ARDOR Literary Magazine

ARDOR Literary Magazine - Issue One, Jan. 2013

Issue One, Published January 2013

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Page 58 of 73

sadly, the Earth would be healthier and more viable with five million fewer people occupying it. The passenger pigeon, really, is more of a loss. Some mockingbirds, in dense isolated spaces where few people seek them, still know the languages of other birds long extinct. A few humans, the ones who care and know birds intimately and the ones who listen, have heard these songs, as if from beyond the grave. Mockingbird mothers teach their babies songs that have been reproduced but not sung in their original voices for centuries, since the last of a species disappeared. Mockingbirds, then, are like mediums, channeling the dead, haunting the site of their disappearance. Singing for them, mimicking and mourning and calling back. The Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, on an expedition into the Amazon in 1804, made one of modern natural history's eeriest discoveries. A single parrot, captured from his original owners by a rival tribe, seemed to be the last living creature on Earth to speak the language of the recently wiped out Mapure people. After killing the last Mapure, the Carib Indians captured the parrots kept as pets in Mapure households. Humboldt transcribed the forty words one of these parrots spoke, thereby recording the only remaining evidence of the life an entire lost tribe. The story of Humboldt's parrots inspired much of Darwin and other great naturalists' research; the specter of a bird, both alive and ghostly, as the single living record of a vast human drama, drove others to consider the broad and wondrous implications of species that existed before and will likely -- hopefully -- outlive much of mankind. In 1997, an artist named Rachel Berwick, with the help of a linguist and a bird behavior specialist, taught two Amazonian parrots the forty words Humboldt had transcribed, reviving a language lost two centuries before for modern ears. The birds were displayed behind a translucent screen, so only their outlines could be seen, but their voices, speaking the words of the long-dead, carried throughout the exhibit. While haunting, it's hard to know whether this exhibit paid tribute to the lost tribe, to the birds, to the discoverer, or merely broadcast an empty echo, a reminder of all we've lost and destroyed. Some varieties of mockingbirds, like the Northern Mockingbird, populations of which breed and live near American metropolises, have learned to mimic other songs, city songs, human songs. They can sound startlingly like sirens, car alarms, the ringing of telephones, the approximation of voices. Male mockingbirds do most of the mimicking, as a device to expand the range of female birds they might attract. These urban males, calling out electronic background noise as if it were a love song, are too poignantly close to humans, using sounds so impersonal, beeps and whirs,

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