Acoustic Archaeology

In her new book, The Bird Way, Jennifer Ackerman describes Australian lyrebirds as audio archaeologists, birds capable of keeping lost songs and soundscapes alive across multiple generations even as local ecologies change.

She describes a group of lyrebirds captured in one part of Australia and later released in Tasmania. “The birds continued mimicking birdcalls from their old landscape for many years,” Ackerman writes. “Thirty years after they were released, their descendants were said to be imitating birds never present on the island, such as pilotbirds and whipbirds,” thus offering what Ackerman calls “compelling proof of cultural transmission, one generation passing on knowledge to the next.”

For Ana Dalziell, a lyrebird-expert Ackerman meets out in the field, this makes lyrebirds “archivists of soundscapes.”

[Image: Painting of a lyrebird by John Gould, courtesy]

The idea that the acoustics of no-longer-existing landscapes are being passed down socially through generations of songbirds is incredible, as well as suggestive of a possible tool by which landscape historians could attempt the sonic reconstructing lost environments.

The sounds of old elevators or HVAC systems in a now-destroyed building—perhaps even a demolished work by a globally renowned architect, her building now known only through acoustic after-effects, its buzzes and whirs still passed tree to tree—still being imitated by local songbirds; or the sounds of wind passing through now-extinct trees, or trees lost to recent wildfires, still being reproduced by local songbirds; or the sounds of ground-dwelling predators who are not extinct, but have nevertheless moved on to other parts of Australia, still popping up as acoustic imitations: an audio archaeology based entirely in the communal surround-sound of social singers.

You want to hear the sounds of lost buildings or extinct landscapes, and merely need to head deep into the trees, listening to lyrebirds along the way.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for giving me The Bird Way!)

Cross-Species Infrastructure

[Image: From “Assimilation” by Dillon Marsh].

I mentioned in the previous post the work of South African photographer Dillon Marsh, whose “Landscape Series” seeks “to find things that are out of the ordinary, picking them out of the landscape where they might otherwise blend in. I choose objects that can be found in multitude within their environment so that I can depict a family of objects in a series of photographs. By displaying each project as such, I feel I am able to show both the character of the individual members, and the characteristics that make these objects a family.”

[Image: From “Assimilation” by Dillon Marsh].

Marsh’s photos seen here were seemingly everywhere on the internet a few weeks ago, but I thought I’d post them nonetheless, as they’re not only interesting images in and of themselves, but they depict one of my favorite topics: human infrastructure claimed—or assimilated, in Marsh’s words—by nonhuman species, other builders and users of artificial environments, who construct their own homes on those underlying skeletons.

[Images: From “Assimilation” by Dillon Marsh].

It is an architecture of infestation, of creative reuse across species lines.

[Images: From “Assimilation” by Dillon Marsh].

So what is all this, more specifically? As Marsh explains, “In the vast barren landscapes of the southern Kalahari, Sociable Weaver Birds assume ownership of the telephone poles that cut across their habitat. Their burgeoning nests are at once inertly statuesque and teeming with life. The twigs and grass collected to build these nests combine to give strangely recognisable personalities to the otherwise inanimate poles.”

[Images: From “Assimilation” by Dillon Marsh].

Seen one way, these photos depict an entire form of architecture reduced to ornament, mere biological decoration; seen another, they just as powerfully reveal how the smallest and seemingly most inconsequential additions to the built environment—incremental 3D fabrics of twigs, grass, and weeds—serve to augment that built environment through inhuman architectural means.