expected something inflexible, ossified, rigid with time. What I am confronted with instead is a material pliability that stops time forcefully in the present, as it simultaneously underlines the enormity of the loss. the softness of feathers, the presence of tiny details of life – the tuft of down on a grey breast, a kind of chalky grey like warm slate. The orange of a withered wattle, framing a still, closed beak. Each of these colours stunning in its vivid complexity. A cluster of birds in a cardboard box, snuggled together. Still and quiet, it is as though they could have been shot yesterday, and it takes a lot to comprehend that their tags say: 1884.
It has been noted he was not an educated man, that his craft was learned through patient auto-didactic method. In one sense, to look upon the rows of extinct creatures was to come face to face with his knowledge of his own artistry, his own authorship. There was no doubt he was a good taxidermist. Unlike some of the botched jobs in cabinets I had seen around the world, these specimens were not obvious grotesques, unmentionables, which despite their sacred nature must be locked away permanently, out of the light. The birds were perfectly preserved, each set of quiet legs tied with a small label, his name stamped on it in a blue ink, like a business card, or the pricing on expensive goods.
It’s like they could have been shot yesterday.
In Vienna I look at hundreds of beings that can no longer look back, for whom the very agency of seeing has been removed. In the public-facing specimens the glass eye, inserted in its place. There, seeing becomes a depthless simulation; a decorative wall, a placard.
But in this bird, rewritten by the collector as a study skin, no replacement eye has been offered, and the sockets are open to the tufted fronds of arsenic-infused cotton, above a beak tied with a small loop of hemp string. Cotton and flax. These substances are also infused with colonial histories. They fill the body, rendered placeless, with their own material agency, another order present as a blind and glassy field, a placeholder for the farms that have themselves replaced the forests with a blind and husklike dryness, where the tall grasses wave in ripples and folds, grazed by the molars of sheep in quiet wind. They are recordings, stilled and inactive. The memory of forests is buried here, erased beneath the quiet amnesia of this useful landscape. The forests burned, to make way for pasture, are a layer of charcoal, an unspoken and illegible violence written as a layer of ash in that geological strata. It is also present here, in the quiet body, the arsenical-soap stilled study skin, which is also a recording. It holds these sounds to itself as a witnessing, and itself becomes an archival sound-object, a phonography without playback.
In the bird’s eye, plucked out and long discarded, is the past I cannot access. There is a world there, a way of sensing and moving in the dense green thickets of canopy of the 1880s, which are not a landscape painting, that do not conform to that Eurocentric convention of contemplative distance. There, in the plucked eye, exist the food trees the bird knew as landmarks, the ones it regularly visited within the small constrained territories, walking through the forest in great leaps, in lines of kin, clambering through the thickly matted density of treetops, branch to seamless branch to branch, without any need for flight, without ever touching the ground. Those long-felled trees appear still, a mapping emerging as a series of bright points, a constellation sinking down. This too was song: a sonic tree-map of low muttered closeness, and all air, all earth, all distance subsumed in this closeness, the green density of the whispering canopy. The memory of nothing now living.
When looked at more closely and over duration, their historical positioning as objects is not so stable. Some of the assembled avian dead seemed to stutter inside their taxonomies, the labels tied to their flightless feet in a book-like burden of naming and re-naming, indicators of historical and scientific contingency signalled in the proliferation of careful copperplate and patient fonts. There was a residue of unknowability even in this mausoleum, this tomb of quiet light, all this ordered certainty. A kind of grey haze that crept across the wood panelling like smoke, occluding something in vision. Was it that these kinds of blurred definitions accrued naturally to any orderly narrative in time, or that the sheer bulk of the extinguished life obscured the clear narrative that each scientific specimen would otherwise portray? Was it just that I flinched from seeing them, resisted his authorship over these bodies just as I tried to comprehend the monumentality of their extinction, wanted to see them – the vast and blank plain – outside his scripting of its narrative?
In Vienna I look at hundreds of beings that can no longer look back. There, seeing joins to listening in experiential time. The silence speaks, and I have to close my eyes, and join the birds in blindness.
Within the patient writing, clearly making sense of their deaths, the stark fact of extinction appears unanswerable. But a bird is only a book when read from left to right.
The archive professes totality and cultural permanence. But what of the objects that exceed its categorical imperative, its fantasies of completion, its need for closure, its incapacity for ambiguity, it’s narrow recognition of the self-same, its inability to fully comprehend that which fades, crumbles, degrades, or is subject to erasure?
The archive collects the dead and does not recognise the living. it does not recognise that some becomings run into the open, that some becomings quaver on the gradient of the instant, that some becomings can willingly choose to evade its scrutiny, to disappear.
The archive is the inventory of the things we know. We know, for example, that the South Island kōkako (Callaeas cinerea) is an endemic bird from Aotearoa. It was declared extinct in 2007, forty years after the last official sighting. That very same year, a sighting was made by two observers at Rainy Creek, near Reefton. This report will eventually be accepted, and prompt a retrospective adjustment in the bird’s conservation status: from “extinct” to “data deficient”. The bird accordingly shifts its place again in the archive. It has come back from the categorically dead. Not yet welcomed into the list of the living, but shifted into the liminal space of a nebulous unknowing, of the we-don’t-know. The bird is beyond the edge of the list. There, possible sightings of Callaeas cinerea continue to be made the South Island, on a semi-regular basis.
The contemporary monitoring of species is increasingly done by data collection, although such automation does not fully, at the time of writing, replace forms of human observation, whose basis in human perception and knowledge joins the automated surveillance of the camera trap and its audio equivalent algorithm in an uneasy relation. This complex observational amalgam includes such technics as the search for tracks, marks, discarded feathers, and other physical signs of activity, stop-motion cameras, and sound recording. All these evidential methods have attended the search for the South Island kokako but have yet to materialise it as a conclusively readable text.
For the ornithologist, it began in Fiordland in 1977, almost exactly 100 years after the collector had arrived in the same remote Southern landscapes. While tramping in he heard “an ethereal tolling bell call” at the head of Lake Monowai. It was dusk, too dark to see the direction or any shape, but he knew enough to know the map, that this was the exact location of an historical report of the bird’s presence. He went bush for three months, searching for any sign.
The ornithologist joins this narrative as a figure. It is his recordings we now hear, the fragments of which are inconclusive, that do not form a coherent and legible sound library of traces. He has been tracking the bird through remote areas of the South Island for over forty years. The library of sub-evidential sound recordings of (what might be) S.I. kokako calls, which he has gathered in this time is a series of partial, inconclusive fragments, some altered by editing or audio cleanup, some digitised from earlier tape recordings, with a total running time of less than two minutes long, the bulk of which was recorded while the bird was officially extinct. He listens, re-listens, subjects the recording to forms of audio-cleanup, hoping to find the bird hidden in the thickets of noise.
The ornithologist’s collection of sound recordings, while not authored as such and comprising only one part of a wider activity of experimental conservation research, might for the purposes of the current discussion also be considered as a counter-archive, in its relation to the classical texts of natural history sound recording, biologically-motivated field recording, or phonography. One that, in its preoccupation with the search for something that might not actually exist, with the gathering of traces of fugitive texts, in its allowance for the existence of the unfinished, for that which is perpetually under revision, and in its yearning for the seemingly uncatchable, calls into question the archive’s actual ontology, its very reason for being.
The ornithologist asks, when playing back calls of North Island kōkako into the forest, in the hope of a legible response:
“Could it be that common birds like tui or bellbird remember kokako and their calls and are eager to advertise the fact when one broadcasts calls of North Island kokako or locally obtained calls?”
In this, he reveals a process the natural history sound archive normally conceals, one in which listening to sounds becomes an experience of being cast into the space of an echo, one that, if it returns at all, never returns as evidence of authorship or identifying mark, but in the form of an irresolvable difference, in the form of a question. The closed binary of the same is destroyed and replaced by an open complexity, where the trace of a bird’s identifying song might be passed on to other authors, and return as a ‘mockery’, in turn mocking the archive’s categorical imperative and rendering it void within the greater densely-woven textuality of forest memory.
In his long experience listening-out for the kōkako, searching for its traces, tracks and signs in the forest, the ornithologist is increasingly convinced the bird exists, but is also increasingly aware through the process of searching for something that is never found, of his own existence, his own traces, the crack of the stick on the path, or the human scent he leaves as an involuntary signature, his own bodily presence including that of his listening. The ornithologist sees his own position, knows the corporeality of himself and his listening, as species among species. The bird, also listening, chooses not to appear. It has learned something about appearances from the activity of this species who observes it, and chooses not to display itself, to be seen or heard. It is in hiding, in a hide. It inverts the relation between the observer and the observed, as normally understood in birdwatching, in ornithological field practice. The ornithologist writes of the difficulty of tracking it: “How can one detect a bird that is so quiet, unpredictably responsive to playback, and appears to keep its distance from humans?” His tracing of the bird itself becomes the deciphering of a fugitive text within the forest, where the methods of natural history collection are themselves rendered inadequate, obsolete, much as a mutating virus becomes immune to a vaccine. The classical texts of observational listening are called into question, and a more open listening starts to appear.
And where does this listening occur? Not in the dead air, the stasis of the archive, but in the more open, mobile space of a listening, listening to itself. As the idea of an originating viewpoint is called into question, it occurs in the action of the tracking, in the tracing. To attempt to locate the relation of the human/non-human ear within this listening, is also to recognise the presence of a living ear, which is always coming into being, that contains more than recording can allow. To question where and if our role as observers within these epistemological frameworks might still be able to occur, in this more open field. Where we can no longer simply listen from the fixed position of the bird identification manual or birdwatcher’s hide, nor from the shelter of a binary of the out-there and the in-here, the collector and the collected, but from a position that is always both outside and inside, moving-to and moving-with, which always fails to catch the subject of listening in the service of understanding the silence of non-observance as a listening back. The listening as a constantly re-calibrating relation between two moving subjects, holding open a space of listening to another, moving within language of fugitive, always-hiding figures. an open listening, which allows them to disappear.
The ornithologist might be dimly aware, and increasingly, that the story of the forest he hikes through, in the difficult terrain also traversed by the collector forebears he symbolically numbers himself among, includes texts that cannot be logged, that are perpetually slipping away in the dark, that can be apprehended only in glimpses and glances. Texts that remind us what it means to purposefully erase a recording, to let it disappear completely forever. These texts stand in defiant opposition to the archive.
The ornithologist searches the textual and sonic archival record, looking for clues going all the way back to the first observations of the colonial collectors. He might conclude that the kokako’s behaviour is less trusting than it was in the mid to late 1800s. The observational field he moves through has accordingly changed, since the bird has allegedly modified its behaviour in response to humans, since it became “shyer,” its process of disappearance is an active rather than passive escape from observation, the archive, the taxonomical record. But maybe we can just say that the kokako has learned to listen, that the heavier footstep of this new species has caused it to enter another space in relation to listening.
The taxonomical-archival relation is a system of fixities, origin points, observational centres. To correct the kokako’s status from the closed (extinct) to the open (data deficient), puts the bird back into this archive uncannily: both as a living absence, and as a figure aligned with contemporary digital impermanence. The bird sits in the forest of the cultural imagination, not filling it with the beauty of its song, but with the presence of a potent withdrawal, a refusal, rendered as silence. It is an Elvis taxon, appearing in times and places it should not, in grainy photographs as a blurred and insubstantial shape, from the back, with a tantalising suggestion of definition. Like a corrupt file on a hard drive, it is a text rendered unreadable but still taking up space. Even the certainty of its extinction is now flickering, insubstantial, unstable. The fixed image in the ornithological manual degrades, it becomes unrecognisable, it folds again into a listening which the forest reaches out to hold, this time as fade and decay.
This is not a project of preservation. There shall be no archives allowed. No datasets and genetic repositories as sonic ecosanctuaries, as libraries of life with their harmony of well-tuned niches, awaiting a technological future of perfect forms, an orderly and stilled living museum. The collector is, at best, an unreliable and confused observer, nothing more, logging hearings of impermanent, shifting, insubstantial texts. As listeners to his gatherings, we not presented with a totality. As listeners we record the metadata but not the data. We celebrate the trace, and bid a simultaneous welcome and farewell to texts that by accident or design do not end their wanderings with us, that continue to fade, decay, or simply remove themselves from the deadening promise of our observation. This transmission fails to hold its signal, it dissipates into the blue of an air sparking with a battery-acid tartness, a burnt smell of electrical discharge. It builds a forest again within the location of our listening, a spectral thicket of unsurpassable noise. And it is here where the bird stays, erasing itself at every moment. Erasing a song and re-presenting it as refusal. It is a message written in invisible ink, a self-destructing tape, a whisper passed through so many mouths it has ceased to have meaning at any point of locatable origin.
By now the collector’s voice itself has also been subsumed, far from his fantasy of the ordered list, of the singular author, he is only one of a chorus of songs sung in the forest of the book, the textual traces of these woven multi-stranded events, through many mouths and tellings. Just as his field-jotted writings echo after his early death, through his son’s compiling and editing, building on the bare traces of his fragments of notes, ironing out their many factual errors, pulling them into the category of the adventure story. Such actions raise the possibility that he himself might not exist as we have come to know him, but only as genre legend, historical chimera, some species of echo.