Birds and Men | The Economist

SINCE HUMANS existed, they envied birds. They aspire to fly like them; see like them, with a hawk eye; and to sing like them, through instruments or with their own duller and heavier bodies. For some, it is not just a matter of attaching feather wings, caulked with tar or wax, and leaping from the top of a steeple; or put on a combination of feathers, like Papageno in “The Magic Flute”, and trill on a pipe. For a handful of men (it seems they are still men) the goal is to become birds, as much as they can.

In March 2006, the most famous birdman of recent times, Angelo d’Arrigo, died in Sicily. He was 44, a passenger on a small plane who suddenly took a nose dive during an air show. For him, it was a big and heavy machine. Normally a hang-glider would carry it, floating in the air currents. He had thus drifted on Everest at nearly 30,000 feet (9,000 meters), and on Aconcagua in the Andes at 9,100 meters, a world record. He also held the record for the longest horizontal free flight, 1,830 km (1,140 miles) without landing, relying only on the wind and the stiff wings that replaced his arms.

For his acrobatics on the highest mountains, a friend would give him an aerotow with a microlight at a suitable altitude. Lower down, he used a small 5 kg engine for takeoff and landing, but nothing else. He was silent as he glided alongside the birds, learning at the source how their great migrations were done.

His first such trip was in 2001, flying with falcons from the Senegal desert to the Mediterranean. In 2003, he made a similar trip with six endangered West Siberian cranes. The six had been captive-bred, so he was to show them their migratory route from Siberia to the Caspian Sea in Iran, some 5,500 km. It took six months. Each evening, he chose their place of rest. As they passed through a polar storm, the cranes, trusting his gaze like children, realized that with him they were safe. His last project, almost completed when he died, was to introduce two young condors into the Andes, soaring with them among the peaks.

He had bred both condors and egg cranes. While they were still in the shell, he made them sounds of birds and made them hear the sound of the engine of the hang-glider, so that they found it natural. When the condors, Inca and Maya, hatched, he put a black mask over his shaggy hair to commune with them. When they took flight, he put on his hang glider wings, painted black and white like theirs, so he could clothe them like a parent while he fed them. When they were ready to fly, he took them to Mount Etna and taught them with his own squats, runs and jumps. Eventually the three climbed together. He named his project “Metamorphosis”: the man into a bird.

The nightingale is the harbinger of summer, desire and love

His hang gliders were mainly based on sketches by Leonardo da Vinci in 1505 for his Hello, or large bird. Leonardo had used wood, leather, rope and canvas, condemning him to too much weight, but d’Arrigo could use aluminum tubes and polyester to create, up close, the wings of a bird. The hang gliding wings he had settled on ended in a single upturned blade, as close to a condor as it could get. In these, as he glided over the Aconcagua, he felt he had become the bird.

His goal was neither fame nor world records. It was simply a question of “riding the waves of the sky and of the wind”, in complete freedom and as the birds did, by instinct. His desire to fly away was like a fever. The speed of the plane was purely mechanical; the aviators had lost their connection with nature. This is why he had to learn the secrets of low speed flight by merging with the birds. He was flying, like a great playing pianist, his eyes closed. And then he was really alive.

Large raptors fascinate humans not only for the way they fly, but also for their vision. Falcons spy from a great height, hover, then “bend down”: collapse at the slightest sign of life. All the more odd given that the man who most closely became a hawk over the past few decades was a light, short-sighted, sweater-wearing guy who has lived most of his life in Chelmsford, Essex. While he pursued the pilgrim who came to obsess him, JA Baker had to move only foot and bicycle. Yet in the winter, when peregrine falcons came to Essex, he was out in all weather, bumping frantically along the lanes, running through fields, crawling through shelters, to enter the falcon world. As he writes in “The Peregrine” (1967), “The eye becomes insatiable for hawks”.

Soon, indeed, his gaze and that of the hawk became the same. He could see the earth as from a height, flowing “in deltas of piercing color.” Going out every morning, always in the same clothes (because it was the case for the falcon), he would know “the path of the wind and the weight of the air”. He shared the bird’s fear and exhilaration, and its boredom as it waited for its prey to stir. In the snow, he shared his solitude.

His vision of him, too, was now that of the pilgrim: a hostile, stumbling, unpredictable human form, with trembling white hands. And his idea of ​​time was that of the hawk, “a clock of blood, and as you hunt … it contracts inward, like a spring that tightens.”

The hawk got to know him. But he would not share his know-how. He must have felt it vicariously, rejoicing in his clever feints in front of his prey and his conspiracy of soaring flocks of panicked birds; spot latecomers, such as the hawk; marveling at how he could blast a fieldfare from his perch, “as lightly as the wind gripping a leaf”, or strike a fatal blow so quickly he missed it, diving “as if thrown from the sky”.

Like a hawk, he also sought out killings. He admired the beautiful butcher’s shop and noticed, from the heat and humidity of the blood, how cool the prey was. The slaughter of a black-headed gull seemed so fresh and sweet to him, “like raw beef and pineapple puree,” that he could have eaten it himself. As he crouched over the bodies, he became a flying hawk, watching for men.

He was no longer a man himself at those times. Finding the gnarled claw prints of a hawk in the snow, he laid his own hand there, a fellow being and companion. Their bond was indefinable and intangible, but it was there: “the strange slavery of the eyes”. He closed his and sank “into the skin, blood and bones of the hawk.” After seeing the world through those big brown eyes, he dreaded being “inglorious again”. But far too soon he was back at 20 Finchley Avenue, his wife Doreen and tea.

The airbenders howl, bicker and cry; the most famous bird-musician, however, sings out of the deep blanket, a dull little lark obscured by night. This secret adds to the secular preciousness of his song. Sam Lee, a London-born folk singer and environmentalist, knows where they are because for several years he entered their world and sang with them.

The link was instantaneous. When he heard a song for the first time, it was “a baptism from another world”; in 2014, he became a collaborator. He then sang for a radio show from the garden of Beatrice Harrison, a cellist who 90 years earlier had played the role of a nightingale. Sam’s instrument was his voice, so he sang “The Tan Yard Side”. When a nightingale joined him, he sensed that they were in a wild and ancient conversation.

From that moment, as he writes in “The Nightingale” (2020), he got closer and closer to the birds. For six weeks a year, in April and May when the nightingale sings most ardently, Sam is “almost wild.” He’s a nightingale invisible in the woods, walking barefoot and wearing a woolen jacket that makes no noise in the rain. No phone, no torch; he trusts his instincts and finds his sharp peripheral vision (as Baker did) in a full circle of consciousness, the sight of the watching bird. From time to time, he falls into stillness, to soak up the feel of the woods. The best blanket he has found, the nightingale’s choice, is a shell of thorns.

This song surprised him on first hearing. The nightingale is traditionally the harbinger of summer, desire and love. But what Sam heard was “mercurial, spacious, gymnastic, cheeky, exuberant… flamboyant, histrionic and wounded,” all from a singing creature, like him, alone and unaccompanied. Nightingales helped him with his improvisation. They also helped him understand himself, as, like all great performers, they seemed to exhibit and amplify the mood he brought with him to the woods.

Gradually, instead of singing his human songs to them, he began to attract them with sounds they would understand. He approaches them now with harmonic whistles in the same tone as birdsong, and they respond to him as one of them. The tone always seems acerbic and strange to him, but each time it turns beautiful, and then he doesn’t want anything else.

With the nightingales, singing or listening, he has the impression of “weaving me further into the web of nature”. The thoughts are carried away and the bird “flushes you through”; there is a feeling of dissolution, even of theft. Like d’Arrigo, like Baker, he loses for a time the heaviness of human existence. Unlike them, he also found that males (and females) can get the closest to birds when they just whistle. â– 


This article appeared in the Christmas Specials section of the print edition under the title “Birds and Men”

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